Bricks without straw, 1-21
This account introduces and prepares us for the account of the ten plagues. ‘[It] is wonderfully written to depict a powerful Pharaoh impervious to any human challenge or plea and immovable by any force save one’ (Durham). Enns calls it a ‘battle of sovereigns’.
Chapter 4 has closed on a note of high expectation. But all those high hopes are about to come crashing down. Things had been bad, but seemed on the point of getting much better. But, in fact, they get much worse. We might almost head this section: ‘The God who makes bad things worse!’ Merida titles it simply: ‘Discouragement’.
Main thought: The enemy of God’s people may do his worst, and seem utterly unstoppable. But there is a Higher Power, with whom he has not reckoned.
Ex 5:1 Afterwards Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and said, “This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: ‘Let my people go, so that they may hold a festival to me in the desert.’”
Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh – The elders were supposed to go with them (Ex 3:18), but they are not mentioned here. According to rabbinic teaching, they dropped out because of fear.
How did Moses and Aaron gain access to Pharaoh? Some think it is a sign that Moses still had friends in high places. Others (e.g. Stuart) refer to a policy of access to a sovereign that was widely observed in the Ancient Near East. The latter explanation seems likely, given that the Israelite foremen also gained an audience with Pharaoh (v15).
The approach of Moses and Aaron to Pharaoh is supremely confident. They have been commissioned by God. They have demonstrated miraculous powers. They have gained the approval of their own people. It is time to step out in faith. They speak authoritatively, with a ‘Thus says the Lord’. But their confidence (see Ex 4:27-31) will be immediately deflated.
‘An Egyptian letter (Anastasi III) from guards at a “border crossing” between Egypt and the Sinai helps explain Moses’ insistent cry, “Let my people go!” The text indicates that in the thirteenth century the Egyptians maintained a tight border control, allowing no one to pass without a permit. The letter describes two slaves who—in a striking parallel to the Israelite escape—flee from the city of Rameses at night, are pursued by soldiers, but disappear into the Sinai wilderness. “When my letter reaches you,” writes the official to the border guard, “write to me about all that has happened to [them]. Who found their tracks? Which watch found their tracks? Write to me about all that has happened to them and how many people you send out after them.”‘ (Kevin D. Miller, Christianity Today)
“This is what the Lord…says” – this is equivalent to, and the first instance of, the prophetic formula, “Thus says the Lord.” Cf. v10.
“Let my people go” – The first in a series of demands, Ex 5:1; 7:16; 8:1, 20; 9:1, 13; 10:3.
“so that they may hold a festival to me in the desert” – According to Stuart, this represents an approach to bargaining that was well-known and widely-accepted in the ANE: ‘In the style of Near Eastern requesting favors, the initial request was purposefully stated in a modest way, although what was really being sought was much more: full permanent departure.’ Instead of starting with more than was desired, the strategy was the begin with less, and, given a favourable response, increase the demand incrementally. Such an approach is found in Gen 23, where Abraham begins his negotiation with Ephron first by not even addressing Ephron directly, next by asking only for the cave (v9) and finally by asking for the field including the cave (v13). Motyer, similarly, refers to this opening demand of Moses and Aaron as their ‘opening gambit’.
Ex 5:2 Pharaoh said, “Who is the LORD, that I should obey him and let Israel go? I do not know the LORD and I will not let Israel go.”
“Who is the Lord?” – We can almost see Pharaoh draw up to his full height. We can almost hear his snarl. “Who’s in charge around here!”
Why should Pharaoh respect a god who identifies himself with such a hapless group of slaves? (EBC) Or, as Chester paraphrases: “What gives this God of slaves a right to issue commands to me, the king of Egypt, a living deity?”
As Chester remarks, it is one thing to be asked to do something because some unknown ‘John Smith’ wants you to do it, and being asked to do the same thing because a person you know – as say, a family member or an individual with authority – asks you to do it. Pharaoh’s response is, “The Lord? Never heard of him!!” Pharaoh’s question will be answered by the plagues that follow. Subsequent events will show him who the Lord is, and why he should take notice of him.
Chester further clarifies that Pharaoh’s question is not about definition, as was that Moses in Ex 3:13. It is, rather, an expression of defiance.
