Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
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.V.
FIRST APPLICATION OF MOSES TO PHARAOH, AND INCREASE OF THE OPPRESSION.
(1) Went in.—Heb., went—i.e., left their usual residence, and approached the Court, which, according to the Psalms (Psalm 78:12; Psalm 78:43), was held at Zoan (i.e., Tanis). This was the ordinary residence of Rameses II. and his son Menephthah.
Thus saith the Lord God of Israel.—Heb., Thus has said Jehovah, God of Israel. The Pharaohs claimed to hold direct communications with the Egyptian deities, and could not deny the possibility of the Hebrew leaders holding communications with their God. Menepthah himself—the probable “Pharaoh of the Exodus”—gave out that he had received a warning from Phthah in the fifth year of his reign (Brugsch, History of Egypt, vol. ii., p. 119; 1st ed.).
That they may hold a feast unto me.—God’s entire purpose is not at once revealed to Pharaoh. He is tried with a moderate demand, which he might well have granted. By refusing it he showed himself harsh, unkind, and inconsiderate, so tempting God to lay upon him a greater burthen.
In the wilderness—i.e., beyond the frontier, or, at any rate, beyond inhabited Egypt—that the Egyptians might not be driven to fury by seeing animals sacrificed which they regarded as sacred. (See Exodus 8:26, and the comment ad loc.)
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) Who is the Lord?—Heb., Who is Jehovah? If Jehovah was a name, the use of which had been laid aside, as would seem to have been the case by the later chapters of Genesis, and which was revived by the scene at the burning bush, Pharaoh may very probably not have heard of it.
That I should obey his voice.—The king means to say, that, whoever Jehovah is, He can have no authority over him, as He is not one of his gods. The Egyptians were accustomed to the idea of local gods, and quite expected every nation to have a deity or several deities of its own; but they regarded the power of each as circumscribed, certainly not extending beyond the race or nation to which the god belonged.
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 God of the Hebrews.—Moses accepts Pharaoh’s view, and does not insist on the authority of Jehovah over Egyptians, but makes an appeal ad misericordiam. He has, at any rate, authority over Hebrews; and, having made a requirement, He will be angered if they neglect it. Will not Pharaoh allow them to escape His anger?
With the sword.—Egypt was very open to invasion on its eastern frontier; and the brunt of an invasion in this quarter would fall upon the Hebrews. In the time of the nineteenth dynasty, Hittite incursions were especially feared.
And Pharaoh said, Behold, the people of the land now are many, and ye make them rest from their burdens.(5) And Pharaoh said.—Moses and Aaron having retired, re infectâ, Pharaoh turns to the officers of his court and reproaches them with allowing the Hebrews to be idle. They have time to hold meetings (Exodus 4:30-31), and listen to inflammatory harangues, and depute leaders to make very inconvenient proposals—why are they not kept closer to their tasks? Some change of system is requisite.
Make them rest.—Rather, “let them rest.”
And Pharaoh commanded the same day the taskmasters of the people, and their officers, saying,(6) Taskmasters . . . officers.—Three grades of officials are mentioned as employed in superintending the forced labours of the Hebrews—(1) “lords of service” (sarey massim), in Exodus 1:11; (2) “taskmasters” (nogeshim), here and in Exodus 5:10; Exodus 5:13-14; and (3) “officers”—literally, scribes (shoterim), here and in Exodus 5:11-21. The “lords of service” were probably a small body who exercised a general superintendence, and determined the works in which the Hebrews should be employed. They were, no doubt, native Egyptians. The nogeshim, or “taskmasters,” were their subordinates—Egyptians like themselves—comparatively numerous, and serving as intermediaries between the “lords” and the “officers.” These last were Hebrews, and engaged mainly in keeping the tale of the bricks, and seeing that the proper number was reached. Such an organisation is consonant with all that we know of the Egyptian governmental system, which was bureaucratic and complex, involving in every department the employment of several grades of officials.
Ye shall no more give the people straw to make brick, as heretofore: let them go and gather straw for themselves.(7) Straw to make brick.—“The use of crude brick was general in Egypt for dwelling-houses, tombs, and ordinary buildings, the walls of towns, fortresses, and the sacred enclosures of temples, and for all purposes where stone was not required, which last was nearly confined to temples, quays, and reservoirs” (Wilkinson, in Rawlinson’s Herodotus, vol. ii. p. 213). These crude bricks were always made of the mud of the Nile, mixed with chopped straw, which served to bind them together (Rosellini, Monumenti Civili, vol. ii. p. 252).
Let them go and gather straw.—It has been estimated that this requirement would “more than double” the people’s toils (Canon Cook). They would have to disperse themselves over the harvest fields, often lying at a considerable distance from the brick-fields, to detach the straw from the soil, gather it into bundles, and convey it to the scene of their ordinary labours. Having done this they were then required to complete the ordinary “tale.”
