Beyond the Lectionary Text: Exodus 5
by Joel Schreurs
I once read that this is the amount of time the CEOs of large corporations are encouraged to spend ignoring any subordinate who has the nerve to enter into his boss’s office and request a moment of her time. How those ten seconds are spent does not matter. A savvy CEO might shuffle through a stack of papers on her desk, call up a secretary and put in a lunch order, or simply click around on the computer for a few extra moments before looking up. The important thing is to keep one’s underlings waiting. Doing so is one more way that a shrewd CEO can establish who is in control and wields the power. And who does not.
I am unsure how common these tactics are in corporate world. However, it is easy to imagine that Pharaoh played similar power games when Moses and Aaron first stepped into his throne room. Perhaps Pharaoh pretended to be extra interested in the scroll he was reading or refused to look up from his crossword puzzle. Maybe he left the two men standing there, nervously shifting their weight from one foot to another, while he ordered a glass of lemonade and a backrub. We are not sure exactly what Pharaoh did when Moses and Aaron entered the room. But as Exodus 5 unfolds, one thing is clear: Pharaoh is a man determined to prove that he is calling the shots in Egypt. It is not Moses. It is not Aaron. And it is certainly not that God whom they claim to represent. Pharaoh is bent on showing that he is the boss in Egypt–and that the people of Israel work for him. (As we will see below in in our Textual Observations, this is an assertion with which the people of Israel seem all too eager to agree!)
All of this makes Exodus 5 a pivotal chapter in the drama of Exodus. In this chapter, the battle lines are drawn. It’s Pharaoh verses YHWH, the God of Israel. Both are in competition for the allegiance and service of the people of Israel and, for the time being at least, Pharaoh appears to rule the day. Who is the Lord? Pharaoh says with a dismissive wave of his hand. I do not know him. Pharaoh further demonstrates his contempt for YHWH in his response to Moses’ request. While Moses says in verse 1: Thus says the LORD, let my people rest, Pharaoh demands the opposite. To top off the insult, Pharaoh then has his messengers offer a cruel parody of Moses in verse 10. Thus says Pharaoh, they shout. Make my people work!
In the end, Pharaoh’s snubbing of YHWH comes back to bite him. (His command seems to be the straw that breaks the proverbial camel’s back!) Pharaoh claims that he does not even know who the God of Israel is and so, over the next several chapters, God shows him. As the narrator tells us again and again, God sends the plagues so that all of Egypt–and all of Israel–will know who He is (cf. 7:17; 8:10, 22; 9:14, 29; 10:2; 11:7; 14:4, 17.) Eventually, Pharaoh learns his lesson. It is YHWH–and YHWH alone!–who has the rightful claim on the lives of his people!
Frederick Buechner once warned that preachers must beware of being “more spiritual than God himself.” The warning is worth considering when preparing a sermon on Exodus 5. Because of the propensity of the word “work” in this text, one might naturally wonder if this text lends itself to a sermon about the nuts and bolts realities of the modern workplace. Could this text be read this be a cautionary tale about the dangers of all-consuming jobs and the need for appropriate rhythms of rest and worship? Given the dearth of sermons in many churches on the subject of work–and the importance of the topic–it is certainly an attractive option to consider. However, a closer look at the meaning and usage of the word in both this chapter and in the rest of Exodus suggests that the narrator likely had larger concerns on his mind. These concerns encapsulate not only the hours we spend at our places of work, but our entire lives.
The language of “service” (based on the Hebrew root ebed) occurs seven times in the second half of Exodus 5. Nearly half of these occurrences are in verses 15-16, when the Israelite foreman insist (three times!) that they are the servants (‘ēḇēḏ) of Pharaoh. The same root also occurs in verse 9. Pharaoh declares that he will not allow the Israelites to go and make sacrifices to their God. Instead, he will make the “work” (‘abodah) harder. A similar usage occurs in verse 18 (as well as in 1:13-14), when Pharaoh tells the Israelite to “Go, work!” (‘āḇāḏ). Pharaoh clearly believes that the people of Israel work for him. And the people of Israel do not seem inclined to argue.
