Moses Goes Before Pharaoh
1Afterward 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.’”
2Pharaoh 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.”
3Then 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.”
4But the king of Egypt said, “Moses and Aaron, why are you taking the people away from their labor? Get back to your work!” 5Then Pharaoh said, “Look, the people of the land are now numerous, and you are stopping them from working.”
6That 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. 8But 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.’ 9Make the work harder for the men so that they keep working and pay no attention to lies.”
10Then 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. 11Go and get your own straw wherever you can find it, but your work will not be reduced at all.’” 12So the people scattered all over Egypt to gather stubble to use for straw. 13The slave drivers kept pressing them, saying, “Complete the work required of you for each day, just as when you had straw.” 14The 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?”
15Then the Israelite foremen went and appealed to Pharaoh: “Why have you treated your servants this way? 16Your servants are given no straw, yet we are told, ‘Make bricks!’ Your servants are being beaten, but the fault is with your own people.”
17Pharaoh said, “Lazy, that’s what you are— lazy! That is why you keep saying, ‘Let us go and sacrifice to the Lord.’ 18Now get to work. You will not be given any straw, yet you must produce your full quota of bricks.”
19The Israelite foremen realized they were in trouble when they were told, “You are not to reduce the number of bricks required of you for each day.” 20When they left Pharaoh, they found Moses and Aaron waiting to meet them, 21and 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.”
22Moses returned to the Lord and said, “O Lord, why have You brought trouble upon this people? Is this why You sent me? 23Ever 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.”
Moses, having heeded God’s call and having secured the support of the God’s people, was now ready to act: “Afterward 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”’” (vs. 1). So began Moses’ conflict with Pharaoh. Moses and Aaron showed a bit of courage in seeking an audience directly with such a powerful man as Pharaoh, with such a bold message. And it is somewhat surprising that Pharaoh, the leader of Egypt, would receive Moses and Aaron. It is quite probable, as fictionalized accounts of the confrontation have posited, that Pharaoh knew and remembered Moses, who grew up in the palace court.
Note that Moses began by stating to Pharaoh what “the Lord, the God of Israel” said. Moses made it clear from the very beginning that the Lord of the Universe commissioned him, and spoke through him. Moses uses the name of the Lord, “YHWH” or “Jehovah” (translated “Lord” in this version of the Bible, with small caps), as given to him on the mountain (see Ex. 3:14–15). Also, significantly, Moses calls God, “The God of Israel”. This is the first time this term for God is used when referring to Israel the nation (the term had been previously used when referring to Israel the man). The use of this name here symbolizes that this is the beginning of the gathering of God’s people into a nation.
God’s request through Moses was a direct affront to Pharaoh. The Lord said: “Let My people go.” Pharaoh thought that the Israelites were his people. God would show him differently.
God, of course, did not have to appeal to Pharaoh to let the Israelites go. “It was, indeed, possible for God to overwhelm him at once, by a single nod, so that he should even fall down dead at the very sight of Moses; but He will himself presently declare, He, in the first place, chose more clearly to lay open His power; for if Pharaoh had either voluntarily yielded, or had been overcome without effort, the glory of the victory would not have been so illustrious. In the second place, He wished this monument to exist of His singular love towards His elect people; for by contending so perseveringly and so forcibly against the obstinacy of this most powerful king, He gave no doubtful proof of His love towards His Church. In the third place, He wished to accustom His servants in all ages to patience, lest they should faint in their minds, if He does not immediately answer their prayers, and, at every moment, relieve them from their distresses. In the fourth place, He wished to show that, against all the strivings and devices of Satan, against the madness of the ungodly, and all worldly hinderances, His hand must always prevail; and to leave us no room to doubt, but that whatever we see opposing us will at length be overcome by him. In the fifth place, By detecting the illusions of Satan and the magicians, He would render His Church more wary, that she might carefully watch against such devices, and that her faith might continue invincible against all the machinations of error. Finally, He would convince Pharaoh and the Egyptians, that their folly was not to be excused by any pretense of ignorance; and, at the same time, by this example, He would show us how horrible a darkness possesses the minds of the reprobate, when He has deprived them of the light of His Spirit. These things must be attentively observed in the course of the narrative, if we desire to profit by it” [Calvin].
Pharaoh’s initial response to Moses was not unexpected: “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’” (vs. 2). “Ignorance and contempt of God are at the bottom of all the wickedness that is in the world. Men know not the Lord, or have very low and mean thoughts of Him, and therefore they obey not His voice, nor will let anything go for Him” [Henry]. Pharaoh was ignorant of the Lord at that time, but he would not be for long. God was to reveal Himself to Pharaoh in a painful way—painful because of Pharaoh’s hardheartedness.