Let there more work be laid upon the men, that they may labour therein; and let them not regard vain words.(9) Let them not regard vain words.—Or, false words. The reference is to the promises of deliverance wherewith Moses and Aaron had raised the people’s hopes (Exodus 4:30). Pharaoh supposed these to be “vain words,” as Sennacherib did those spoken by Hezekiah (2Kings 18:20).
So the people were scattered abroad throughout all the land of Egypt to gather stubble instead of straw.(12) Stubble instead of straw.—Heb., stubble for the straw. Reaping in Egypt was effected by cutting off the ears only from the stalks, and thus a very tall stubble was left in the fields. This appears not to have been valued by the cultivators, and whoever wished was allowed to collect it. After collecting it, and bringing it to the brick-fields in bundles, they would have to chop it small before it would be fit for use.
And the taskmasters hasted them, saying, Fulfil your works, your daily tasks, as when there was straw.(13) The taskmasters hasted them.—The Egyptian monuments show us foreign labourers engaged in brick-making under Egyptian overseers, or “taskmasters,” who are armed with sticks, and “haste” the labourers whenever they cease work for the purpose of resting themselves. The overseers are represented as continually saying to the workpeople, “Work without faintness.” (See Wilkinson, in Rawlinson’s Herodotus, vol. ii. p. 214.)
As when there was straw.—Heb., as when there, was the straw—i.e., as. when the straw was furnished to you.
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) The officers . . . were beaten.—This is the usual practice in the East. When any requisition is made on a town or a village, or any body of persons, the procuring of it is left to the “head men,” who are alone responsible to the Government, and are punished in case they fail to exact the full amount.
And demanded.—Rather, and asked, or (as Kalisch renders it) “with the words.”
Then the officers of the children of Israel came and cried unto Pharaoh, saying, Wherefore dealest thou thus with thy servants?(15) The officers . . . came and cried unto Pharaoh.—The Egyptian monarchs were accessible to all. It was a part of their duty to hear complaints personally; and they, for the most part, devoted to this employment the earlier hours of each day (see Herod. ii. 173;. Those who came to them generally cried to them for justice, as is the Oriental wont.
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) The fault is in thine own people.—Heb., thy people is in fault. There can be no reasonable doubt that this clause is antithetical to the preceding one, and means that, though the Hebrews are punished, the people really in fault are the Egyptians.
But he said, Ye are idle, ye are idle: therefore ye say, Let us go and do sacrifice to the LORD.(17) Ye are idle.—Idleness was regarded by the Egyptians as one of the worst sins. It had to be specially disclaimed in the final judgment before Osiris (Birch, in Bunsen’s Egypt, vol. v. p. 254). Men sometimes disclaimed it in the epitaphs which they placed upon their tombs (Records of the Past, vol. vi. p. 137). Pharaoh had already made the charge, by implication, against Moses and Aaron (Exodus 5:4). No doubt, among the Egyptians themselves, a good deal of idleness resulted from the frequent attendance upon religious festivals (Herod. ii. 59-64). Hence the charge might seem plausible.
And they met Moses and Aaron, who stood in the way, as they came forth from Pharaoh:(20) Who stood in the way.—Heb., in their way. The meaning is, that Moses and Aaron were “standing”—i.e., waiting to meet them, and know the result of their interview with the monarch.
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) Ye have made our savour to be abhorred.—Heb., to stink. An idiom common to the Hebrews with the Egyptians (Comp. Genesis 34:30; 1Samuel 13:4; 2Samuel 10:6, &c, with Papyr. Anastas. 1:27, 7), and very expressive. The English idiom, “to be in bad odour with a person,” is similar, but lacks the force of the Hebrew phrase.
In the eyes.—Mixed metaphors occur in all languages, and may generally be accounted for by the literal meaning of some familiar expression having come to be forgotten. In Heb., liphney, “in the face of,” and be’eyney, “in the eyes of,” were mere prepositions, having the force of “before,” “with,” “in regard to.”
A sword . . . to slay us.—This was not, perhaps, mere Oriental hyperbole. The officers may have feared that their inability to enforce the Pharaoh’s impracticable demands would ultimately lead to their execution.
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) Moses returned unto the Lord.—He could find nothing to say to the officers. The course of events had as much disappointed him as it had them All that he could do was to complain to God, with a freedom which seems to us almost to border on irreverence, but which God excused in him, since it had its root in his tender love for his people. Moses might perhaps have borne with patience a mere negative result—the postponement of any open manifestation of the Divine power—but the thought that he had increased the burthens and aggravated the misery of his countrymen was more than he could bear without complaining