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Bible Commentaries

Pett's Commentary on the Bible

Exodus 5

Introduction

The Commencement of The Contest Between Yahweh and Pharaoh In Egypt (Exodus 4:27 to Exodus 7:13 ).

Moses now meets up with Aaron and they go to Egypt to demand the release of Israel so that they may go into the wilderness and worship Yahweh. Pharaoh refuses their request and responds viciously.

a On arriving in Egypt Moses and Aaron perform their signs before the elders and begin their task in preparation for approaching Pharaoh (Exodus 4:27-31).

b They approach Pharaoh who turns on the people (Exodus 5:1-23)

c Yahweh responds to Pharaoh’s behaviour with a show of authority and power, providing His credentials, and promising to deliver His People (Exodus 6:1-9).

c Yahweh’s gives a charge to Moses and Aaron concerning the deliverance and details of Aaron’s credentials are provided as the head of Moses’ family (Exodus 6:10-30)

b After their first rebuff Moses and Aaron are to approach Pharaoh again (Exodus 7:1-5)

a They begin their task by performing the miracle of the staff becoming a snake, and their snake eats up the snakes of Egypt (Exodus 7:6-13)

Note the parallels. In ‘a’ Moses meets up with Aaron and they go to Egypt to demand the release of Israel so that they may go into the wilderness and worship Yahweh. Pharaoh refuses their request and responds viciously. In the parallel Yahweh by a sign reveals what He will do to Pharaoh if he remains intransigent. He too will act viciously. In ‘b’ Moses and Aaron approach Pharaoh who turns on the people, in the parallel, having been rebuffed they approach Pharaoh again. In ‘c’ Yahweh responds to Pharaoh’s behaviour with a show of authority and power, providing His credentials and promising to deliver His People, and in the parallel He gives a charge to Moses and Aaron to bring about this deliverance and Aaron’s credentials are provided as the head of Moses’ family.

Verses 1-4

The Situation Worsens (Exodus 5:1-23 ).

After the wonder of what they had seen probably all the parties involved considered that the future would be plain sailing. For who could resist such wonders? They had overlooked someone who thought of himself as a god and beyond being touched by men and their tribal gods.

The first Confrontation with Pharaoh (Exodus 5:1-4 ).

a Moses and Aaron come to Pharaoh and in the name of Yahweh, the God of Israel, request that he let them go to feast to Yahweh in the wilderness (Exodus 5:1).

b Pharaoh contemptuously asks who Yahweh is and says that he does not know Him (Exodus 5:2).

b They reply that He is the God of the Hebrews Who has met with them and called on them to make offerings and sacrifices in the wilderness (Exodus 5:3).

a The king of Egypt’s reply is to ask why they are seeking to release the people from their obligatory service and to demand that they return to their burdens (Exodus 5:4).

Note the parallel between (a) their desire to hold a religious feast to Yahweh and in the parallel the implication that their true service lies in slaving for the king of Egypt. His anger was probably aroused by the request that all may go. That would seriously hinder the building work being done. Permission might have been given to a few.

Exodus 5:1

‘And afterwards Moses and Aaron came and said to Pharaoh, “Thus says Yahweh, the God of Israel, ‘Let my people go that they may hold a feast to me in the wilderness.’ ” ’

Moses and Aaron now sought the privilege of approaching Pharaoh. There is no suggestion that Moses is seen as a prince or given special privileges. He and Aaron approach as representatives of the children of Israel and would need to go through all the necessary formalities. We know that even lowly slaves were permitted to appeal freely to Pharaoh, at least in the days of the Ramesside dynasty. Pharaoh probably liked to see himself as a father to his subjects.

“Yahweh, the God of Israel.” The children of Israel are now being depicted as a tribal grouping, Israel, and Yahweh is declared to be their God.

“A feast to me in the wilderness.” No doubt more was said than we have here. Pharaoh would be used to the flowery requests put before him by trained orators, and Aaron would no doubt follow the pattern (it was this that Moses had demurred at). But the end request was made that they be permitted to have a pilgrimage to the place where their God had revealed Himself, which would include a period of worship, followed by feasting, in the wilderness to honour the God Who had appeared to Moses in a great theophany in the wilderness.

