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5. Bricks Without Straw

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. 2And 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. 3And they said, 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. 4And the king of Egypt said unto them, Wherefore do ye, Moses and Aaron, let the people from their works? get you unto your burdens. 5And Pharaoh said, Behold, the people of the land now are many, and ye make them rest from their burdens. 6And Pharaoh commanded the same day the taskmasters of the people, and their officers, saying, 7Ye shall no more give the people straw to make brick, as heretofore: let them go and gather straw for themselves. 8And 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. 9Let there more work be laid upon the men, that they may labour therein; and let them not regard vain words.

10And the taskmasters of the people went out, and their officers, and they spake to the people, saying, Thus saith Pharaoh, I will not give you straw. 11Go ye, get you straw where ye can find it: yet not ought of your work shall be diminished. 12So the people were scattered abroad throughout all the land of Egypt to gather stubble instead of straw. 13And the taskmasters hasted them, saying, Fulfil your works, your daily tasks, as when there was straw. 14And the officers of the children of Israel, which Pharaoh’s taskmasters had set over them, were beaten, and demanded, Wherefore have ye not fulfilled your task in making brick both yesterday and to day, as heretofore?

15Then the officers of the children of Israel came and cried unto Pharaoh, saying, Wherefore dealest thou thus with thy servants? 16There 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. 17But he said, Ye are idle, ye are idle: therefore ye say, Let us go and do sacrifice to the Lord. 18Go therefore now, and work; for there shall no straw be given you, yet shall ye deliver the tale of bricks. 19And the officers of the children of Israel did see that they were in evil case, after it was said, Ye shall not minish ought from your bricks of your daily task.

20And they met Moses and Aaron, who stood in the way, as they came forth from Pharaoh: 21And they said unto them, The Lord look upon you, and judge; because ye have made our savour 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. 22And Moses returned unto the Lord, and said, Lord, wherefore hast thou so evil entreated this people? why is it that thou hast sent me? 23For 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.

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1. And afterwards Moses and Aaron went in. Moses here begins to set forth how many and how great were the proofs of God’s power displayed in the deliverance of his people. For, since the pride, the madness, and the obstinacy of the king were indomitable, every door was closed, until broken down miraculously, and by various means. It was, indeed, possible for God to overwhelm him at once, by a single nod, so that he should even fall down dead at the very sight of Moses; but, as we have already briefly stated, and he will himself presently declare, He, in the first place, chose more clearly to lay open His power; for if Pharaoh had either voluntarily yielded, or had been overcome without effort, the glory of the victory would not have been so illustrious. In the second place, He wished this monument to exist of His singular love towards His elect people; for by contending so perseveringly and so forcibly against the obstinacy of this most powerful king, He gave no doubtful proof of his love towards his Church. In the third place, He wished to accustom His servants in all ages to patience, lest they should faint in their minds, if He does not immediately answer their prayers, and, at every moment, relieve them from their distresses. In the fourth place, He wished to shew that, against all the strivings and devices of Satan, against the madness of the ungodly, and all worldly hinderances, His hand must always prevail; and to leave us no room to doubt, but that whatever we see opposing us will at length be overcome by him. In the fifth place, By detecting the illusions of Satan and the magicians, He would render His Church more wary, that she might carefully watch against such devices, and that her faith might continue invincible against all the machinations of error. Finally, He would convince Pharaoh and the Egyptians, that their folly was not to be excused by any pretense of ignorance; and, at the same time, by this example, He would shew us how horrible a darkness possesses the minds of the reprobate, when He has deprived them of the light of his Spirit. These things must be attentively observed in the course of the narrative, if we desire to profit by it.

