Exodus 5:1-6:1: Who Says?
Our passage for today is Exodus 5:1-6:1. I will try to highlight a couple of interesting aspects of the passage; but first the storyline: Moses and Aaron now go before Pharaoh and announce, "Thus says the LORD, let my people go!" Pharaoh responds with a question and a declaration of his own, "Who is the LORD that I should obey him? I do not know the LORD and I will not let the people go!"
Moses then retreats from declaring to begging, but it gets him nowhere. Worse, Pharaoh labels the people as lazy and demands that they gather their own straw for making Pharaoh's bricks. Up to this point they had been able to use Pharaoh-supplied straw. Now they must make the same daily quota of bricks but gather their own straw. It is an impossible task and the Egyptian foremen are beating the Hebrews for failing to make quota (on the use of the term "Hebrew," see Hebrews, Arameans, and Israelites).
Israel's labor leaders complain to Pharaoh, but he merely repeats the charge that they are lazy. The leaders recognize that they are worse off than ever because of Moses' bold speech to Pharaoh. The Hebrew leaders turn on Moses and pray for the LORD to judge Moses. Moses then turns to the LORD with his own set of accusations: "O Lord, why have you brought trouble upon this people? Is this why you sent me? Ever since I went to Pharaoh to speak in your name, he has brought trouble upon this people, and you have not rescued your people at all." Moses clearly lays the blame for Israel's increased pain upon God. Yahweh had not rescued the people as promised, so Moses thought.
There are two major developments taking place within the text. The first is a heightening of the power struggle between Yahweh and Pharaoh. When Moses asked for God's name at the burning bush, the response was "I am who I am." "Yahweh" is the answer put into the third person, "He is." The context indicates that the issue is the power of Yahweh over against the power of Pharaoh. Which one truly is? Which one determines what is and shall be? God had assured Moses that "I am" with the clear implication that Pharaoh "is not."
Now Moses goes before Pharaoh and declares that Yahweh (He is) says to "let my people go." Pharaoh does not know that Yahweh is and refuses to listen to Yahweh. As far as Pharaoh is concerned, Yahweh is not, and especially not in Egypt. In Egypt, Pharaoh is, was, and shall be. The "is contest" is now on.
To put it into our mode of thought, the struggle is over who is really God and Lord of Egypt, Pharaoh or Yahweh. Pharaoh obviously thinks that he is god of Egypt. It will take him several chapters of this story to find out just how mistaken he is!
The struggle is bumped up a notch in 5:10. Just as Moses is the messenger of Yahweh and proclaims in 5:1, "Thus says the LORD" so Pharaoh has his own messengers who proclaim Pharaoh's decrees. What is especially telling is that the same "Thus says" formula is used by Pharaoh's messengers in 5:10. (In both cases the NIV takes some of the punch out of the formula by translating, "This is what the LORD/Pharaoh says.")
The issue is not just who is, but whose "Thus says" shall be. It's "Thus says Yahweh" vs. "Thus says Pharaoh." Whose word has power and authority? Whose word shall create the future? Pharaoh’s word has created slavery. Yahweh’s word calls for the creation of deliverance and a new future. The entire exodus story is framed within this struggle.
Furthermore, the struggle between Yahweh and Pharaoh is not just over who is and whose word shall be, but it is over the people of Israel. Yahweh declares them to be his people and lays claim to their worship. Pharaoh identifies them as the people of the land (= his land) and lays claim to their labor. He will not let the people move out from under his control for even a weekend of worship. He attacks their psyche by labeling them "Lazy, that is what you are, lazy!" (5:17). He wants to work the men harder so that they have no time or energy for lies (= no time or energy for dreaming/imagining a day of freedom and justice, which would surely arise out of a worshipful vision of Yahweh).
