Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
Exodus 5:1 to Exodus 6:1. The application to the Pharaoh, and its failure. Exodus 5:1 to Exodus 6:1 is for its greater part a continuous narrative from J: but at the beginning v. 3 seems to be a doublet of v. 1, and (especially) v. 5 of v. 4; hence most critics refer vv. 1, 2, 4 to E.
And afterward Moses and Aaron went in, and told Pharaoh, Thus saith the LORD God of Israel, Let my people go, that they may hold a feast unto me in the wilderness.1. Jehovah, the God of Israel] elsewhere in the Pent. only Exodus 32:27 (E), also with Thus saith; cf. on Exodus 4:22.
make a pilgrimage] The Heb. ḥag means not simply a religious ‘feast’ like our Easter or Christmas, for instance, but a feast accompanied by a pilgrimage to a sanctuary: such as, for instance, were the three ‘ḥaggim,’ at which every male Israelite was to appear before Jehovah (Exodus 23:14-17). The corresponding word in Arabic, ḥaj, denotes the pilgrimage to Mecca, which every faithful Mohammedan endeavours to make at least once in his life.
1–5. Moses and Aaron ask permission of the Pharaoh for the Israelites to keep a three days’ feast in the wilderness. The request is refused.
And Pharaoh said, Who is the LORD, that I should obey his voice to let Israel go? I know not the LORD, neither will I let Israel go.2. The Pharaoh replies contemptuously that he knows nothing of Jehovah, and need not therefore listen to His behests.
And they said, The God of the Hebrews hath met with us: let us go, we pray thee, three days' journey into the desert, and sacrifice unto the LORD our God; lest he fall upon us with pestilence, or with the sword.3. The request itself, as far as ‘our God,’ is repeated almost verbatim from Exodus 3:18 (J). ‘God of the Hebrews’ is J’s standing expression (see the note ibid.); contrast ‘God of Israel,’ v. 1.
lest he fall upon us, &c.] for neglecting the duty laid upon us.
And the king of Egypt said unto them, Wherefore do ye, Moses and Aaron, let the people from their works? get you unto your burdens.4. The Pharaoh regards the pilgrimage as merely an excuse for a holiday; and bids Moses and Aaron no longer unsettle the people.
burdens] Exodus 1:11, Exodus 2:11.
And Pharaoh said, Behold, the people of the land now are many, and ye make them rest from their burdens.5. the people of the land] the common work-people; cf. Jeremiah 52:25. They are already sufficiently numerous; and idleness will unsettle them, and make them dangerous to their masters.
And Pharaoh commanded the same day the taskmasters of the people, and their officers, saying,6. the taskmasters] i.e. as in Exodus 3:7, the Egyptian superintendents of the labour-gangs (LXX., as there, ἐργοδιωκταί): so vv. 10, 13, 14.
officers] Heb. shôṭerim: here of minor officials appointed (see v. 14) by the Egyptian superintendents (the ‘taskmasters’) from among the Israelites themselves, and acting as the immediate overseers of the labour-gangs. If the word were really felt to mean writers (LXX. γραμματεῖς, ‘scribes’: cf. the footnote), they no doubt also kept lists of the workmen, and accounts of the work done. Elsewhere, as Numbers 11:16 Deuteronomy 1:15 (see the writer’s note there), Exodus 16:18, Exodus 20:5, the term is used of various minor judicial and military officials. The ‘taskmasters’ dealt directly, not with the labourers, but with these shôṭerim1.
 The proper meaning of shôṭerim is uncertain, the root not occurring in Heb. It may be writers (i.e. registrars), cf. the Ass. shaṭâru, to write; or it may be, from what is seemingly the primary sense of the root in Arabic, to range in order (cf. Arab. saṭara, to rule (a book), saṭr, a row), arrangers, organizers (cf. mishṭâr, Job 38:33, ‘ordered arrangement,’ ‘rule’).
