Exodus 5: Moses Encounter with Pharaoh

By Mary Jane Chaignot

Following the happy result of their conversation with the elders, Moses and Aaron are ready to go to Pharaoh. No doubt 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 goes off exactly as he had hoped. Filled with confidence, he and Aaron march right over to Pharaoh, no doubt expecting continued success. But 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 both 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, 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 a message from God himself. He is merely using a human mouth to say it. This has prophetic authorization. It is likely that Aaron speaks these words because he is Moses’ mouth and Moses is like “God” to Aaron. In saying this, Moses and Aaron are affirming that they are God’s messengers, fully authorized by Him. Surely, 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 than God’s original instructions. God told Moses to take the elders with him and to 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, that I should 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 totally unaware of the Lord. But Pharaoh would know Him as the God of an enslaved and totally demoralized people. What can such a God offer? The Egyptians worship a plethora of gods that are accorded a measure of honor and respect. So doing the same for the God of the Israelites would not be out of the ordinary. Yet, Pharaoh’s statement that “I do not know Him,” is, no doubt, very true. He doesn’t 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 real 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 really 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 doesn’t 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’ve 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 takes great pride in the number of slaves at his disposal. He has found them to be useful 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 own straw. But require them to make the same number of bricks as before; don’t reduce the quota.” Things have taken a sudden and serious turn for the worst. With this as the result, the request is an utter failure.

Straw is very important for making bricks. Brick makers use mud from the Nile, which is a combination of clay and sand. This is mixed with pieces of straw and pressed into molds. Straw isn’t just a binding agent, because as it starts to decompose; it is what makes brick, brick. When bricks made without straw dry up, they become misshapen or cracked, or worse, they shrink. One simply doesn’t get a durable brick without using straw. Now the slaves will have the additional task of going out to the fields to gather their own straw.

In Pharaoh’s mind, all this talk about going out to do sacrifices is a sign that the slaves 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 so that they keep working and pay no attention to lies.” It is interesting that he thinks that Moses and Aaron are telling lies. Having no regard for the Lord that 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 go out and announce, “Thus says Pharaoh,” in an ironic retort to Moses and Aaron’s request. By having them proclaim his orders, Pharaoh also insulates himself from any reaction. There is little doubt 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 the ones caught in the middle; they are the intermediaries between the people and the Egyptians. Any failures on the part of the people will be borne by them. 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.

The overseers are believed to be the elders of the tribes, honored to be chosen for these positions. Perhaps in deference to them, the people immediately scatter all over Egypt looking for stubble to use for straw. As the nearby fields are harvested, they have to go out farther and farther. Regardless of their efforts, everything takes longer and longer. The Egyptian taskmasters hound them every day saying, “Complete the work required of you for each day, just as when you had straw.” Just to make sure the people understand, the taskmasters begin beating the overseers. Such beatings are well recorded in Egyptian annals. They are public affairs wherein the overseer is held flat on the ground while the taskmaster inflicts the punishment. While beating them, the taskmasters keep shouting, “Why haven’t you met your quota of bricks yesterday or today, as before?”

Finally, the Israelite overseers go to Pharaoh in order to appeal directly to him. “Why do you treat your servants like this? 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.” It isn’t entirely clear who is included in “your own people.” Scholars don’t think the overseers are referring to the Israelites. It is more likely that it’s a skewed reference suggesting the Egyptians are suffering because the buildings are not getting done on time. And the taskmasters are making it impossible for them to meet the quotas, because they can’t do their jobs due to their physical injuries.

Instead of heeding their complaints, Pharaoh taunts them: “You are lazy: lazy; that is why you say ‘Let us go and sacrifice to the Lord.’ Go now, and work; for no straw shall be given you, but you shall still deliver the same number of bricks.” This is a common strait for an oppressor. Change the story. It is not that they are being oppressed; it is that they are lazy and complaining. It also absolves the oppressor from any accountability for their well-being. Get more workers; work longer; work harder. If they wouldn’t spend so much time complaining, they would get more work done. The idea is to keep them so busy that they don’t have time for idle thoughts or rebellions (lies) and silly plans about going off for festivals or wilderness trips.

If the overseers had hoped to strike a chord with Pharaoh, they are devastatingly disappointed. They begin to fully understand “that they were in trouble when they were told, ‘You shall not lessen your daily number of bricks.’” Whereas previously they had been willing to endure beatings to protect the slaves, they now realize that things will only get worse as people have to go farther and farther to get straw.

As they are leaving Pharaoh, they come upon Moses and Aaron who are waiting to meet them. They say, “The Lord look upon you and judge,” essentially putting a curse on them. They are asking God to strike them down. They continue, “You have brought us into bad odor with Pharaoh and his officials, and have put a sword in their hand to kill us.” This final scene is starkly different from their initial encounter with Moses and Aaron. The people have all but forgotten the promises, the signs, the authority with which Moses and Aaron came. They accuse them of putting a sword in the hand of Pharaoh, much like Moses said the Lord would come with a sword. And Pharaoh has successfully driven a wedge between the people and those who profess to want to help them.