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Bible Commentaries
Exodus 5

Dr. Constable's Expository NotesConstable's Expository Notes


B. God’s demonstrations of His sovereignty chs. 5-11

God permitted the conflict between Moses and Pharaoh for five reasons at least.

1. In this conflict God displayed His superior power and sovereignty over Pharaoh and the gods of Egypt.

2. God strengthened the faith of His people so that they would trust and obey Him and thereby realize all of His gracious purposes for them as a nation.

3. God also used these events to heighten anticipation of and appreciation for the redemption He would provide. The Israelites would forever after look back on the Exodus as the greatest demonstration of God’s love at work for them.

These conflicts show how divine sovereignty works with human freedom. God exercises His sovereignty by allowing people a measure of freedom to make choices, for which he holds them responsible.

They also clarify how God hands people over to the consequences of the sins they insist on pursuing as punishment for their sins.

"It is impossible to find a more exact illustration of the truth of Rom. i. than that presented in this story of Pharaoh’s conflict with Jehovah." [Note: Ibid., p. 90.]

Verse 1

1. Pharaoh’s response to Moses and Aaron’s initial request 5:1-6:1

Verses 1-9

At Moses and Aaron’s first audience with Pharaoh they simply presented God’s command (Exodus 5:1). [Note: For an introduction to Liberation Theology, see Wolf, pp. 130-31.] They did not perform miracles but asked for permission to leave Egypt.

The Israelites could have worshipped the gods of Egypt in the land, but they had to leave Egypt to worship a non-Egyptian God. Moses’ request was a request to exercise a basic human right, namely, freedom of worship.

"Exodus 5:1-5 introduces another aspect of labour in Egypt: claims for time off work, and specifically for worship or religious holidays. On this topic, useful background comes from the extensive, fragmentary and often very detailed records kept for the activities of the royal workmen (who lived at the Deir el-Medina village), who cut the royal tombs in the Valleys of the Kings and Queens in Western Thebes, c. 1530-1100 B.C.

"Daily notes were kept for the men’s attendances at work or of their absences from it. Sometimes reasons for absence are given. . . . The entire workforce might be off for up to 8 or 14 days, especially if interruptions, official holidays and ’weekends’ came together. In Ancient Egypt-as elsewhere-major national festivals (usually main feasts of chief gods) were also public holidays. Then, each main city had its own holidays on main feasts of the principal local god(s). Besides all this, the royal workmen at Deir el-Medina can be seen claiming time off for all kinds of reasons, including ’offering to his god,’ ’(off) for his feast’; even ’brewing for his feast’ or for a specific deity. Not only individuals but groups of men together could get time off for such observances. And a full-scale feast could last several days.

"What was true in Thebes or Memphis would apply equally at Pi-Ramesse (Raamses). So, when Moses requested time off from Pharaoh, for the Hebrews to go off and celebrate a feast to the Lord God, it is perhaps not too surprising that Pharaoh’s reaction was almost ’not another holiday!’" [Note: Kenneth Kitchen, "Labour Conditions in the Egypt of the Exodus," Buried History (September 1984):47-48.]

Pharaoh was not only the king of Egypt, but the Egyptians regarded him as a divine person; he was a god (Exodus 5:2). [Note: See Frankfort, ch. 2: "The Egyptian State."] Consequently when Moses and Aaron asked Pharaoh to accede to the command of Yahweh, Pharaoh saw this request as a threat to his sovereignty. He knew (i.e., had respect for) the gods of Egypt, but he did not know (have respect for) Yahweh, the God of his foreign slaves. If Yahweh had identified Himself with these slaves, and if He had not already delivered them, why should Pharaoh fear and obey Him?

"It required no ordinary daring to confront the representative of a long line of kings who had been taught to consider themselves as the representatives and equals of the gods. They were accustomed to receive Divine titles and honours, and to act as irresponsible despots. Their will was indisputable, and all the world seemed to exist for no other reason than [to] minister to their state." [Note: Meyer, p. 88.]

"These words ["Who is the LORD that I should obey His voice to let Israel go? I do not know the LORD . . ."] form the motivation for the events that follow, events designed to demonstrate who the Lord is.

