God has entrusted his mission to Moses, and he’s enabled Moses to relate to experiences of the Israelites. Moses is now ready to act as God’s mediator and deliver these people. But first, God has a little more work to do…1
Observation of Exodus 5:1-21
- If we look only at each word, the most repeated ones are some of the usual ones: people (12 times), go, Pharaoh, said (9x), Israel, Lord (6x).
- But if we look at word families, a major theme jumps off the page
- Words having to do with work or labor occur more than 70 times.
- These words include: straw (9x), bricks (7x), foremen, make, work (5x), servants, taskmasters (4x), idle, reduce, task (3x), beaten, burdens, daily, gather, get, give, given, made (2x), complete, done, find, heavier, impose, labor, scattered, stubble (1x).
- Though Pharaoh is given his usual title 9 times, once in the passage he is referred to as “the king of Egypt” (Ex 5:4). In that verse, this king demands that his slaves return to their burdens.
- God’s name (Yahweh, or “LORD”) remains prominent, especially as Pharaoh asks, “Who is Yahweh, that I should obey his voice?” and claims, “I do not know Yahweh” (Ex 5:2).
- Paragraph 1 (Ex 5:1-5): Alternating dialogue about the fate of the sons of Israel.
- Moses & Aaron (Ex 5:1), Pharaoh (Ex 5:2), Moses & Aaron (Ex 5:3), king of Egypt (Ex 5:4).
- Pharaoh then gets the last word (Ex 5:5)
- Paragraph 2 (Ex 5:6-9): Pharaoh increases the burdens on the people.
- Paragraph 3 (Ex 5:10-14): Taskmasters pass along Pharaoh’s wishes and beat the Hebrew foremen for failing to meet quotas.
- Paragraph 4 (Ex 5:15-21): The foremen cry out to Pharaoh, and are accused of being idle. On their way out, they meet Moses and Aaron and blame them for worsening their slavery.
Interpretation of Exodus 5:1-21
Some of my questions:
- Why are these work-related words repeated so much?
- What makes Pharaoh think the people are idle? They’ve already built at least 2 cities for him (Ex 1:11)!
- Why have the people shifted so quickly from worship (Ex 4:31) to blaming Moses and Aaron (Ex 5:21)?
- Why would God begin the deliverance of his people by making their lives so much harder?
Answers (numbers correspond to the preceding questions):
- The narrator shows us this new Pharaoh’s gut reaction to the problem of the people being “many” (Ex 5:5). His predecessor enslaved them and tried to murder and drown their sons. This Pharaoh wants to keep control by giving them more work to do. Work, work, work. Labor, burdens, servants. Foremen, taskmasters, bricks, straw. Words are multiplied to an extreme to show Pharaoh’s chief strategy: let heavier work be laid on the men that they may labor at it and pay no regard to lying words (Ex 5:9). But what are the “lying words” he fears so much? He shows his hand in his last word to Moses and Aaron in Ex 5:5: “You make them rest from their burdens!” The word rest occurs only here, in huge contrast to the 70+ occurrences of “work”-related words. Pharaoh perceives that Moses and Aaron (and therefore Yahweh) want to give the Hebrews rest. So his solution is to increase their work.
- Pharaoh’s problem clearly is not with the people, but with Moses and Aaron who want to make them rest. And especially with Yahweh, the God of rest (Ex 5:1-2).
- Of course, they’re upset by the increased workload. But even more, they are concerned “because you have made us stink in the sight of Pharaoh and his servants” (Ex 5:21). Moses and Aaron led them to worship Yahweh (Ex 4:31), but Yahweh has proven to be a God who makes his people stink. That’s just not fair.
- God already said Pharaoh would not let them go unless compelled (Ex 3:19). God would have to strike Egypt with mighty wonders (Ex 3:20). (Perhaps this is why Moses and Aaron fear pestilence or sword against themselves in Ex 5:3.) God would harden Pharaoh’s heart and kill his son (Ex 4:21-23). We don’t exactly know why God would do it this way, other than perhaps to show his people that they can do nothing to deliver themselves. To learn that lesson, they must be in a situation that goes from bad to worsest.
Train of thought:
- Yahweh wants to give his people rest.
- This idea stinks to those who don’t respect such a God.
- Therefore, God’s people stink to those who don’t know or respect Yahweh.
- It is not easy for God’s people to go through this, but it is an important part of their eventual deliverance.
Main Point: The LORD makes his people rest and stink.
Connection to Christ: Jesus came to make God’s people rest from all their works (Matt 11:28-30, Hebrews 3:7-4:13). This plan of deliverance made Jesus stink (Mark 3:1-6), and it makes God’s resting people likewise stink to those who think they must work harder for God’s approval (2 Cor 2:14-17).
My Application of Exodus 5:1-21
Inward, head application: Why am I still surprised every time my faith in Christ makes me stink to those who are perishing (1 Peter 4:12-14)? I must expect to enter the kingdom of God through much tribulation (Acts 14:22). This stink is a crucial part of attaining my rest.
Outward, hands application: When I preach the gospel of Christ, I must preach a message of both rest and stink. The work of Christ’s salvation is done; there’s nothing more we can add to it. And the world will hate us for it; men love darkness rather than light.
1Much of my thinking on this passage was influenced by a marvelous sermon preached recently at my church by my colleague Tom Hallman. Tom explained this text so well, I may never again be able to think of it apart from the categories of rest and stink.
Click here to see what I’m doing with this sample Bible study and why I’m doing it.