Later it would also be pointed out that it was necessary to go out of sight of their Egyptian neighbours because they would be offended at the sacrifices offered by the Israelites at such a great feast (Exodus 8:26). For some of the animals slaughtered were seen as sacred by many Egyptians, and to see them killed would be to rouse them to extreme violence.

Exodus 5:2

‘And Pharaoh said, “Who is Yahweh that I should listen to his voice to let Israel go? I do not know Yahweh and moreover I will not let Israel go.”

That Pharaoh had been willing to see them indicates that their request, which would have been explained to high officials, was considered appropriate to be offered. But he refused to consider it, and replied with contempt.

“Who is Yahweh? --- I do not know Yahweh.” As a god and companion of the gods he indicated that Yahweh was an unknown among the gods. Certainly he did not acknowledge Him, for He was a nonentity. Why then should He listen to Him? His voice would be filled with contempt. He possibly recognised that this Yahweh must be a ‘God of the Hebrews’, but that was different from acknowledging Him and respecting Him. Then he came down to earth. ‘Moreover I will not let Israel go.’ His reply was final. It should be recognised that this revealed this Pharaoh as a particularly unyielding person. Many kings would have been willing to acknowledge the gods of their slaves even though they did not themselves worship them. To refute such gods was to display religious arrogance of an unusual kind. This might point to Amenophis IV as the Pharaoh, for he sought to restrict worship to the worship of Aten.

“I do not know Yahweh.” By this he probably meant that he did not acknowledge that He had any rights. As far as he was concerned Yahweh could be ignored.

“Israel”. Pharaoh usually thinks of the children of Israel as just ‘Israel’ (compare Exodus 14:5).

Exodus 5:3

‘And they said, “The God of the Hebrews has met with us. Let us go, we pray you, three days journey into the wilderness and sacrifice to Yahweh our God, lest he fall on us with pestilence and the sword.”

Courageously they pressed their request further to urge its crucial importance. ‘The God of the Hebrews has met with us.’ They assured him that there had been a wonderful theophany and that He had made certain demands on them. They dare not refuse, otherwise they may suffer pestilence and physical violence by the sword. Pharaoh might not acknowledge Yahweh but they did, and they were fearful of what He might do. It was widely believed that such afflictions resulted from not honouring gods sufficiently.

They possibly hoped that this would give Pharaoh pause for thought. Pestilence would affect his people as well and ‘the sword’ could only indicate an invasion. Significantly Goshen was near the Egyptian northern borders, the direction from which invasion would probably come, and from which the Hyksos had previously come. It was thus in everyone’s interest that the God of the Hebrews be propitiated.

“The God of the Hebrews.” An attempt to explain more of Whom Yahweh is. Pharaoh might not know who ‘Israel’ are, but he will know who ‘the Hebrews’ are. So they explain that Yahweh is their God. To Pharaoh ‘the Hebrews’ would equate with ‘the Habiru’, the landless and wild people who had no settled place, who gathered in bands and came out of the wilderness and even attacked cities, who worked in mines and many of whom he had now himself enslaved. The ‘prw, as the Egyptians called them, are mentioned in a number of Egyptian texts and range from fighting men in Canaan to captives employed as servants to strain wine, to prisoners given to the temples, to workers in the quarries of the Wadi Hammamat.

“Three days journey.” A stereotyped term. Not a great distance but sufficient to be able to reach ‘the wilderness’ proper. It could be less than two actual days (an evening, a day and a part morning) They did not want the request to sound too demanding. They would only be gone a short time.

Exodus 5:4

‘And the king of Egypt said to them, “Why do you, Moses and Aaron, loose the people from their works. Get you to your burdens.”

As we have seen constantly, the ancient writer liked to use variety when writing, thus here ‘Pharaoh’, the father of his people, now becomes the stern ‘king of Egypt’. It is not as ‘father’ of his people that he speaks but as the despotic king. He had now lost patience with them and accused them of simply trying to find an excuse to avoid working, to obtain for the people a holiday. He commanded that they cease such foolishness and get down to the tasks assigned to them. Their loyalty lay in serving him. That was where their true religious service lay.

