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Deeper Commentary


Exo 5:1 Afterward Moses and Aaron came, and said to Pharaoh, This is what Yahweh, the God of Israel, says, ‘Let My people go, that they may hold a feast to Me in the wilderness’-
See on Ex. 3:18. The commandment had been that the elders should go with them ("And you shall come, you and the elders of Israel, to the king of Egypt, and you shall tell him, ‘Yahweh, the God of the Hebrews, has met with us. Now please let us go three days’ journey into the wilderness, that we may sacrifice to Yahweh our God’", Ex. 3:18); but it seems that only Moses and Aaron go. So this suggests that Moses was pretty much single handed in saving the people; the people and their elders were unenthusiastic and passive, as many in the body of the new Israel. And this is a theme in so many lives. Whilst fellowship with others is indeed a comfort, anyone who seriously does God's work will at many points stand alone- but alone with God. Those who long for more fellowship, for a nearby church and other believers... need to bear this in mind.

Yahweh had asked Pharaoh to let Israel go that they might serve Him. "Let My people go that they may serve Me" is parallel with "Let My people go that they may sacrifice / keep a feast to Me". That "service" was specifically to keep a feast; but that feast was to celebrate their deliverance from Egypt. God's intention was that their journey to Canaan should begin with a feast. If we enquire 'What was Yahweh asking Pharaoh to do?', the answer is that He asked him to let Israel go and "serve" Him through keeping a feast. They were to ob-serve a feast to Him; to keep a feast was to "serve" God. This is why Moses later says that Israel must take all their animals with them, because they don't know with what they are to "serve" Yahweh, i.e. which animals He might ask them to sacrifice. It is why He asks Pharaoh to let Israel go to"sacrifice" (Ex. 8:26-29), to "serve Me in the wildernesss", paralleled in Ex. 5:1 by "Let My people go, that they may hold a feast to Me in the wilderness". The "service" was a specific act at a specific time in a specific place- a "feast", which is a term also used of the Passover. Pharaoh refused, and so the intended feast was kept in the form of the Passover, resulting in the death of his firstborn. For there is no record that Israel did keep a feast after they left Egypt. Here we see God's flexibility in the outworking of His plans. We note that the Passover is called both a "sacrifice" ["It is the sacrifice of Yahweh's passover", Ex. 12:27] and a "service" ["You shall keep this service... you shall keep this service", Ex. 12:25,26; 13:5]. Pharaoh was finally told that he must provide Israel with the sacrifices for their feast (Ex. 10:25); and he did so through the death of his firstborn. Finally, Egypt themselves begged Israel to totally leave them, not just temporarily. K.A. Kitchen has documented evidence from Egypt that brick production was indeed done by slave labour, and there were meticulous records kept of the number of bricks produced each day; but he noted that there were allowances for days off, in order to perform religious rituals. So God was asking  Pharaoh to allow the Hebrews to have some days off to serve their God. This initially relatively small demand became ever more demanding, resulting in Egypt thrusting Israel out completely. This is typical of how God works. Israel were God's firstborn and therefore must be released to Him. Their release was to involve the sacrifice of firstborns- initially, firstborn animals were in view. But Egypt refused, and so it was their literal firstborns who became the sacrifice. I think this is the thinking here. God has total claim upon man. If we refuse that in apparently small ways, the demand becomes greater, and finally we will in any case forfeit our lives in death. Whereas if we willingly surrender, we receive life eternal. Yet God wanted to save Pharaoh. This is why He initially only asked Pharaoh to let His people go for a three day worship ceremony in the wilderness: "Now please let us go three days’ journey into the wilderness, that we may sacrifice to Yahweh our God" (Ex. 3:18). Egypt refused, and so Pharaoh and his followers had their hearts hardened until they begged Israel to leave Egypt totally, and "thrust" them out. The initial request, as K.A. Kitchen showed, was not unreasonable. But Pharaoh's repeated refusal led to him being hardened until he himself wanted Israel to leave permanent.

Exo 5:2 Pharaoh said, Who is Yahweh, that I should listen to His voice to let Israel go? I don’t recognize Yahweh, and moreover I will not let Israel go-
"Who is" could mean that Pharaoh despised Yahweh (Jud. 9:28; 1 Sam. 17:26; 25:10). But it may have been a genuine request, seeing that he didn't "know" Joseph (Ex. 1:8) and the people hardly evangelized their God to the Egyptians, and had largely forgotten about Him. And this would explain Yahweh's revelation of Himself to Pharaoh through the plagues, so that he might indeed "know" Yahweh.

