The events in this story wonderfully illustrate how different God’s viewpoint is from our own (similar to the first two lessons from Exodus). However, in this passage we’ll find out that God’s wholly different perspective affects obedience too. Moses will obey with disastrous results (from his perspective) but God will say the results are exactly what’s needed to fulfill His purposes even as they make every human in the story miserable. Because of the glaring contrast, this is a perfect text to return to when trying to figure out why life sometimes makes no sense in the service of a loving heavenly Father.
[Special note: Exodus 6:1-9 is a key text for understanding the Exodus story and is arguably the most important passage in the book. It gives God’s reasoning for much of what He does in delivering His people from Egypt and why He does it at this point in history.]
Chapter 4 Synopsis
When we left Moses, he was still at the burning bush receiving God’s command to go back to Egypt and lead the people out. In Chapter 4 he argues with God and claims that he’s not the one to go back. He says he can’t speak well and – even after God shows him some miracles with his staff and his hand – stubbornly holds to his position. God becomes exasperated with him and tells him that Aaron – his brother – will act as his mouthpiece. Moses reluctantly decides to go but while he travels to Egypt God meets him and tries to kill him. God relents when Moses’ wife circumcises their son (who may be in his thirties if we believe that Moses has lived in the wilderness for forty years) and throws the foreskin at Moses’ feet and calls him a bridegroom of blood (just a run-of-the-mill Bible story that’s totally easy to understand).
Once Moses reaches Egypt, the elders of Israel accept him fully (just as God said they would) and embrace his plan to confront Pharaoh and ask him to allow Israel to leave. As the chapter ends, Moses and Aaron prepare for their first appearance before Pharaoh.
Moses and Aaron go to Pharaoh and get right to the point. They tell him that Yahweh, the God of Israel says to let His people go to celebrate a feast to Me in the wilderness. It’s worth remembering who they address. Pharaoh is not a man accustomed to taking orders. And he likely isn’t a fan of hearing the Israelites being called “My people” and that he has to “let them go” (this seems more intense than the message God told Moses to give in 3:18). Something to consider – most likely Pharaoh knows about Moses or has heard his name. Thus he may be threatened by Moses’ military past AND disgusted that he comes back as a shepherd. This may be an interesting undercurrent to their dialogue.
Pharaoh does not respond well to this challenge to his authority. He first asks dismissively who Yahweh is – something he’ll regret doing as God will remind him who He is about 10 times in the coming months (He’ll announce it with every plague) – and then states very simply that he won’t do what they ask. Why does he care what their God wants?
Moses and Aaron now adopt a somewhat milder tone. It could be that Pharaoh’s strong response surprises them. They don’t threaten Pharaoh directly but tell him what God will do to them if they don’t obey. Notice the last phrase of what they say – this seems to be a veiled warning of what God is capable of if He’s not obeyed.
Pharaoh tells them to stop drawing the people away from their labors (by which he could simply mean to stop giving the people hope and distracting them from their labors) and get back to work. The people are too many to allow them to stop working and go into the wilderness.
When Moses and Aaron leave, Pharaoh responds very quickly to their insubordinate behavior. The very same day he issues a command to make the Israelites’ situation much worse. Not only will he not listen to Yahweh, he will make the slaves work even harder since Yahweh apparently doesn’t want them to work at all. He instructs the taskmasters to stop giving straw to the brickmakers but continue to enforce the quotas placed upon them. [Brickmaking is a miserable, dirty job under the best of circumstances. Straw is a bonding agent – bricks cannot be made without it.]
Pharaoh knows what he’s doing by going after the brickmakers. Not only does he make the worst job even harder, he makes everyone’s job downstream of the brickmakers harder too. Assuming that the slaves overall are mostly involved in construction (1:11), no one can do much if the bricks don’t keep up. EVERYONE is affected by the slowdown (and likely punished). [Something else to consider: the quotas are probably already high since they’re imposed on slaves – it’s not like there’s the International Brotherhood of Enslaved Brickmakers to keep the quotas reasonable.]