Since it is difficult to obtain access to kings, who deign not to admit to their presence any of the lower orders, Moses and Aaron must have been endued with no ordinary confidence, when they boldly approached Pharaoh. For it was a disagreeable message, and one very likely to give offense, that he should permit the people to take three days’ journey beyond the bounds of Egypt; since a suspicion must unquestionably arise that, being thus dismissed, they would no longer remain his subjects, and that thus a part of the land would be emptied of its inhabitants. Still Moses and Aaron do not fear to deliver God’s command, in which there was this additional annoyance to the proud and sensitive ears of the king, viz., that they attributed the glory of Deity to the God of Israel alone; for, by calling Him Jehovah, they imply that the gods worshipped in Egypt were false, and invented by the imaginations of man. We have said elsewhere that there was no deceit in the pretext that God called his people into the wilderness to hold a feast, although He does not reveal His counsel to the tyrant; for it was really His pleasure that a sacrifice of thanksgiving should be offered to Himself on Mount Sinai, and that they should be thus separated from the polluted nation with which they were mixed up; and, assuredly, He wished to arouse the tyrant’s wrath, by ignominiously condemning the whole of Egypt, as not capable of pure worship. For He was obliged by no law to declare openly their deliverance; but that He might draw forth from the mind of the tyrant the venom of his impiety, He asked for nothing connected with the advantage of His people, but merely demanded the worship which was due to Himself. The word which Moses uses means properly to hold a feast, but also embraces whatever is connected with it; and, therefore, by synecdoche, it is taken here, as also in other passages, for the solemn worship of God.6666     Nam festum celebrare sacrificium complectitur. — Vatablus in Pol. Syn.

2. And Pharaoh said, Who is the Lord? It is scarcely credible that there should be such madness in a mortal as, by thus wantonly scorning God, to fly, as it were, in the face of heaven!6767     Quasi in coelum conspueret. — Lat. But we must observe, that the tyrant being devoted to idolatries, thus insulted the God of Israel, that he might manifest his great piety towards his false gods. For his mockery, in scornfully bandying back the name of Jehovah, must be referred to the words of Moses, as much as to say, Why do you bring against me this unknown phantom under the title of the eternal God, as though we had no god of our own? Thus Pilate, when Christ said, “To this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth,” asks ironically, and not without mockery, “What is truth?”6868     Comme s’il disoit, Penses tu que je soye un petit enfant, pour ne discerner point entre le blanc et le noir? as much as to say, Do you think I am a little child unable to distinguish black from white? — Fr. (John 18:37, 38.) In short, Pharaoh did not conceive himself to be dishonoring the Deity, when he rejected this false (prodigiosum) God, as he thought. Yet his error did not avail to justify him, since it arose from insane audacity and contempt of God. Admit that he was unwilling that any should depreciate his idols, and that he thus imagined himself to perform a religious duty; still it was an act of very gross impiety, so carelessly to repudiate the name of the true God, and even to assail it with mockery. We may remark a like madness in all idolaters. Being intoxicated by their errors they boldly mock at God, and deign not to make inquiries about Him. The cry of the Papists now-a-days is, that we are imposing a new God on the world; and, applauding themselves in their wildest ravings, they do not hesitate to condemn our whole doctrine as impious; not because they are persuaded that they are themselves worshipping God aright; but they are willfully blind, that they may elude, with impunity, the sacred majesty of God, and stupify their consciences, and preserve to themselves their death-like slumber. They seem to themselves to be sharp-witted and facetious, when they are scoffing at the novelty of our doctrine; though its truth would be plain enough, if they would only open their eyes. The Epicureans, too, (of which pestilent sect the world is now full,) although they foam and rage against God, still invariably take refuge in some cloud, under which their detestable madness may be concealed: for they pretend that amidst such a multitude of opinions, it is scarcely possible to discern who is God, or what He commands. Still, however, this is their constant object, viz., that they may have nothing to do with God, and yet may conceal by jests the shame of their impiety; as if it were free for them to reject what they are willfully ignorant of. But after Pharaoh had indirectly derided the message of Moses, as a ludicrous affair, he more openly and more contemptuously vents his pride, implying that he cares not for that God, with whose name Moses and Aaron would frighten him.

3. And they said, The God of the Hebrews. Moses and Aaron proceed with their message; neither does the pride of the tyrant decrease or weaken their courage in proclaiming the glory of the One true God, who had peculiarly attached Himself to them. And, certainly, this is the attribute of faith, to trample upon everything that exalteth itself on earth; since the truth of God is superior to all human greatness. Nor could they more effectually refute that profane and impious word, “I know not the Lord,” than by again asseverating that the true God is the Protector of their nation, and that this had been disclosed to them in an open manifestation of Himself. The threatening, which they added, admonishes Pharaoh that his rebellion would not be unpunished, if he kept back the people from the worship of God; for if He would take vengeance on the people which was retained against their will, how could he escape with impunity, who professedly entered into contention with God? When, then, they declare that some calamity would befall them unless they obeyed the call of God, they intimate that Pharaoh must beware of some greater visitation.

