Bricks Without Straw
After much protest and a few excuses, Moses finally does what the Lord called him to do. With the help of Aaron, his brother/spokesperson, Moses returns to Egypt and there assembles the elders of Israel with great results:
29 Moses and Aaron brought together all the elders of the Israelites, 30 and Aaron told them everything the Lord had said to Moses. He also performed the signs before the people, 31 and they believed. And when they heard that the Lord was concerned about them and had seen their misery, they bowed down and worshiped.
Just as God promised, the elders listen to Moses and Aaron. Their time before the leadership of the enslaved Israelites went very well. The Israelites listen. They believe. They bow down and worship.
Like I said: great results. Every preacher I know would be over the moon with any of the three. “Hey, they listened this morning. They believed. They bowed down and worshipped.”
No doubt encouraged by the reception they received from the Israelite elders, Moses and Aaron head toward Pharaoh—the king of Egypt—in order to relay the message the Lord has for him.
Going to the elders of Israel was a softball compared to marching up to the King of Egypt and confronting him.
Moses knows, because the Lord has told him already, that Pharaoh is not going to listen, he’s not going to let the people go. The Lord has hardened Pharaoh’s heart (4:21). This task for Moses and Aaron is not going to go well; it will not be easy. Pharaoh will not listen to them. He will not believe. He will not bow down and worship the Lord.
And still, Moses goes down to tell old Pharaoh, “Let my people go.”
—>If you have your Bible (and I hope you do), please turn with me to Exodus chapter 5. If you are able and willing, please stand for the reading of God’s Holy Word. We’re going to read all of chapter 5 (so if you need to set down, I understand).
1 Afterward Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and said, “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘Let my people go, so that they may hold a festival to me in the wilderness.’ ” 2 Pharaoh said, “Who is the Lord, that I should obey him and let Israel go? I do not know the Lord and I will not let Israel go.” 3 Then they said, “The God of the Hebrews has met with us. Now let us take a three-day journey into the wilderness to offer sacrifices to the Lord our God, or he may strike us with plagues or with the sword.” 4 But the king of Egypt said, “Moses and Aaron, why are you taking the people away from their labor? Get back to your work!” 5 Then Pharaoh said, “Look, the people of the land are now numerous, and you are stopping them from working.” 6 That same day Pharaoh gave this order to the slave drivers and overseers in charge of the people: 7 “You are no longer to supply the people with straw for making bricks; let them go and gather their own straw. 8 But require them to make the same number of bricks as before; don’t reduce the quota. They are lazy; that is why they are crying out, ‘Let us go and sacrifice to our God.’ 9 Make the work harder for the people so that they keep working and pay no attention to lies.” 10 Then the slave drivers and the overseers went out and said to the people, “This is what Pharaoh says: ‘I will not give you any more straw. 11 Go and get your own straw wherever you can find it, but your work will not be reduced at all.’ ” 12 So the people scattered all over Egypt to gather stubble to use for straw. 13 The slave drivers kept pressing them, saying, “Complete the work required of you for each day, just as when you had straw.” 14 And Pharaoh’s slave drivers beat the Israelite overseers they had appointed, demanding, “Why haven’t you met your quota of bricks yesterday or today, as before?” 15 Then the Israelite overseers went and appealed to Pharaoh: “Why have you treated your servants this way? 16 Your servants are given no straw, yet we are told, ‘Make bricks!’ Your servants are being beaten, but the fault is with your own people.” 17 Pharaoh said, “Lazy, that’s what you are—lazy! That is why you keep saying, ‘Let us go and sacrifice to the Lord.’ 18 Now get to work. You will not be given any straw, yet you must produce your full quota of bricks.” 19 The Israelite overseers realized they were in trouble when they were told, “You are not to reduce the number of bricks required of you for each day.” 20 When they left Pharaoh, they found Moses and Aaron waiting to meet them, 21 and they said, “May the Lord look on you and judge you! You have made us obnoxious to Pharaoh and his officials and have put a sword in their hand to kill us.” 22 Moses returned to the Lord and said, “Why, Lord, why have you brought trouble on this people? Is this why you sent me? 23 Ever since I went to Pharaoh to speak in your name, he has brought trouble on this people, and you have not rescued your people at all.”
May the Lord add His blessing to the reading of His Holy Word!
