“And Moses and Aaron went and gathered together all the elders of the children of Israel;
And Aaron spake all the words which the Lord had spoken unto Moses, and did the signs in the sight of the people.
And the people believed: and when they heard that the Lord had visited the children of Israel, and that he had looked upon their affliction, then they bowed their heads and worshipped.
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.
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.”
With the burden of God’s Word resting upon their hearts, the two brothers, Moses and Aaron, entered the land of Egypt. After four hundred years of silence, God had revealed Himself again. During that time He had not changed; His promises of former years were still faithful and true. Soon it would be unquestionably demonstrated in Egypt, God’s love for His chosen Israel. That truth would determine the great events soon to take place in the land of bondage. So immense were these events to be that even Moses and Aaron could not as yet imagine it. With signs and wonders God would extract His people from the cruel clutches of sin. Let all who would oppose Him beware!
Upon entering the land, Moses and Aaron gathered together the elders of Israel. To them first they made known the will of the Lord. How different it was from the first time that Moses had sought to establish himself in Israel. Then his whole concern had been with proving himself. His whole effort had been to show himself able and willing to be for them a leader and savior. In doing so he had failed. But now he merely came, and, without one reference to himself, spoke the Word of the Lord. In humble silence the people listened. They heard again the promises of grace which had been received by their covenant fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. They were told that God looked upon them in their affliction and would come as the I AM to save them with a mighty hand. They gazed in wonderment upon the signs, the rod changed to a serpent, and the leprous hand which was cleansed. Having heard and seen it all, they believed. They were the children of God within whom was the beginning of faith. In humble thanksgiving they bowed their heads and worshipped. Surely great and wondrous things were soon to be done; the I AM had promised it.
Encouraged by the reception they received from the Israelites, Moses and Aaron proceeded immediately to the court of Pharaoh. The message which they bore was simple and direct, “Thus saith the Lord God of Israel, Let my people go, that they may hold a feast unto me in the wilderness.” This was no mere suggestion; nor was it in any sense a request; it was very clearly a direct command. It was this that aroused Pharaoh’s anger and moved him to retort. “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.” Pharaoh was not one accustomed to receiving orders or commands. He was the king of Egypt, the most powerful sovereign in all the earth. The very thought that anyone should think to command him, whether Moses or Aaron or even their God, only made him furious.
To some it would seem that this reaction of Pharaoh was quite natural, almost to the point of being excusable. After all, what did he know about the God of Israel? As far as he knew, what Moses and Aaron spoke were just words. There had been as yet no proof that their God was real and worthy of being listened to. Furthermore, the words of Aaron were notedly without tact. Two men merely burst into his presence and, claiming to speak in. the name of their God, demanded, “Let my people go!” There was no recognition of his position and authority as king of Egypt. There was no allowance for the fact that he had his own gods which he worshipped. There was no acknowledgment of his superior power and might over Israel. With blunt and uncompromising terms they merely issued a demand. They treated Pharaoh as a mere, ordinary man. Was it then surprising that he reacted so sharply?
Such speculation, however, is after all superficial. Pharaoh was not as ignorant of the God of Israel as at first it might seem. Had not he and his predecessors been trying now for many years to break the power of Israel as a nation? Yet their greatest efforts had proved to be of no avail because the God of Israel sustained them. Again, did he not know the history of his own nation and the great power that had been demonstrated among them in the days of Joseph? Even besides this, Pharaoh had but to look to the heavens to see the glory of God, or to the firmament to see His handiwork. Had he the least bit of discernment or honesty he would have known that this was not the work of his gods, idols of wood and of stone. Moreover, if Moses and Aaron represented the true God, as they said they did, how could they possibly come in any other manner than they did? God, if He be God in truth, can not come to man merely requesting or suggesting, offering, begging or pleading. Such would in effect place him down on the level of man, an abrogation of His right to divinity. There is only one way that God can come to any man, even though he be a king, and that is with the authority of a direct command.
