God’s claim on the lives of his people is always public, and there are always competitors to His authoritative voice. And when we obey and the voices collide, the faithful frequently suffer. How do you handle the challenges of obedience?
To Feast and Sacrifice
Notice that the dialogue is set up to present Yahweh speaking directly to Pharaoh. Moses and Aaron speak as the mouth of Yahweh (4:15-16, 5:1). Pharaoh even understands this in his response by questioning why he should listen to Yahweh’s “voice” (5:2). When God sends a servant, they always speak in His authority. Since the beginning of Exodus we have noted this contest between the word of God and the word of the pharaoh (cf. Gen. 1-3). The reason given to Pharaoh for letting Israel go is initially so that Israel can go “feast” before Yahweh (5:1). After Pharaoh’s rebuff they elaborate that they are to go only three days’ journey into the wilderness to offer a sacrifice (5:3). This second request is more closely the actual wording that was given by God (3:18). Their reasoning is that they must obey Yahweh lest He strike them with sword or pestilence (cf. 9:3, 15). But the Pharaoh immediately changes the subject: why are Moses and Aaron interrupting the work of the Hebrews (5:4)? We assume that the elders of the people were with Aaron and Moses (3:18), and therefore Pharaoh was not just referring to Moses and Aaron.
Bricks without Straw
Pharaoh’s strategy is actually quite brilliant. His plan is to turn the people against Moses and Aaron. He does this at two levels: first he assigns the taskmasters not to give the usual rations of hay for making the bricks without lessening the number they have to make (5:8, 11, 13). He accuses them of laziness (5:5-8). They have too much time on their hands; that’s why they are listening to Moses and Aaron, “gazing on false words” (5:9). The task masters go out and call the people together and announce “Thus says Pharaoh..” which is the exact same preface that Moses brought to Pharaoh from Yahweh (5:1). The contest is between two “words” claiming authority over Israel. The text says that the people “scattered” to gather straw over the “whole land” (5:12) much like God scattered the nations at Babel (Gen. 11:4-9). Secondly, Pharaoh knows this won’t work out very well and the officers are beaten for not producing the same number of bricks, for not completing the “ordinance/command” of Pharaoh (5:14). Not only are the voices competing, but there are two competing laws (e.g. 12:24, 15:26). The officers respond by pleading with Pharaoh as abused “servants.” Pharaoh has made Israel “serve” him (1:13-14), but Yahweh demands that his people “serve” him (3:12, 4:23). But the officers are pleading with Pharaoh as though he is their rightful master. Pharaoh’s response reveals what kind of master he is: he is a cruel lord (5:17-19). This not only turns the people against Moses, but it also turns their officers against him (5:21).
Let Yahweh Judge
When the officers come out of the presence of Pharaoh, they “meet” Moses and Aaron, the very same word used to describe how Yahweh has come to Israel (5:3). This is exactly what will happen shortly: Israel will go out from Pharaoh and “meet” Yahweh, but in the mean time, Moses is God to them (4:16). Their pleas for mercy having been rejected, they utter what is meant to be a curse, asking Yahweh to look on Moses and judge what has happened to them. They say that their “smell stinks in the eyes of Pharaoh.” This will not be the last time God causes Pharaoh to be offended with foul smells (7:18, 8:14). In fact they have become such a bad smell they fear that there is a sword in the hand of Pharaoh’s servants to slay them (5:21). The very things that Moses and Aaron warned would come from Yahweh (5:3) the officers accuse Moses of inciting in Pharaoh. The sword and pestilence have come.
Conclusion & Application
Moses immediately returns to Yahweh and asks why He has done evil to this people and why He has sent him (5:22). And his final complaint is that Yahweh has not delivered his people since Moses has gone to Pharaoh and things have only gotten worse (5:23). Of course we remember that God has already promised that Pharaoh will need lots of convincing (3:19, 4:21), but Moses is still pleading with God according to His Word (5:23, cf. 3:8).
This whole story probably took place over a considerable period of time, probably a period of at least a number of months. Time has a way of making us doubt the Word of God. This chapter presents the struggle between masters, between laws, and ultimately between words. Whose word is Israel bound to obey? Who holds the sword? Who rules the plagues? Given the officers’ response, there is a vast difference between the grace of Yahweh and the grasping of Pharaoh.