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Bible Commentaries

Coffman Commentaries on the Bible

Exodus 5


This chapter gives the account of the first episode in the long confrontation between God and Pharaoh over the demand that he, "Let my people go!" The chapter reveals that the Hebrews were not yet ready for deliverance, but that they should suffer hardship before their liberty could be achieved. "The Hebrew slaves must learn that they too must suffer loss. They will have to pay the price of their liberty-to-be. It is not just a gift from God."[1] The absolute necessity for such suffering derived from the fact that in a general sense, the Hebrew slaves in Egypt, prior to this confrontation, had been relatively comfortable. They certainly had been well fed. And, apparently, there had been some leisure time allowed to them for purposes of tending their own gardens, fishing, etc. It is revealed in Numbers 11 that, even after all the great wonders that had delivered them from Egypt, they still tired of God's "manna," and they actually preferred "the leeks and garlic" of Egypt to their diet as wanderers. Keil observed, "It is certain that in such a state of mind as this, they would never have been willing to leave Egypt ... without a very great increase in the hardships which they suffered there."[2] The events of this chapter were designed by the Lord to provide the kind of incentive they needed. There was also another necessary achievement of these events, and that was the unification of Israel, as appears later in the notes. Failure to observe these preliminary and necessary results from what happened here has led some to denominate this first confrontation as a failure, but it was no such thing. God's plan was working, and it would not cease working until Israel was delivered and Pharaoh with his army had perished in the Red Sea!

Verse 1

"And afterward Moses and Aaron came, and said unto Pharaoh, Thus saith Jehovah, the God of Israel, Let my people go, that they may hold a feast unto me in the wilderness."

No difficulty at all seems to have been encountered here by Moses and Aaron in their having ready access to Pharaoh. The reason very well could have been as suggested by Ellison: "The freedom Moses enjoyed is probably to be attributed to his having been adopted by Pharaoh's daughter."[3] If there were any difficulties, the sacred author ignored them. The proximity of Pharaoh's presence to the Israelites in Goshen (in the Delta area of northern Egypt) is seen as a problem to some who believe that the capital of Egypt in that period was located in the southern part of the kingdom, but the problem disappears in the fact that most of the capitals of kings in that period had more than one location, summer residences and winter residences of ruling monarchs being fairly common. The events of this chapter took place just after the harvest in May or June, and Pharaoh's summer palace was evidently in the vicinity of where Israel resided. Rawlinson placed the summer palace at Zoan (Tanis), and interpreted the word "afterward" (at the head of the chapter) as an indication that, "Moses and Aaron had to wait for the return of Pharaoh from his southern to his northern capital."[4]

"Let my people go, that they may hold a feast to me in the wilderness ..." There was nothing in that request that was the basis of any legitimate objection on Pharaoh's part. Work-journals belonging to overseers of employees in the times of the Pharaoh's listed, among other allowable reasons for absenteeism, "the offering of sacrifices by workmen to their gods."[5] There is visible in this first demand which God made of Pharaoh a definite mercy. By asking something that was legitimate enough, as presented, Pharaoh, had his heart been right, would have granted it. "Pharaoh could not have refused this request, if there had been a single trace of the fear of God in his heart."[6] This view is a far better explanation of the limitation of this first demand than the arrogant conclusion that this initial request was "a false pretext."[7] By refusing the first reasonable and lawful request, Pharaoh himself opened the door for all that followed.

Verse 2


"And Pharaoh said, Who is Jehovah, that I should hearken to his voice to let Israel go? I know not Jehovah, and moreover I will not let Israel go."

This was the first in a series of responses by Pharaoh, and, as the series unfolds, there is visible a progressive erosion of his stubborn insolence. Unger believed that Pharaoh told the truth in professing ignorance of Jehovah: "The contemptuous Pharaoh, whose absolute power was enforced by his deification in the Egyptian religion, knew many gods, but he was ignorant of this God (the true God)."[8] However, we are inclined to agree with Rawlinson who thought that it was "more probable that he (merely) pretended ignorance."[9] Certainly we reject the notion that the name Jehovah (Yahweh) had been revealed only recently at that time, that "Pharaoh could not have known the name since the Hebrews had only recently been introduced to it." With Fields, we believe that, "This goes against Bible teaching."[10] It appears to us as extremely unlikely that Pharaoh did not know of Jehovah, because the action of Jehovah in the life of Joseph, elevating him to the throne of Egypt (as deputy), was no secret. If Pharaoh was ignorant, he was willfully ignorant. His response in denying that he knew Jehovah is very similar to that of Sennacherib's haughty response in 2 Kings 18:35.

Verses 3-4

"And they said, The God of the Hebrews hath met with us: let us go, we pray thee, three days journey into the wilderness, and sacrifice unto Jehovah our God, lest he fall upon us with the pestilence, or with the sword. And the king of Egypt said unto them, Wherefore do ye, Moses and Aaron, loose the people from their works? get you unto your burdens."

