Chapter 5 in Exodus lays out the basic structure of the Egyptian economic enterprise and the nature of the relationships within that structure. One modern-day parallel we noted in our study a few weeks ago was the similarity between the Israelites and today’s migrant farmworkers, as well as that of the Pharaoh with his circle of advisors and the CEO and various levels of management of a major agribusiness corporation. Moses and Aaron play the part of labor organizers.
As chapter 5 opens, Moses and Aaron have won the support of the elders of Israel and, by extension, the Hebrew people for the carrying out of God’s plan to secure their liberation. Their initial encounter with Pharaoh, however, ends predictably badly. The only power that Pharaoh is aware of and recognizes is his own. His immediate perception of the situation fits all the known factors: He has power; the Hebrew slaves do not. Why would he acquiesce to their demands? Why would he believe this talk about “the God of Israel?” The idea that some other deity (remember that Pharaoh’s cultural and perhaps self-conception is that he is a “god-man”) would choose to align with a bunch of slaves must, in Pharaoh’s mind, speak to the weakness of such a god, if there was one. Pharaoh has subjugated these people for generations. Where was their “God” then? Why should Pharaoh believe this “God” has any power now if it has not exercised that power before?
Pharaoh’s response to the request to allow the Hebrews to go out into the desert to celebrate a festival to God is to press down even harder in his oppression of the Hebrews. His reasoning is that if these Hebrews have time enough to entertain thoughts of a “vacation in the desert,” then they must not be working hard enough. In essence, Pharaoh sets out to destroy whatever impulses toward recognizing their dignity and rights which Moses and Aaron have stirred up in his Hebrew slaves. If they think that these two agitators are giving them good advice, well then, Pharaoh will show them just what will come if they decide to continue listening to the words of Moses and Aaron.
So Pharaoh increases their workload, even to the point of making it impossible. He ratchets up the work so that every level feels the strain: the workers have to find their own straw now to make the bricks and they have to still make as many bricks per hour as they were making before; the foremen over the workers (fellow Israelites) need to make sure that production does not ease up on bit despite the added labor; taskmasters (Egyptians) over the foremen, have to make sure the foremen keep the pressure on and they have to report to Pharaoh and his advisors the status of the work. The Hebrew workers can’t keep up, the taskmasters drive them harder, but the foremen set over the workers can’t make the prescribed amount of bricks and so they are beaten. They complain to Pharaoh about the impossibility of the situation. Pharaoh throws back at them the request of Moses and Aaron to let the Hebrews go off into the desert and offer a sacrifice to their God, insinuating that the workers must be lazy since they have time to sit around and listen to Moses and Aaron and entertain thoughts about how they deserve a three-day break. Very adeptly, Pharaoh undermines their trust in Moses and Aaron and lays the blame for the brutal work situation of the Hebrews on the two of them.
So the Israelite foremen leave Pharaoh angry with Moses and Aaron, and they confront the two agitators who stirred things up in the first place with their talk of this God who had heard their cries and was going to lead them out of Egypt. Moses and Aaron have only made the lives of this oppressed people worse. Their campaign has experienced the first “push-back” from the powers-that-be, and Moses and Aaron have experienced the first round of backlash as Pharaoh attempts to crush their little movement before it can ever really get started.
Such a scenario is typical even in our world today. At first glance, all the power seems to reside on one side. People who have been disempowered and subjugated all their lives enter into confrontation with what appears to be an irresistible force and those little voices in the back of their minds that say that there is no chance of winning here, no chance of making anything better are seemingly confirmed when those in power exercise that power against them, making their lives harder just for the fact that they have dared to challenge or even question the ways things are. This is the way it starts. Power, especially illegitimate power, does not simply fold in the face of challenge. Rather, it puffs itself up even more and marshals its resources to crush that challenge. It will do anything to maintain its privilege, anything to maintain the status quo from which it benefits.
Chapter 5 ends with Moses, the one who received the mission and promise directly from God, even questioning the situation – not wanting things to get any worse, wondering how it is that this already brutally terrorized people must suffer more, and why his part in it has so far brought them only more pain.