4. And the king of Egypt said unto them. It is surprising that the king, in the excess of his arrogance, did not more cruelly entreat these servants of God, whom he accounted the ringleaders of sedition. But he was undoubtedly restrained by God from proceeding at once to destroy them. By his pertinacity in resisting their departure, he will more clearly shew by and bye how important to his interests he considered it that the people should remain in Egypt; how comes it then that he is contented with verbal reproof, and refrains from shedding their blood, if it were not that God protected his servants under the shield of His defense? He harshly reproves them, indeed, and condemns them to the same labors, by which the rest of the people were oppressed; but since it is notorious that moderate rigor never satisfies tyrants, we conclude that they were preserved under the guardianship of God, and would otherwise have died a hundred times over. But let us learn from his accusation against them, as the promoters of rebellion, to bear patiently, after their example, calumnies and false imputations; only, in reliance on God’s command, let us be fully conscious that we are unjustly accused. The next verse, wherein he says, that “the people of the land are now many,” is intended to aggravate their guilt; both because they would inflict a deeper injury on the public, than as if they had withheld a few from their work; and also, because, by inflaming a large number of people, they would bring greater danger on the country.

6. And Pharaoh commanded. We shall more clearly perceive, as the narrative proceeds, that these taskmasters and officers were taken from amongst the children of Israel, although we have before read that some were Egyptians. But, as tyrants are ingenious in securing their own interests, Pharaoh in his subtlety wished to provide that none should escape, but that all alike should be brought in turn to the labor. For some, in such a multitude, might have evaded the Egyptians; but, when the charge was given to the Israelites, their familiar knowledge would prevent any from escaping. Besides, it is probable that with these taskmasters was deposited the straw, which they distributed either to parties of ten, or to individuals; he therefore doubles the work in this way, by commanding them to gather the straw with which the bricks were made. But, according to the proverb, that “the edicts of kings are monosyllables,” Moses shews the vehemence of the tyranny by the brevity of the command. But this passage teaches us, that when God has begun to regard us for the purpose of relieving our troubles, He sometimes takes occasion to increase the pressure of our burdens. Thus, when God had engaged to be the deliverer of the Israelites, their trouble became greater, by the tyrant adding to their ordinary tasks that of gathering the straw for themselves. For thus it pleases God to prove the faith of His people; and thus is it expedient to lift up to Him their minds, which are too much set on earth, whilst they do not immediately perceive the fruit of the grace promised to them, nay, whilst they feel that nothing else is brought them by God’s favour, except that their condition becomes worse. It is very useful for us to ponder this, that we may more patiently and calmly bear to be excited to the love and desire of heavenly blessings, by crosses and adversities. Now-a-days the Gospel procures hatred for many, deprives others of their pleasures, degrades others from their honours, brings to others the loss of their goods, sentences others to prison, others to exile, and endangers the life of some; in a word, the more God exerts His power, the more is Satan’s rage excited on the other side, and the wicked become more fiercely cruel. This offense would greatly shake us, unless we knew, from the admonition of this example, that the inestimable grace, which is offered us in Christ, ought to be so valued by us, that in comparison with it, riches, honours, and all that men seek after, should be accounted nothing; and that we should find no difficulty in despising inconveniences of whatever kind.

9. Let there more work be laid upon the men. Although Pharaoh knew that he was cruelly entreating the unhappy Israelites, who ought, as strangers, to be hospitably and kindly received, yet he says that they were abusing their idleness, and were revolting because he indulged them too much. Thus, when tyranny has lost all regard for justice, there are no bounds to its harshness; and so far from being moved to pity by complaints, they only aggravate its cruelty. And these are the means by which its flatterers inflame it more, viz., that its subjects will never be quiet unless they faint under the weight of their burdens; that this is the best receipt for governing them, so to oppress them that they dare not open their mouths; if they cry, or murmur, that they should be oppressed the more,6969     The original here is, “ut obdurescant ad servitutem, quasi contracto collo;” which the French translates “pour l’endurcir a servitude, comme si on le trainoit par le col.” The Geneva edition of 1617, as well as that of Amsterdam of 1671, however, have substituted “callo,” which certainly seems to make the sense clearer. till they grow hardened, and, as it were, callous to their bondage. They, therefore, relax not their contumelies and cruelties until the wretched people have altogether succumbed. Pharaoh insults them still more wantonly, when he says that he imposes heavier burdens upon them, that “they may not regard vain words.” But what are these, except that they ask permission to worship God? His impiety, therefore, bursts forth in the midst of his tyrannical insolence; nor does he only mean to utter a blasphemy against God, but he is instigated by the wiles of Satan to undermine the faith of the Church. By a similar impulse, Rabshakeh proclaimed that Hezekiah deceived the people by “vain words,” when he bade them trust in the living God. (Isaiah 36:5, 7.) Nor does Satan cease to employ the same machination against the faithful, as if all that God promises was deceit and vanity.

