Exodus 5-6: Complaint and Promise

By Mary Jane Chaignot

When the Israelite overseers leave Pharaoh’s palace, they happen upon Moses and Aaron. Demoralized, they turn on the two, accusing them of making the people a “stench” to Pharaoh. They realize with no decrease in the quota of bricks, they are in danger of being killed, along with many of the laborers. They ask the Lord to judge Moses and Aaron, essentially cursing them. The presence of these two has escalated a bad situation into an untenable one. Scholars argue whether the accusations are fair. The Israelites have always been at the mercy of Pharaoh. It is simply untrue to claim anything to the contrary, but it is true that the appearance of Moses and Aaron has changed the dynamics. Their role is to bring things to a head. Sometimes, things have to get worse before they can get better.

Moses does not respond to their harsh words, but he takes what they say to heart. He immediately turns to the Lord. The word is actually “returns” to the Lord. This is probably not to be taken literally. There is no mention of a new journey back to Mount Horeb, so the circumstances of this encounter are left to the reader’s imagination. Nonetheless, Moses initiates a conversation, which sounds like another accusation: “O Lord, why have you mistreated this people?” Now that Moses has seen their situation firsthand, he believes the Lord is guilty of mistreating these people.

It’s an interesting scenario. First, the overseers go to Pharaoh for help and get blamed for not meeting the quotas. They, in turn, blame Moses for interfering. Now Moses blames God for the whole situation – everyone is looking for someone to blame. Moses still does not see the bigger picture, and he is hardly the leader he will become. His previous conversations with God have had no lasting effect upon him. All he knows right now is that he has not been well received by Pharaoh, and now the Israelites hate him, too. And all of it seems to be God’s fault.

“Why did you ever send me?” he asks God. Moses is in the midst of a crisis of confidence. “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.” In essence, Moses is saying that he has done his part. He has shown up and given it his best shot; but Pharaoh’s tough response has worsened the lives of the very people he was sent to help. According to Moses, God is the one not doing His part. Yet, how many times has God told Moses that this is not going to be easy; Pharaoh’s heart will be hardened; he will not cooperate until he is forced to do so by “God’s mighty hand”?

Readers will also remember that God has chosen Moses to be His deliverer. He appeared to him in a bush that was burning but not consumed while Moses was attending to his father-in-law’s sheep. God takes Moses as he is; He doesn’t magically transform him in any way. So in response to Moses’ complaint, God simply repeats His plan. He says to Moses, “Now you shall see what I will do to Pharaoh: Indeed, by a mighty hand he will let them go; by a mighty hand he will drive them out of his land.” It’s as though God has been watching Moses make his case to both the Israelites and Pharaoh. He’s also been watching their responses. The time is now! He is declaring that He is going to act now, without giving any explanation for the delay. The time for “His mighty hand” has arrived. Ironically, upon witnessing God’s mighty hand, Pharaoh will, in turn, use his mighty hand to let them go, to “drive them out of his land.”

God makes several declarations in His conversation with Moses. First, He reminds Moses who He is: “I am the Lord.” I appeared to the patriarchs as “God Almighty, but by my name ‘The Lord’ I did not make myself known to them.” Some scholars question whether this is a second revelation of His name to Moses; others point out that “the Lord” has been used many times with the patriarchs. Some refer back to the documentary theory to explain the dichotomy. But something very unique is happening here. God is telling Moses that he will now come to fully understand the meaning of “the Lord” in a way that was not available to the patriarchs. One aspect of this fuller meaning is that God is promising that “the Lord” will be with him all along the way.

The Lord then goes on to reiterate the promises that He has already made to the patriarchs: He has established a covenant with them; He has given them the “land of Canaan, the land in which they resided as aliens.” And, He has also heard “the groaning of the Israelites whom the Egyptians are holding as slaves,” and He has “remembered the covenant.”