The history which was shortly to follow would demonstrate evidently enough what was the real reason for Pharaoh’s response. It was pride. Pharaoh had determined long before that he would be the supreme authority in his own life. It was the working of sin such as is found naturally in the heart of every man. He wanted to be as God. He recognized the gods of Egypt only because they were of wood and stone so that he could use them as he would. When, therefore, Moses and Aaron came in the name of a God with an authority greater than his, he met it as a personal challenge. It was not the fact that Pharaoh did not know whether the God confessed by Moses and Aaron was real or not that kept him from acceding to their demand. It was not even actually a fear lest he should lose the advantage of part or all of Israel’s service. It was the principle of the thing. An authority had appeared which claimed to be greater than his own. His pride would not allow this to go unchallenged. The more that the power of Israel’s God would become evident, the more he would set himself to prove that it was not greater than his. It was not because of ignorance that Pharaoh refused; it was because the very word of another authority set his heart in rebellion. The more he would learn, the greater this rebellion would become. This was the hardness of heart of which God had spoken. It had begun at Pharaoh’s birth. It would continue until his final destruction. The Word of God only hastened it on its way. God was setting up Pharaoh as an example to all ages of the rebellious working of sin. It was the same hardening which is found in the heart of every natural man. It is the hardening which only the grace of God can break; but for Pharaoh no such grace existed.
Moses and Aaron patiently proceeded to explain themselves further. “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.” They set before Pharaoh a minimal requirement. Moses knew that God’s intent was to deliver Israel completely from the land of Egypt. He knew that in the end it would be so. However, it was first to be demonstrated that Pharaoh would not accede to the least demand no matter how small it might be. The requirement was perfectly sensible. Israel’s God had a right to the service of His people. Moreover, it was quite impossible that such service should be rendered amid the alien religions of Egypt. Not only would that be a mockery to Israel’s God, the Egyptians themselves would not stand for it. Thus the thing to do was to remove themselves from the borders of the land. Surely if Israel did not render due worship to its God, that God could be expected to turn upon them in judgment. Pharaoh could easily see that this was so.
It is quite futile for us to speculate at this point as to whether, if Pharaoh would have granted this request, God would have returned Israel afterward to Egypt. It was ordained not to be so.
But Pharaoh was not to be changed. He had set his course and from it he would not waver. He would not even recognize Moses and Aaron as messengers of God, but only as mere peasants negligent in their labors. “Wherefore do ye, Moses and Aaron, let the people from their works? get you unto your burdens. Behold, the people of the land now are many, and ye make them rest from their burdens.” Moreover Pharaoh was a man of action. No sooner were Moses and Aaron dismissed from his presence than he summoned his subordinates which were in charge of the taskmasters of Israel, saying, “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. Let there more work be laid upon the men, that they may labor therein; and let them not regard vain words.”
Life for the children of Israel soon became even more bitter than before. In the making of bricks which was required of them they had to mix straw or stubble to give the bricks strength. Formerly the Egyptians had supplied the large quantities of straw which” they needed; but now they were told to gather their own material where they could while producing the same number of bricks as before. This was an impossible task. The Israelites had always been diligent in their work, and, when many of them were taken from actual production to go out and gather stubble for the work, it became impossible to maintain their former quotas. But the Egyptians were unrelenting. Bending over them with whips the Egyptians exclaimed, “Fulfill your works, your daily tasks, as when there was straw. Wherefore have ye not fulfilled your task in making brick both yesterday and today, as heretofore?” With furious effort the Israelites labored as never before, but all to no avail. They could not make enough bricks.
The children of Israel had believed when Moses and Aaron had brought to them the Word of God, but as yet their faith was weak and wavering. Almost immediately under this new affliction they disowned the leadership of Moses. They sent new leaders to Pharaoh to try to make peace with him. These leaders presented their case, “Wherefore dealest thou thus with thy servants? 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.” But Pharaoh’s wrath was not so easily soothed. He answered back, “Ye are idle, ye are idle: therefore ye say, Let us go and sacrifice to the Lord. Go therefore now, and work; for there shall no straw be given you, yet shall ye deliver the tale of bricks.”
In bitterness the children of Israel turned upon Moses and Aaron. Angrily they accused them, “The Lord look upon you, and judge; because ye have made our savor 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.” They were yet far from the position of strength where they would be able to follow the way of the Lord unto deliverance.
Even the strength of Moses was not yet fully developed. In despair he turned to the Lord and asked, “Lord, wherefore hast thou so evil entreated this people? why is it that thou hast sent me? 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.” Moses, like the children of Israel, had yet to learn that the way of God’s people is never easy upon this earth. Slowly the Lord was teaching them.