Yahweh claimed to be He who was, is and shall be; but this was what the Pharaohs claimed. An inscription on a temple gives the idea: “I am that which was, and is, and shall be, and no man has lifted my veil".

Exo 5:3 They said, The God of the Hebrews has met with us. Please let us go three days’ journey into the wilderness, and sacrifice to Yahweh, our God, lest He fall on us with plague, or with the sword-
This last phrase is an addition to what Yahweh had told Moses to say in Ex. 3:18. Moses may be adding a human argument in the name of God's word, which wasn't what he should have done. For his idea was 'We're your workforce, we won't be much use to you if our God slays us, will we! So let us go and serve Him!'. This doesn't exactly present Moses as totally loyal to Yahweh. It also misrepresents Yahweh as capricious and likely to lash out and punish His people with death if they don't perform a certain ritual. Moses doesn't come over well here.

Perhaps God's initial intention was that Pharaoh would allow the request to go and sacrifice. And slowly come to thereby accept the religion of the Hebrews. For the request was not initially that he allow Israel to leave Egypt permanently and totally. It was ultimately the Egyptians themselves who were to beg Israel to leave immediately.

We may well ask why God would fall on Israel with plague and the sword unless they sacrificed to Him. Perhaps the idea is that they had sinned, and knew that only sacrifice could bring atonement and the aversion of judgment upon them. But there is no record of them offering sacrifices, and yet by grace therefore the judgment for their sins was averted. Alternatively, the idea may be that the "us" is Israel and the Egyptians; the sword and plague could have been averted for them all if Israel had been allowed to make an atoning sacrifice. For this is the intention of Israel, to be the saviours of the world. We can likewise save others from just judgment through the Lord's sacrifice. The Passover lamb and the Passover feast was the feast Israel had to keep; and this was for the forgiveness of their sins and to avert judgment. The Egyptians who didn't keep it indeed suffered the judgment of the sword upon their firstborn.  

Exo 5:4 The king of Egypt said to them, Why do you, Moses and Aaron, take the people from their work? Get back to your burdens!-
He reasons as if Moses and Aaron were also supposed to be working. Perhaps indeed Moses, like the Lord Jesus, shared in the experience of the people he had come to deliver. We wonder whether the king realized who Moses actually was. Ps. 81:6 uses the same word for "burdens" in saying that Yahweh "removed his shoulder from the burden: his hands were delivered from the baskets". We get the picture of the Israelites carrying the burdens on their shoulders, and carrying baskets of bricks with their hands.    

Exo 5:5 Pharaoh said, Behold, the people of the land are now many-
This fact was clearly dominant in his mind; and he reasoned that by stopping so many people from working, they were seriously damaging the kingdom. We note Pharaoh doesn't at all engage with the request. His comment is also a tacit reflection of the fact that the genocide of baby male Hebrews had failed to stop Hebrew population growth. He ought to have reflected that man's most concerted plans cannot thwart Yahweh's will for His people.

And you make them rest from their burdens-
Perhaps the Lord alluded to this when saying that His burden was easy and light compared to the heavy burden of legalistic Judaism, which He thereby compared to Egyptian bondage (Mt. 11:29,30). And His allusion presents Moses as representing Himself; although in the short term, the way to escape from that heavy burden was going to appear heavy. But the point is, that Israel suffering in Egypt, bearing heavy burdens, are every man.

"Rest" is shabath, inviting us to imagine that the Egyptians were angry that the Hebrews were refusing to work on the Sabbath. The Egyptian complaint was that Moses and Aaron were making the Hebrews rest or 'sabbath' from their work. Perhaps indeed Moses and Aaron were encouraging the Hebrews to return to their God and keep Sabbath, although the Sabbath had not been formally instituted.

Exo 5:6 The same day Pharaoh commanded the taskmasters of the people, and their officers, saying-
The taskmasters were presumably Egyptians. "Officers" is the usual word for 'scribe', the idea being that these people kept a careful record of how many bricks were made. Egyptologists have uncovered such records.  

Exo 5:7 You shall no longer give the people straw to make brick, as before. Let them go and gather straw for themselves-
As explained on :12, this resulted in the people being scattered throughout Egypt, which was part of God's way of appealing to the entire nation.