6–9. The Pharaoh commands the Egyptian ‘taskmasters’ (whom he must be supposed—see v. 10—to have summoned to his presence) to increase the tasks imposed upon the Israelites: they are to find their straw themselves, and yet to make the same number of bricks. Bricks in Egypt (which in the earlier periods were much larger than our bricks, generally about 15 × 7 × 4½ in.) were made (on Exodus 1:14) from the mud of the Nile, mixed usually with chopped straw or reed, to give it coherence and prevent cracks while drying, and then dried in the sun (EB. i. 609; cf. L. and B. i. 165). These bricks remained black. Burnt red brick was first introduced into Egypt by the Romans.
Ye shall no more give the people straw to make brick, as heretofore: let them go and gather straw for themselves.
And the tale of the bricks, which they did make heretofore, ye shall lay upon them; ye shall not diminish ought thereof: for they be idle; therefore they cry, saying, Let us go and sacrifice to our God.8. tale] that which is told or counted: an archaism for ‘number’ (= Germ. Zahl). So v. 18, 1 Samuel 18:27, 1 Chronicles 9:28. Cf. Milton, L’Allegro, 67 f., ‘And every shepherd tells [i.e. counts: Psalm 48:12; Psalm 147:4] his tale [viz. of sheep] Under the hawthorn in the dale.’ The Heb. here means properly a rightly regulated amount.
therefore they cry, &c.] Their request to be allowed to make a pilgrimage to their God is merely a pretext for idleness.
Let there more work be laid upon the men, that they may labour therein; and let them not regard vain words.9. Let them be fully occupied with their work, and have no time to regard ‘lying words,’ as if God had really demanded a pilgrimage of them.
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.10. went out] viz. from the Pharaoh’s court.
10–12. The ‘taskmasters’ communicate the Pharaoh’s commands to the people.
Go ye, get you straw where ye can find it: yet not ought of your work shall be diminished.
So the people were scattered abroad throughout all the land of Egypt to gather stubble instead of straw.12. to gather stubble] which might be difficult to find, except immediately after the harvest.
And the taskmasters hasted them, saying, Fulfil your works, your daily tasks, as when there was straw.13. your daily tasks] Heb. the matter of a day in its day, a Heb. idiom implying a daily portion, amount, or duty. See Exodus 16:4, Leviticus 23:37 (RV. ‘each on its own day’), 1 Kings 8:59, 2 Kings 25:30 al.
demanded] i.e. asked. ‘Demand’ in Old English meant simply to ‘ask’ (Fr. demander), not, as now, to ask with authority. See Aldis Wright’s Bible Word-Book, or DB. s.v. So Job 38:3, 2 Samuel 11:7, Matthew 2:4, &c. Here ‘and demanded’ is a paraphrase, the Heb. being simply saying.
13–14. Although however the number of workers was thus materially diminished, the ‘taskmasters,’ carrying out the Pharaoh’s injunctions, still demand the same tale of bricks; and as it is not forthcoming, the ‘officers’ (v. 6) of the Israelites are held responsible for the deficit, and beaten.
And the officers of the children of Israel, which Pharaoh's taskmasters had set over them, were beaten, and demanded, Wherefore have ye not fulfilled your task in making brick both yesterday and to day, as heretofore?14. task] prescribed portion (or amount): cf. Proverbs 30:8 (RVm.), Exodus 31:15. Not as in v. 13, or as in ‘taskmasters’ (v. 6).
yesterday and to-day] i.e., by Heb. idiom, recently. So heretofore is lit. ‘yesterday and the third day’; cf., in the Hebrews , vv7, 8.
Then the officers of the children of Israel came and cried unto Pharaoh, saying, Wherefore dealest thou thus with thy servants?15–19. The officers of the Israelites expostulate with the Pharaoh, but to no effect. Cf. Erman, 177 (a complaint of the absence of straw).