"Thus as the plague narratives begin, the purpose of the plagues is clearly stated: ’so that the Egyptians will know that I am the LORD’ (Exodus 7:5). Throughout the plague narratives we see the Egyptians learning precisely this lesson (Exodus 8:19; Exodus 9:20; Exodus 9:27; Exodus 10:7). As the narratives progress, the larger purpose also emerges. The plagues which God had sent against the Egyptians were ’to be recounted to your son and your son’s son . . . so that you may know that I am the LORD.’" [Note: Sailhamer, The Pentateuch . . ., pp. 249-50.]

"The point is clear from the chapter: when the people of God attempt to devote their full service and allegiance to God, they encounter opposition from the world." [Note: The NET Bible note on 5:1.]

In their second appeal to Pharaoh, Moses and Aaron used milder terms (Exodus 5:3). They presented themselves not as ambassadors of Yahweh but as representatives of their brethren. They did not mention the name "Yahweh," that was unknown to Pharaoh, or "Israel," that would have struck him as arrogant. They did not command but requested ("Please . . ."). Moreover they gave reasons for their request: their God had appeared to them, and they feared His wrath if they disobeyed Him.

"Moses . . . appealed to him [Pharaoh] almost precisely as, centuries after, Paul addressed the assembly on Mars Hill . . . [cf. Acts 17:22-23]." [Note: Meyer, p. 107.]

The Egyptians regarded the sacrifices that the Israelites would offer as unacceptable since almost all forms of life were sacred in Egypt. They believed their gods manifested themselves through cows, goats, and many other animals.

"The Egyptians considered sacred the lion, the ox, the ram, the wolf, the dog, the cat, the ibis, the vulture, the falcon, the hippopotamus, the crocodile, the cobra, the dolphin, different varieties of fish, trees, and small animals, including the frog, scarab, locust, and other insects. In addition to these there were anthropomorphic gods; that is, men in the prime of life such as Annen, Atum, or Osiris." [Note: William Ward, The Spirit of Ancient Egypt, p. 123.]

"Where did Moses get the idea that they should have a pilgrim feast and make sacrifices? God had only said they would serve Him in that mountain. In the OT the pilgrim feasts to the sanctuary three times a year incorporated the ideas of serving the LORD and keeping the commands. So the words here simply use the more general idea of appearing before their God. And, they would go to the desert because there was no homeland yet. Only there could they be free." [Note: The NET Bible note on 5:3.]

Pharaoh’s reply to Moses and Aaron’s second appeal was even harsher than his response to their first command (Exodus 5:5; cf. Exodus 5:1). Their aggressive approach may have been what God used to cause Pharaoh to harden his heart initially.

Verses 11-21

Stubble was the part of the corn or grain stalk that remained standing after field hands had harvested a crop (Exodus 5:12). This the Israelites chopped up and mixed with the clay to strengthen their bricks.

"In Exodus 2:23 the cry of the people went up before God. By contrast, here in Exodus 5:15 the cry of the people is before Pharaoh. It is as if the author wants to show that Pharaoh was standing in God’s way and thus provides another motivation for the plagues which follow." [Note: Sailhamer, The Pentateuch . . ., p. 250.]

"This Pharaoh, so unreasonable with men and so stingy with straw, is about to be shown up before Yahweh as no more than a man of straw." [Note: Durham, p. 66.]

The Israelites turned on Moses just as the Israelites in Jesus’ day turned against their Savior.

"The Lord God brought a vine out of Egypt, but during the four hundred years of its sojourn there, it had undeniably become inveterately degenerate and wild." [Note: Meyer, p. 18.]

Moses’ prayer of inquiry and complaint reveals the immaturity of his faith at this time. He, too, needed the demonstrations of God’s power that followed.

"By allowing us to listen to Moses’ prayer to God, the author uncovers Moses’ own view of his calling. It was God’s work, and Moses was sent by God to do it." [Note: Sailhamer, The Pentateuch . . ., p. 250.]

This section climaxes with the apparent failure of Yahweh’s plan to rescue Israel. This desperate condition provides the pessimistic backdrop for the supernatural demonstrations of Yahweh’s power that follow.

Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Exodus 5". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/dcc/exodus-5.html. 2012.
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