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Exodus 5:1-6:13 Making Bricks Without Straw

Have you ever faced a situation where you are forced to make bricks without straw? The children of Israel faced that exact predicament so Moses brought the matter before the Lord, which is also what we should do. Moses and Aaron declared to Pharaoh that the Lord God of Israel had said that he should let His people go that they may hold a feast to Him in the wilderness. This was before the appointed feasts listed in Leviticus 23 and the first occasion they would utter “Let My people go.” Using that expression challenged the authority of Pharaoh, hence his disapproving response.

Let My People Go

Pharaoh responded, “Who is the Lord that I should obey His voice to let Israel go? I do not know the Lord, nor will I let Israel go (Exodus 5:2).” What was the purpose of the plagues, the narrative, and the events? So that they might know that I am the Lord because the issue is ultimately about God’s glory. Pharaoh thought he was all powerful and possibly deity, but His worldview was about to be uprooted.

How would you respond to Pharaoh? Do you think he would be moved by a speech about the injustices of the situation and how inhumane the treatment or the Israelites was? Wisely, Moses and Aaron pointed towards the Lord, not themselves. This was the start of a spiritual battle and we wrestle not with flesh and blood but principalities and powers. The children of Israel could not unshackle themselves from slavery and we cannot untangle ourselves from sin. Only the Lord can forgive sin, expiate sin, and make atonement for our sin.

Moses and Aaron were potentially asking for a week of leave since the journey was three days, plus another day for the feast and three days would be required for the return trip. This also helps us to understand why Pharaoh responded in the way that he did. In his mind they were asking for a holiday and they might escape whilst doing so! Thus his response makes sense, “Why do you take the people away from the work (Exodus 5:4).

Making Bricks Without Straw

Pharaoh accuses them of idleness and forced them to gather straw which is a difficult and time- consuming task. Their quota of bricks remained the same and the foremen were beaten. His treatment of the Israelites reflects his worldview. He thought he was a god and if they worked harder and were kept busy, they might get more done and give up on their God.

The higher critics have nothing better to do than to attack anything related to Moses, the Exodus, and the narrative. Nevertheless archaeological studies regarding the making of bricks are revealing. MacArthur notes ‘Ancient documents from Egypt show that straw was a necessary component of bricks; it helped bind the clay together.’[i] The Bible Knowledge Commentary states, ‘Straw was mixed with clay and sand not so much as a binding agent but to cause the clay to be more durative.’[ii]

Unger writes, ‘Both straw-made bricks and pure clay bricks have been found at Pithom and Tanis. This description of brickmaking is amply illustrated in Egyptian monuments, such as wall paintings in the tomb of the Grand Vizier of Thutmose III, which portray the building of the temple of Amun by taskwork. Men are depicted drawing water from a tank to moisten the mud and carrying mud in baskets. Others are kneading the mud with their feet or placing it in molds. Some stand under the slave driver. The inscription reads: “The taskmaster says to his labourers, ‘The rod is in my hand, be not idle.’” In an Egyptian papyrus, these words occur: “I am not provided with anything. There are no men for making bricks, and there is no straw in the district, “ illustrating the Egyptian custom of using straw in brick making.’[iii]

Finally, Jamieson, Fausett &  Brown wrote in 1871, ‘The making of bricks appears to have been a government monopoly as the ancient bricks are nearly all stamped with the name of a king, and they were formed, as they still are in Lower Egypt, of clay mixed with chopped straw and dried or hardened in the sun. The Israelites were employed in this drudgery; and though they still dwelt in Goshen and held property in flocks and herds, they were compelled in rotation to serve in the brick-quarries, pressed in alternating groups, just as the fellaheen, or peasants, are marched by press-gangs in the same country still.’[iv] When you see programmes on the BBC with the so called experts questioning issues relating to Moses and the Exodus, they ignore the plain evidence from one hundred and fifty years ago and churn out the same arguments which have already been dealt with thoroughly.

Pharaoh’s Worldly Philosophy

Pharaoh thought that the stick was more effective than the carrot. Others might protest that his actions were inhumane. But how is Pharaoh inhumane if we all evolved from the primordial soup? If there is no God, or if there are lots of gods, some of which are not nice, then anything goes. If we deny God’s existence or create the gods of our own imagination to support our philosophy, then evil is to a certain degree unrestrained.

Pharaoh treated the Israelites like a commodity or an expendable resource. Society has moved on the social evolutionists inform us and has made progress. Really? Rewind seventy- five years ago and this account is reminiscent in more ways than one, of Nazi treatment of Jewish people in concentration camps. Yet in addition to forced labour, severe rationing, brutal treatment and an evil ideology, Hitler tried to destroy the Jewish people from the face of the earth. Rejection of the God of the Bible ultimately rejects the truth that humans have been created in His image. Conversely, if we are made in his image, we have value and life is precious since we were made to know Him and are made for Him.

I remember studying sociology of organisations and Taylor’s theory of scientific management. He used the carrot instead of the stick and he sought to manage employees carefully and even rewarded their efforts by paying them more. He improved efficiency but made workers increasingly deskilled by fragmenting the labour force and giving each worker specific yet mundane tasks which were to be done in a precise way with timed breaks and targets. They could do more work and get paid more for it, yet the nature of the work itself was soul destroying. At University we were timed for a mile and a half run followed by a couple of hours of games and were then challenged to try and beat our time. Was it possible? Technically yes, but would that type of training be sustainable? No. Why not? Because humans are not merely machines, have value and we are created in God’s image.