12. So the people were scattered abroad. This circumstance proves how bitterly they were afflicted, and what labor beyond their strength was imposed upon them. In order to make bricks, at least, they should have remained in a particular spot, but straw is not supplied to them for the purpose; they are obliged, therefore, to disperse here and there, and to gather stubble instead of straw in the distant parts of Egypt. They could not do both; it was then in fact just to procure a false pretext, which he might catch at as the ground of their condemnation: as now we often see the enemies of Christ inventing the most insupportable torments, by which the unhappy Church may be driven to deny the faith. For it was the design of Pharaoh to drive Moses and Aaron far away, that they might never agitate any more for the departure of the people; and if he had obtained this wish, he would doubtless have remitted some part of his abominable cruelty; but, because they did not cease, he wished to extort from the people by bitter sufferings, that they should send them away themselves, or refuse even to lend an ear to the commands of God. For although he must have been perfectly conscious that there was no reason to accuse the people of idleness, but that the tale of bricks was not delivered, because the poor wretches, who had been hardly able before to perform half their labor, were now incapable, by the utmost exertion, to bear their burdens, and therefore sees that they are altogether overwhelmed by them; yet still he reproaches them with reveling in idleness, in order that they may turn away from Moses, and renounce and abandon the hope presented to them from on high. And, because he can only torment them more by killing them outright, he commands their officers to be beaten, that by their punishment the whole people might be in greater dread. Finally, those whom he saw standing too firmly, he determined to drive at last to despair. He is deaf to every excuse of the officers; for when he had once made up his mind to crush the people until he had destroyed in them all recollection of God, there is no more feeling or pity in him than in a stone.

19. And the officers of the children of Israel did see. Some take the Hebrew word רע7070     רע, evil; A V., they (were) in evil (case.) The question for translators has been whether the pronoun in this clause may be rendered themselves S M has said, cum moerore; Hebraice cum malo, scilicet aspectu. Alii exponunt hic אותם pro נפשם, ut est sensus, viderunt praefecti Israelitorum se esse in magno moerore. The LXX. and the V. have rendered the pronoun by words equivalent to themselves W , rang, for “grief,” but refer it to the people; as though it were said, “the officers did see the people sorrowful, when they informed them of the command of the king.” But the simpler sense, in my opinion, will be, that they saw no remedy for their evil case, and that they could not be delivered from the cruel bondage in which they were. Some also explain it, that the officers themselves felt, from their own experience, after they had been so inhumanly repulsed by the king, how unhappy was their condition. But if I must choose either meaning, I should prefer what I have above stated, that they themselves sympathized with the public calamity, whilst they could see no hope of deliverance. Unless, perhaps, it would be better thus to take it, — that, when they came into the people’s presence, they were themselves of sad countenance, and looked upon them with looks cast down by sorrow and shame, because they brought the cruel edict for doubling their labour. And certainly I willingly embrace this meaning, that when they were forced to promulgate the command of the king, their countenances betrayed their sorrow, because they could not evade the necessity of being the ministers of his ungodly tyranny and cruelty. For Moses adds immediately after, that they delivered the edict. Hence, then, their mournful aspect, because they unwillingly oppressed their brethren, whose troubles they would have preferred to lighten. The sum of the matter is, that their case was altogether desperate; because the officers themselves conveyed this message of the unchangeable cruelty of the tyrant, and by the agitation of their countenances bore witness that no mitigation could be hoped for.