The taskmasters deliver the news to the people. They say, “Thus says Pharaoh (perhaps mocking the command Moses brought when he said “Thus says the Lord” in verse 1) I am not going to give you any straw.” The taskmasters then go after the Israelite foremen and beat them for not keeping up the pace of work. The taskmasters act as if nothing’s changed – “Why have you not completed your required amount either yesterday or today in making brick as previously?”
Can you imagine how Moses & Aaron feel as they hear this? The elders and the people had confidence in them and thought they were here to help, now everything is MUCH worse as a result of their actions. The people apparently don’t yet know this is happening because of what Moses and Aaron did, but Moses and Aaron have to know and their sense of dread must be overwhelming.
The Hebrew foremen go directly to Pharaoh to complain about the situation (the text doesn’t explain how they have access to the king). They perhaps think Pharaoh doesn’t realize the ramifications of his command and assume he’ll be reasonable once he understands what his new policy has done.
Pharaoh’s response has to demoralize them. Instead of offering to back off or make things better, he accuses them of being lazy because they want to go and sacrifice to Yahweh. When the foremen hear “sacrifice to Yahweh” they understand what’s going on. Pharaoh’s command is a response to Moses and Aaron. It was Moses and Aaron who brought this on the people and Pharaoh’s not going to change anything. This isn’t temporary and there’s no hope for change. This news presumably hits them like a ton of…
The foremen find Moses and Aaron and curse them and tell them they’re responsible for people’s deaths. “You put a sword in their hand to kill us.” It’s worth noting here, by the way, that the elders of Israel had to know and approve the message Moses and Aaron delivered to Pharaoh. It’s not like they were acting on their own without anyone’s knowledge. Even so, Moses has just been called a murderer by the very people he came to lead. There’s really no way things could have turned out any worse after his first act as God’s appointed “deliverer.”
Just as the people went after Moses, Moses now goes after God. The people blamed Moses – Moses now blames God. Note his humanity – he’s just as extreme as the foremen. He essentially says to God, “I TOLD you I’m not the guy. I told you I shouldn’t have come! And look! I’ve done everything you told me to do and YOU haven’t done ANYTHING!” You have to love how he phrases it – “Ever since I came to Pharaoh to speak in Your name (he’s only appeared before Pharaoh once), he has done harm to this people; and You have not delivered Your people at all (I spoke once to Pharaoh and even though that was YESTERDAY, YOU haven’t delivered the people AT ALL!).”
In his defense – imagine what it must be like to be hated by several HUNDRED thousand people. He didn’t ask for this assignment – he was fine being a mild-mannered shepherd. God pulled him in and now seems to have deserted him. It’s easy to sympathize with his response. And from a human standpoint (the one that knows we wouldn’t exactly shine under the same circumstances) it’s kind of encouraging to see this in Moses – this is the man of whom God will someday say, “He is faithful in all my household, with him I speak mouth to mouth” (Num 12:7-8; see also Ex 33:11). It’s neat to know the man who ends up there starts here. It shows what God can do with a willing believer.
Two questions to ask at this point:
- Did Moses obey God?
- Is ANYONE better off for Moses having obeyed? [If you think about it, even Pharaoh and the Egyptians are worse off. Their lives are more complicated and not as much work gets done. There’s truly no one in the story who’s better off (except perhaps the guys who normally gather straw).]
Now see God’s response in Chapter 6 – this is God’s take on the exact same event that Moses just melted down over.
Note first of all what ISN’T in verse 1. God doesn’t rebuke Moses for his response – He just tenderly begins to explain things to him (our God is a BIG GOD – He knows us because He made us and He accepts our emotions and fears and irrationalities – don’t you LOVE this about our God?).
“Now…” God tells Moses that things are EXACTLY as He wants them to fulfill His purposes. “Now we have them just where we want them.” Pharaoh’s actions will enable God to more effectively demonstrate His glory – the deliverance He’s about to effect will be even more amazing.
God goes on to say something very interesting. He says the patriarchs knew Him by his name, God Almighty (El Shaddai), but not by the name He made known to Moses at the burning bush – LORD (Yahweh, I AM). That means that Moses and the people of Israel get to know God by a new name and in a new way that the patriarchs didn’t. This is somewhat hard to understand, but what He seems to mean is that while the name Yahweh was known to the patriarchs (it’s used numerous times throughout Genesis), they didn’t EXPERIENCE the name the way the Israelites will. The Israelites will see the name demonstrated through their redemption – Yahweh is the God of salvation who keeps His promises. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob heard the covenant; the people get to see the covenant fulfilled. The people actually have an advantage over the patriarchs.
