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.
When God invites Moses to undertake the mission to confront Pharaoh and lead the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt in chapters 3 and 4 in Exodus, four times Moses raises objections to the plan. First, he argues “Who am I that I should go …?” (3:11). Next, he objects that “they will not believe me” (4:1). And in the passage we looked at this week, 4:10-17, he first offers that he is not a good speaker (4:10), then, dropping any pretense or attempt at obfuscation, Moses states: “Lord, send someone else!” (4:13). And so we have arrived at the heart of the matter: Moses does not want to go. All of the arguing with God and offering up of excuses, which God has answered one by one, are really just justifications for the simple truth that Moses does not want to go.
But why is it that Moses does not want to go? During our study last night, folks suggested a variety of reasons, all with the same motivation: fear. Moses is afraid of returning to a country where there is a price on his head because of his past criminal acts (killing the Egyptian). He is afraid of being rejected by the Israelites, his family of origin, because of his upbringing as a favored grandson of the king who has brutally oppressed them. Maybe he is afraid of his own inadequacy to the task at hand—reinforced by his earlier confusion over the events that transpired between him and his fellow Israelites after his killing of the Egyptian overseer. Remember too that Moses has settled down to a comfortable life in Midian—married with children, part of the family business. Leaving this life of relative stability, comfort and security could have also inspired fear in Moses.
It would be easy at this point to make a bit of a caricature of Moses, to laugh at his fear or to disparage his reluctance at accepting God’s invitation. This is after all, God, all-powerful, almighty, all-knowing. But to do so would only reveal our own limited understanding of just what Moses is being asked to face and just how little he really knows about this God who is doing the asking.
The crux of it is this: God is asking Moses to confront an Empire, an Empire which seems unassailable, invincible, eternal. An Empire which simply rolls over anyone who dares to question its power, anyone who dares to question its right to pursue its national interest in whatever way it sees fit. God is asking Moses to face down a powerful king—a king considered more a god than a human being—equipped with armies, state of the art weaponry, unmatched military power. And, at this point in the story, God asks Moses to do this armed only with some words, a few magic tricks, and God’s promise that it will all work out.
And this God does not ask Moses to raise an army from among Egypt’s enemies. Moses’ only initial co-conspirator is to be his brother Aaron, a Levite, one of the beaten-down slaves from among the Israelites, whose only real asset is that he is more eloquent than Moses. These two brothers—one a criminal in exile, and the other an apparent runaway slave—are tasked with leading a revolution against the most powerful and enduring empire of the time.
In this light, Moses’ fear might now strike us as both justified and sensible. And even the promise of a God speaking from a burning bush—a God, remember, who has apparently been absent during the Israelites’ oppression these many long years—would not hold nearly the same motivating force as would the real, demonstrable and experienced power of Pharaoh and his empire.
To walk into Egypt and confront Pharaoh to his face can only seem like folly to Moses. What God is inviting him to must surely seem like suicide. What is the power of one man, or two—even with the support of a whole nation of slaves—against Pharaoh and the Egyptian empire in all its glory and might and ruthlessness? This is what Moses must have been contemplating.
And so maybe recognizing some of that same fear and reluctance in ourselves in our own day, we have to agree that Moses’ fear is real, that he would be risking everything to take up this mission, and that it is likely to all end in suffering, disaster, and death. The great powers of every era throughout history nearly always control good men and women through creating and fostering just such a perspective—that it is futile to think things could be any other way, that it is futile to challenge them.