20 And they met Moses and Aaron, who stood in the way, as they came forth from Pharaoh:
21 And they said unto them, The Lord look upon you, and judge; because ye have made our savour to be abhorred in the eyes of Pharaoh, and in the eyes of his servants, to put a sword in their hand to slay us.
22 And Moses returned unto the Lord, and said, Lord, wherefore hast thou so evil entreated this people? why is it that thou hast sent me?
23 For since I came to Pharaoh to speak in thy name, he hath done evil to this people; neither hast thou delivered thy people at all.
Now begins a pattern that we will see many times over. The Israelites would suffer some setback, they complained to Moses, and Moses entreated the Lord. Most commonly during these complaints the Israelites would desire to return to things as they previously were, and that is also the case here. In verse 21 the Israelites’ complaint was that they were no longer valued slaves of the Pharaoh. They had lost their savor to their cruel taskmasters. What a strange thing to want to go back to!
Obviously, there is a little more to it than that. They made clear that they were afraid of “the sword,” meaning afraid that the Egyptians would slay them now. But still, when they had prayed and prayed for the Lord to deliver them, did they not fathom how His doing so would incense the Egyptians against them? Did they not realize that they would necessarily make enemies by gaining their freedom? So yes, it makes sense to be afraid for one’s life, but if they would rather have enslavement than the dangers of freedom, why pray for the freedom?
Perhaps because they did not expect the Lord to save them this way. Perhaps they expected the Lord to send heavenly angels to slay all their enemies for them and make their departure smooth and easy. Certainly, many of us do the same in our own lives. We pray for God to just magically evaporate all of our problems at no cost to ourselves. But as we’ve already seen in the Biblical record already, and as we will continue to see many times throughout it, that doesn’t tend to be how God solves problems. God gives us what we need, but He does so through a process, through dangerous and difficult means. He most often makes us an active part in our gradual deliverance. If we want the worthy reward at the end, we have to be prepared to take the difficult path that leads us there.
15 Then the officers of the children of Israel came and cried unto Pharaoh, saying, Wherefore dealest thou thus with thy servants?
16 There is no straw given unto thy servants, and they say to us, Make brick: and, behold, thy servants are beaten; but the fault is in thine own people.
17 But he said, Ye are idle, ye are idle: therefore ye say, Let us go and do sacrifice to the Lord.
18 Go therefore now, and work; for there shall no straw be given you, yet shall ye deliver the tale of bricks.
19 And the officers of the children of Israel did see that they were in evil case, after it was said, Ye shall not minish ought from your bricks of your daily task.
The Israelites had complained about the impossibility of the task that had been set upon them, but they received no sympathy from their taskmasters. So they raised their complaint even higher, to Pharaoh himself, only to have him reinforce the words of their persecutors! The Israelites had no friends in Egypt, no one that would stand up to this injustice, because it was originating from the highest power in the land! The Israelites now understood the magnitude of their plight, signified by the phrase “the officers of the children of Israel did see that they were in evil case.”
Pharaoh did give them an explanation for the punishment, though. He insisted that the people must be idle because Moses and Aaron had suggested that they had time to go and make sacrifices to the Lord. As far as we know, this is the first that the Israelites understood what the reason for their new affliction was, and Pharaoh is clearly trying to direct their anger towards the two prophets.
But this answer from Pharaoh also revealed what incredible disregard he had for the people of Israel. Notice, he made no criticism of their productivity heretofore, his words imply that regardless of whether their labor is sufficient or not, he simply doesn’t want them to have time to do anything except slave labor. He just wants them to be his slaves and nothing else! Pharaoh’s statement also shows that he has absolutely no regard for their religious customs and beliefs. Religious worship is one of the most integral parts of a people. It binds the community together and it gives the individual his purpose. Pharaoh denying the people their spiritual duties is blasphemous, supplanting God with himself and his own demands. Thus, blasphemy and a crime against humanity. Two more sins that Egypt will have to account for.
13 And the taskmasters hasted them, saying, Fulfil your works, your daily tasks, as when there was straw.
14 And the officers of the children of Israel, which Pharaoh’s taskmasters had set over them, were beaten, and demanded, Wherefore have ye not fulfilled your task in making brick both yesterday and to day, as heretofore?
