Exodus 5
Pulpit Commentary
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.
Verse 1. - And afterward. The interposition of some not inconsiderable space of time seems to be implied. Menephthah resided partly at Memphis, partly at Zoan (Tanis). Moses and Aaron may have had to wait until he returned from his southern to his northern capital. Moses and Aaron went in, and told Pharaoh. Aaron was, no doubt, the sole spokesman, but as he spoke for both, the plural is used. Thus saith the Lord God of Israel. Literally, "Thus saith Jehovah, God of Israel." Pharaoh would understand Jehovah to be a proper name, parallel to his own Phthah, Ra, Ammon, etc. Let my people go. The rationale of the demand is given in ch. 8:26. The Israelites could not offer their proper sacrificial animals in the presence of the Egyptians without the risk of provoking a burst of religious animosity, since among the animals would necessarily be some which all, or many, of the Egyptians regarded as sacred, and under no circumstances to be killed. The fanaticism of the Egyptians on such occasions led to wars, tumults, and massacres. (See Plutarch, 'De Isid. et Osir.,' § 44.) To avoid this danger the "feast" must be held beyond the bounds of Egypt - in the adjacent "wilderness."
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.
Verse 2. - And Pharaoh said, Who is the Lord? Rather, "Who is Jehovah?" Either Pharaoh is actually ignorant, or he pretends to be. The former is possible, since Jehovah was a name but little employed, until the return of Moses to Egypt. The latter, however, is more probable. That I should obey his voice. Why am I to obey his voice? What is your Jehovah to me? What authority has he over me? He is, at best, your god, not mine. I know not Jehovah. I acknowledge him not. He is not within the range of my Pantheon. Neither will I let Israel go, i.e. "nor even, if he were, would I consent to such a request as this from him." The Pharaohs assumed to be themselves gods, on a par with the national gods, and not bound to obey them.
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.
Verse 3. - And they said. Moses and Aaron are not abashed by a single refusal. They expostulate, and urge fresh reasons why Pharaoh should accede to their request. But first they explain that Jehovah is the God of the Hebrews, by which name the Israelites seem to have been generally known to the Egyptians (See Exodus 1:15, 16, 19; Exodus 2:6, 7.) Their God, they say, has met with them - made, that is. a special revelation of himself to them - an idea quite familiar to the king, and which he could not pretend to misunderstand and he has laid on them an express command. They are to go a three days' journey into the desert - to be quite clear of interruption from the Egyptians. Will not Pharaoh allow them to obey the order? If they do not obey it, their God will be angry, and will punish them, either by sending a pestilence among them, or causing an invader to fall upon them with the sword. The eastern frontier of Egypt was at this time very open to invasion, and was actually threatened by a vast army some ten or fifteen years later (Brugsch, 'History of Egypt,' vol. 2, pp. 147-9).
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.
Verse 4. - The king makes no direct reply to this appeal, but turns upon his petitioners, and charges them with an offence against the crown. Why do they, Moses and Aaron, by summoning the people to meet together, and exciting their minds with vague hopes, "let the people from their works." This is damage to the crown, whoso labourers the people are, and he, the Pharaoh, will not have it. "Get you - all of you, people and leaders together - to your appointed tasks - your burdens."
And Pharaoh said, Behold, the people of the land now are many, and ye make them rest from their burdens.
Verse 5. - The people are many. This is added as an aggravation of the offence charged in the last verse. The people are numerous. Therefore the greater damage is done to the crown by putting a stop to their labours. With these words the first interview between the Israelite leaders and the Egyptian monarch ends. Moses and Aaron, we must suppose, retired discomfited from the royal presence.