It should be noted that at this point no signs and wonders had been shown to Pharaoh. The appeal had been made to him on the basis of common justice and seeking the favour that would be expected from a just ruler. Pharaoh had been given his chance to prove himself just and wise.

“Moses and Aaron.” The fact that Moses and Aaron are mentioned together in this way suggests that Moses has approached as a representative of the children of Israel rather than as a prince of Egypt. The latter thought never appears at any stage. It was probably better that Pharaoh did not know who he was.

“The king of Egypt.” This is an indication of what Pharaoh is. In comparison with Yahweh he is only the king of Egypt, an earthly monarch with a limited kingdom.

Verses 5-19

Pharaoh’s Vindictive Response to Their Approach (Exodus 5:5-19 ).

a Pharaoh says, the people of the land are many and you make them rest from their burdens (Exodus 5:5).

b Pharaoh commands officers and taskmaster not to give straw to the people, they must gather straw for themselves (Exodus 5:6-7).

c But the tally of bricks produced must not diminish because they are idle in seeking to sacrifice to their God (Exodus 5:8).

d Heavier work is to be laid on the people so that they do not listen to lying words (Exodus 5:9).

e The officers and taskmasters of Egypt explain that Pharaoh has said, ‘Do not give them straw’. (Exodus 5:10).

f They are to get straw where they can but their tally must not be diminished (Exodus 5:11).

f The people scatter through the land to get stubble for use as straw (where they can), and the taskmasters say, ‘fulfil you daily quotas as when there was straw’ (Exodus 5:13).

e The officers of the children of Israel are beaten and asked why they have not produced their quotas on the same level as before. They complain to Pharaoh that they are not given straw (Exodus 5:14-16 a).

d They complain to Pharaoh that they are expected to make bricks, and are beaten whereas the fault lies with his people (as a result of being made to work more heavily) (Exodus 5:15-16).

c He replies that they are idle which is why they seek to sacrifice to Yahweh (Exodus 5:17).

b They are therefore to go and work and no straw is to be given to them, although they must still deliver their quotas (Exodus 5:18).

a The officers of the children of Israel recognise their evil situation when they are told that they must fulfil their daily quotas (Exodus 5:19).

Note that in ‘a’ it is Pharaoh’s case that they are seeking a relatively easy time, while in the parallel it is the case of the officers of the children of Israel that their situation is evil. In ‘b’ Pharaoh commands the Egyptian officers and taskmaster not to give straw to the people, they must gather straw for themselves, while in the parallel they are to go and work and no straw is to be given to them, although they must still deliver their quotas. In ‘c’ Pharaoh insists that the tally of bricks must be maintained because they are idle, as revealed by their desire to go and offer sacrifices, while in the parallel he replies that they are idle which is why they seek to sacrifice to Yahweh. In ‘d’ heavier work is to be laid on the people so that they do not listen to lying words, while in the parallel they are beaten because heavier work is laid on them by forcing them to make bricks and collect the straw for themselves, so that the fault lies with the Egyptians. In ‘e’ the officers and taskmasters of Egypt explain to the children of Israel that Pharaoh has said, ‘Do not give them straw’, while in the parallel the officers of the children of Israel are beaten and asked why they have not produced their quotas on the same level as before, at which they complain to Pharaoh that they are not given straw. In ‘f’ they are told that they are to get straw where they can but their tally must not be diminished, while in the parallel the people scatter through the land to get stubble for use as straw where they can, and the taskmasters say, ‘fulfil you daily quotas as when there was straw’ (they must not be diminished).

Exodus 5:5

‘And Pharaoh said, “Behold, the people of the land are now many, and you make them rest from their burdens.” ’

“The people of the land.” An interesting term. It is clear that the children of Israel were now seen as permanent residents in Goshen, and possibly constituted the majority. They are said to be ‘many’. Had they been but a few permission might have been granted, but such permission here would result in almost total cessation of work on Pharaoh’s projects.

