Pharaoh Checks the complaining Israelites part 1
by John Thomas Lowe
A better title would be: “Pharaoh stops the complaining of the Israelite overseers (who represent the people of Israel).”
15 Then the Israelite overseers went to meet with Pharaoh and appealed to Pharaoh: “Why have you treated your servants this way?
16 Your servants are given no straw, yet we are told, ‘Make bricks!’ Your servants are being beaten, but the fault is with your own people.”
17 Pharaoh said, “Lazy, that’s what you are—lazy! That is why you keep saying, ‘Let us go and sacrifice to the LORD.’
18 Now get to work. You will not be given any straw, yet you must produce your full quota of bricks.”
Following the happy result of their conversation with the elders, Moses and Aaron are ready to go to Pharaoh. Undoubtedly, they have been emboldened by the elders’ acceptance of everything the Lord had told them to say. They performed the signs, and the elders believed. They said the Lord sent them, and the elders accepted their commissioning. It had all culminated with the elders bowing down and worshiping the Lord. Moses had been worried about this encounter, and it went off exactly as he had hoped. Filled with confidence, he and Aaron march right over to Pharaoh, no doubt expecting continued success. However, two points are worth repeating. First, God has already told Moses that Pharaoh will not listen “unless a mighty hand compels him” (Ex 3:19). Second, God has also said that He and Pharaoh will play a role in hardening Pharaoh’s heart “so that he will not let the people go” (see Ex 4:21).
Nonetheless, Moses and Aaron are coming off from their accomplishments with the elders. They are all prepared and all fired up. They go before Pharaoh, staff in hand— their authorization, if you will—and announce, “Thus says the Lord: ‘Let my people go.’” “Thus says the Lord” is a prophetic phrase. When a prophet says those words, the next thing that comes out of his mouth is God himself. He is merely using a human mouth to say it. This has prophetic authorization. Aaron likely speaks these words because he is Moses’ mouth and Moses is like “God” to Aaron. In saying this, Moses and Aaron affirm that they are God’s messengers, fully authorized by Him. Indeed, Pharaoh will respect this and comply.
So they say, “Thus says the Lord, ‘Let my people go, so that they may hold a festival to me in the wilderness.’” This is slightly different from God’s original instructions. God told Moses to take the elders with him and say, “The Lord, the God of the Hebrews, has met with us. Let us take a three-day journey into the wilderness to offer sacrifices to the Lord our God” (3:18). There is no mention of sacrifices here, although one might argue that any festival would include that activity. Also, God instructed Moses that he and the elders should go to Pharaoh. There is no mention of the elders here (3:18).
Some scholars have suggested that Moses’ taking license with God’s instructions contributes to Pharaoh’s disagreeable response. Pharaoh replies, “Who is the Lord? Should I obey him and let Israel go? I do not know him, and I will not let Israel go!” Scholars also argue whether Pharaoh’s question, “Who is this Lord?” is sincere or completely sarcastic. It is unlikely that he is unaware of the Lord.
Nevertheless, Pharaoh would know Him as the God of an enslaved and demoralized people. What can such a God offer? The Egyptians worship a plethora of gods accorded a measure of honor and respect. So doing the same for the God of the Israelites would not be out of the ordinary. However, Pharaoh’s statement that “I do not know Him” is, no doubt, very accurate. He does not know the Lord, at least not yet. He will come to know Him over the next few chapters, as it soon becomes evident that the actual conflict in this matter will be between Pharaoh and the Lord.
As soon as Pharaoh says he will not let the people go, Moses repeats his request, “This God has met with us. Now let us take a three-day journey into the wilderness to offer sacrifices to the Lord our God, or he may strike us with plagues or with the sword.” This time Moses repeats the words God has instructed him to say. Unfortunately, it is too little too late. Scholars disagree whether Moses is pleading or speaking from a position of strength. He and Aaron arrive on Pharaoh’s doorstep expecting a quick resolution in line with what has happened with the elders. Perhaps they are surprised by Pharaoh’s response. Despite his refusal, they want him to know that the God of the Hebrews had met with them. These are God’s instructions; they are not asking this on their own. The mention of plagues and the sword could be seen as a veiled threat.
Perhaps Pharaoh feels this way too, and threats from an unknown God do nothing but annoy him. They are not to be taken seriously. Pharaoh’s best defense is a good offense. He says, “Moses and Aaron, why are you taking the people away from their labor? Get back to your work!” This does not necessarily mean that the elders are there, after all, silently in the background. It is more likely that it is Pharaoh’s way of dismissing them. “You have wasted my time long enough! Tell these people to get back to work!” He adds, “Look, the people of the land are now numerous, and you are stopping them from working.” An earlier Pharaoh had tried various ways to decrease the slave population; this Pharaoh took great pride in the number of enslaved people at his disposal. He has found them helpful and is ready to exploit them at his will. Some scholars have suggested that perhaps the Israelites have been stopping for a day of rest on the Sabbath because the word used is “shabath,” meaning “to cause to keep Sabbath.”
Nonetheless, Pharaoh is so angry with Moses and Aaron that “that same day he gave this order to the slave drivers and overseers in charge of the people: ‘You are no longer to supply the people with straw for making bricks; let them go and gather their straw. However, require them to make the same number of bricks as before; do not reduce the quota.” This, as a result, the request is an utter failure. Things have taken a sudden and serious turn for the worst.
Straw is essential for making bricks. Brick makers use mud from the Nile, a combination of clay and sand. This is mixed with pieces of straw and pressed into molds. Straw is not just a binding agent because as it starts to decompose, it is what makes brick, brick. When bricks without straw dry up, they become misshapen, cracked, or shrunk. One does not get a durable brick without using straw. Now the enslaved people will have the additional task of going out to the fields to gather their straw.
In Pharaoh’s mind, all this talk about going out to make sacrifices is a sign that the enslaved people are becoming “lazy; that is why they are crying out, ‘Let us go and sacrifice to our God.’” The way to fix laziness is to “make the work harder for the people to keep working and pay no attention to lies.” Interestingly, he thinks that Moses and Aaron are telling lies. Having no regard for the Lord they represent, Pharaoh dismissively discounts their message. His annoyance, however, has grave repercussions for the people.
He calls the taskmasters (Egyptian) and overseers (Israelite) and has them share the proclamation about straw with the people. They announce, “Thus says Pharaoh,” in an ironic retort to Moses and Aaron’s request. Pharaoh also insulates himself from any reaction by having them proclaim his orders. There is little doubt that the taskmasters are only too happy with this turn of events. The world of slavery is known to be brutal and never kind. The Israelite overseers are caught in the middle; they are the intermediaries between the people and the Egyptians. They will bear any failures on the part of the people. They are in a horrible position. They have to enforce Pharaoh’s decree or bear the wrath of the taskmasters, while at the same time, they have great sympathy for the people.