We see in these verses what is now a well-known method for breaking a community. The taskmasters are made responsible by Pharaoh for the Israelites fulfilling his impossible command, the taskmasters in turn beat the Israelite officers when the people fall short, and the officers are motivated to turn against their own flock and punish them as well. By only punishing the first layer of the Israelite hierarchy, they hoped to have the punishments progressively dispersed to the entire nation. Like a bit in a horse’s mouth, the entire creature is made to turn by a minimal effort.
The question that the taskmasters gave to the Israelite officers shows a most heartless attitude. “Wherefore have ye not fulfilled your task?” As if they did not know! This was a question that didn’t want an answer. It was actually a statement. A statement that the taskmasters were not going to acknowledge the reality of the situation. They were going ignore the impossibility of the task, and any attempt to blame the requirements as unrealistic would not be considered acceptable. It was a message to the Israelites that they needn’t expect fairness or justice from Egypt.
But that was exactly what the Israelites sought for next, taking a petition to Pharaoh for the burdens to be lessened. Perhaps they did not understand the writing on the wall, or perhaps they saw no other recourse. In either case, we will hear of their plea to Pharaoh in tomorrow’s verses.
10 And the taskmasters of the people went out, and their officers, and they spake to the people, saying, Thus saith Pharaoh, I will not give you straw.
11 Go ye, get you straw where ye can find it: yet not ought of your work shall be diminished.
12 So the people were scattered abroad throughout all the land of Egypt to gather stubble instead of straw.
Pharaoh had commanded that the Israelites would have their burdens increased as a punishment for Moses and Aaron seeking their release. Pharaoh had said that the people would need to gather their own straw, and we see in today’s verses that he didn’t only mean that they had to fetch their own supplies, they even had to find it in the first place! I would imagine that there were already fields of straw dedicated to the cement-mixing process, but the Israelites were not being given access to them. They were expected to scour the entire land, scraping together what bits and pieces they could to fulfill their order.
Thus, Pharaoh was demanding productivity subsistence from a people that didn’t even enjoy basic freedom. This was an impossible burden, and I have to assume it was deliberately so, for the express purpose of breaking the Israelite people. It seems to me that getting the bricks from the Israelites was only a secondary concern to Pharaoh, first and foremost what he sought was to crush whatever life remained in them. It may have been his predecessors who first enslaved the Israelites and murdered their sons, but it seems he was determined to earn God’s wrath for his own sake!
4 And the king of Egypt said unto them, Wherefore do ye, Moses and Aaron, let the people from their works? get you unto your burdens.
5 And Pharaoh said, Behold, the people of the land now are many, and ye make them rest from their burdens.
6 And Pharaoh commanded the same day the taskmasters of the people, and their officers, saying,
7 Ye shall no more give the people straw to make brick, as heretofore: let them go and gather straw for themselves.
8 And the tale of the bricks, which they did make heretofore, ye shall lay upon them; ye shall not diminish ought thereof: for they be idle; therefore they cry, saying, Let us go and sacrifice to our God.
9 Let there more work be laid upon the men, that they may labour therein; and let them not regard vain words.
Pharaoh’s second response was much more vicious than the first. In verse 4 he shows great indignation, essentially questioning what right Moses and Aaron had to even be here and he attempted to emphatically put them back in their place as mere slaves: “get you unto your burdens!”
But Pharaoh didn’t stop there. He called them idle, accusing them of having an excess of time since they were requesting to use that time to make sacrifices to their God. Thus, he took their labor of making bricks and significantly increased its difficulty. Straw was an essential ingredient for creating bricks, serving as the lattice that held the clay together, enabling it to hold it’s shape as it dried into a brick. Making bricks without straw simply wasn’t an option, so the Israelites would have to take the time to get it themselves.
Pharaoh’s words in verse 9 seem to be directed more to the general Israelite populace than to Moses and Aaron: “let them not regard vain words.” Clearly, he is trying to get the slaves to renounce Moses and Aaron as their representatives. He wants the Israelites themselves to censure the voices that would seek their freedom. If the Pharaoh had been able to get what he wanted from the people, it would have shown that they were absolutely demoralized, biting the very hand that offered them freedom, and thus becoming their own chains. And is this indeed how the Israelites responded? We will soon find out.