"God ... hath met with us ..." Whether or not this refers merely to Moses and Aaron, or to the Hebrew people is indifferent, it was true either way. God had indeed met with the Hebrew people in the person of his two chosen representatives, Moses and Aaron. To view this statement as grounds for finding "separate sources" is as lame a proposition as any ever encountered.

"In the wilderness ... and sacrifice ..." It would have been impossible for the Hebrews to sacrifice to Jehovah in Egypt, because they sacrificed the very animals that the Egyptians worshipped! All kinds of riots and commotions would have followed any such action.

"Lest he fall upon us with the pestilence, or with the sword ..." Ellison properly discerned the skill and persuasiveness of this request. If God had indeed visited his people with either pestilence, or sword, the Egyptians themselves would have been most vitally affected.[11] Think, for example, how a fatal disease breaking out among the Israelites would also have quickly spread to the Egyptians, or how, in case of a war, Egypt herself would alone have been required to repel the invader.

"Wherefore do ye, Moses and Aaron, loose the people ...?" Pharaoh looked upon Moses and Aaron as mere rabble-rousers, labor leaders looking to improve working conditions. He considered them merely as his slaves and ordered them back to their burdens.

Verses 5-7

"And Pharaoh said, Behold, the people of the land are many, and ye make them rest from their burdens. And the same day Pharaoh commanded the taskmasters of the people, saying, Ye shall no more give the people straw to make bricks, which they did make heretofore: let them go and gather straw for themselves."

"The people of the land are many ..." There appears to be some disagreement among scholars as to the exact meaning of this, but, apparently, Johnson's suggestion that it means merely, "common working people"[12] is as good a rendition as any.

"The taskmasters of the people ..." There are no less than three classes of overseers mentioned in this chapter, and a differentiation among them is vital to the understanding of it. There are three different words used in the Hebrew, as follows:

  1. [~sarrey] [~massira], superintendents over major projects, and of high rank,

  2. [~nogeshim], subordinate overseers of various specific projects, and far more numerous, and

  3. [~shoterim] (rendered "officers") each group of slaves, numerous clerks-of-the works, who were recruited from among the Hebrews themselves, being therefore, Hebrews elevated over their own brethren, and thus enjoying special favors from Pharaoh.[13]

"Ye shall no more give the people straw ..." The ancient monuments in Egypt show bricks containing straw, and others without it. The straw apparently had two uses. It made the mud of which the bricks were made to be more easily handled, and also increased the stability of the brick before it was dried. Until this episode, Pharaoh's taskmasters had supplied the straw, but, here the cruel despot increased the rigor of their tasks by withholding straw, yet requiring the same number of bricks as formerly, requiring the people to go and gather their own straw! It was a cruel and unreasonable edict.

There is evident in this chapter a kind of schism in the ranks of Israel. "The elders of Israel had been instructed to go in with Moses before Pharaoh (Exodus 3:18). Where were they?[14] Their appeal a little later to Pharaoh in their own persons, instead of with Moses and Aaron, confirms the suspicion that they might have been among the special "officers" who enjoyed favors from the king, and who did not risk losing their petty positions by associating with Moses.

Verses 8-9

"And the number of the bricks, which they did make heretofore, ye shall lay upon them; ye shall not diminish aught thereof: for they are idle; therefore they cry, saying, Let us go and sacrifice to our God. Let heavier work be laid upon the men, that they may labor therein; and let them not regard lying words."

"The number of the bricks ..." In the KJV, this reads "the tale of bricks." "To tell" in Old English meant "to count." And the total was called the "tale."[15] (Compare our word "tally".) The counter of votes in the English Parliament is still called The Teller!

"And let them not regard lying words ..." By this order, Pharaoh called Moses and Aaron "liars," not only disbelieving them, but attempting also to destroy any faith that the Hebrews had in their words.

Robert Gordon, and others, have supposed that, "Pharaoh outmaneuvered Moses and Aaron at this first meeting,"[16] but we strongly disagree with this. On the surface, yes, of course, the first round in the conflict went to Pharaoh, but there were also some very significant developments favoring the ultimate success of the mission. See under Exodus 5:14.

Verses 10-14

"And the taskmasters of the people went out, and their officers, and they spake to the people, saying, Thus saith Pharaoh, I will not give you straw. Go yourselves, get you straw where ye can find it; for naught of your work shall be diminished. So the people were scattered abroad throughout all the land of Egypt to gather stubble for straw. And the taskmasters were urgent saying, Fulfill your works, your daily tasks, as when there was straw. And the officers of the children of Israel, whom Pharaoh's taskmasters had set over them, were beaten, and demanded, Wherefore have ye not fulfilled your task both yesterday and today; in making brick as heretofore?"