So, after meeting with and worshipping alongside the Israelite elders, Moses and Aaron approach Pharaoh, boldly proclaiming what the Lord hath said—This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says:
This is a statement of authority. Moses and Aaron don’t speak with their own authority; these words come from the Lord.
“The OT prophets used this phrase as a standard reminder to both messenger and recipient that the words came from and would be acted upon by the Lord.” -ESV Study Bible
Moses and Aaron boldly tell Pharaoh that which the Lord told them to say.
The Lord’s main point: “Let my people go.”
The Lord’s motivation: that His people would worship Him.
But Pharaoh’s not having it.
2 Pharaoh said, “Who is the Lord, that I should obey him and let Israel go? I do not know the Lord and I will not let Israel go.”
Pharaoh’s question seems to indicate a lack of awareness.
He may not know anything about Israel’s God. Pharaoh might be completely ignorant about who the Lord, the God of Israel, is. That’s possible, and even likely, I’d say.
But Pharaoh’s posture, his attitude toward the Lord he doesn’t know is more important.
Even if Pharaoh had known who the Lord was, he wouldn’t have listened to what He had to say. For Pharaoh, the only authority is Pharaoh. He—and all of his minions and underlings—believe that he (Pharaoh) is a god.
One of the basic principles of Egyptian religion is that the king is a god. The Egyptians believed that “in the person of pharaoh, a super human being had taken charge of the affairs of man…the creator himself had assumed kingly office on the day of creation. Pharaoh was his descendant and his successor.” -Henri Frankfort, Ancient Egyptian Religion
It is significant that the word Pharaoh uses for “work” (Exod. 5:9) and the word God uses for “worship” (Exod. 4:23) have the same Hebrew root: abad.
Pharaoh considers the Hebrews to be his servants. They are to work for and serve him as if he were a god.
Pharaoh even speaks as if he is a god.
In verse 1, Moses and Aaron go to Pharaoh and say: “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel says:”
In verse 10, Pharaoh uses that phrase for himself, having his spokesmen tell the Israelite slaves: “This is what Pharaoh says:”
Verse 1: “Thus saith the Lord!”
Verse 10: “Thus saith Pharaoh!”
Pharaoh puts himself on, believes himself to be on the same level as the Lord Yahweh, the God of Israel.
This is outright defiance, utterly sinful rebellion; this is rebellious unbelief. He is ignorant and stubborn, and he’s just a tad bit foolish. He’s about to figure out that he is not on the same level as the Lord. He’s about to realize that he has no authority, no real power, no standing compared to the Lord, the God of Israel.
2 Pharaoh said, “Who is the Lord, that I should obey him and let Israel go? I do not know the Lord and I will not let Israel go.”
P. G. Ryken says this: “With these words, Pharaoh posed the central question of the exodus: ‘Who is the Lord? Who is the one true God? Who is the supreme deity who alone has the right to demand praise from every creature?’”
God has already revealed the correct answer to Pharaoh’s question back at the burning bush.
Who is the Lord?
He’s the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
He is Yahweh, the Great I AM—the eternal and self-existent Lord.
But Pharaoh and his ilk deny that the Lord is anyone of any significance. They deny Him and defy Him—defiant Pharaoh isn’t about to do what the Lord has said; in fact, verse 9 makes it clear that Pharaoh believes all of this talk about the Lord, the God of Israel to be a lie.
This is ever the world’s response to the Lord and His ways; this might be your response to the Lord—if not denial then defiance, one or the other, maybe both.
Perhaps the Lord isn’t really a significant influence in your life; it’s possible that you believe He is, but don’t believe that He is important. You might come to church and self-identify as “Christian” but otherwise live as a practical atheist.
Maybe you’re that self-identified “Christian” who looks the part, who talks the talk from 9:30-Noon on Sunday morning, and then turns it off come Sunday afternoon. (Understand: your behavior doesn’t make you a Christian, but it just might show where your heart is).
Are you, in your life, denying Him outright?
Perhaps you are more of the defiant sort; it’s possible that you believe in Him and belong to Him and yet you don’t really want to do what He’s asking.
You might have a relationship you know isn’t honoring to the Lord; you know He would have you break it off. And yet you defy Him, and chart your own course.