Pharaoh’s complaint is that Moses and Aaron are making the people rest from their burdens. In other words they are making cultic activity an excuse for not fulfilling their responsibilities.

Exodus 5:6

‘And the same day Pharaoh commanded the taskmasters of the people, and their administrative scribes, saying, “You shall no more give the people straw to make brick, as you have done before. Let them go and gather straw for themselves. And the recorded requirement of bricks which they made previously, you shall require of them. You shall not diminish any of it, for they are idle. That is why they cry, saying, ‘Let us go and sacrifice to our god’.”

Pharaoh now demonstrated his view of the situation. Their request was not one made from genuine religious motives, but in order to dodge work. They must therefore be taught a lesson that they would not forget. He would not have had any real knowledge of their struggles to survive or of their hardships. He would simply have judged them by the standards of himself and his palace officials. It was a similar attitude to that of Catherine the Great of Russia, who when told of the shortage of bread in Russia so that the people were starving, said, ‘Let them eat cake’. She thought that they were just being pernickety. She had no idea of the sparse conditions under which they lived and that to them cake was something that was totally unheard of. In the same way this Pharaoh had his eyes closed to the real conditions under which the Israelites lived, and reacted accordingly. This whole attitude would tie in with someone like Amenophis IV whose whole sense of religion was concentrated on one god, and considered all other worship to be sacrilege. (But while he worshipped Aten he did not withdraw the worship of himself. His people worshipped Aten through him). On the other hand it could have been true of any Pharaoh who despised gods other than those of Egypt.

Straw was required to make the bricks, probably to act as a binding agent. This has been confirmed by the examination of Egyptian brickwork. The bricks were made of Nile mud mixed with the straw and were made in frames or moulds and then left to dry in the sun. But the people were now to be required to gather the straw themselves and yet maintain the level of production. (They do not, as suggested by some commentators, make bricks without straw at any stage). An interesting supporting comment is found in an Egyptian papyrus in which a man, who had to supervise or construct a building, said, "I am not provided with anything. There are no men for making bricks, and there is no straw in the district."

“The taskmasters -- the administrative scribes.” These are the "nogesim" and the "shoteray". Usually these are translated as "taskmasters" and "officers". However, from Egyptian pictures it is possible to determine the functions of these two officials. The first one was actually a driver or a presser, and this corresponds to the Egyptian word for "overseer", the one who supervised the men at work and oppressed them to his heart's content, even flogging them if he so desired. The other word is shoteray, and is derived from the word "shatar", which probably refers to writing and involves scribes. They had complete control over the construction, and of the bondsmen themselves, including their food and other particulars. They also had control over the supply of bricks and absenteeism. Some of the latter, if not all, were in this case Israelite officials appointed by the taskmasters (Exodus 5:15).

We must not be deceived by the fact that the people of Israel were slaves. In fact all Egyptians were slaves to Pharaoh as well. He was a god to them and his position had been firmly established in the time of the great famine (Genesis 47:20). Furthermore many foreign slaves would be employed in high places and hold powerful positions. But the majority of the people of Israel were not in that happy position, although some may well have been.

“The recorded requirement of bricks.” This literally involves the measuring of the bricks. The practical Egyptian did not count the bricks, but laid them in rows and measured them to assess the space they would fill in a building. Their facility with numbers was limited.

“For they are idle.” This was the common excuse for making unreasonable demands in order to obtain more work and larger production from slaves. Up to now the labour of the children of Israel had been harsh but bearable. We read elsewhere that they were able to cultivate their own plots of ground (Deuteronomy 11:10); to raise crops of cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic (Numbers 11:5); to catch fish (Numbers 11:5); and to attend public meetings (Exodus 4:30-31), although much might have been done by the womenfolk.

Now the pressure would come on them which would take them beyond the limit. In Pharaoh’s view the reason that they were able to ask for time off was because they were not working full out. He would not take their desire to worship their God seriously. The well-to-do, who would shudder at the thought of doing such work themselves, and who live for enjoyment, have always very easily characterised working people who wanted some enjoyment for themselves as idle.

Exodus 5:9

“Let heavier work be laid on the men that they may toil in it, and let them not regard lying words.”