Here’s the good stuff. God explains what motivates Him at this point in time in the history of Israel and in the lives of the people. He’s motivated by His covenant with the patriarchs (“I have remembered My covenant”); He’s motivated by His own glory (“I am the Lord”, “I will bring you out…”, “I will deliver you…”, “I will also redeem you…”); and He’s motivated by His compassion for Israel (“I have heard the groaning of the sons of Israel”).
Because of these three things God will act and the time to act is now. Why? Because God has Pharaoh, the Egyptian people, and the Israelites right where He wants them. Pharaoh’s refusal allows God to demonstrate His glory through great judgments. The Egyptian people’s paganism and polytheism allows God to demonstrate His power at their and their gods’ expense (this isn’t explicit here, but it’s demonstrated throughout the plagues). And the Israelite people’s suffering has them in the perfect place to accept His love and protection and allow Him to take them as His people.
Understand what this means. The result of Pharaoh’s actions in this story will ultimately allow God to more effectively take the Israelites as HIS people and demonstrate to them that He is THEIR God. Verses 6-8 are key to understanding the Exodus story (they’re the heart of the book). God is the covenant-keeping God who is their God and He will be better able to demonstrate His glory and love and power as a result of the horrific things going on in their lives. THEIR belief and reassurance will be greater as a result of the hard times. Their understanding of the privileged place they have as God’s people will be much greater as a result of the degree to which they are currently suffering. What Moses sees as a disastrous result of his obedience is the very thing that will bring about the redemption of the people.
He ends this section by restating the covenant. He wants to continually reassure them.
Moses again obeys and again meets with defeat. He goes to the people and relates God’s enormously encouraging words but the people don’t listen because they don’t care. Their lives are awful because of Moses and they don’t really want to hear anything more from him as long as their lives are awful.
This is the ultimate irony – the very thing that will in the end increase the people’s belief is the same thing that keeps them from listening to God.
Some questions to ask: Would we take a reluctant leader and make his first major act result in him being hated by the very people we’ve commanded him to lead? Would we announce our presence to our chosen people by instantly making their lives harder? Would we reward obedience with hardship that wouldn’t exist apart from obedience? This story shows yet again that we set ourselves up for disappointment when we require an infinite and sovereign God to operate by our rules and adhere to our expectations of what is reasonable.
This passage is great for what it teaches us about ourselves and about God. It helps us get our minds around the thought that bad things from our point of view aren’t always bad from God’s. If we can remember that in the midst of what was a disaster for Moses, God was working a plan that couldn’t have happened WITHOUT that disaster, it would dramatically affect our perspective on the hard times we experience. If we can see our lives as much as humanly possible through God’s eyes, then perhaps we can live a life that is centered on God’s priorities instead of worrying so much about our own.
Joseph was hated by his brothers and sold into slavery and taken to a foreign land. Once there he was framed for a crime he didn’t commit and sent to prison. In prison he helped others but was forgotten by them and left there for years. He did nothing but obey God and was enslaved, imprisoned, and left to rot as a result. And yet – because these things happened:
- He met the king’s cupbearer in prison who remembered him years later when the king had a dream no one understood.
- He was able to interpret the king’s dream and be elevated to the #2 position in the land.
- As a ruler he was able to save his family during the ensuing famine.
- Because of the famine and his high position his family relocated to Egypt.
- His family’s descendants grew over the next four centuries into a large and powerful people.
- After 400 years God brought the people out of Egypt through a deliverance that foreshadowed the world’s redemption He brought about 1500 years after that.
SO – the hard times and unfair circumstances of one man started a chain of events that eventually brought about the world’s redemption almost 2000 years later.
“For My thoughts are not your thoughts,
Neither are your ways My ways,” declares the Lord.
“For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
So are My ways higher than your ways,
And My thoughts than your thoughts.” Isaiah 55:8-9
And as for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good. Gen 50:20a