20. And they met Moses. Some translate it,7171     In saying “some translate,” C. is again adverting to S.M., but has rather chosen, with our A.V., to follow the LXX. and Vulgate. — W. “they met together with Moses,” taking the particle את, eth, for “together with;” but it is more in accordance with the context that the officers and some part of the elders or people encountered Moses and Aaron as they returned from Pharaoh. An accidental meeting is indicated, from whence it arose that their minds were still more exasperated against the Lord’s servants. That blind grief is here described which, with a fury akin to madness, aroused the Israelites to unfounded anger against the innocent, who had deserved nothing of the kind. It is not indeed wonderful that they were so brutalized by the weight of their sorrows as to lose all sense of justice, and were even so completely driven out of their minds, as unreasonably to vent their indignation against the ministers of their deliverance; for this not unfrequently happens; but although it may be too common a fault, yet are not they free from the accusation of ingratitude who are carried away thus inconsiderately by the force of their passions; nay, we should learn from this example how carefully we ought to restrain our grief, which, if indulged, parts company both with reason and with kindness. For what could be more unjust than because Pharaoh is tyrannical and cruel to lay the blame on Moses and Aaron? But; this outbreak arose from want of faith; because they measure the favor of God by their immediate success. They had lately thanked God for their promised redemption; now, as if they had been deceived, they accuse Moses and Aaron. Hence we gather how wavering was their faith, which vanishes at once upon so slight a cause. If the calling of Moses had not been ratified by miracles, they might have taken occasion to be angry from their ill success; but now, when they had experimentally known that God was the author of the whole proceeding, it is an act of perversity and falsehood to accuse Moses of rashness; and thus they do injustice not only to a mortal man, but to God their deliverer — an injustice which is doubled by the blasphemous abuse of His name, when they speak of Him as the promoter of a bad cause. For the expression, “the Lord — judge,” is, as it were, to impose upon Him the law by which He must condemn Himself. On this account intemperate grief is still more to be watched against, which, whilst it bursts out immoderately against men, does not even spare God. They did not indeed think that they were reproaching God and rejecting His loving-kindness; for the excess of their passion had transported them out of themselves. Meantime we must mark the source of the evil, namely, that they were impatient, because God did not immediately complete what He had promised, but deferred it for a time; and again, because they sought to be exempted from every evil. Thus they preferred rotting, as it were, in their miseries, to suffering some little inconvenience for the hope of the favor of God. And this cowardice is natural to almost all of us, that we prefer to be without God’s help rather than to suffer under the cross, whilst He leads us to salvation gradually, and sometimes by a circuitous path. Nothing indeed is sweeter than to hear that our afflictions are regarded by God, and that He will come to our relief in tribulation; but if God’s favor awakens the wrath of the ungodly against us, we shall be prepared to abandon all His promises rather than purchase the hopes they afford at so great a price. In the meantime, we see how kindly God contended with the intemperate and corrupt conduct of His people. For certainly by reproaching Moses and Aaron so rudely, the Israelites rejected (as far as in them lay) that message respecting their deliverance which they at first had greedily received; and yet He ceased not to carry on His work even to the end.

22. And Moses returned. This return unto the Lord is here used in a bad sense for forsaking his office; for Moses is not related to have either calmly prayed, or, as in a difficult emergency, to have humbly sought counsel of the Lord; but, leaving the men with whom he had to do, to have gone back in disgust to God, to demand his dismissal. He returned, then, to God, that the whole undertaking might be abandoned, as though he had never been sent. This is what the words convey, since he openly expostulates with God, because He had permitted His people to be more cruelly entreated, though He had promised them deliverance. At first sight, his madness would seem to be greater than that of the whole people, because he directly and openly accuses God as the author of all the evil which Pharaoh had inflicted; yet I doubt not but that he rather sorrowfully recounted the complaints of the people than spoke his own sentiments. Still his bitterness is not altogether excusable, when he repents of his vocation, and is indignant, because an unsuccessful charge had been intrusted to him. But when he accuses the slackness of God in redeeming His people, it is made apparent how deep is the darkness which had taken possession of his mind. He had been forewarned in good time of the hardness of Pharaoh’s heart; he had heard that he would not yield until crushed by God’s mighty hand; now, forgetting of all, he marvels that their redemption is not complete. The same thing often occurs to us, that the doctrine of faith and hope, which in peaceful times shines brightly in our hearts and echoes from our tongue, is altogether lost when we come to serious conflict. Wherefore we ought to devote ourselves with greater goodwill to its study, that even in the most trying circumstances the recollection of it may be our support.