1Afterward Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and said, "Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, 'Let my people go, so that they may celebrate a festival to me in the wilderness.'" 2But Pharaoh said, "Who is the LORD, that I should heed him and let Israel go? I do not know the LORD, and I will not let Israel go." 3Then they said, "The God of the Hebrews has revealed himself to us; let us go a three days' journey into the wilderness to sacrifice to the LORD our God, or he will fall upon us with pestilence or sword." 4But the king of Egypt said to them, "Moses and Aaron, why are you taking the people away from their work? Get to your labors!" 5Pharaoh continued, "Now they are more numerous than the people of the land and yet you want them to stop working!"
6That same day Pharaoh commanded the taskmasters of the people, as well as their supervisors, 7"You shall no longer give the people straw to make bricks, as before; let them go and gather straw for themselves. 8But you shall require of them the same quantity of bricks as they have made previously; do not diminish it, for they are lazy; that is why they cry, 'Let us go and offer sacrifice to our God.' 9Let heavier work be laid on them; then they will labor at it and pay no attention to deceptive words."
10So the taskmasters and the supervisors of the people went out and said to the people, "Thus says Pharaoh, 'I will not give you straw. 11Go and get straw yourselves, wherever you can find it; but your work will not be lessened in the least.'" 12So the people scattered throughout the land of Egypt, to gather stubble for straw. 13The taskmasters were urgent, saying, "Complete your work, the same daily assignment as when you were given straw." 14And the supervisors of the Israelites, whom Pharaoh's taskmasters had set over them, were beaten, and were asked, "Why did you not finish the required quantity of bricks yesterday and today, as you did before?"
15Then the Israelite supervisors came to Pharaoh and cried, "Why do you treat your servants like this? 16No straw is given to your servants, yet they say to us, 'Make bricks!' Look how your servants are beaten! You are unjust to your own people."17He said, "You are lazy, lazy; that is why you say, 'Let us go and sacrifice to the LORD.' 18Go now, and work; for no straw shall be given you, but you shall still deliver the same number of bricks." 19The Israelite supervisors saw that they were in trouble when they were told, "You shall not lessen your daily number of bricks."
20As they left Pharaoh, they came upon Moses and Aaron who were waiting to meet them. 21They said to them, "The LORD look upon you and judge! You have brought us into bad odor with Pharaoh and his officials, and have put a sword in their hand to kill us." 22Then Moses turned again to the LORD and said, "O LORD, why have you mistreated this people? Why did you ever send me? 23Since I first came to Pharaoh to speak in your name, he has mistreated this people, and you have done nothing at all to deliver your people."
This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God.
31At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, "Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you." 32He said to them, "Go and tell that fox for me, 'Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. 33Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.'
34Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! 35See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, 'Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.'"
This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God
When last we met Moses, he was encountering the LORD on the side of a mountain, learning the name of God. Moses is the person through whom God is bringing us the Israelites out of bondage in the house of Pharaoh. He is equipped with the name of the God of his ancestors and the promise that the LORD will be with him, working his wonders before Pharaoh and all the Israelites, through Moses.
But the mountaintop experience doesn't last forever, and Moses meets us in the court of Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, where he sets out his famous demand. "Let my people go."
But in the court of Pharaoh, the Word of the LORD is resisted, and the call for release of the captives is answered with suspicion. Justice is only upheld if it's convenient for those in power.
But the meat of this story is not in the showdown of Moses and Aaron against Pharaoh and his court. God reminds us, in this story, that the movement of history is not just about the powerful, or the “great men” around whom history has swirled for so long.
There are people caught in the middle of their own liberation. God would have them free to worship, free to be the people of the covenant. God has heard the cry of oppression, voiced in the first two chapters of Exodus, and is working to bring them out with a mighty hand…
But Pharaoh isn’t having it.
Pharaoh doesn’t listen to the prophet Moses or Aaron the Priest. He does not know God. Neither does he know God’s people.
Unfortunately, he assumes he does. Pharaoh assumes that the reason the Israelites are trying to leave is that they are lazy. The solution to laziness, in Pharaoh’s mind, is to increase their workload. He tells the supervisors to withhold resources but not to diminish the expected results, “Let heavier work be laid on them; then they will labor at it and pay no attention to deceptive words.”