Exo 5:8 The number of the bricks, which they made before, you are to still require from them. You shall not diminish anything of it, for they are idle; therefore they cry, saying, ‘Let us go and sacrifice to our God’-
Pharaoh's behaviour here is a classic case of "blame the victim", and accords exactly with the psychology of an abuser who has great power. There is a consistent psychological veracity and credibility in the records.

Exo 5:9 Let heavier work be laid on the men, that they may labour therein; and don’t let them pay any attention to lying words-
We see here Pharaoh's blasphemy against God's word, calling it "vain" (AV), or lies. "Heavier work laid on men" is the very phrase only elsewhere used in Neh. 5:18, of how the people of God later abused each other. They were treating each other like the Egyptians had done. And all such laying of heavy burdens upon our brethren is making us like the Egyptians, to face a similar judgment. The Lord interpreted this as making unreasonable spiritual demands of our fellow believers (Mt. 23:4). 

Exo 5:10 The taskmasters of the people went out, and their officers, and they spoke to the people, saying, This is what Pharaoh says: ‘I will not give you straw-
They "went out" the same day (:6). The immediacy and extremity of the behaviour reflects how a raw nerve had been touched within Pharaoh. He had a conscience, which God sought to work with towards his eventual conversion. 

Exo 5:11 Go yourselves, get straw where you can find it, for nothing of your work shall be diminished’-
Pharaoh had insisted that nothing should be "diminished" from the quota of bricks he had set (Ex. 5:11), and the same word is later used of how Israel were not to "diminish" from obeying Yahweh's commandments (Dt. 4:2; 12:32). They were being reminded that they had changed masters when they crossed the Red Sea, just as Paul says happens when we are baptized (Rom. 6). And the Red Sea crossing represented baptism into Jesus (1 Cor. 10:1,2). Like us, Israel were not radically free to do as they pleased. What happened was that they changed masters; hence the appeal to Pharaoh to let God's people go, that they may serve Him rather than Pharaoh. We too will only find ultimate freedom through this servitude to God's ways, and will finally emerge into the radical liberty of the children of God in the Kingdom age (Rom. 8:21).   

Exo 5:12 So the people were scattered abroad throughout all the land of Egypt to gather stubble for straw-
This may have been a way of making a witness to the entire land of Egypt. Hebrew slaves foraging for straw, pulling up stubble... would have made all Egypt aware of the abuse of God's people, and thereby responsible to judgment. The language of mud bricks and people spread throughout the land recalls the account of Babel in Gen. 11:34. Thus the hint is given that all Pharaoh builds is to be destroyed. 

Exo 5:13 The taskmasters were urgent saying, Fulfil your work quota daily, as when there was straw!-
Ex. 5:13 speaks of the 'daily work quota' of Israel under Egyptian abuse. But the phrase is used of their daily work for Yahweh, in collecting manna (Ex. 16:4) and serving in the tabernacle (Lev. 23:37). They had changed masters, but still there was a requirement for daily service; see on :11.

Exo 5:14 The officers of the children of Israel, whom Pharaoh’s taskmasters had set over them, were beaten, and questioned: Why haven’t you fulfilled your quota both yesterday and today, in making brick as before?-
"Yesterday and today" could mean that this happened just two days after the command was given, and it was given the very day Moses and Aaron had asked Pharaoh to release the people. This situation would have made Sabbath observance very difficult (Ex. 31:15). Those who were sensitive to God's ways would have seen that they faced death for Sabbath breaking, or death at the hands of the Egyptians. They would have been desperate for release from this situation, so that they could serve God acceptably.

Exo 5:15 Then the officers of the children of Israel came and cried to Pharaoh, saying, Why do you deal this way with your servants?-
Their question of course begged the response from Pharaoh: 'Because of your desire to be loyal to your God, as this Moses is teaching you'. The whole thing was set up in order to elicit their solid commitment to Yahweh, or to turn back to accepting their lot in Egypt. They failed in this choice- but still God saved them, by grace. The Hebrew officers of Ex. 5:15 refused to beat their brethren and so were beaten. In Num. 11:16, a point soon after the time of the exodus in Ex. 5:15, there is the assumption that there was already a group of 70 elders or officers over Israel. Presumably these 70 were the 70 Hebrew officers who were placed over the Israeli team slaves. So their taking beating for their brethren became the qualification for eldership in the new Israel who emerged from the Red Sea. This is the real qualification for leadership...