Yahweh says, "They are my people. Let them go." Pharaoh says, "They are my slaves and they are going to keep working." Yahweh and Pharaoh are about to engage in a huge battle of “is” and “thus says” over who gets Israel. Chapter 5 has set the stage for the upcoming plagues and exodus.
(Just a disturbing side note. Historically – and presently? – in the United States Blacks and Hispanics have tended to be labeled as “lazy” [and other groups in other countries; for example similar labels are used between Caribs or Amerindians, East Indians, and descendants of African slaves in Trinidad and other areas of the Caribbean]. That’s very interesting in the light of Pharaoh’s use of this label on Israel as a strategy for maintaining control. It’s also haunting that Israel was anything but lazy. They were furiously doing the back-breaking, brick-making labor that no respectable Egyptian wanted to do. The parallel is interesting. Who has typically done the finger-rawing cotton picking and sun-beating crop-harvesting toil of our nation? They were people that were anything but lazy. Might there be some Pharaonic control motives in our nation’s “lazy” labeling?)
The second major development is that as the stage is being set for the struggle, Israel and Moses can only see defeat. Because things have gotten worse instead of better, the Hebrews turn on Moses and Moses then turns on Yahweh.
The Hebrew labor leaders cannot see victory. They can only feel the fatigue of weary muscles, the bruises of daily beatings, and the pain of a strawless future. Moses cannot see victory. He is enveloped by humiliation and regret. He trusted Yahweh and Yahweh failed him. He said, "Thus says Yahweh" and Pharaoh didn't even blink. Yahweh promised rescue but did not rescue at all. Israel is worse off than ever before, and Moses is a fool before both Pharaoh and his own people.
So what does Moses do? What would you do? The temptation would be to pack up the family and head back to the desert. Forget this Yahweh stuff. Forget exodus dreams. That burning bush was just an illusion, the ill effects of a sun stroke or bad pizza the night before. Return to the simple, quiet life of raising a family and tending sheep.
But is that what Moses did? No! Instead of forgetting Yahweh, he went back to Yahweh and confronted him. He argued with Yahweh. Accused Yahweh. Was angry with Yahweh. Blamed Yahweh. Had it out with Yahweh for not rescuing his people at all. Now it is not the bush that is burning, nor Yahweh's anger at Moses for being so reluctant in accepting the call, but Moses' anger against Yahweh. And Moses tells Yahweh about it. And do you know what? Yahweh can take it. Yahweh can handle Moses' anger. God even let Moses live to tell about it.
There is a lesson here for us. Too often when we make a commitment to God and things get worse instead of better, our tendency is to turn away from God and go back to an "easier" life. Instead of turning away from God in hopelessness and despair, we would be better off to turn to God in anger and accusation. Rather than give up on God, argue with God. Keep the conversation going, even if it is an argument. And God can take it (see Lament Psalms).
Best of all, the conversation does not end with Moses' anger. Following 5:23 comes 6:1, in which God answers, "Now you will see what I am doing/will do to Pharaoh. Because of my mighty hand he will let them go. Because of my mighty hand he will drive them out."
I do not know how much time elapsed between 5:23 and 6:1, but 6:1 came. "Now you will see. I have been at work. This is what I am doing. This is what I will do." Moses would never have heard those words, received that sight, had he turned away. He never would have seen. But he argued with God when he could not see, and he finally heard the words, "you shall see." And the vision he received was that the LORD is the strong-handed one. Not Pharaoh, but the LORD. Yahweh is the strong-handed one who is able to set the stage for battle and deliver the victory.
If the Lord has disappointed you, perhaps promises of rescue turning out for worse instead of better, don't turn away from the Lord. Rather, turn to the Lord and argue it out. And keep arguing and holding on until you hear those words, "Now you shall see what I have been up to, what I am doing and what I will do." It is only by keeping the conversation going that you will hear those words and discover that the Lord is indeed the strong-handed one and that the Lord has been at work in and through circumstances that seem negative, and perhaps are negative, setting the stage to display and accomplish his victory.