In future the men were to be made to sweat even more, so that they would become really exhausted, and they were to be warned against accepting their leaders ‘lying tales’ which he saw as just an excuse to avoid work, and as coming from troublemakers.

Exodus 5:10-12

‘And the taskmasters of the people went out, and their administrative scribes, and they spoke to the people, saying, “Thus says Pharaoh, ‘I will not give you straw. Go yourselves, obtain yourselves straw wherever you can find it, for none of your required workload shall be diminished’ .” So the people were scattered abroad throughout all the land of Egypt to gather stubble for straw.’

The people were informed of Pharaoh’s decision, and they had to start looking for stubble to replace the straw which had previously been provided. All the straw in the fields had obviously been gathered in. Thus it was a matter of searching for stubble and then cutting it up to make it suitable for making bricks. And the extra time spent was not taken into account when deciding production levels

“Throughout all the land of Egypt.” It would seem possible that the decision affected not only the children of Israel but Habiru slaves throughout Egypt. Alternately the phrase might be a deliberate exaggeration to bring out how wide their search had to be and to emphasise the difficulties involved.

Exodus 5:13

‘And the taskmasters pressed them hard saying, “Fulfil your works, your daily tasks, as when there was straw.”

The Egyptian taskmasters had no pity, indeed it was their responsibility to ensure that the quotas were fulfilled lest they be punished. So they reacted by greater severity. There was to be no lessening of the number of bricks produced.

Exodus 5:14

‘And the administration scribes of the children of Israel, whom Pharaoh’s taskmasters had set over them, were beaten severely, and were asked, “Why have you not fulfilled your assignment both yesterday and today in making the same amount of bricks as previously?” ’

Thus in the end the buck fell on the middlemen, the Israelite administrative scribes responsible for general management, and they were beaten severely because the quotas were not fulfilled and were asked why they had not fulfilled them in the way that they had previously.

Exodus 5:15-16

‘Then the administrative scribes of the children of Israel came and cried to Pharaoh, saying, “Why do you deal with your servants in this way? There is no straw given to your servants, and they say to us, ‘Make brick’, and behold your servants are beaten, but the fault is in your own people.” ’

The managers professed that they could not believe that it was Pharaoh who had given the orders because they were so unreasonable, and they sought to blame the taskmasters, Pharaoh’s ‘own people’. Instead of ‘the fault is in your own people’ LXX and Syriac read ‘and you will be guilty of a wrong against your own people’ but the Massoretic text fits better psychologically. It would not have been wise for them to accuse Pharaoh directly.

Exodus 5:17-18

‘But he said, “You are idle, you are idle, that is why you say ‘Let us go and sacrifice to Yahweh.’ Go therefore now and toil, for no straw will be given to you, yet you will deliver the expected quantity of bricks.” ’

Pharaoh’s reply was uncompromising. Notice the repetition. It expressed his animosity He stated that it was clear to him that they did not have enough to do or they would not have made the request to go and worship this Yahweh. Therefore they must carry on without being provided with straw and make sure they fulfilled their quota. ‘Go -- and toil.’ he knew that what was being asked of them was difficult, but considered that they had deserved it.

Exodus 5:19

‘And the administrative scribes of the children of Israel saw that they were in a dreadful position (literally ‘an evil’) when it was said, “You shall not diminish anything from your bricks, your daily tasks”.’

Understandably the administrative scribes, the managers, felt let down. Moses and Aaron had taken on themselves (that was how they now saw it) to approach Pharaoh with their suggestion and now they, the managers, were paying for it. They called on Yahweh to judge, in view of the consequences, whether Moses and Aaron had been right to do what they did. It was a bitter request and heartfelt.