In their desperation, the people cried to Pharaoh to help them, just as the Egyptians cried to Pharaoh during the famine years [s.w.]. They acted like Egyptians; they didn't cry to Yahweh. But still Yahweh saved them; Ex. 2:23 summarizes: "the children of Israel groaned because of the bondage, and the cried out; and their cry came up to God because of their bondage". Yahweh saw their cry to Pharaoh as a cry to Him. Moses liked to perceive their cry in this positive way: "When we cried to Yahweh, He heard our voice, and sent an angel, and brought us forth out of Egypt" (Num. 20:16); "we cried to Yahweh, the God of our fathers and Yahweh heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil and our oppression" (Dt. 26:7; also Neh. 9:27). But this is really how God sees 'prayer'; our crying out is graciously seen by Him as a cry out to Him.

Exo 5:16 No straw is given to your servants, and they tell us, ‘Make brick!’ and behold, your servants are beaten; but the fault is in your own people-
The Hebrew grammar here is apparently wrong, so we would go with LXX "and thou sinnest against thine own people". This was a protestation of loyalty to Pharaoh, asking him to remember that they were his people, and considered themselves like this. It is unlikely that they would have come asking a favour from Pharaoh, and then criticized his people. It was a tacit statement that they rejected the teaching of Moses, that they were Yahweh's people and therefore Yahweh was going to save them. They sinned against Him from Egypt onwards, as the prophets lament; they wanted to be Egypt's people, not His. 

Exo 5:17 But he said, You are idle! You are idle! Therefore you say, ‘Let us go and sacrifice to Yahweh’-
Pharaoh refuses to accept their protestation of loyalty to Pharaoh as "his people" (:16 LXX). See on :16. He claims that they were loyal to Yahweh, although they have just effectively denied that, as explained on :16.

Exo 5:18 Go therefore now, and work, for no straw shall be given to you, yet you shall deliver the same number of bricks!-
At Tell el-Maskhuta, the site of Pithom (Ex. 1:11), Egyptologists have found bricks, some made with chopped straw or reed, and some without it.

Exo 5:19 The officers of the children of Israel saw that they were in trouble, when it was said, You shall not diminish anything from your daily quota of bricks!-
Pharaoh had probably ordered straw not to be given to the Israelites without realizing quite what that meant in practice. As he saw men with wheal marks standing before him, the appeal to conscience would surely have been to somehow reduce his demand. But he didn't. We see here God's appeal to his conscience yet again, and how he so persistently resists it.

Exo 5:20 They met Moses and Aaron, who stood in the way, as they came out from Pharaoh-
Perhaps Moses and Aaron had gone again with the people to ask Pharaoh to reduce the brick quota. God first of all taught Moses that if he explained the power of God’s Name to Israel’s elders, then they would hearken unto him (Ex. 3:18). But they didn’t hearken unto Moses (Ex. 5:20), perhaps because he didn’t bother expounding the Name to them, or perhaps because he did but they refused to believe it. Therefore he did explain it to them again (Ex. 6:1-9 = Ex. 3:14-17); but then again they refused to hearken to him (Ex. 6:9 cp. Ex. 3:18). He learnt that what was proclaimed by God as possible all the same depends on human effort to believe. And this lead him on even further, to realize that through his spirituality, he could bring salvation for others.  In this spirit, Moses’ faith in keeping the Passover led to Israel’s salvation, they left Egypt by him (Heb. 3:16; 11:28); and when Aaron deserved death, he was redeemed by Moses’ prayer on his behalf (Dt. 9:20). Moses’ prayer, with uplifted hands, resulted in Israel’s victory over Amalek; without his prayer, and the intensity of it, there would have been no victory for them. However, he had to learn this lesson at this early stage.

Exo 5:21 and they said to them, May Yahweh look at you, and judge, because you have made us a stench to be abhorred in the eyes of Pharaoh, and in the eyes of his servants-
They are quoting the words of Jacob in Gen. 34:30, perhaps unconsciously. Yet by grace Jacob was saved out of the position of having been made a stench to the Gentiles. If they were familiar with the Biblical text of their own history, they would have perceived this encouragement. If they weren't, then the potential encouragement wouldn't have been received. And so it is true for us.