The labor had been harsh before, forming bricks to build great cities for Pharaoh. But they at least had a chance. The Israelites were able to meet their quotas when they had the resources to do their job. Now in the face of Pharaoh’s judgement, the people are given the same expectation, but they are not given what they need to get there. Yet, from the privileged place of the Egyptian taskmasters, it is easy to simply say “Complete your work.”
Complete your work, although we have dealt shrewdly with you to ensure that you stay beneath us. Complete your work, although we have ruthlessly imposed harsh work upon you. Complete your work, although we do not give you what you need to accomplish it. “Complete your work, the same daily assignment as when you were given straw.”
And when the Israelites are unable to meet these unreasonable expectations, they are called lazy and beaten by their taskmasters.
This is not a good situation for the Israelites. They come before us in Pharoah’s court to appeal to Pharaoh, telling him “Look at how your servants are beaten! You are unjust to your own people.” He gives them no sympathy, to hear their plea would require a change of his heart, which we know is already hardened against the Israelites. Instead, he says to God’s covenant people, “You are lazy, lazy; that is why you say, ‘Let us go and sacrifice to the LORD.’ Go now, and work; for no straw shall be given you, but you shall still deliver the same number of bricks.”
This chapter concludes with Moses and Aaron hearing how their well-intentioned intervention has made things worse, and with Moses’s lamenting that God has not acted to deliver his people. Our spiritual ancestors are suffering at the hand of Pharaoh while they wait for the hand of the LORD to deliver them. They are being told “Complete your work!” while they wait for God to fulfill his promise.
As much as I’d like to stand by Israelites in this story, I’m afraid that I fit in more in the court of Pharaoh.
After all, I’ve always been given straw when I was expected to make bricks. It came in the form of understanding teachers who tolerated my abysmal handwriting. It came in the form of seeing successful people around me any of whom would make a worthy role model. Sometimes the straw was as simple as having two parents whose schedules allowed us to eat dinner as a family and discuss the day. It is not impossible to complete your work when you are given the resources you need to do so.
But for the Israelites, that was not the case. Simply because Pharaoh decided they were lazy and he had the power in the land, they did not receive what they needed, yet they were still told, “Complete your work.” They were held to the same standard even though they were not given the same resources.
But the average Egyptian may not have known that. After all, the Egyptians completed their work, they worked hard enough to advance and reach their place as a taskmaster in Pharaoh’s court. I can count myself among those who have put in work to reach a particular position. There have even been times when I’ve overcome obstacles, as I’m sure others with me in the court of the King of Egypt have done.
But I also know that I’m must more likely to dismiss the struggles of others than to give up my own privilege. I am much more likely to ask why others cannot accomplish what I have than to acknowledge that I have been given straw to produce my bricks. I’m more likely to tell others to “Complete your work” than I am to help them find the resources they need to do so.
This chapter ends with leaders in Egypt confronting Moses and Aaron, and with Moses telling God, "O LORD, why have you mistreated this people? Why did you ever send me? Since I first came to Pharaoh to speak in your name, he has mistreated this people, and you have done nothing at all to deliver your people.” It seems as though things have gotten worse for the people of God, and they have.
But the story doesn’t end here.
The story doesn’t end in brickyards of Egypt with the people bathing stubble for straw, and the story doesn’t leave me, in Pharaoh’s court. We know that by the end of the story, Pharaoh’s throne is not as safe as it appears.
Our story goes on, and our deliverer is on his way, even the few of us cause injustice like Pharaoh, even the many of us who benefit from injustice and do not question it so long as we are comfortable. The story is still at work in Luke 13, when Jesus refuses to run away from King Herod, who profited from the Roman occupation of the promised land. “Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work.” Our Lord is still working, even though sometimes things seem to be getting worse.
And here in the season on Lent, sitting in Pharaoh’s court watching God bring our theological ancestors out of bondage with a mighty hand, we know that on the third day, Jesus will finish his work, and all will be free.