So what is the significance of Pharaoh’s claim, and Israel’s surrender to it? Well, chiefly that God has already made his own claim on Israel! In Exodus 3:12, God promised Moses that Israel would one day “serve” (‘abad) Him on the same mountain where Moses met Him in the burning bush. And in 4:23, just before Moses marched into Pharaoh’s throne room, God instructed Moses to pass the message on to Pharaoh: “Let my son [Israel] go so that he may serve (‘āḇāḏ) me.” In the end, this is exactly what Pharaoh agrees to do. In an ironic echo of 5:18, an exasperated Pharaoh finally commands Israel: Go, serve (‘āḇāḏ) YHWH! (12:31) The pressing question the reader is then left with is: Will they actually do it? Will these people who were once so eager to declare themselves as servants of Pharaoh (cf. 5:15-16) come to acknowledge YHWH as their rightful Lord? Or will they try to turn back to their old, cruel master? Who will Israel serve?
And more to the point: who will we serve?
The good news is that we who were “slaves to sin” (Romans 6) have been set free from what the Heidelberg Catechism calls “the tyranny of the Devil” through the death and resurrection of Jesus. But now that we have been set free, will we be tempted to go back to our old task master? Or will we submit to the One whose yoke is easy and whose burden is light?
Questions to Consider
A preacher who approaches Exodus 5 in the manner suggested above will face twin challenges when trying to usher her congregation into the world of this text. The first (perhaps not at all unique to Exodus 5), will be to help help a congregation of relatively “good”, church going people remember at a visceral level that apart from Christ, they are, in fact, enslaved to sin. How might preachers prick the hearts of people who regularly drop their money in the offering plate and teach seven-year-olds Bible stories and spend their Thursday evenings volunteering in soup kitchens so that they sense they are people who needed–and in fact, may still need–Someone to set them free from the powers of sin and death?
The second challenge, closely related to the first, is no less daunting. This challenge is to help congregants grasp the nature of true freedom. Flannery O’Connor once remarked: “The Catholic novelist believes that you destroy your freedom by sin; the modern readers believe, I think, that you gain it in that way.” O’Connor’s observation is a helpful reminder that many people in the pew may have a radically different understanding of “freedom” than is found in scripture. Many North American listeners will implicitly believe that “freedom” means the right to do whatever one desires; “freedom” means self-determination and self-rule. However, when read in the context of the rest of the book, Exodus 5 reminds us that none of us are our own masters. All of us are working for someone. True freedom, then, is not found in the absence of a master (for there is no such thing). It is found when we give ourselves over to the one Master and Lord who will only demand our lives after laying down his own for our sakes.
Some years ago, it was revealed that Woody Allen was having an affair with the adopted daughter of his longtime partner and mother of his own children, Mia Farrow. The girl was just seventeen at the time, and even Hollywood blushed at the twisted nature of the affair. When Allen was asked to to defend his relationship, he could only reply with a shrug and say, “The heart wants what it wants.”
“The heart wants what it wants.” Our sins may be different from Allen’s, but often, our justification for them is not. Too often, we are all too willing to submit to the tyranny of our own hearts. Feel the urge to spew vitriol on Facebook or click on that tantalizing link? Need to max out your credit cards while engaging in some “retail therapy”? Go right ahead. “The heart wants what it wants.” And, as Neal Plantinga once put it, “the imperial self overrules all.” (Cornelius Plantinga, Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin, p. 62.)
But thankfully, it doesn’t need to rule us forever. Christ, by his mercy, has set us free from the tyranny of sin–and from the tyranny of our own hearts. Sometimes, this freedom doesn’t come all at once. Instead, we experience it little by little, over weeks, months, years or even decades. And yet, it does come. By the grace of God, it comes!
Rev. Joel Schreurs is the pastor of First Christian Reformed Church, Denver, CO.