1 Afterward Moses and Aaron went and said to Pharaoh, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘Let my people go, that they may hold a feast to me in the wilderness.’” 2 But Pharaoh said, “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.” 3 Then they said, “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.” 4 But the king of Egypt said to them, “Moses and Aaron, why do you take the people away from their work? Get back to your burdens.” 5 And Pharaoh said, “Behold, the people of the land are now many, and you make them rest from their burdens!” 6 The same day Pharaoh commanded the taskmasters of the people and their foremen, 7 “You shall no longer give the people straw to make bricks, as in the past; let them go and gather straw for themselves. 8 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.’ 9 Let heavier work be laid on the men that they may labor at it and pay no regard to lying words.” – Exodus 5:1-9 ESV
Chapter four ends with the promising statement, “And the people believed; and when they heard that the Lord had visited the people of Israel and that he had seen their affliction” (Exodus 4:31 ESV). Moses and Aaron had presented God’s message word for word.
“Yahweh, the God of your ancestors—the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—has appeared to me. He told me, ‘I have been watching closely, and I see how the Egyptians are treating you. I have promised to rescue you from your oppression in Egypt. I will lead you to a land flowing with milk and honey…’” – Exodus 3:16-17 NLT
Then, as God had commanded, they backed up their words with actions, performing the signs Moses had received in the wilderness of Horeb. And evidently, their efforts proved successful in convincing the Israelites to believe that Jehovah had heard their cries and had come to deliver them from their miserable conditions in Egypt. Encouraged by what they heard and saw, “they bowed their heads and worshiped” (Exodus 3:31 ESV).
Having faithfully communicated God’s message to the people of Israel, Moses’ next stop was the royal throne room, where he and his brother hand-delivered an ultimate to Pharaoh.
“This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: Let my people go so they may hold a festival in my honor in the wilderness.” – Exodus 5:1 NLT
Moses and Aaron were sticking with the plan and, so far, everything was happening just as God had said it would.
“The elders of Israel will accept your message. Then you and the elders must go to the king of Egypt and tell him, ‘The Lord, the God of the Hebrews, has met with us. So please let us take a three-day journey into the wilderness to offer sacrifices to the Lord, our God.’” – Exodus 3:18 NLT
But God had already warned Moses that Pharaoh would prove to be a hard nut to crack. This powerful, self-deified monarch was not going to play along with Moses’ request. In fact, he would find the very thought of it ridiculous and not worthy of consideration. But even that was part of God’s sovereign plan.
“I know that the king of Egypt will not let you go unless a mighty hand forces him. So I will raise my hand and strike the Egyptians, performing all kinds of miracles among them. Then at last he will let you go…” – Exodus 3:19-20 NLT
And as if reading a script written by the hand of God, Pharaoh responded, “Is that so?…and who is the Lord? Why should I listen to him and let Israel go? I don’t know the Lord, and I will not let Israel go” (Exodus 5:2 NLT). Overflowing with hubris, Pharaoh mocked his two visitors and belittled the status of this Jehovah (Yᵊhōvâ) who dared to order him around.
Interestingly enough, back when God called Moses to serve as His deliverer, Moses had expressed concern that the Israelites might know who Jehovah was.
“If I go to the people of Israel and tell them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ they will ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what should I tell them?” – Exodus 3:13 NLT
But according to the opening verses of this chapter, it was not the Hebrews who needed a primer on Jehovah’s identity, it was Pharaoh. And, in response to Pharaoh’s sarcastic inquiry, “who is the Lord?”, Moses simply stated, “The God of the Hebrews” (Exodus 5:3 NLT). He uses the generic term ĕlōhîm, which is a Hebrew word used of Jehovah, but also of all other gods. But Moses makes it clear that he is talking about a very specific “God,” the God of the Hebrews. The one true God who created the heavens and the earth.
Moses reiterates his request for Pharaoh to permit the Israelites a take what would be a six-day break from their work so that they can travel into the wilderness and worship their God. In a sense, he was asking Pharaoh to agree to unpaid time off for all Hebrew workers. But he insisted this was not so they could go on holiday, but so that they might worship their God. And then he added a previously undisclosed bit of information.
“If we don’t, he will kill us with a plague or with the sword.” – Exodus 5:3 NLT
Moses was insisting that they were obligated to obey the commands of their God. If they refused, Pharaoh could end up losing all his laborers, not just for six days, but for good. The ball was in Pharaoh’s court. He could accommodate Moses’ request and suffer a drop in productivity for about a week, or he could refuse and watch his primary labor force get wiped off the face of the earth. It was up to him.
After 400 years, the Egyptians had become familiar with the strange religious rites of the Israelites. They would have known that the offerings they made to their God involved animal sacrifices, and the Egyptians considered many of those animals to be sacred. They believed their gods manifested themselves through these creatures, and the idea of the Israelites sacrificing bulls and goats within the borders of Egypt would have appalled and disgusted them. That is why Moses asked permission to journey three days outside of the borders of Egypt.
But Pharaoh was not buying what Moses was selling. He was not about to release the Israelites into the wilderness for any reason or for any length of time, for fear that they might try to escape. So, Pharaoh doubled down on his previous answer and rebuked his two visitors for wasting his time and filling the heads of the Israelites with false hope.
“Moses and Aaron, why are you distracting the people from their tasks? Get back to work! Look, there are many of your people in the land, and you are stopping them from their work.” – Exodus 5:4 NLT
Having drawn a line in the sand, Pharaoh upped the ante and ordered his Egyptian slave drivers to make the lives of the Israelites worse than before. Even the Hebrew foremen who oversaw the chain gangs of laborers were ordered to drive their fellow Israelites harder than before. To increase their suffering and get their mind off of the messages of Moses and Aaron, Pharaoh ordered that all brick production be done without the benefit of straw. It wasn’t that the Israelites were permitted to make strawless bricks, but that they now had to gather the hay and stubble on their own. It added another layer of back-breaking labor to their already difficult task.
Pharaoh concluded that the Israelites were lazy and easily distracted by Moses’ offer of a week off from work to worship in the wilderness. He was going to teach them a valuable and painful lesson they would not soon forget.
“Load them down with more work. Make them sweat! That will teach them to listen to lies!” – Exodus 5:9 NLT
It doesn’t take a psychologist to deduce that this treatment was going to produce an adverse reaction among the people of God. They had been pumped by Moses’ announcement that Jehovah had heard their cries. They were looking forward to seeing how God was going to improve their lot in life. Now, things had taken a very dark turn for the worse. Rather than experiencing deliverance, their pain and suffering had actually increased. And it wouldn’t take them long to decide that they had been far better off before Moses and his brother showed up on their doorstep.
But little did the Israelites know that this was all part of God’s sovereign plan. Their God was not up in heaven wringing His hands in worry. He had not been caught off guard by Pharaoh’s harsh reaction. God had known all along that this would be Pharaoh’s response. It was built into the whole plan and was part of the sequence of events that would ultimately lead to the release of the Israelites and the judgment of the Egyptians.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.