Gotta serve somebody



‘Help us to know you that we may truly love you, so to love you that we may fully serve you, whose service is perfect freedom’ (Augustine).

Bible passage

Exodus 5:1–21

Bricks without straw

5 Afterwards Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and said, ‘This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: “Let my people go, so that they may hold a festival to me in the wilderness.”’

Pharaoh said, ‘Who is the Lord, that I should obey him and let Israel go? I do not know the Lord and I will not let Israel go.’

Then they said, ‘The God of the Hebrews has met with us. Now let us take a three-day journey into the wilderness to offer sacrifices to the Lord our God, or he may strike us with plagues or with the sword.’

But the king of Egypt said, ‘Moses and Aaron, why are you taking the people away from their labour? Get back to your work!’ Then Pharaoh said, ‘Look, the people of the land are now numerous, and you are stopping them from working.’

That same day Pharaoh gave this order to the slave drivers and overseers in charge of the people: ‘You are no longer to supply the people with straw for making bricks; let them go and gather their own straw. But require them to make the same number of bricks as before; don’t reduce the quota. They are lazy; that is why they are crying out, “Let us go and sacrifice to our God.” Make the work harder for the people so that they keep working and pay no attention to lies.’

10 Then the slave drivers and the overseers went out and said to the people, ‘This is what Pharaoh says: “I will not give you any more straw. 11 Go and get your own straw wherever you can find it, but your work will not be reduced at all.”’ 12 So the people scattered all over Egypt to gather stubble to use for straw. 13 The slave drivers kept pressing them, saying, ‘Complete the work required of you for each day, just as when you had straw.’ 14 And Pharaoh’s slave drivers beat the Israelite overseers they had appointed, demanding, ‘Why haven’t you met your quota of bricks yesterday or today, as before?’

15 Then the Israelite overseers went and appealed to Pharaoh: ‘Why have you treated your servants this way? 16 Your servants are given no straw, yet we are told, “Make bricks!” Your servants are being beaten, but the fault is with your own people.’

17 Pharaoh said, ‘Lazy, that’s what you are – lazy! That is why you keep saying, “Let us go and sacrifice to the Lord.” 18 Now get to work. You will not be given any straw, yet you must produce your full quota of bricks.’

19 The Israelite overseers realised they were in trouble when they were told, ‘You are not to reduce the number of bricks required of you for each day.’ 20 When they left Pharaoh, they found Moses and Aaron waiting to meet them, 21 and they said, ‘May the Lord look on you and judge you! You have made us obnoxious to Pharaoh and his officials and have put a sword in their hand to kill us.’



Moses and Aaron gain access to Pharaoh’s court and, once there, make an audacious demand (v 1). The Hebrew verb ‘used’ demands more action than simply letting people go. John Goldingay suggests: ‘Send my people Israel off so they may hold a festival for me in the wilderness.’*

Why should Pharaoh acquiesce to this (v 4)? He does not even know this God of the Hebrews. Over the next few chapters of Exodus we will see the Lord revealing himself to Pharaoh, who gradually, grudgingly, learns to acknowledge that the Lord is King.

The Israelites will eventually be freed from their slavery in Egypt to hold a festival to the Lord in the wilderness (12:31). Their leaving will be marked with the feast of Passover, and they will travel to Sinai – probably Horeb where Moses had met with God at the burning bush (3:1–15) – and the place where the covenant between the Lord and his people will be established (Exodus 19,20). Freedom from slavery meant freedom to serve the Lord. As Paul wrote: ‘Now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God…’ (Romans 6:22). As Bob Dylan sang: ‘You gotta serve somebody, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord, but you gotta serve somebody’.**

*J Goldingay, Exodus and Leviticus for Everyone, John Knox Press, 2010 
B Dylan, ‘Slow Train Coming’, Columbia Records, 1979

Phil Winn


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