‘Who is the Lord? He is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He is Yahweh, the Great I Am, the eternal and self-existent Lord. He is the Father of Israel who knows and cares about the suffering of his dear children. As events continue to unfold, he will reveal himself as the Lord God of salvation. He will bring judgment on the house of Pharaoh, while leading his own people through the sea on dry land, until finally the Egyptians themselves will recognize his lordship. In the desperate moments before being lost at sea, they will say, “Let’s get away from the Israelites! The LORD is fighting for them against Egypt” (Exod. 14:25). By the time his army is swept away by God’s infinite power, even Pharaoh will know who the Lord is!’ (Ryken)
Bruckner remarks that ‘knowing the Lord’ is a key theme in Exodus (Ex 1:8; 5:2; 6:3, 7; 7:5, 17; 8:10, 22; 9:14; 10:2, 7, 26; 11:7; 14:4, 18; 16:6, 12; 18:11; 23:9; 29:46; 31:13; 33:12, 13, 16–17)
Ex 5:3 Then they said, “The God of the Hebrews has met with us. Now let us take a three-day journey into the desert to offer sacrifices to the LORD our God, or he may strike us with plagues or with the sword.”
A three-day journey into the desert – The predominant scholarly view, according to Enns, is that this was not intended to be a three-day there-and-back journey, but rather a journey into the desert that took three days, with no implication of a return to Egypt after that. Alternatively, we may suppose that God was testing Pharaoh out (so Ryken).
Sacrifices – Goldingay notes: ‘the prominence of sacrifice in Old Testament worship means worship is costly to worshipers. You do not just come to worship with loving feelings in your heart. You come with expensive offerings.’
“He may strike us with plagues or with the sword” – an implicit warning to Pharaoh that the Lord is not to be trifled with. It is also a warning that Pharaoh stands to lose more than three days’ worth of work from his labourers. Indeed, Enns thinks that the ‘us’ includes the Egyptians as well as the Israelites (and, in doing so, anticipates the plagues themselves).
Ex 5:4 But the king of Egypt said, “Moses and Aaron, why are you taking the people away from their labour? Get back to your work!” 5 Then Pharaoh said, “Look, the people of the land are now numerous, and you are stopping them from working.”
“Why are you taking the people away from their labour?” – This may mean simply, “Why would you take the people away?” But it is also possible that behind this question is a concern that the people were already being distracted from their work by their new-found worship of the Lord (cf. Ex 4:31). There is also a hint that Moses and Aaron are behind a burgeoning resistance movement.
“The people of the land” are the common people, as opposed to the nobility. They would have included the Israelites. The old fear (Ex 1:10) has returned. Pharaoh suspects that if these people are allowed to prosper, they will become an increasing threat to him. They must be kept under control. As Cole remarks, such fear of ‘outsiders’ fuels much modern concern about immigration policy.
‘Pharaoh is a picture of all totalitarian rulers, states or individuals, and he shows it clearly here.’ (Cole)
Ex 5:6 That same day Pharaoh gave this order to the slave drivers and foremen in charge of the people: 7 “You are no longer to supply the people with straw for making bricks; let them go and gather their own straw. 8 But require them to make the same number of bricks as before; don’t reduce the quota. They are lazy; that is why they are crying out, ‘Let us go and sacrifice to our God.’ 9 Make the work harder for the men so that they keep working and pay no attention to lies.”
The slave drivers and foremen in charge of the people – the former were the Egyptians who enforced the work; the latter were Hebrews who organised the workers. Bruckner says that such a system is testified in Egyptian work records.
Egyptian bricks were rectangular in shape, made of mud, clay and chopped wheat, and up to 12 x 6 x 6 inches in dimension. The wheat stalks provided humic acid, which helped bind the material together. (Stubble, being dry, contained no humic acid and was therefore less effective).
Pharaoh’s solution is decisive: since the Hebrews clearly have too much time on their hands, he will make them work harder. Clay bricks without straw would be brittle. Foraging for the necessary stubble entailed much more labour. Cole says that bricks of various kinds have been found Egypt, including those made with, and those made without, straw.
