Summary: Moses Confronts Pharaoh with the warning that only yahweh is truly God.
Well, the moment of confrontation has come. Our reluctant hero has agreed to go to Pharaoh and demand that he let the people of Israel go. He’s left his Father in law’s sheep in the desert and now comes to the door of Pharaoh’s palace. (Ex 5) You can imagine how he must have been feeling. Butterflies in his stomach. Unsure of himself. Fearful. Voice shaking a bit but hoping that Pharaoh won’t notice. Knees probably shaking a lot. Yet he comes with the words he’s been given by God: "This is what the LORD, the God of Israel says: ’Let my people go that they might worship me in the desert.’"
And what is Pharaoh’s response? "Who is the LORD, that I should heed him and let Israel go?" I don’t know this LORD of yours. I choose not to know him. And so the drama begins to unfold. And as it unfolds we discover there are two levels to this confrontation.
There’s the human level, of Moses vs Pharaoh and their differing reactions to what God does. But this only serves to bring out the deeper level of the conflict between the God of Israel and the gods of the Egyptians. As we’ll see in a moment what’s at stake here is who is truly God? What if I don’t recognise him as God? Or are there many gods, all of whom compete for our worship? These are the same questions people today ask, as we look around at our multicultural, multi-faith society. Is there only one God, or are all gods equal?
Pharaoh appears as an arrogant and stubborn man. He sees himself as a God-King in his own land, so why should he listen to the god of some foreigners. Like many people in positions of power he uses his power to get his own way. He questions why Moses and Aaron would want to take the people away from their labour. He tells them to get back to work. He uses his power to hurt those he has power over, thinking that will cower them; break them, so they don’t have time to cause trouble. He says they’re lazy. He blames the victim rather than the oppressor.
So the Israelite foremen come to appeal to Pharaoh but get no respite. They’re still expected to produce the same number of bricks but will have to gather their own straw.
Well, you can imagine how that made the people feel. They weren’t too happy with Moses at this stage. As far as they could see, they were worse off now than they had been before Moses got involved. And they tell him so: (Exo 5:21 NRSV) "The LORD look upon you and judge! You have brought us into bad odor with Pharaoh and his officials, and have put a sword in their hand to kill us." Now notice how the people think about God at this stage. He’s a God who judges those who act wrongly. This is the most common misunderstanding of the way God is portrayed in the Old Testament. That in the Old Testament, God is a God of Judgement, while in the New Testament he’s a God of salvation. Is there also a hint that they see God as the God of the status quo. There are a few people in the Anglican church who think that. But they’ve got it wrong haven’t they? God isn’t the God who judges, nor is he the God of the status quo. He’s the God of promise. In both Old and New Testaments. And He’s the God who wants people to trust him to fulfill those promises.
Well, this encounter with the Israelite foremen shakes Moses’ confidence. He begins to worry that maybe he got it wrong. But he does the right thing even if the way he does it isn’t very trusting. He turns to God in prayer and asks what’s going on. Why hasn’t God done what he said? If he’s the God of the promise why hasn’t he fulfilled his promise? In fact the opposite seems to be true. Ever since he went to Pharaoh, things have got worse and God hasn’t rescued his people at all.
It must have been hard for Moses mustn’t it? I wonder have you ever been in the position of having to do something that others didn’t think was right? It’s very hard to stand up for what you believe God has said when those around you, particularly if they’re fellow believers, are questioning whether you’ve got it right.
But then God answers Moses. He says "Now you will see what I will do to Pharaoh." This has just been the first move in the game. The opening gambit. It wouldn’t have been fair to have punished Pharaoh before he was given a chance to change his mind. But now that we see his true character, that is, his arrogance and pride, we can proceed to show him the true character and power of God. If he wants to know who this LORD is, then we’ll show him.