And Pharaoh commanded the same day the taskmasters of the people, and their officers, saying,
Verses 6-9. - Rulers are not always content simply to refuse inconvenient demands. Sometimes they set to work with much ingenuity and worldly wisdom to prevent their repetition. This is especially the case where they entertain a fear of their petitioners. The Spartans removed Helots, who had earned their freedom, by the Crypteia. The massacre of St. Bartholomew was caused by the Huguenot demand for freedom of worship and the difficulty of repressing it. The Pharaoh now is not content to let things take their course, but devises a plan by which he hopes to crush altogether the aspirations of the Hebrew people, and secure himself against the recurrence of any such appeal as that which had been made to him by Moses and Aaron. The Israelites had recently been employed chiefly in brickmaking. They had had to dig the clay and temper it, to mix it with straw, and mould it into the form of bricks; but the straw had been supplied to them. The king determined that this should be no longer done; the Israelites should find the straw for themselves. It has been estimated that by this change their labour was "more than doubled." (Canon Cook.) It was a not unreasonable expectation that under this system popular meetings would cease (ver. 9); and that Moses and Aaron, not being backed up by the voice of the people, would discontinue their agitation. Verse 6. - The same day. Pharaoh lost no time. Having conceived his idea, he issued his order at once-on the very day of the interview with the two leaders. It would be well if the children of light were as "wise" and as energetic on all occasions as the children of darkness. Taskmasters and officers. The word translated "taskmaster" here is not the same as the expression similarly rendered in Exodus 1:11; and it is thought not to designate the same class. The sarey massim of the former passage are thought to be general superintendents of works, few in number and of high rank, the nogeshim of the present place to be subordinates, numerous and inferior in position. Both of these classes were probably Egyptians. The "officers" (shoterim) were undoubtedly Hebrews. They were especially employed in keeping the tale of the bricks, and seeing that they reached the proper amount. Literally, the word shoterim means "scribes," and is so rendered in most passages.
Ye shall no more give the people straw to make brick, as heretofore: let them go and gather straw for themselves.
Verse 7. - Straw to make brick. Straw was used in Egypt to bind together the clay, or mud, which was, of course, the main material of the bricks. (See Wilkinson, in the author's 'Herodotus,' vol. 2. p. 2130 It is usually chopped into small pieces. Let them go and gather straw. This would involve the leaving of the brickfields, and the scattering of the people over the harvest-grounds, where alone they would be able to find straw in any quantity. There are so many harvests in Egypt, that straw would perhaps be obtainable somewhere during the greater part of the year.
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.
Verse 8. - The tale of the bricks - i.e., the number of the bricks. Exactly as many were to be required of each batch of workmen under the new regulation as previously. The demand was one with which, as the king well know, it would be impossible to comply. For they be idle. There was so much ground for the charge as this - that hitherto, their forced labours had not occupied the whole of their time. They had been able, apparently, 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 (ibid.), and attend public meetings (Exodus 4:30, 31). They had, in fact, had time which they could call their own. Now this was to be so no more. The Pharaoh, however, misrepresents and exaggerates, speaking as if their forced labours had been a mere nothing, and mere want of occupation had led them to raise the cry - "Let us go and sacrifice." It would have been far nearer the truth to say, that the severity and continuousness of their labours had made the notion of festival time, during which they would cease from their toils, generally popular.
Let there more work be laid upon the men, that they may labour therein; and let them not regard vain words.
Verse 9. - Let there more work be laid upon the men. Rather, as in the margin, "Let the work be heavy upon the men." Let the tasks set them be such as to occupy all their time, and not leave them any spare moments in which they may be tempted to listen to mischievous talkers, like Moses and Aaron) who flatter them with vain (literally, lying, words. Pharaoh, no doubt, imagined that the hopes raised by the two brothers were vain and illusive. He was utterly blind as to the course which events were about to take.

CHAPTER 5:10-14
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.
Verses 10-14. - The command of Pharaoh gone forth - no straw was to be provided for the Israelites, they were themselves to gather straw. The taskmasters could not soften the edict; they could only promulgate it (vers. 10, 11). And the Israelites could only choose between rebelling and endeavouring to obey. To rebel seemed hopeless; Moses and Aaron did not advise rebellion, and so the attempt was made to carry out Pharaoh's behest (ver. 12). But experience proved that obedience to it was impossible. Though the people did their best, and the native officers set over them did their best, and the Egyptian taskmasters hurried them on as much as possible (ver. 13), the result was that the tale of bricks fell short. Then, according to a barbarous practice said to be even now not unknown in Egypt (Kalisch), the native officers who Had not delivered in the appointed "tale of bricks" were bastinadoed, suffering agonies for no fault of their own (ver. 16), but because the people Had been set an impossible task. Verse 10. - The taskmasters... went out, i.e. quitted the royal palace to which they Had been summoned (ver. 6), and proceeded to the places where the people worked. The vicinity of Zoan was probably one great brickfield. Thus saith Pharaoh. The exact words of Pharaoh. (ver. 7) are not repeated, but modified, according to men's ordinary practice in similar cases.
Go ye, get you straw where ye can find it: yet not ought of your work shall be diminished.
