Monday, December 17, 2012

The People Cannot Meet Pharaoh’s Increased Demands -- Exodus 5:10-14

So the taskmasters of the people and their foremen went out and spoke to the people, saying, “Thus says Pharaoh, ‘I am not going to give you any straw.  You go and get straw for yourselves wherever you can find it; but none of your labor will be reduced.’”  So the people scattered through all the land of Egypt to gather stubble for straw.  And the taskmasters pressed them, saying, “Complete your work quota, our daily amount, just as when you had straw.”  Moreover, the foremen of the sons of Israel, whom Pharaoh’s taskmasters had set over them, were beaten and were asked, “Why have you not completed our required amount either yesterday or today in making brick as previously?”
Angry at the requests of Aaron and Moses, Pharaoh decides to make the laboring of his Hebrew slaves even harder.  His taskmasters and foremen (two different levels of command) go out and inform the people of his new wishes.  We note that they quote Pharaoh either in order to give the new instructions their proper authority (likely the reason the taskmasters did so) or as a way of indirectly telling the Hebrews it was not they that were doing this (likely the reason the foremen who worked directly with slaves did so).
In order to meet the demands of the Pharaoh, the Hebrews had to scatter throughout Egypt to gather stubble for straw, and then return to where they were making bricks to still manufacture the same amount of bricks as before within the same period of time.  Each day, as fields were scavenged and cleared, the Hebrews had to go further and further, which took up more time.  This resulted in a very tall demand which many would find impossible to accomplish.  While the Egyptians may have had their bountiful sources of straw, the Hebrews could only find ‘stubble’ from fields where the wheat or straw had long been reaped.
Many questions could be asked here.  How far did they really have to go?  How was this organized?  Who supervised them?  And so on.  I think we just have to take the Scriptures at their word that this did indeed happen somehow.  Maybe our ‘time frames’ are out.  Or maybe we are missing some other information that would make it all seem plausible to us.  But we do know some Hebrews could not accomplish the task and the taskmasters would press them to do so.  Those who have seen the old classic movie, The Ten Commandments with Charlton Heston may well remember the dreadful scenes of Hebrews being whipped for their inability to keep up.
And then the passage introduces us to the fact that the ‘foremen’ rank (either all of them or just some of them) was comprised of actual Hebrews who were selected to assist the Egyptian taskmasters in getting the work out of their people.  This is very similar to trade union shops where we have management supervisors but union foremen today.  The interesting thing was that the taskmasters beat these Hebrew foremen for their inability to get their charges producing at the required levels.  I suppose the old idea being that since you cannot beat and punish all those falling short, get at least their leaders and thus try to motivate them (for their own sake) to get the others to fall in line.
Chuck Smith in his C2000 series on this passage refers us to the findings of archeologists in the area of one of these cities that the Hebrews built for the Pharaoh.  There the digs provided evidence of bricks with evenly spread straw throughout them in the lower parts of the walls.  Higher up it was uneven straw spread in the bricks and near the top of the walls there was only stubble and even roots to be found in the bricks.  This is a clear testimony to this passage in Exodus.  One can actually see this in the ruins of Pithim.
David Guzik points out that life under the leadership of Moses and his brother, Aaron, was not going too well for the children of Israel.  This had to be very disappointing for them and for Moses.  To whom will the Hebrews turn now that things are even worse?
As I searched for the meaning of this passage for us today, I was led to the commentary of Matthew Henry.  He says it so well:
See here, (1.) What a miserable thing slavery is, and what reason we have to be thankful to God that we are a free people, and not oppressed. Liberty and property are valuable jewels in the eyes of those whose services and possessions lie at the mercy of an arbitrary power. (2.) What disappointments we often meet with after the raising of our expectations. The Israelites were now lately encouraged to hope for enlargement, but behold greater distresses. This teaches us always to rejoice with trembling. (3.) What strange steps God sometimes takes in delivering his people; he often brings them to the utmost straits when he is just ready to appear for them. The lowest ebbs go before the highest tides; and very cloudy mornings commonly introduce the fairest days, Deut. 32:36. God’s time to help is when things are at the worst; and Providence verifies the paradox, The worse the better.
So what do we make of it all.  I believe many of us live in similar circumstances today, either individually or as a society.  We value our freedom, but stand the chance of losing it.  Many recently had their hopes raised as they were promised ‘change’ – whether it was in their home life from a spouse, in their work from a boss, in their church from an elders’ board, or in their nation from a president.  But greater distress, as Henry says, resulted.  What do we do?  Henry suggests we have to ‘rejoice with trembling’ that God is in control.  We have to realize that as God He can take some ‘strange steps’ to deliver us.
Are you and I at our lowest ebb?  If so do not fret, the highest tide is coming.  One cannot value a very clear and fair day unless a cloudy one preceded it.  And here is the clincher for me – to know that as Matthew Henry says, “God’s time to help is when things are at the worst.”  We’re nearly home, friends.

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