Afterwards Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and said, ‘Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, “Let my people go, so that they may celebrate a festival to me in the wilderness.”’ But Pharaoh said, ‘Who is the Lord, that I should heed him and let Israel go? I do not know the Lord, and I will not let Israel go.’ Then they said, ‘The God of the Hebrews has revealed himself to us; let us go a three days’ journey into the wilderness to sacrifice to the Lord our God, or he will fall upon us with pestilence or sword.’ But the king of Egypt said to them, ‘Moses and Aaron, why are you taking the people away from their work? Get to your labours!’ Pharaoh continued, ‘Now they are more numerous than the people of the land and yet you want them to stop working!’ That same day Pharaoh commanded the taskmasters of the people, as well as their supervisors, ‘You shall no longer give the people straw to make bricks, as before; let them go and gather straw for themselves. But you shall require of them the same quantity of bricks as they have made previously; do not diminish it, for they are lazy; that is why they cry, “Let us go and offer sacrifice to our God.” Let heavier work be laid on them; then they will labour at it and pay no attention to deceptive words.’
So the taskmasters and the supervisors of the people went out and said to the people, ‘Thus says Pharaoh, “I will not give you straw. Go and get straw yourselves, wherever you can find it; but your work will not be lessened in the least.”’ So the people scattered throughout the land of Egypt, to gather stubble for straw. The taskmasters were urgent, saying, ‘Complete your work, the same daily assignment as when you were given straw.’ And the supervisors of the Israelites, whom Pharaoh’s taskmasters had set over them, were beaten, and were asked, ‘Why did you not finish the required quantity of bricks yesterday and today, as you did before?’
Then the Israelite supervisors came to Pharaoh and cried, ‘Why do you treat your servants like this? No straw is given to your servants, yet they say to us, “Make bricks!” Look how your servants are beaten! You are unjust to your own people.’ He said, ‘You are lazy, lazy; that is why you say, “Let us go and sacrifice to the Lord.” Go now, and work; for no straw shall be given you, but you shall still deliver the same number of bricks.’ The Israelite supervisors saw that they were in trouble when they were told, ‘You shall not lessen your daily number of bricks.’ As they left Pharaoh, they came upon Moses and Aaron who were waiting to meet them. They said to them, ‘The Lord look upon you and judge! You have brought us into bad odour with Pharaoh and his officials, and have put a sword in their hand to kill us.’
Then Moses turned again to the Lord and said, ‘O Lord, why have you mistreated this people? Why did you ever send me? Since I first came to Pharaoh to speak in your name, he has mistreated this people, and you have done nothing at all to deliver your people.’
I’m no archaeologist and I’m not going to get involved in which Pharaoh might have been Joseph’s and later which Pharaoh was the Pharaoh of the oppression / Exodus – every archaeologist has their favourite idea and I’ve heard at least 6 named. But the Pyramids of the Middle Kingdom / 12th dynasty were built of bricks. The earliest were bricks made of mud and straw. Some think that one of these must be Joseph’s Pyramid. 400 years later mud blocks without straw were used. It appears that so much plant material had been removed from the delta that the type of grass/ papyrus was unable to regenerate.
Moses and Aaron go to Pharaoh stating that the Lord says “Let my people go”. Pharaoh’s response that he does not know “the Lord” is reinforced by the demand for the same or more from “his people” with less available resources. In v.16 ‘ “You are unjust to your own people” is odd, since the Israelites are not Pharaoh’s people. The text is uncertain, and a better reading may be “The fault is with you.” ’* I take the point but also see nothing odd about the language of slavery and ownership being used by Pharaoh, following the challenge of who is really the ruler, the Pharaoh, of this people. The upshot is that the Israelite supervisors pass the blame on to Moses and Aaron, pushing Moses into speaking to God. Pharaoh is about to discover who the Lord is.
Like the Lord’s people, reliant entirely on the resources of Goshen, we live entirely on the resources of earth. The more we use without allowing them to replenish, the more we become like the Egyptians trying to force the workers to make bricks without straw. Like the Israelite supervisors facing Egyptians with swords, we see fights over food between people, trade tariffs and quotas between nations.
*Walter Houston “Exodus” Oxford Bible Commentary accessed 6th March 2020
Lord, when we forget that all we had, have and will have comes from you, be gentle with us so that we can allow the beautiful world you have given us to recover and replenish itself. As people and nations selfishly demand more may your name be made known, for the good of us all. Amen
The Rev’d Ruth Browning, Retired Minister worshipping at Thornbury URC.