Verse 11. - Get you straw where ye can find it. Straw was not valued in Egypt. Reaping was effected either by gathering the ears, or by cutting the stalks of the corn at a short distance below the heads; and the straw was then left almost entirely upon the ground. Grass was so plentiful that it was not required for fodder, and there was no employment of it as litter in farmyards. Thus abundance of straw could be gathered in the cornfields after harvest; and as there were many harvests, some sort of straw was probably obtainable in the Delta at almost all seasons of the year. To collect it, however, and chop it small, as required in brickmaking, consumed much time, and left too little for the actual making of the bricks.
So the people were scattered abroad throughout all the land of Egypt to gather stubble instead of straw.
Verse 12. - The people were mattered abroad throughout all the land of Egypt. The expression used is hyperbolical, and not to be understood literally. A tolerably wide dispersion over the central and eastern portions of the Delta is probably intended. Stubble instead of straw. Rather, "stubble for the straw." Teben, the word translated straw, seems to he properly "chopped straw" (stramenta minutim concisa, Cook). The Israelites, who had been accustomed to have this provided for them, gathered now long stalks of stubble in the fields, which they had subsequently to make into teben by chopping it into short bits.
And the taskmasters hasted them, saying, Fulfil your works, your daily tasks, as when there was straw.
Verses 13, 14. - The taskmasters hasted them. The Egyptian overseers, armed with rods, went about among the toiling Israelites continually, and "hasted them" by dealing out blows freely on all who made any pause in their work. The unceasing toil lasted from morning to night; yet still the required" tale" could not be produced; and consequently the native officers, whose business it was to produce the "tale," were punished by the bastinado at the close of the day not giving in the proper amount. Kalisch observes - "Even now the Arabic fellahs, whose position is very analogous to that of the Israelites described in our text, are treated by the Turks in the same manner. Arabic overseers have to give an account of the labours of their countrymen to the Turkish taskmasters, who often chastise them mercilessly for the real or imputed cf. fences of the Arabic workmen."

CHAPTER 5:15-19
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?
Then the officers of the children of Israel came and cried unto Pharaoh, saying, Wherefore dealest thou thus with thy servants?
Verses 15-19. - Smarting under the sense of injustice, the Israelite officers "came and cried to Pharaoh" (ver. 15), supposing that he could not have intended such manifest unfairness and cruelty. They were conscious to themselves of having done their utmost, and of having failed simply because the thing required was impossible. Surely the king would understand this, if they pointed it out, and would either allow straw as before, or diminish the number of the bricks. But the king had no desire for justice, and did not even pretend to it. He asked for no particulars, ordered no inquiry into the ground of complaint; but turned upon the complainants with the cuckoo cry - "Idle, idle yourselves - else ye had no time to come here; go, work - go, work." Then the officers felt that they were indeed "in evil case" (ver. 19) - the king was determined not to do justice - no hope remained - they must be beaten again and again, until they died of the punishment (ver. 21). Verse 15. - Came and cried. The shrill "cry" of Orientals when making complaint has often been noticed by travellers, and is probably here alluded to. To Pharaoh. See the "Introductory paragraph" at the beginning of the chapter, where it has been noticed that complainants had free access to the presence of Egyptian kings.
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.
Verse 16. - They say to us. Or, "they keep saying to us." The participle is used, which implies continuance or repetition. The fruit is in thine own people. Literally, "Thine own people is in fault," or "sins."
But he said, Ye are idle, ye are idle: therefore ye say, Let us go and do sacrifice to the LORD.
Verse 17. - Ye are idle, etc. Compare ver. 8. Pharaoh is evidently pleased with his "happy thought." It seems to him clever, witty, humorous, to tax overworked people with idleness; and equally clever to say to religious people - "Your religion is a mere pretence. You do not want to worship. You want a holiday." We may remark further that idleness and hypocrisy were two sins of the deepest dye, according to Egyptian notions.
Go therefore now, and work; for there shall no straw be given you, yet shall ye deliver the tale of bricks.
Verse 18. - Go therefore now and work - i.e. "Off with you to the brickfields at once, and get to your own special work of superintendence, which you are neglecting so long as you remain here. It is useless to remain. I reject both of your requests. Straw shall not be given; and the tale of bricks required shall be no less."
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.
Verse 19. - The officers... did see that they were in evil case. See the "Introductory paragraph" to this section, and comp. ver. 21.