It is not surprising that Pharaoh showed contempt for the Lord, for Pharaoh considered himself a god. To him, the Israelites were his people, and he was not about to acknowledge that there was a greater god than himself. Pharaoh was also not about to obey a god whom he considered inferior to himself. Pharaoh must certainly have measured the state of the Israelites as slaves, and considered that their God was weak and powerless.
Beyond this, Pharaoh simply did not want to let the people go. He emphatically stated: “I will not let Israel go” (vs. 2). This stubbornness in desiring to sinfully hold the children of Israel in bondage was to harden Pharaoh’s heart such that, despite God’s display of mighty power, Pharaoh would continue in his ignorance and contempt of God. Pharaoh was stuck in his sin, and he did not want to change. This has been the case throughout the ages. People continue in their ignorant state toward God, not because there are not manifold proofs of His existence, but because they want to continue in their sin. As Jesus said: “This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed” (John 3:19–20).
Although God’s ultimate purpose was to have the Israelites leave Egypt for good, Moses’ first request was much more limited in scope: “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’” (vs. 3). This was not an unreasonable request to make at all: a mere three days off work, and that to accomplish the honorable purpose of worshipping the Lord. Curiously, Moses added to the request, a threat by God upon the people of Israel: “… or He may strike us with plagues or with the sword.” This clause, I believe, was something added by Moses, and not sanctioned by God, for we have no record of such a threat by God. I cannot believe that God would punish the Israelites for failure to worship, especially since they were constrained from doing so by Pharaoh. Perhaps Moses wanted to make God sound ominous and threatening to Pharaoh, but it is never a good idea to misrepresent the character of God. In reality, it was Pharaoh who was in danger of experiencing God’s wrath. It could be that, at that time, Moses was afraid to threaten Pharaoh.
Despite the reasonableness of the request, Pharaoh rejected it: “But the king of Egypt said, ‘Moses and Aaron, why are you taking the people away from their labor? Get back to your work!’ Then Pharaoh said, ‘Look, the people of the land are now numerous, and you are stopping them from working’” (vss. 4–5). Pharaoh’s rejection of their request demonstrated his wickedness.
And his wickedness was further demonstrated by his punishment upon the people for making the request: “That same day Pharaoh gave this order to the slave drivers and foremen 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. They are lazy; that is why they are crying out, ‘Let us go and sacrifice to our God.’ Make the work harder for the men so that they keep working and pay no attention to lies’” (vss. 7–9). Pharaoh was less interested in the productivity that he could get out of the people, than he was with demonstrating to the people that he was god over them. Pharaoh answered the reasonable request of the Israelites, with an unreasonable, and counter-productive, demand on them.
This command of Pharaoh’s was put into effect (see vss. 10–12), and Pharaoh’s slave drivers enforced it: “The slave drivers kept pressing them, saying ‘Complete the work required of you for each day, just as when you had straw.’ 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?’” (vss. 13–14). Instead of appealing to God, whose people they truly were, the Israelite foremen went to Pharaoh for relief: “Then the Israelite foremen went and appealed to Pharaoh: ‘Why have you treated your servants this way? 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’” (vss. 15–16). But Pharaoh had no sympathy for them, nor did he offer any relief: “Pharaoh said, ‘Lazy, that’s what you are—lazy! That is why you keep saying, “Let us go and sacrifice to the Lord.” Now get to work. You will not be given any straw, yet you must produce your full quota of bricks’” (vss. 17–18). They, of course, went to the wrong place for relief. God was to be their Savior, and they should have appealed to Him. Our God is a merciful and loving Lord. Pharaoh, clearly, was not.
The Israelite foremen proceeded to blame Moses and Aaron for their troubles: “When they left Pharaoh, they found Moses and Aaron waiting to meet them, 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’” (vss. 20–21). This reflects the weakness of their faith. The people had recently “bowed down and worshiped” at hearing of Moses’ mission, because “the Lord was concerned about them and had seen their misery” (see Ex. 4:31). Now, at the first sign of trouble, they blame Moses for all of their woes. And not only do they blame Moses, they believe that God is against Moses, for they say: “May the Lord look upon you and judge you!”
Unbelief is contagious, for we see Moses’ faith also wavering: “Moses returned to the Lord and said, ‘O Lord, why have you brought trouble upon this people? Is this why you sent me? 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” (vss. 22–23). At the first sign of trouble, Moses was prepared to give up. But at least Moses, in his troubled state of mind, appealed directly to God.
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