He tells Moses to go back to the Israelites and tell them: “I am the Lord, and I will free you from the burdens of the Egyptians and deliver you from slavery to them.” God intends to redeem them “with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgment.” It is no longer “wonders” but “acts of judgment” that will be unleashed upon the Egyptians. Justice will finally prevail. The Israelites will be set free, and their enemies will be punished through acts of judgment.

God’s declarations continue, “I will take you as my people, and I will be your God. You shall know that I am the Lord your God, who has freed you from the burdens of the Egyptians.” Here is the crux of the matter. The Israelites will know God to be their God because of His mighty hand. There will be no doubt who freed them. This is a mighty God. He will bring them to the land that He swore to give to the patriarchs. He will give it to them for a possession because “I am the Lord.” The phrase, “I am the Lord,” brackets the Lord’s speech. It is a speech filled with active action verbs of liberation, fully showing God’s intention. It also firmly establishes a covenant relationship with these people. The covenant promised to the patriarchs is enduring and eternal.

Moses does as he is told. He goes back to the Israelites, but they have no heart for it anymore. They do not listen to him “because of their broken spirit and their cruel slavery.” Promises of deliverance pale when surviving one more day requires all their focus. God must be observing their response because He, then, instructs Moses: “Go and tell Pharaoh king of Egypt to let the Israelites go out of his land.” Moses can’t believe it. He replies, “The Israelites have not listened to me; how then shall Pharaoh listen to me, poor speaker that I am?” Some translate this last phrase as “faltering lips,” but the word really means “uncircumcised lips.” It is a way of saying that his lips are closed; he cannot speak the words. God responds by giving him and Aaron orders regarding the Israelites and Pharaoh, charging them to free the Israelites from the land of Egypt.

In the midst of this new charge, the text breaks into a genealogy involving the heads of their ancestral houses. It begins with the sons of Reuben, the firstborn. This is followed by the sons of Simeon, the next born. The real goal, however, is to highlight the sons of Levi, the third born. Levi had three sons, and then the sons of those sons are listed. Of particular interest is Levi’s middle son, Kohath. He had four sons, the first is named Amram. It turns out that Amram “married Jochebed, his father’s sister, and she bore him Aaron and Moses.” (As an aside, Amram marries his aunt, a marriage that will be deemed unlawful later on in Leviticus.) Aaron marries Elisheba, and they have four sons, the third being Eleazar. Eleazar marries a daughter of Putiel, and they have Phinehas. The genealogy ends with a note that it is “this same Aaron and Moses to whom the Lord said, “Bring the Israelites out of the land of Egypt, company by company.” And they are the ones that “spoke to Pharaoh king of Egypt to bring the Israelites out of Egypt, the same Moses and Aaron.”

Several points are worth mentioning. Levi’s son, Kohath, was among those that traveled to Egypt during the famine. If Moses is 80 at this time, there are roughly 350 years between the two. Scholars do not believe this genealogy is meant to be historically accurate. Its purpose becomes known as it highlights the lineage of Aaron and not Moses. By reaching back to Kohath and forward to Phinehas, the narrator has not only shown God’s far-reaching purpose throughout history, but also His future intentions regarding the role of Aaron’s family in His eternal priesthood. This genealogy links Moses and Aaron to the patriarchs and sets the stage for the Aaronic priesthood. Additionally, it bolsters Aaron’s upcoming role with Pharaoh. And last, but not least, the mention of women in a genealogy is always noteworthy.

Following this interlude, the story picks up right where it left off with God talking to Moses in the land of Egypt, using almost the same words. This provides a framework for the genealogy, highlighting its importance. God says, “I am the Lord; tell Pharaoh king of Egypt all that I am speaking to you.” Moses repeats his complaint: “… why would Pharaoh listen to me,” adding “since I am a poor speaker?” When Moses mentioned this back in Midian, God told him to take Aaron along, and Aaron would speak the words Moses has been told. Thus far, Moses has done most of the speaking, but the arrangement regarding Aaron is now coming to the foreground.