You might be of the “Frozen” generation; you know the stupid song: “no right, no wrong, no rules for me, I’m free!” That’s defiance—doing what you want instead of what He wants.
Pharaoh and those of us like him deny the Lord and defy the Lord.
—>Instead of doing as the Lord has said, instead of letting the Lord’s people go, Pharaoh doubles down; he makes the work harder. Pharaoh makes things even worse for Israel. He cracks the whip—both literally and figuratively.
“Bricks without straw.” That’s Pharaoh’s order.
The people of Israel would not be given straw. And they still have to produce the same number of bricks.
“Bricks without straw…that’ll shut them up with all that ‘Let-us-go-so-we-can-worship-the-Lord’ stuff.”
“Bricks without straw”—this really does have all the makin’s of an awful situation.
Israel is already in bondage. They are slaves. They are oppressed heavily, and have been for generations. And now, it has gone from bad to worse.
The slave drivers do as Pharaoh demands, telling the slaves:
11 Go and get your own straw wherever you can find it, but your work will not be reduced at all.’ ”
This is a truly difficult situation: the people scatter searching for straw, the slave drivers keep pressing them and beating them. “Why haven’t you met your quota of bricks yesterday or today, as before?”
Difficulty leads to discouragement, as it often does.
The Israelite overseers—the enslaved middlemen between the slave drivers and the brick-makers—turn to Pharaoh. They don’t understand why they are being treated even more poorly than normal.
The Israelites know they are in real trouble. And instead of turning to the Lord, they turn to Pharaoh.
Pharaoh comments on their work-ethic, calling them lazy. That’s the issue, not the bricks without straw, but the slaves’ laziness. Verse 16: “Make bricks!” Verse 18: “Get back to work!”
Difficulty leads to discouragement; discouragement turns into despair.
They lash out at their leaders. Blame that belongs to Pharaoh gets shifted to Moses and Aaron. They are looking for someone to blame, so why not Moses and Aaron? When all else fails, blame the leadership.
They find Moses and Aaron and rip into them, attacking them, calling down judgment and curses on them, blaming Moses and Aaron for their status before Pharaoh—“You have made us obnoxious, you have made us a stench, you have made us stink to Pharaoh and his officials!”
“You [Moses, Aaron]—you have put a sword in their hand to kill us.” The Israelites have given up; they’ve slumped down in the sands of Egypt, thrown-up their hands, and resigned themselves to their fate in Egypt: “Welp, thanks a lot, we’re dead. That’s it. Thanks again. Jerks.”
Take a moment to feel what they’re feeling. It’s already hard enough for them. Slavery, I’m sure, is no walk in the park. And now, well, now it’s impossible. Pre-Moses they were eeking-out an existence, albeit in slavery, but it was something.
Now, there’s no way they can make it. This is unbearable. Difficulty—>discouragement—>despair. “Bricks without straw.”
Can you relate, even if only a little?
I can think of many people for whom life has taken this trajectory. What starts out as something difficult over time becomes more and more difficult. And that leads to discouragement. After a period of discouragement, most of us end up wallowing in despair.
I think of my brother-in-law, Micah. Micah and my sister were remodeling their house; they tore it down to the studs and basically started over. He did most (if not all) of the work himself. One day, Micah decided to take off the roof and re-roof the whole house. By himself. He’s pretty good, but not that good. He made a good dent in the project, but realized he bit off more than he could chew.
It was okay, just a little difficult. And then he saw it: the unexpected storm clouds rolling in over the western Kansas prairie. He sped up, getting more and more discouraged. There was no way he was going to get this done in time, maybe not even able to get the house covered up to protect against the rain. What was difficult at the start became impossible.
The thunderstorm hit and all Micah could do was take shelter for himself, sit there exhausted, and watch the water make its way into the house, unable to do anything about it.
Difficulty. Discouragement. Despair. “Bricks without straw.”
—>What do you do to fight against this?
Well, Moses, we read, turns to the Lord. [That’s a step in the right direction, friends]
He cries out to God, wanting to know why this was happening. He didn’t understand why obedience made thing worse. He was just doing what the Lord called him and commanded him to do.
Moses questions the Lord: “Why, Lord, why?”
“Why, Lord, why?”
I’ve been there. Through big things and small things, I have asked/questioned/lamented: “Why, Lord, why?”
Moses questions God’s goodness: Why have you brought trouble on this people?
