10 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. 11 Go and get your straw yourselves wherever you can find it, but your work will not be reduced in the least.’” 12 So the people were scattered throughout all the land of Egypt to gather stubble for straw. 13 The taskmasters were urgent, saying, “Complete your work, your daily task each day, as when there was straw.” 14 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?”
15 Then the foremen of the people of Israel came and cried to Pharaoh, “Why do you treat your servants like this? 16 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.” 17 But he said, “You are idle, you are idle; that is why you say, ‘Let us go and sacrifice to the Lord.’ 18 Go now and work. No straw will be given you, but you must still deliver the same number of bricks.” 19 The foremen of the people of Israel saw that they were in trouble when they said, “You shall by no means reduce your number of bricks, your daily task each day.” 20 They met Moses and Aaron, who were waiting for them, as they came out from Pharaoh; 21 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.”
22 Then Moses turned to the Lord and said, “O Lord, why have you done evil to this people? Why did you ever send me? 23 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.” – Exodus 5:10-23 ESV
When God appeared to Moses in the wilderness near Mount Horeb, He had revealed His knowledge of the Israelites’ plight in Egypt.
“I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters. I know their sufferings…” – Exodus 3:7 ESV
And God had assured Moses that He was ready to do something about their untenable situation.
“…I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey…” – Exodus 3:8 ESV
Much to his surprise and initial dismay, Moses learned that he was to be the one God would use to bring about the deliverance of His people. After much debate and a great deal of delay, Moses finally gave in to God’s call and made the long journey back to Egypt. And he and his brother, Aaron, in obedience to God’s command, delivered His messages to the people of Israel and Pharaoh. But while the Israelites were thrilled with the news of God’s presence among them and His plan to deliver them, Pharaoh had a far less sanguine response to God’s plan. In fact, he was enraged at the audacity of these two nondescript and unimpressive Hebrews. How dare they walk into his palace and demand that he provide their fellow Israelites with a week off so they can worship their so-called God in the wilderness.
Rather than give in to Moses’ request, he decided to teach this upstart Hebrew a painful lesson. To who Moses who was boss, Pharaoh turned up the heat on the already suffering descendants of Abraham. Moses’ arrival had gotten their hopes up and they were expecting an immediate improvement in their circumstances. But, instead, their situation got exponentially worse.
One of their duties as an unpaid workforce for Pharaoh was to manufacture the bricks used in the many construction projects around the kingdom. This labor-intensive process was difficult enough, but now it was going to become even more time-consuming and wearying because Pharaoh denied them access to the straw that helped bind the clay together. As punishment for their request for time off, he ordered them to find their own straw. This would require additional time and effort, but the daily quota of bricks would remain unchanged.
On top of this, Pharaoh ordered the Egyptian slave masters and Hebrew foremen to show no mercy. They were to push the Israelites relentlessly. When the people fell behind and failed to meet their quotas, the Egyptians punished the Hebrew foremen.
And in time, the people began to lose hope. They were in a no-win situation and there seemed to be no other recourse than to appeal to Pharaoh for mercy.
So the Israelite foremen went to Pharaoh and pleaded with him. “Please don’t treat your servants like this,” they begged. “We are given no straw, but the slave drivers still demand, ‘Make bricks!’ We are being beaten, but it isn’t our fault! Your own people are to blame!” – Exodus 5:15-16 NLT
Pharaoh responded, but not with mercy. He accused them of being lazy and trying to use their request to worship their God as an excuse for shirking their duties. And he would have none of it. As far as he was concerned, their whole reason for being was to work, not to worship. Their job was to sacrifice on Pharaoh’s behalf, not on behalf of some impotent deity from a backwater region like Canaan.
So, Pharaoh reiterated his expectation that they meet their daily quota of bricks or suffer the consequences. This left the Hebrew foremen in an even deeper state of despair as they exited the royal palace. Now, they had to go back and break this less-than-encouraging news to their coworkers. But on the way, they ran into Moses and Aaron. And it would not prove to be a well-timed or particularly propitious encounter for the two unsuspecting brothers.
Full of pent-up anger and frustration, the foremen unleashed their vitriol on these two relative strangers, blaming them for the recent spate of troubles.
“May the Lord judge and punish you for making us stink before Pharaoh and his officials. You have put a sword into their hands, an excuse to kill us!” – Exodus 5:21 NLT
As bad as things had been before Moses and Aaron arrived on the scene, the situation in Egypt had taken a decidedly dark turn since their unexpected arrival. These two men had brought down the wrath of Pharaoh and the full weight of the Egyptian government apparatus. The atmosphere had become oppressive and foreboding. And now, the disgruntled and disillusioned Israelites were turning their anger on God’s two messengers.
Moses’ worst nightmare had come true. He had feared this very thing happening. When God had first announced His plan to use Moses as His deliverer, the surprised shepherd had argued, “behold, they will not believe me or listen to my voice, for they will say, ‘The Lord did not appear to you’” (Exodus 4:1 ESV). He was already convinced that this mission was doomed to failure. Now, his suspicions had become a very painful and personal reality. This led him to cry out to God in despair.
“Why have you brought all this trouble on your own people, Lord? Why did you send me? Ever since I came to Pharaoh as your spokesman, he has been even more brutal to your people. And you have done nothing to rescue them!” – Exodus 5:22-23 NLT
From his perspective, nothing had turned out well. He had left Midian and returned to Egypt only to find his own people ready to run him out of town on a rail. And, driven by his frustration and fear, Moses shook his fist in the face of God and dared to accuse Him of a failure to do the right thing. God had claimed that He was going to “deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians” (Exodus 3:8 ESV) but instead, the whip of Egyptian slave masters had fallen on the backs of the Hebrew foremen. And now the anger of the foremen had come down hard on Moses and Aaron.
But God was not done. He had not promised immediate deliverance. And God had warned Moses that Pharaoh was going to reject their request to release the people of Israel. This was going to prove to be an epic battle of wills – the will of Pharaoh against the sovereign will of God Almighty. And though Moses was doubtful of the outcome, God had everything under full control. Yes, things were going to get worse before they got better. The circumstances under which the Israelites lived were going to become unbearable but that did not mean that God’s plan was fallible. His will would be done. The deliverance He promised would be forthcoming. And Moses was going to learn the invaluable and timeless lesson of waiting on God.
Therefore the Lord waits to be gracious to you,
and therefore he exalts himself to show mercy to you.
For the Lord is a God of justice;
blessed are all those who wait for him. – Isaiah 30:18 ESV
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.