Verses 20-23

The Complaint of the Administrative Scribes of the Children of Israel (Exodus 5:20 to Exodus 6:1 ).

a As they leave the presence of Pharaoh the administrative scribes meet Moses and Aaron, and ask that Yahweh will look on Moses and Aaron and judge them for making the children of Israel an abhorrence to Pharaoh and his servants so that they are treating them so badly (Exodus 5:20-21).

b Moses returns to Yahweh and asks Him why He has treated His people so badly and what purpose He had in sending him (Exodus 5:22)

b For, he points out, since he has spoken to Pharaoh in Yahweh’s name His people are being even more ill-treated, nor had Yahweh delivered them as He promised (Exodus 5:23).

a Yahweh replies that he will now see what He intends to do to Pharaoh, and He will do it with such a strong hand that (it will be an abhorrence to Pharaoh and) he will let them go, no, will be so affected that he will even drive them out of his land by a strong hand (Exodus 6:1).

In ‘a’ The administrative scribes of Israel leave the presence of Pharaoh, in the parallel they will be driven out by him. Their complaint is that they have been made an abhorrence to Pharaoh, and Yahweh’s reply is essentially that they will become such an abhorrence to Pharaoh that he will want to get rid of them. In ‘b’ Moses returns to Yahweh and asks Him why He has treated His people so badly and what purpose He had in sending him, while in the parallel he points out that since he has spoken to Pharaoh in Yahweh’s name His people are being even more ill-treated, nor had Yahweh delivered them as He promised.

Exodus 5:20-21

‘And they met Moses and Aaron who stood in the way as they came out from Pharaoh, and they said to them, “Yahweh look on you and judge, for you have made our odour abhorred in the eyes of Pharaoh, and in the eyes of his servants, to put a sword in their hand to kill us.’

The administrative scribes now charge Moses and Aaron with having made things much worse. They call on Yahweh Himself to pass judgment on them because they have made the name of Israel abhorred in Pharaoh’s mind so that they themselves (the scribes) are under the threat of execution.

“They met Moses and Aaron.” Moses and Aaron had been waiting anxiously to find out what response Pharaoh would give to the pleas of the managers.

“To put a sword in their hand to kill us.” Not literally, but figuratively. They would be killed by the strain of impossible demands and the consequent severe punishments. It may, however, be that the overseers had even had to resort to swords because of their resistance, or that there were threats of summary execution.

Exodus 5:22-23

‘And Moses returned to Yahweh and said, “Lord, why have you treated this people so badly? Why is it that you sent me? For since I came to Pharaoh to speak in your name he has treated this people badly, nor have you delivered your people at all.”

Moses was baffled. Why had God sent him if this was to be the result? He had come at Yahweh’s command and yet God was seemingly standing by and doing nothing. Indeed in view of the fact that as a consequence the people were being ill treated even more by Pharaoh, that ill treatment could be laid at His door.

Note for Christians.

What happened to Moses and Israel, will often happen in our lives. When we pray God does not always deliver from trials immediately. He has greater purposes to work than we can ever know. Things may seem to be getting worse day by day, but we can be sure of this, that if we have committed our cause into His hands, our deliverance is sure. But it will be easier for us if instead of fighting Him we trust Him for our future. For then we will both enjoy His presence now and His deliverance when it comes. ‘In quietness and confidence shall be your strength’ (Isaiah 30:15).

End of note.

Exodus 6:1

‘And Yahweh said to Moses, “Now you will see what I will do to Pharaoh, for by a strong hand will he let them go, and by a strong hand will he drive them out of his land.” ’

Yahweh’s reply is, ‘you wait and see what I will do’. And He promises that Pharaoh will be made to listen under Yahweh’s strong hand, so much so that he himself will drive the people out with a strong hand.

“By a strong hand.” In Exodus 3:19 ‘the mighty hand’ refers to Yahweh. Compare also Exodus 13:3 ‘by strength of hand Yahweh brought you out of this place’ (see also Exodus 13:9; Exodus 13:14; Exodus 13:16). This would suggest that the strong hand which would move Pharaoh must be that of Yahweh, for Yahweh was about to exert His power against him. By it He would reveal that He truly was Yahweh, ‘the One Who is there’. So we may paraphrase, ‘by means of a strong hand will Yahweh make him let them go and by a strong hand will Yahweh make him drive them out of his land.’ Others, however, refer it to Pharaoh’s strong hand seeing it as representing the forcefulness with which Pharaoh will make them depart.

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Bibliographical Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Exodus 5". "Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/pet/exodus-5.html. 2013.