Moses questions God’s purpose: Is this why you sent me?
Moses questions God’s actions: You have not rescued your people at all.
At least Moses is crying out to God. At least he’s addressing God, looking to the Lord for answers.
When you are discouraged, when you are tempted to despair, it’s okay to lament. It’s okay to question God, to ask Him honestly: “Why, Lord?” There are many psalms of lament. There’s an entire book of the Bible named Lamentations; a prophet known as the weeping prophet. Jesus Himself asked His Father, “Why?”
Ask God your questions! Please. By all means. Bare your heart to Him! Just don’t do it sinfully, or hatefully, or rebelliously.
Remember: God does not have to answer our questions. But He does hear our questions, every one of them.
So Moses cries out to the God who hears.
This is Exodus 5 in a nutshell: life, at times, brings deep discouragement, pain, trouble, and questions. Life can be a stinking mess. “Bricks without straw.”
Moses was following God, but things actually got worse for him.
How do you fight this kind of discouragement?
You fight it with promises.
This is what Exodus 6 is all about.
We watched the Israelites end up in a pretty bad spot. We see their progression from difficulty to discouragement lead them to despair.
Moses joins in with them, really, pretty much at the first sign of trouble, asking, “Why, Lord, why?”
What Moses needed, what we need, in the daily-waged war against discouragement is to be reminded of the promises of God.
We don’t give up. We don’t blame-shift. We certainly don’t despair.
We look to God’s promises.
1 Then the Lord said to Moses, “Now you will see what I will do to Pharaoh: Because of my mighty hand he will let them go; because of my mighty hand he will drive them out of his country.” 2 God also said to Moses, “I am the Lord. 3 I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob as God Almighty, but by my name the Lord I did not make myself fully known to them. 4 I also established my covenant with them to give them the land of Canaan, where they resided as foreigners. 5 Moreover, I have heard the groaning of the Israelites, whom the Egyptians are enslaving, and I have remembered my covenant.
Moses and his fellow Israelites were supposed to trust the Lord—His might, His power, His plan.
They needed to remember that He had appeared to them—over and again—to Abraham, to Isaac, to Jacob, and now to Moses.
He made a covenant: “a Never Stopping, Never Giving Up, Unbreaking, Always and Forever Love” with His people.
He heard their groaning, He stooped down, paying attention, showing concern.
And He is actively, at this moment, remembering His covenant with His people, sending to them His messenger Moses, who will lead them out of slavery.
—>Friends, this I know: life is hard. I don’t need to tell you. You are experiencing this right now. You have lived this. If not yet, you will experience this. Life is hard—“bricks without straw” kind of hard.
You will face difficulty, you will have to deal with discouragement, and you may even be led to despair.
When you do face this, how will you fight it?
May I suggest you fight discouragement by focusing on what God has promised?
Trust in His might, His power, His plan.
He has appeared to us and made Himself known—God has come to us, appearing to us by taking on flesh and blood in the person of Jesus. God with us. We are not left alone. He is always here.
He has established a covenant with us—a new and better covenant, through the shed blood of Jesus Christ, God has made a way, the way for us to be made right with Him.
He has heard our groaning—before we even realized our need He heard us groaning, wallowing in the despair of our sin; we were groaning, stuck in the muck and the mire, desperate for help. He heard. He listened. He came to rescue us.
He has remembered His covenant—His “Never Stopping, Never Giving Up, Unbreaking, Always and Forever Love”. He will never forget. He can never forget. Nothing can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
We fight discouragement with Gospel Promises. We preach this Good News to ourselves. When we are discouraged we remind ourselves to remember who God is, what God has done, and what He is going to do.
We will face a great deal in this life. If the Lord tarries, we will suffer things much more difficult than having to make “bricks without straw”. We will deal with cancer and sickness, death and loss, one thing right after the other—“sorrows like sea billows roll…trials will come.”
Do we give into discouragement? Momentarily, maybe. But then we remember the Gospel, the Good News we’ve preached to ourselves, and we trust that God is mighty, we trust His purpose and His plan. We encourage ourselves, we encourage those who are struggling with the truths of the Gospel: He has appeared to us, He has established a covenant with us, He has heard our groaning, and there’s absolutely nothing, nothing, nothing that can separate us from Him.