Exodus 5: 1-9: The Initial Audience with Pharaoh
Afterward Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and said, “Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, ‘Let my people go, so that they may celebrate a festival to me in the wilderness.'” 2 But Pharaoh said, “Who is the LORD, that I should heed him and let Israel go? I do not know the LORD, and I will not let Israel go.” 3 Then they said, “The God of the Hebrews has revealed himself to us; let us go a three days’ journey into the wilderness to sacrifice to the LORD our God, or he will fall upon us with pestilence or sword.” 4 But the king of Egypt said to them, “Moses and Aaron, why are you taking the people away from their work? Get to your labors!” 5 Pharaoh continued, “Now they are more numerous than the people of the land and yet you want them to stop working!” 6 That same day Pharaoh commanded the taskmasters of the people, as well as their supervisors, 7 “You shall no longer give the people straw to make bricks, as before; let them go and gather straw for themselves. 8 But you shall require of them the same quantity of bricks as they have made previously; do not diminish it, for they are lazy; that is why they cry, ‘Let us go and offer sacrifice to our God.’ 9 Let heavier work be laid on them; then they will labor at it and pay no attention to deceptive words.”
The initial audience for Moses and Aaron with the Pharaoh makes matters worse instead of better for the Hebrew people. The authority that they can claim from the LORD is immediately met with the question from Pharaoh, “Who is the LORD?” I find it intriguing that the initial threat is on the Israelites, that if they do not go into the wilderness to sacrifice then pestilence and sword will fall on them, rather than the Egyptians. While the LORD has revealed Godself to Moses and Aaron, Pharaoh has not received any type of revelation yet. Pharaoh’s gods are very different from the LORD the God of Israel. Egypt’s gods are the gods that authorize the reign of Pharaoh and the enslavement of the people. Yet, the God of Israel has heard their cry and has called Moses and Aaron to carry to Pharaoh this initial plea to let the people go.
Pharaoh resorts to victim blaming. Although there is perhaps some vulnerability in the statement that, “Now they are more numerous than the people of the land” and the fear of what a day without their immigrants would look like, the Hebrew people are immediately scapegoated as lazy. Pharaoh uses the bureaucracy to separate himself from the suffering of the Hebrew people and to increase it mercilessly. Unlike the LORD, Pharaoh refuses to hear and see. There is no Sabbath rest for the people of Israel, only the iron hand of oppression. In laying before the people the impossible task of making bricks without straw and charging them to gather straw from the remnants of the field Pharaoh insures that they will continue to be less productive and ‘lazy’ in the eyes of the oppressor.
Exodus 5: 10-21: The Oppression Increases
10 So the taskmasters and the supervisors of the people went out and said to the people, “Thus says Pharaoh, ‘I will not give you straw. 11 Go and get straw yourselves, wherever you can find it; but your work will not be lessened in the least.'” 12 So the people scattered throughout the land of Egypt, to gather stubble for straw. 13 The taskmasters were urgent, saying, “Complete your work, the same daily assignment as when you were given straw.” 14 And the supervisors of the Israelites, whom Pharaoh’s taskmasters had set over them, were beaten, and were asked, “Why did you not finish the required quantity of bricks yesterday and today, as you did before?”
15 Then the Israelite supervisors came to Pharaoh and cried, “Why do you treat your servants like this? 16 No straw is given to your servants, yet they say to us, ‘Make bricks!’ Look how your servants are beaten! You are unjust to your own people.” 17 He said, “You are lazy, lazy; that is why you say, ‘Let us go and sacrifice to the LORD.’ 18 Go now, and work; for no straw shall be given you, but you shall still deliver the same number of bricks.” 19 The Israelite supervisors saw that they were in trouble when they were told, “You shall not lessen your daily number of bricks.” 20 As they left Pharaoh, they came upon Moses and Aaron who were waiting to meet them. 21 They said to them, “The LORD look upon you and judge! You have brought us into bad odor with Pharaoh and his officials, and have put a sword in their hand to kill us.”
It is the supervisors, those from among the people who are placed in a position of
authority who will become those most directly impacted by Pharaoh’s words. The people will fail at their impossible task, Pharaoh will continue to blame the supervisors and the people for being lazy and supervisors now find themselves beaten by the taskmasters. Even though the supervisors go and appeal to Pharaoh they have the request of Aaron and Moses thrown in their faces as evidence of their laziness. Their past loyalty to the king of Egypt does not count when they now find themselves bearing the people’s punishment. Perhaps this drives the supervisors back to being a part of the people rather than primarily aligning with the empire but in Pharaoh’s response they see that their positions of favor have changed to disfavor.
Egypt, as it is portrayed in Exodus, was an empire build upon the enslavement of an immigrant people. The Hebrew people are viewed as other, somehow lesser than the people of the land. Their forced labor allowed for the consolidation of wealth and power among the elite rulers and priestly members of their society. Systems of oppression to not change easily or willingly. There are often elaborate beliefs that are invisibly woven around one group’s privilege and another’s oppression. Even in modern times we are not free from systems where we blame the victim or where one group of people has an often unseen, perhaps obscured by systems of bureaucracy like in our narrative, set of privileges or benefits. In the United States, a country founded on a stated creed that ‘all men are created equal’ it took, for example, a civil war and then one hundred years of struggle (often overlooked) until the voting rights act could make it legal for African Americans to be able to vote and that struggle for voice and vote continues for people of color, women and many other groups.
One of the rhetorical moves of the Civil Rights movement was to take the Exodus narrative, which was so important in the founding of the United States, and recast it where now instead of white Americans being able to claim the mantle of the Hebrews entering the promised land, now it is the African Americans who are the chosen people and whites are recast in the role of Pharaoh and his taskmasters. Within the Civil Rights movement, like in the Exodus story, the oppression of the captive people became harsher before they earned a greater equality than what they had before. The Civil Rights leaders probably had several of their own people accuse them like the supervisors did to Moses and Aaron, for the struggle was not to be over in one day or one set of words. In Egypt, it will take an act of God for the people to leave their oppression. In our day, may our hearts not be so hardened as Pharaohs would be.
Exodus 5: 22-23: Moses’ Accusation of God
22 Then Moses turned again to the LORD and said, “O LORD, why have you mistreated this people? Why did you ever send me? 23 Since I first came to Pharaoh to speak in your name, he has mistreated this people, and you have done nothing at all to deliver your people.”
Moses has some chutzpah. This will not be the last time Moses speaks boldly to God, nor will Moses be the only exemplar of this. The prophet Jeremiah’s words to God were often very direct and accusing, see for example Jeremiah 15 and Jeremiah 20. Many of the Psalms of lament, for example Psalm 10 or Psalm 22 accuse God of either hiding Godself in times of trouble or forsaking the Psalmist. One of the gifts of our scriptures is the direct way that the people of faith could appeal to God. Here Moses, the one who feared using his voice, can now lift his voice to God in protest God’s mistreatment of the people and sending him as a bearer of sorrow to them. God has not yet fulfilled his promise to deliver the people and as Moses can boldly state he has done nothing to deliver them yet. God will hear the cries of the people and will hear the words of Moses. I stated in an earlier chapter that perhaps one of the characteristics of Moses that God saw and chose was his inability to remain inactive in the fact of oppression. Now Moses lifts up to God the cries and accusations of the people. Unlike Pharaoh, the LORD will not remain unmoved.