The later Israelites built with stone, rather than with bricks. Cf. Gen 11:3.
“‘Let us go and sacrifice to our God'” – Pharaoh omits the name of the Lord in his quotation. ‘This omission subtly and efficiently conveys the impression of Pharaoh’s disdain for Yahweh—who was to him in effect merely “the god these people worship.” To him, Yahweh’s words were not valid; they were just lies. This is ever the view of the nonbeliever: God’s words are lies that keep you from conforming to the expectations of the world you live in and from enjoying life on your own terms (a concept that began early in human history, according to Gen 3:4).’ (Stuart)
“They are lazy” – Thus does the oppressor engage in victim-blaming, transferring the problem from oppressor the oppressed. Theirs is the character flaw, the deficient work ethic. They have too much time on their hands, so make them work harder and longer so that they will have no time or energy for complaining or asking for time off.
“Make the work harder” – Moses and Aaron are not only rebuffed; the situation is about to get much harder for their people. Pharaoh clearly has his own version of the principle, ‘The devil finds work for idle hands.’
“Pay no attention to lies” – Pharaoh is not only ruthless and cruel; he is also clever. He knows how to turn the Israelites against one another. Vv 20f show how effective this strategy was.
Ex 5:10 Then the slave drivers and the foremen went out and said to the people, “This is what Pharaoh says: ‘I will not give you any more straw. 11 Go and get your own straw wherever you can find it, but your work will not be reduced at all.’” 12 So the people scattered all over Egypt to gather stubble to use for straw. 13 The slave drivers kept pressing them, saying, “Complete the work required of you for each day, just as when you had straw.” 14 The Israelite foremen appointed by Pharaoh’s slave drivers were beaten and were asked, “Why didn’t you meet your quota of bricks yesterday or today, as before?”
“This is what Pharaoh says” – lit. ‘Thus says the Pharaoh’ (cf. Ex 5:1).
To gather stubble to use for straw – Stubble was a poor substitute for straw, and difficult to find.
‘As the chapter unfolds, we find ourselves longing to see such a ruler educated from such ignorance and humbled in the process. And thus is the writer’s point made, his purpose achieved. This Pharaoh, so unreasonable with men and so stingy with straw, is about to be shown up before Yahweh as no more than a man of straw.’ (Durham)
The Israelite foremen…were beaten – ‘The Lord’s poetic response to the beating (nakah) of the foremen will be to strike (nakah) Egypt with wonders (Ex 3:20), with blood (Ex 7:17, 25), with gnats (Ex 8:12–13), and with hail (Ex 9:25, 31–32).’ (Bruckner)
“Your quota of bricks” – This expression uses a word meaning ‘statute’, or ‘ordinance’ (as in Ex 12:24). So, as Bruckner remarks, the question is, Whose law will be obeyed – Pharaoh’s or Yahweh’s?
Ex 5:15 Then the Israelite foremen went 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.”
‘The situation had transformed from one of hopefulness and faith (Ex 4:31) to resentment and doubt.’ (Stuart)
‘When they were whipped for a failure they had no power to prevent and interrogated about a command they knew could not be kept, they felt unjustly handled, and they took their protest straight to Pharaoh himself.’ (Durham)
The Israelite foremen went and appealed to Pharaoh – It was usual in the Ancient Near East for common people to have a right of access to the sovereign. Moses and Aaron were waiting for the verdict (v20): presumably, they had no right of appeal since Pharaoh had already ruled against their request.
Appealed = ‘cried out’ – otherwise used for desperately crying out to God, Ex 2:23; 8:8; 14:10, 15; 15:25; 17:4; 22:22, 26.
We do not agree with Durham that it is ‘pointless’ to enquire whether these Israelite foremen would have had access to Pharaoh in the way described here (see preceding note). We do agree, however, that this section does effectively show the reader what sort of sovereign Pharaoh was: a sovereign against which no man, and no group of men, could stand. There is only one who can withstand him – Yahweh himself.
Ex 5:17 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.”