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.16. they say] viz. the Egyptian ‘taskmasters.’
but the fault is in thine own people] The text cannot be right: not only is the Heb. ungrammatical, but the fault was not in the people, but in the king. It is better, adding one letter, to read with LXX. Pesh. Di. Bä. ‘and thou sinnest against thine own people,’ i.e. committest a wrong against thine own subjects, the Hebrews.
But he said, Ye are idle, ye are idle: therefore ye say, Let us go and do sacrifice to the LORD.17, 18. The king impatiently turns them away, repeating the charge of idleness which he had made before (v. 8), and insisting again that they must produce the same amount of bricks as before.
Go therefore now, and work; for there shall no straw be given you, yet shall ye deliver the tale of bricks.
And the officers of the children of Israel did see that they were in evil case, after it was said, Ye shall not minish ought from your bricks of your daily task.19. in evil case] in having to tell their people that there was to be no abatement from their daily task.
The description here given of Egyptian brick-making is well illustrated from the monuments. The accompanying illustration (given more completely in Wilk.-B. i. 344) from the tomb of Rekhmâra, vizier of Thothmes III (1503–1449 b.c.), at ‘Abd el-Ḳurnah, opposite to Luxor, represents Asiatic captives making bricks for the temple of Amon at Thebes. On the left we see men drawing water from a tank to moisten the mud: elsewhere there are men carrying the mud in baskets, kneading it with their feet, placing it in moulds (which would usually be stamped with the name of the reigning king), exposing the bricks to dry, piling them up in rows, and building a wall with them; in the lower picture we notice an Egyptian ‘taskmaster’ with hid rod. The gangs of slaves, or captives, engaged upon such work, were organized almost like an army: they were under the superintendence of ‘standard-bearers,’ chosen out of the Egyptian army (corresponding to the ‘taskmasters’ here), and they had also officers of their own (corresponding to the shôṭerim), who were responsible to the standard-bearers. See Erman, pp. 417 f., 128. At Tell el-Maskhuta, the site of Pithom (Exodus 1:11), M. Naville found bricks, some made with chopped straw or reed, and some without it (Pithom, p. 11b). Most Egyptian bricks, however, do not contain straw; and Petrie (Egypt and Israel, 30) think that the straw here asked for was for dipping the hand in, or sprinkling over the still soft bricks, that they might not stick.
And they met Moses and Aaron, who stood in the way, as they came forth from Pharaoh:20. stood in the way] stationed themselves to meet them.
20–21. On coming out from their audience with the Pharaoh, they meet Moses and Aaron; and blame them for being the cause of this aggravation of the people’s sufferings.
And they said unto them, The LORD look upon you, and judge; because ye have made our savour 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.21. Jehovah look upon you, and judge] not leave you unheeded and unpunished, for the evil you have brought upon the people.
made our savour to be abhorred, &c.] lit. made our savour to stink; as we should say, brought us into ill odour with: cf. Genesis 34:30; also, in the Heb., 1 Samuel 13:4, 2 Samuel 10:6 al.
to put, &c.] They have simply, by asking permission for the pilgrimage, given the Pharaoh an opportunity to ruin us.
And Moses returned unto the LORD, and said, Lord, wherefore hast thou so evil entreated this people? why is it that thou hast sent me?22–23. Moses expostulates with Jehovah; and asks why He has thus brought trouble upon His people, and sent Moses himself upon a fruitless mission.
entreated] an archaism for treated (ill-treated); so Genesis 12:16, Numbers 11:11, Deuteronomy 26:6 al. Elsewhere the same Heb. is rendered dealt ill with (Genesis 43:6), or brought evil upon (1 Kings 17:20).
For the colours of the original, the copper-coloured bodies and white loin-cloths of the men, and the blue water in the tank, &c., see Lepsius’ Denkmäler, v. 40. For the inscriptions accompanying the pictures, see the Introduction, p. xxxi.
For since I came to Pharaoh to speak in thy name, he hath done evil to this people; neither hast thou delivered thy people at all.23. neither, &c.] according to the promise, Exo Exodus 3:8.