Moses' attempts to save Israel have apparently failed. His initial request to Pharaoh to release Israel was refused. He then offers a compromise- Israel will go three days' journey to worship and then return. This is turned down. And then this request to worship leads to the accusation that the Israelites are lazy, no straw is given to make bricks but the quota must still be met. The foremen appeal against the unreasonable demand, but are refused; and then the foremen are beaten, and they turn against Moses. Indeed, the Hebrews conclude that Moses has "put a sword in their hand to kill us" rather than to deliver them. It seemed all abject failure. Just like his nervous attempt to save Israel 40 years previously had failed. Just as Paul's first missionary journey to Cyprus seems to have failed initially. He went around the island and made no converts until the day he left the island, it seems. Initial failure, when we were expecting success, is an experience built in to most human lives. I recall pacing the halls of the first two churches I opened in Latvia when nobody turned up. This experience is to develop our humility and our trust / faith. And above all this principle came to full term in the magnificent defeat of the Lord upon the cross, through which came the ultimate victory. Temporary failure will not thwart nor ultimately foil the "I will..." of the Yahweh who "will" save us. But the people had to be brought to this utter nadir of desperation before God can say "Now [when they were at their depth of despondency] will I deliver..." (Ex. 6:1).

To put a sword in their hand to kill us-
They were so wrong, as we are in our moments of desperation. The very opposite works out to be the case. The same phrase is used of how finally God was to put a sword into the hand of Babylon to slay Egypt (Ez. 30:25).

The Israelites are presented as being in an absolutely awful situation. Perhaps this is to help us appreciate how awful were their later pleas to return to Egypt because all had been so good there (Ex. 16:3 very soon afterwards; Ex. 17:3 "Why did you bring us out of Egypt to kill us", as if there was no threat of death in Egypt; Num. 11:4,5). And in their hearts, they did return to Egypt. We see for all time how human memory is so biased by present circumstances. And how strong is the sense that the former days are better than these; the past was better than the present and our projected future. The way of faith sees the past for what it was, slavery and suffering in Egypt / the world; the present is far better, and the future is eternally glorious. This difference in worldview is profound.

Exo 5:22 Moses returned to Yahweh and said-
"Moses returned to the Lord"- the Angel of the bush? It sounds as if he went to a specific place to meet the Lord- i.e. the Angel.  Moses asks why He had sent him- and it was the Angel at the bush who had sent him. Moses complained about the Angel, and so God reminded him that 'Yahweh personally will be your Elohim Angels', and that because of his questioning of the Angels he was in fact doubting God Himself personally.

Lord, why have You brought evil on this people?-
We note that "evil" is seen as always coming from God in the Hebrew Bible. This was a deconstruction of the popular misconception that only good comes from God, and "evil" comes from a supernatural 'Satan' being. But the Bible carefully teaches the very opposite. There is no such 'Satan' in that sense. And Yahweh is all powerful. As discussed on :21, Moses' attempts appeared to have failed; instead of delivering the people, his efforts had resulted in evil coming upon them. But he attributes his own failures to God. He cannot see that there must be initial failure before victory. Yet it was exactly because he and Israel were at such low ebb, that God could say that "Now" He would deliver them (Ex. 6:1).

Moses uses the same word at the end of his life, in saying that the Egyptians "brought evil" on Israel (Dt. 26:6). As if in maturity, he recalled the sins and failures of 40 years ago and puts the matter right. We ought to live like this, rather than assuming that time somehow automatically atones for sin.

Why is it that You have sent me?-
“Why is it that thou hast sent [s.w. “put forth” and “let go”] me?”- i.e., why don’t You use Messiah, the man of Your right hand? And this, subconsciously and unexpressed, is so often our view; He must do it, not me. I’m just a shepherd, God ought to leave me alone in the comfortable monotony of my working life. But He has called us to greater things, to realize as Moses finally did that we, you and me, are the ones through whom God truly will work in this world. See on Ex. 4:4.

Moses repeats the same question in Num. 11:11. He struggled with God not doing what He promised straight away. He wanted it right away, and failed to see that any delay which allowed evil to continue could be legitimate. This question lurked within Moses, and it seems at times he only wanted to be part of God's plan if it was going to work out when and how he expected and assumed. This is why Israel rejected a suffering Messiah, and why so many stumble at God today. Because they lack the humility to trust in God and accept their own assumptions of how things should be may be very wrong and short termist.  

Exo 5:23 For since I came to Pharaoh to speak in Your name, he has brought trouble on this people; neither have You delivered Your people at all-
Moses was weak and discouraged, accusing God of wanting to do them evil rather than save them. This was what the people concluded in the desert, when they complained Yahweh had brought them into the desert to slay them. Moses would have found patience with them, because he would have realized that this same desperate conclusion, in the heat of desperation, was what he too had been guilty of. It is awareness of our own failures which provides the basis for others in theirs. God is without that aspect; His patience with human sin is therefore the more wonderful than ours.