We shall not dwell upon the impossibility of what Pharaoh demanded, nor the futile efforts of the Hebrew officers to get the tasks accomplished by their brethren. They could not do it. Then the significant thing happened. Those Hebrew "officers" were beaten and made responsible for the failure. Very well, they would go to Pharaoh themselves and handle their grievances without regard to Moses and Aaron! The obsequious manner in which they attempted this is revealed in the next three verses. See under Exodus 5:18.

"To gather stubble for straw ..." "Stubble here is not what we know by that word, but includes all kinds of field rubbish ... To make this fit for making brick, it had to be gathered, chopped up, and sorted."[17] Also, the manner of harvesting wheat was that of cutting off the heads near the top, so there was indeed a great deal of straw in the open country.

Verses 15-18

"Then the officers of the children of Israel came and cried unto Pharaoh, saying, Wherefore dealest thou thus with thy servants? There is no straw given unto thy servants, and they say to us, Make brick: and, behold, thy servants are beaten; but the fault is in thine own people. But he said, Ye are idle, ye are idle: therefore ye say, Let us go and sacrifice to Jehovah. Go therefore now, and work; for there shall no straw be given you, yet shall ye deliver the number of bricks."

Note the cringing and servile manner of these Hebrew officers addressing Pharaoh: "Thy servants ... thy servants ... thy servants ...!" If they had hoped to negotiate a milder work situation by this interview, they were bitterly disappointed. Their attempt to "go around" Moses and Aaron had ended in disaster, but there was a tremendous plus in this for the ultimate purpose of their delivery. "The treatment of the clerks brought them into sympathy with their enslaved brethren. Israel closed ranks!"[18] This development was absolutely a prerequisite of their deliverance. God's plan was already working, however, it might have seemed otherwise at the time.

Verse 19

"And the officers of the children did see that they were in an evil case, when it was said, Ye shall not diminish aught from your bricks, yours daily tasks."

Pharaoh's refusal to believe his own petty officers shows that his charge of "idleness" was only an excuse. His hatred against God's people would be intensified and enforced with the most cruel reprisals against them. No wonder the "officers" faced the situation with fear and consternation. Their case was indeed "evil." However, it is apparent that Moses had anticipated the outcome of this maneuver on the part of some of the Israelites themselves, and appropriately was awaiting their return from Pharaoh's presence.

Verses 20-21

"And they met Moses and Aaron who stood in the way, as they came forth from Pharaoh: And they said unto them, Jehovah look upon you, and judge; because ye have made our savor to be abhorred in the eyes of Pharaoh, and in the eyes of his servants, to put a sword in their hand to slay us."

"Jehovah look upon you, and judge ..." As Keil commented:

"What perversity of the natural heart! They call upon God to judge, while by their very complaining they show that they have no confidence in God and his power to save."[19]

"You have made our savor (odor) to be abhorred in the eyes of Pharaoh ..." This is an amazing mixed metaphor. The eyes do not detect odors! Rawlinson surmised from this that the metaphor "in the eyes of" had already lost its original meaning and had rather the meaning of "in the respect of," or "in the opinion of."[20] The passage simply means, "Ye have made us to stink in the nostrils of Pharaoh!"

Verses 22-23

"And Moses returned unto Jehovah, and said, Lord, wherefore hast thou dealt with this people? why is it that thou hast sent me? For since I came to Pharaoh to speak in thy name, he hath dealt with this people; neither hast thou delivered thy people at all"

These are tragic words indeed. Not only were the people discouraged by the disastrous situation in which they found themselves, but Moses also was sorely oppressed by the thoughts which crowded into his mind. In that dark moment, however, Moses did what every child of God should do in like moments of frustration and doubt. He went straight to God with the problem.

"Moses returned unto Jehovah ..." "We are not to understand that Moses had forsaken God and now `returned' to him, but simply that in his trouble he had recourse to God, took his sorrow to the Throne of Grace, and poured it out before the Almighty."[21] Neither Moses nor the people, at that point in time, could see that real progress had already been made.

  1. There had been a very necessary unification of the people in that the "officers" were enrolled among the oppressed, along with all the people.

  2. By Pharaoh's refusing a perfectly reasonable and legitimate request of his workers to go sacrifice to their God, he firmly established himself as an unqualified enemy of God, and that, not upon the refusal of the preposterous proposition that he give up his entire nation of slaves completely, but by his refusal of a request which every intelligent person in Egypt recognized as reasonable and lawful. There had been no deception whatever in Moses' first request for the mere "three days" into the wilderness. God already knew what Pharaoh would do, and therefore allowed him to hang himself on the short rope instead of the long one! This first confrontation, therefore, set the stage and paved the way toward the ultimate, final, and total achievement of the purpose of God. The next confrontation would begin soon.

Copyright Statement
Coffman Commentaries reproduced by permission of Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. All other rights reserved.
Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Exodus 5". "Coffman Commentaries on the Bible". Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.