CHAPTER 5:20, 21
And they met Moses and Aaron, who stood in the way, as they came forth from Pharaoh:
Verses 20, 21. - On quitting the presence of Pharaoh, the officers of the Israelites, burning with the sense of the injustice done them, and deeply apprehensive with respect to their own future, found Moses and Aaron waiting in the precincts of the court to know the result of their application. It need cause no surprise that they poured out their pent-up indignation upon them. Were not Moses and Aaron the sole cause of the existing state of things? Did not the extreme affliction of the people, did not their own sufferings in the past, did not their apprehended sufferings in the future, originate wholly in the seductive words which the two brothers had addressed to them at the assembly of the people? (Exodus 4:29-31). Accordingly, they denounced, almost cursed their officious would-be deliverers (Exodus 5:21). "The Lord look upon you, and judge" between you and us, whether the blame of this whole matter does not lie upon you, its initiators - you have made us to be abhorred in the sight of Pharaoh, and of the Egyptians generally you have brought us into danger of our lives - the Lord judge you!" Verse 20. - Who stood in the way. Rather, "who waited to meet them." It was not accident, but design, that had brought the two brothers to the spot. They were as anxious as the officers to know what course Pharaoh would take - whether he would relax the burthens of the people or no - whether he would have compassion or the contrary.
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.
Verse 21. - They said unto them. The officers were too full of their wrongs to wait until questioned. They took the word, and, without relating the result of their interview, implied it. The Lord look upon you, and judge, they said, meaning "the Lord (Jehovah) consider your conduct, and judge it" not exactly, "condemn it and punish it" (Keil and Delitzsch) - but "pass sentence on it," "judge whether it has been right or not." We make this appeal because ye have at any rate done us a great injury - ye have made our savour to be abhorred in the eyes of Pharaoh. (Note the mixed metaphor, which shows- perhaps rather that "in the eyes" had lost its original meaning, and come to signify no more than "with" or "in respect of," than that the literal meaning of making a person's savour to "stink" did not occur to the writer.) Nay, ye have done more - ye have put a sword in the hand of his servants to slay us. That is to say, "ye have armed them with a weapon wherewith we expect that they will take our lives." Either they will beat us to death - and death is a not infrequent result of a repeated employment of the bastinado - or when they find that punishment unavailing they will execute us as traitors. On the use of the bastinado as a punishment in Egypt, see Chabas, 'Melanges Egyptologiques,' 3me serie, vol. 1. pp. 100-6.

CHAPTER 5:22, 23
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?
Verses 22, 23. - The two brothers made no reply to the words of the officers. Perhaps their hearts were too full for speech; perhaps they knew not what to say. Whatever faith they had, it did no doubt seem a hard thing that their interference, Divinely ordered as it was, should have produced as yet nothing but an aggravation of their misery to the Israelite people. They could not understand the course of the Divine action. God had warned them not to expect success at once (Exodus 3:19; Exodus 4:21); but he had said nothing of evil consequences following upon their first efforts. Thus we can well understand that the two brothers (and especially Moses, the more impetuous of them) were bitterly grieved and disappointed. They felt their cup of sorrow to be full - the reproaches of the officers made it overflow. Hence the bitterness of the complaint with which this chapter terminates, and which introduces the long series of precious promise, contained in the opening section of ch. 6. Verse 22. - Moses returned unto the Lord. 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 A good example truly, and one which Christians in all their trials would do well to follow. Lord, wherefore, etc. The words, no doubt, are bold. They have been said to "approach to irreverence." But there are parallels to them, which have never been regarded as irreverent, in the Psalms: e.g. "O God, why hast thou cast us off for ever? Why does thine anger smoke against the sheep of thy pasture?" (Psalm 74:1) "How long wilt thou hide thyself? Where are thy former lovingkindnesses? Wherefore hast thou made all men for nought?" (Psalm 89:46-9), and the like. Kalisch seems right in saying that "the desponding complaint of Moses was not the result of disbelief or doubt, but the effort of a pious soul struggling after a deeper penetration into the mysteries of the Almighty."
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.
Verse 23. - He hath done evil to this people. See above, vers. 7-9, and ver. 14. Pharaoh had increased the burdens of the whole nation, and in this way "done evil" to them. He had also brought the punishment of scourging on a number of the chiefs. Neither hast thou delivered thy people at all. The promised deliverance (Exodus 3:8, 20) had not come - there was no sign of it - the people was suffering under a more cruel bondage than ever.

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