“Now get to work” – Lit. ‘Now serve’. The underlying word is frequently used for ‘worship’, as in Ex 3:12; 4:23; 9:1, 13; 12:31
Fretheim quotes Martin Luther King: ‘The Pharaohs had a favorite and effective strategy to keep their slaves in bondage: keep them fighting among themselves. The divide-and-conquer technique has been a potent weapon in the arsenal of oppression. But when slaves unite, the Red Seas of history open and the Egypts of slavery crumble.’
Ex 5:19 The Israelite foremen realised they were in trouble when they were told, “You are not to reduce the number of bricks required of you for each day.” 20 When they left Pharaoh, they found Moses and Aaron waiting to meet them, 21 and they said, “May the LORD look upon you and judge you! You have made us a stench to Pharaoh and his officials and have put a sword in their hand to kill us.”
They found Moses and Aaron waiting to meet them – Presumably, hopeful of a favourable outcome. But their earlier humiliation is compounded. They find themselves totally out of favour, not only with Pharaoh, but also with their own people.
“May the Lord look upon you and judge you!” – ‘Behind this rebuke appears to be the conviction that Moses and Aaron needed judgment because the nation’s God, Yahweh, would not have let such a thing happen without his will having been thwarted by these leaders. The presumption that a good God never lets dangerous or harmful events happen to his people, false as it has always been, is a very old belief.’ (Stuart)
‘The foremen take their complaints to Moses and Aaron; indeed, their complaints turn into sharp accusations. They call upon God to judge them, because this venture threatens the entire Israelite community. Justice calls for Moses and Aaron to suffer the consequences of what they have done. The leadership of Moses and Aaron is in jeopardy. Pharaoh has succeeded in sharply dividing the Israelite community. Their worry about a sword from the Lord in 5:3 is now a sword from Pharaoh. Will God’s sword or Pharaoh’s prevail?’ (Fretheim)
‘The messenger of God, Moses—who saw God on the holy mountain, was chosen for this very purpose, was assured of God’s presence throughout his ordeal, and by God’s help, has proven his calling to the elders and people of Israel—is now perilously close to seeing his entire mission evaporate before his eyes.’ (Enns)
“You have made us a stench to Pharaoh and his officials and have put a sword in their hand to kill us” – Motyer reminds us that Aaron had told the people ‘everything the Lord has said to Moses’ (Ex 4:30), and this would surely have included the warnings of Ex 3:19 and Ex 4:21. But they evidently didn’t hear, or didn’t remember, that bit. They only attended to the good news, and were therefore unprepared for the trouble that lay ahead. They had ‘believed’ (Ex 4:31), but they had false and unrealistic expectations. Motyer adds that Moses and Aaron seem to have been infected with the same spirit, given their optimistic and triumphalistic demand in v1.
Oppression has done its work: Pharaoh blames the people; the people blame Moses and Aaron, and Moses and Aaron blame the Lord (Ex 5:22f).
Ex 5:22 Moses returned to the LORD and said, “O Lord, why have you brought trouble upon this people? Is this why you sent me? Ex 5:23 Ever since I went to Pharaoh to speak in your name, he has brought trouble upon this people, and you have not rescued your people at all.”
As far as Moses and the Israelites are concerned, Pharaoh has just scored a resounding victory over them. But the Lord takes it in his stride, for he has already said that Pharaoh would refuse, Ex 3:19; 4:21.
According to Motyer, Moses’ failure comes about because had not listened with sufficient attention to God’s words of warning and instruction. For instance:-
- He neglected the warning that Pharaoh would not respond positively at first, but would harden his heart
- He failed to take the elders of Israel with him, as instructed.
- He omitted to say that ‘God had met with (i.e. had appeared to) him’, Ex 3:18.
- He made the wrong request. Instead of the more modest opening gambit of Ex 3:18, he makes a more ambitious demand for national emancipation.
- He added to the Lord’s word by threatening plagues and slaughter, Ex 5:3.
Motyer adds that Moses’ first failure came about because he acted without any commissioning from the Lord (Ex 2:11-14). His second failure can be traced to his neglect of the word of God.
In fact, of course, the outcome is exactly what the Lord said it would be. Moses may be shocked by Pharaoh’s failure to co-operate, but the Lord is not at all taken by surprise. But (as Motyer says) at least Moses knows enough to bring his failure to the Lord.