At one point in time, I think we’ve all experienced it. Particularly common in college, you end up in a class that was nothing like you expected. What was supposed to be a fluff class to fill elective space turned into a nightmare. Or, maybe it was a class you were really looking forward to, and the professor had to go and ruin it with boring lectures and excessive homework. No matter which scenario resonates with you, we’ve all probably at one point thought, “This isn’t what I signed up for.”
I don’t know how you would say that in Hebrews, but I am guessing that is what Moses is thinking in Exodus 5. He had just met with the elders, teamed up with Aaron, and was coming into Pharaoh’s court to tell him what’s up:
“Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘Let my people go, that they may hold a feast to me in the wilderness.'” (5:1)
Pharaoh was caught off guard at first, but after thinking for a moment, he said, “You know what, that’s a great idea. Go for it.”
Sorry, that was Moses’ dream scenario.
Instead, Pharaoh immediately balked:
“Who is the Lord, that I should obey his voice and let Israel go? I do not know the Lord, and moreover, I will not let Israel go.” (5:2)
Not very promising, but Moses and Aaron give it another go:
“The God of the Hebrews has met with us. Please let us go a three days’ journey into the wilderness that we may sacrifice to the Lord our God, lest he fall upon us with pestilence or with the sword.” (5:3)
Pharaoh is nonplussed:
“Moses and Aaron, why do you take the people away from their work? Get back to your burdens.”
“Behold, the people of the land are now many, and you make them rest from their burdens!” (5:4-5)
And then makes a classic dictator move:
The same day Pharaoh commanded the taskmasters of the people and their foremen, “You shall no longer give the people straw to make bricks, as in the past; let them go and gather straw for themselves. But the number of bricks that they made in the past you shall impose on them, you shall by no means reduce it, for they are idle. Therefore they cry, ‘Let us go and offer sacrifice to our God.’ Let heavier work be laid on the men that they may labor at it and pay no regard to lying words.” (5:6-9)
Imagine the dejection Moses and Aaron must have felt. Not only did Pharaoh totally shut them down, he made things worse for the Israelite workforce. Not just worse, basically impossible:
Straw is preserved plant stalks from the more rigid long-stalk grains and vegetables. Straw comes from those plants that are harvested but whose stalks are inedible to humans and/or animals. Stubble is the very short remaining stalks of plants after harvesting: the bit between the root and where the reaping scythe or sickle cut the plant. It was only a relatively poor substitute for straw, making the process of producing suitable bricks much harder, but it also was much harder to gather from harvested fields even when the season is right (requiring careful, tedious hand pulling and cutting) as compared to the purposely preserved (and usually bundled) straw and was almost hopelessly difficult to gather in the off season. As Job said, referring to a fruitless endeavor, ‘Will you frighten a windblown leaf and pursue dry chaff?’ (Job 13:25 nrsv). The fact that the Israelites under the new rules simply could not meet their brick quotas is not surprising: Pharaoh had made the task virtually impossible. When the foremen, even under the penalty of being beaten, could not get the people to produce any more bricks (vv. 13–14), the situation was obviously intolerable. It is not surprising that an anguished appeal to Pharaoh for relief followed (vv. 15–16), even though such an appeal was essentially an act of desperation, presumably having little chance of success.
Once this news got out, Moses’ name was going to be mud throughout all the land of Egypt. He’s basically back where he was when we fled Egypt. The Israelites aren’t keen on him. At least Pharaoh doesn’t want to kill him (yet).
When word got to the Israelites about the new workflow procedures, they weren’t thrilled to say the least:
So the taskmasters and the foremen of the people went out and said to the people, “Thus says Pharaoh, ‘I will not give you straw. Go and get your straw yourselves wherever you can find it, but your work will not be reduced in the least.’ ” So the people were scattered throughout all the land of Egypt to gather stubble for straw. The taskmasters were urgent, saying, “Complete your work, your daily task each day, as when there was straw.” And the foremen of the people of Israel, whom Pharaoh’s taskmasters had set over them, were beaten and were asked, “Why have you not done all your task of making bricks today and yesterday, as in the past?” (5:10-14)
I don’t know if you’ve ever been stuck with a job that is an exercise in futility, but at least if you were, you weren’t beaten for failing to complete it. Yelled at perhaps, but probably not beaten on the job. The foreman were kind of caught in the middle and tried to make their case to Pharaoh, but to no avail:
“Why do you treat your servants like this? No straw is given to your servants, yet they say to us, ‘Make bricks!’ And behold, your servants are beaten; but the fault is in your own people.” (5:15-16a)
Pharaoh responds with typical compassion for a middle Eastern dictator:
“You are idle, you are idle; that is why you say, ‘Let us go and sacrifice to the Lord.’ Go now and work. No straw will be given you, but you must still deliver the same number of bricks.” (5:16b-18)
The foreman, experience the feeling of total rejection, thought they should at least pass the buck to Moses:
They met Moses and Aaron, who were waiting for them, as they came out from Pharaoh; and they said to them, “The Lord look on you and judge, because you have made us stink in the sight of Pharaoh and his servants, and have put a sword in their hand to kill us.” (5:20-21)
Looking at this statement, it seems the foremen think Moses and Aaron have botched the job. They would like God to execute some judgment on those two when he gets a chance. At the same time though, the foremen were really disregarding God’s proper channels of communication. He had appointed Moses and Aaron to deal with things, and the foremen decided to subvert that because it didn’t work out so well the first time. We often do this very thing when we jump the chain of command to try to get things done on our own. We would do well to learn from this scenario that when we do that in the spiritual realm, it is dishonoring to God. I’ve been guilty of this myself in the past, and wish I had learned this lesson sooner.
The chapter ends with Moses going to God with his problems. This is important I think. It shows that even as far as the events in this chapter spiraled downward, Moses took it to the Lord:
O Lord, why have you done evil to this people? Why did you ever send me? For since I came to Pharaoh to speak in your name, he has done evil to this people, and you have not delivered your people at all.” (5:22-23)
We don’t get God’s answer until the next chapter, but it is a good one. Here at least we see that Moses is questioning God, and importantly, he is doing so on the basis of God’s own words. Often, when we question God, it is based on something we wanted and didn’t get, or as a result of something tragic that we can’t explain. In this case, Moses is questioning God on the basis of what God had just promised he would do for the nation of Israel. It seems that God is not keeping his explicit words, and Moses wants to know why. God is certainly not obligated to give a detailed explanation, but at least Moses is asking the question with the right posture.
When we would like to question God, we do well to follow the pattern of Moses and do so on the basis of what God has promised us in his word. That incidentally is not a suffering free life, but God promises to meet us in our suffering, and we can certainly ask why when he does. When things go from bad to worse, we should feel the freedom to go to God in prayer and ask why. We also do well to search the Scriptures for the wisdom to endure well what comes our way. One place we find that wisdom is in the next chapter, and we’ll examine that next Saturday.