3 And they said, The God of the Hebrews hath met with us: let us go, we pray thee, three days’ journey into the desert, and sacrifice unto the Lord our God; lest he fall upon us with pestilence, or with the sword.
Moses and Aaron again petitioned for the Israelites to go make sacrifices in the wilderness. This time they showed more decorum, using language like “let us go, we pray thee.” They also gave stronger reasoning for why they needed to do this thing, stating that God would punish them with curses and death if they failed to obey.
However, this is one of the times I wish I knew how to read Hebrew so I could whether this interpretation accurately captures what was written here. Using an interlinear bible, I see that the phrase “he fall upon us” is derived from יִפְגָּעֵ֔נוּ (yifgatno). Then, when I search for the definition of this term by itself, I only get back “will be hurt.” Looking at the other parts of the verse I still don’t see where the recipient of this hurting is defined as the Israelites. Now I know that Hebrew works differently than English, and that the context of a word or phrase can change the meaning entirely, but it does make me wonder whether the subject of the “will be hurt” was only assumed by the translators to be the Israelites. Perhaps a scholar of ancient Hebrew text could weigh in on this, but it does occur to me that if Moses and Aaron had actually stated that God would fall upon the Egyptians with pestilence and the sword, then it would be a more truthful prediction of the future, and it would better explain the great anger that the Pharaoh shows next.
And if this is the case, then it seems that while Pharaoh took what Moses and Aaron said as a threat, it might really have been a heartfelt warning. “Let us go, we pray thee. We’re trying to spare you the reckoning that is nearly upon you!” But Pharaoh couldn’t or wouldn’t understand, and his arrogance proved to be his downfall.
2 And Pharaoh said, Who is the Lord, that I should obey his voice to let Israel go? I know not the Lord, neither will I let Israel go.
Pharaoh’s initial response is actually quite civil. At this point he did not punish Moses and Aaron for their boldness and he did not use angry or threatening words. However in another two verses this calm demeanor falls away and a more vicious layer will manifest.
The language of Pharaoh’s response is meaningful. “Who is the Lord, that I should obey his voice? I know not the Lord.” This will be a major theme throughout the Bible. Who is God? Why should we follow Him? There will be Elisha, who must contend with the priests of Baal to prove which God is the true one. There will be Rabashakeh, general of the Assyrian army, who will ask how the Lord can deliver Israel from their siege when none of the gods of the other lands could do so. There will be King Darius, who will come to learn that his servant Daniel served the one, true God.
All throughout the Bible there will be those that ask these core questions. Who is God, and why should I follow Him? It will be a challenge posed by many outsiders, but also by the Israelites when they forget the faith of their fathers and fall to idolatry. It is a question that is still posed today, even among self-proclaimed Christians who question how much they should defer to the word of God before it becomes embarrassing.
Pharaoh is an example to all of us. He did not know the Lord, he did not know why he should follow the Lord, and so he refused what God has commanded. We will observe what follows that decision.
1 And afterward Moses and Aaron went in, and told Pharaoh, Thus saith the Lord God of Israel, Let my people go, that they may hold a feast unto me in the wilderness.
Pharaoh is given his first chance to free the Israelites. Moses and Aaron don’t waste any time in lengthy preamble, they get straight to the point, and they don’t show any special reverence to the Pharaoh, either. It is also worth noting that they do not speak on their own authority, it is clear right from the beginning that this demand is from “the Lord God of Israel.”
Something that I never noticed in my previous readings was that they were approaching Pharaoh under false pretenses. They told Pharaoh that they simply meant to have a feast in the wilderness, after which they would return, but clearly they didn’t intend to ever come back! Further on in the story it will become apparent that Pharaoh was perfectly aware of what their real purpose was, so it wouldn’t be accurate to say that he was actually tricked, but it was false pretenses still the same.
My understanding of this is that the Lord was not content to just free captive Israel, He was here to repay the many crimes that the Israelites had suffered at the hands of the Egyptians, and He would do so by cursing them, by plundering their wealth, and by slaying all their firstborn. Pushing the Pharaoh to agree to something that he knew was a trick was the final step for the Lord’s utter demoralization of the Egyptian people. It was a recompense for the earlier generations that had welcomed the Israelites with open arms, but then turned that gift into a punishment. Frankly, this is a side of God we don’t often consider, but the fact is He is a jealous God, and He does demand equal retribution for our crimes.