Some employers today work on Pharaoh’s principles and this should not surprise us since human nature is still corrupt and history repeats itself. How does it work? I am the king of the hill and you shall make bricks without straw. Some employers increase the workload until the employees break and then replace them with new workers. Those employers like Pharaoh will have their comeuppance either in this life or on the Day of Judgement.

In a godless society or one full of false gods, can you reason with the taskmaster? The foremen cried to Pharaoh, “Why do you treat your servants like this?” Did he listen to them and did that achieve anything? In these situations we need to cry out to the Lord since he hears us, he works on a different basis and He is the One that can deliver us. The Lord is sovereign, the only One that can save us and brings us away from oppression and slavery.

Do we ever Blame God or Others?

Pharaoh was an evil ruler who used classic tactics to subjugate the Israelites. He appointed Israelite foremen since this would enable them to divide and conquer the workforce. The foremen were beaten by the taskmasters hence the foremen shifted the blame to Moses and Aaron. They made the mistake of attributing their circumstances to be the fault of Moses and Aaron. For some people, when bad things happen, their default position is to blame God. We must be careful to never do that.

But would we have blamed Moses and Aaron if we were in the predicament that the children of Israel were faced with? Or do we at times still do that and how can we avoid that? We need to walk by faith, not be sight and hold on to the eternal perspective, not a humanistic one. Think of how many psalms we read with so many life experiences and so many trials encountered. The human and practical issues are brought before the Lord, but the godly perspective gives real meaning and comfort.

Moses was put under pressure from the people and he related their complaints to the Lord. We have the blessing of hindsight. On how many occasions do the psalms cast our minds back to the Exodus and encourage us? When we face discouragements and trying circumstances, remember who the Lord is, what He has done and go to Him and His Word.

I once had a French teacher who had a novel way of holding a dialogue with himself. He would face one way and ask a question and then turn one hundred and eighty degrees and provide a response. In chapter five we have the people’s perspective though in Chapter six we see God’s perspective and His promises revealed. Now they would see what God would do to Pharaoh. But do we ever fall into the trap of thinking “I cannot see what God is doing in this situation” and though we may be careful not to vocalise it we may dare to think, “If I were in charge I would do it differently!” Really? Are you God? If we are not careful; due to our ignorance and lack of faith, we can falsely assume that God is inactive, not concerned or disinterested.

God’s Perspective

Chapter six is a turning point, and we have a whole string of assurances that helped Moses and that can help us in the situations we face.  God said to Moses, “I am the Lord.” What are the implications of that for Moses and us? It is a statement and expression of who God is. That in itself is a sufficient response. We can rest in God because of who He is, what He has done and who He is committed to. We can be still and let go, and know that He is God. But our lord graciously continues.

God revealed Himself in a deeper way through His covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The Abrahamic covenant was cut whilst Abraham was asleep (Genesis 15:12), meaning that it was entirely predicated by God and was unconditional and would happen. There are blessings and cursings, for obedience for disobedience though the covenant itself was unconditional. God keeps His covenants and promises because of who He is and for the glory of His name. But he also cares. He heard their groaning and remembered His covenant with them.

How would God help the children of Israel? In Exodus 6:6-8, we have seven ‘I wills’ which are more than just statements and have great application for us too. They reassured the Israelites as they do for us.

God would relieve their burdens-His burden is easy and His yoke is light.

God would bring them out of slavery-God removes our sin as far as the east is from the west.

He would redeem them with an outstretched arm-The Lord has paid the price for us and bought us.

He would take them to be a people-Israel are God’s chosen people and although Gentiles were strangers, Gentile believers are now in the commonwealth of Israel.

He would be their God-Believers have every spiritual blessing through Messiah.

He would bring them into the land. In the Father’s house there are many mansions.

God would give them a heritage-All believers in the Lord Jesus have an incorruptible heritage in Him.

Moses had heard from God and he had the assurance of all those promises because God made them so surely things would be different? But the people did not listen? Why? Because of a broken spirit and harsh slavery. I remember in my previous job there was a woman we used to visit and help her manage her tenancy and assist her with handling her finances. She would never listen even though the solution was more often than not straight forward, and she seemingly preferred to go through a drama and then ask us what to do when she was exasperated. Sometimes people have to learn the hard way even though you try to help them though the solution is easy, and the outcome is predictable. It is like being in quicksand and trying to thrash your way out instead of relaxing and trying to float. We must look up and look to the Lord.

It had not gone well for Moses and now Moses was to tell Pharaoh to let His people go. Moses reasoned that if the Israelites had not heeded them, how would the Egyptians heed him in view of the fact that he did not speak well? What Moses did was what we sometimes do. He assumed that Pharaoh’s response and outcome were dependent on how eloquent he was. The solution for those who trust in the Lord is to remember who God is, what He has done and simply to trust Him with the outcome.

Moses and Aaron are simply told to go to Pharaoh to bring the children of Israel out of Egypt. Moses did not have his concern answered there and then, though before they came to Pharaoh, Aaron would be appointed to speak on Moses’ behalf. If we are forced to make bricks without straw, take the situation to the Lord and trust Him with the outcome.

[i] John MacArthur The MacArthur Bible Commentary (Thomas Nelson, 2005; Nashville), p89

[ii] John F. Walvoord & Roy B. Zuck The Bible Knowledge Commentary (Victor, 1985; USA), p116

[iii] Merrill F Unger Unger’s Bible Commentary (AMG, 2002, Chattanooga), p109-110

[iv] Jamieson, Fausset & Brown’s Commentary on the Whole Bible (Zondervan, 1961; Grand Rapids), p58