Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Cost of Being Bold, Honest, and Clear -- Exodus 5:3-9

Then they said, “The God of the Hebrews has met with us.  Please, let us go a three days’ journey into the wilderness that we may sacrifice to the Lord our God, lest He fall upon us with pestilence or with the sword.”  But the king of Egypt said to them, “Moses and Aaron, why do you draw the people away from their work?  Get back to your labors!”  Again Pharaoh said, “Look, the people of the land are now many, and you would have them cease from their labors!”  So the same day Pharaoh commanded the taskmasters over the people and their foremen, saying, “You are no longer to give the people straw to make brick as previously; the them go and gather straw for themselves.  But the quota of bricks which they were making previously, you shall impose on them; you are not to reduce any of it.  Because they are lazy, therefore they cry out, ‘Let us go and sacrifice to our God.’  Let the labor be heavier on the men, and let them work at it that they may pay no attention to false words.”
The previous passage has Pharaoh saying, “I don’t know this God of Israel, who is He, and I won’t let the people go.”  But Moses and Aaron, undistracted, just keep on with their clear message in their dealings with him.  They only change the description of God from the ‘God of Israel’ to the ‘God of the Hebrews’.  They tell Pharaoh He has met with them and that the people are to go into the wilderness to sacrifice to Him and imply the people will suffer great consequences of they do not.  [I am not sure where they got this second idea from except their own fear of failing to obey God, unless the word ‘us’ was referring to both the Israelites and the Egyptians together, with Moses’ foreknowledge of what God would do the Egyptians if Pharaoh did not let his people go, although I doubt it.  It seems to me to apply to the Hebrews, and that it was a humanly added descriptive to what might happen if they did not go to sacrifice.  It was their way of convincing Pharaoh this was a good thing to do because if the Hebrews die as a result of not going, then he would lose his slaves, according to Bible commentator Matthew Henry.  We often tend to give God’s message a little help when it does not need it.]
Notice Pharaoh addressed them by name.  Was he being paternalistic or did he know them fairly well by now?  We don’t know for sure.  It is possible that this whole thing did not happen in one single occurrence, but over a period of time and a number of meetings.
While Moses and Aaron approached Pharaoh on an issue involving the Almighty God, Pharaoh was only concerned about what was important to him – the potential loss of labor.   It was all about greed.  And is not that the case today when we talk to people about God?  They often miss the eternal significance of our words and worry about what they may have to give up in order to please Him.  Certainly Pharaoh was saying, “forget about God, don’t distract the people; let them work and you go back to your labors!”  It is not known whether that last phrase implied Moses and Aaron were to go back to their work as a priest in Aaron’s case and as a leader representative in the case of Moses, or whether they too had some level of ‘slave-like’ duties to perform.  Pharaoh then said to the two of them, “Look you guys, you can’t just have thousands of these people stop their labor.”  I’m sure Moses and Aaron thought, “Well, yes, Pharaoh, you can do exactly that if God wants it stopped.  However, I guess you’ll have to learn the hard way.”  And with that thought, disappointed perhaps in the failure of their efforts, but warned in advance that this would be the case, the brothers left Pharaoh and ended their beseeching him at this time.
But evil does not often abate when good men have raised their concerns and ended their pleadings.  No, sometimes the perpetrator decides to augment the atrocities just to show who is in charge.  And that is exactly what happened in this case.
Notice the passage says, “So the same day . . . ” Pharaoh gave a new order to his taskmasters and their foremen.  From now on, the Hebrews had to gather their own straw to make the bricks they had to make; no longer would the Egyptians bring the straw to them.  And the amount of bricks demanded remained the same within a given period of time – that is, no change in daily quota requirements.  In short, they were being punished because of what their leaders had asked of Pharaoh.
Here clearly is an excellent example of the risks of being a godly leader today, following the commands of God.  Not only do you risk your own life and freedom to do so, but also you risk the welfare of all those you represent, perhaps even more so.  This is an awesome responsibility that cannot be entered into it lightly.  Not only must one be certain of what God expects, but one must also have the intestinal fortitude, the emotional makeup if you like, the courage, the strength, to carry it out – because the consequences can be significant to many.  I am not for a moment suggesting that we shy away from such responsibilities if God gives them to us, but I am suggesting that we enter into them fully aware of the implications.  It also behooves those of us who are represented by such leaders to understand what it takes for them to lead, and to uphold them in our prayers, ready to do our part in following the commands of God.
The closest example I can think of to parallel this is the decision of presidents and generals to engage in a war or battle, knowing that the lives of men and women and even children will be at stake.  The leader that goes with the troops to the extent possible, rather than just sends them, is always the one who is to be respected more highly.  The farthest example I can think of is today’s business union agent or representative who facilitates and encourages members of a local to go on strike for a long time, putting the welfare and livelihood of the workers’ families at high risk, while he continues to enjoy his high salaries and benefits that are provided to him by the rich union coffers held at the national headquarters of the organization.  These types of leaders deserve little respect in my opinion.
Finally, in this passage, we see a ruler’s attempt to explain the actions of those that oppose him.  Pharaoh explains the peoples’ pleas to being allowed to go and sacrifice are not genuine, but are only being made because they are ‘lazy’ workers and people.  He insists they just want time off, totally denying any validity to their requests.  And to offset that, he ordered the men be given heavier work, while explaining his rationale as the need to distract them from such foolish and false ideas that come from their leaders, Moses and Aaron.  That is the way it is today with dictatorships that have gone awry.
While Karl Marx, the German revolutionary socialist/communist thousands of years after Pharaoh, had no use for religion himself, he did see it as an “opium of the people” that allowed them to deal with their sufferings but at the same time held them back from the ability to pursue true freedom from the real enemy, the slavery caused by illusionary religion, in his opinion.  Pharaoh, on the other hand, simply chose to alleviate religion’s impact by piling on extra work.  Neither approach – that of Marx or the Pharaoh’s worked – for true religion is an expression of faith to, worship of, and a personal relationship with, the Creator of the universe.  It is the only thing that satisfies mankind’s innate thirsting need to make sense of his physical reality with his spiritual nature.  My prayer is that each of us has satisfied that need through the knowledge of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.

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