After having met with the elders of the “sons [or people] of Israel,” Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh, informing him that “YHWH the God of Israel” was telling him to let his people depart from Egypt to observe a festival in the wilderness. Defiantly, Pharaoh declared: “Who is YHWH that I should obey [literally, hear] his voice and let Israel go? I do not know YHWH, and moreover I will not let Israel go.” Pharaoh knew that YHWH was the God of the people he had enslaved, but he did not “know” or recognize him as the true God who had to be obeyed. Furthermore, he did not believe that he would face serious consequences for resisting YHWH’s will. (5:1, 2; see the Note section regarding the comments of Josephus.)
Apparently Moses related the message to Aaron who then conveyed it to Pharaoh, saying: “The God of the Hebrews has met with us. Let us go, we request, a journey of three days into the wilderness and sacrifice to YHWH our God, lest he fall upon us with pestilence or with the sword.” Disobedience would have led to his withdrawing protection from his people, leading to their either being afflicted with serious disease or coming under military attack in their vulnerable position in the land of Goshen. In response, Pharaoh accused Moses and Aaron of keeping the people from their labors and added, “Get to your burdens [or labors].” It appears that he believed that, for the Israelites to desist from their burdens would be disruptive to Egypt, for the people were numerous. So he objected with the words, “And you made them rest from their burdens [or labors].” (5:3-5)
Pharaoh decided to make the labors of the enslaved Israelites more difficult. That same day he gave a charge to the taskmasters and the foremen of the people of Israel not to provide them with straw as an ingredient for making bricks. Instead, they were to gather it themselves and still make the same quantity of bricks as had been their previous quota. He claimed that they were lazy and that, because of not having enough to do, they wanted to leave and sacrifice to their God. Pharaoh insisted that heavier work be imposed on the Israelite men so that they would cease paying attention to lying words. Apparently what he termed “lying words” or deceitful promises related to the opportunity the Israelites would have to depart in order to sacrifice to their God. (5:6-9)
In keeping with the command of Pharaoh, the taskmasters and foremen told the Israelite laborers that they would not be given any straw. (5:10) To make the bricks, workers would mix finely chopped-up pieces of straw with the clay, moisten the mixture with water, and trample it underfoot. With the straw in the clay, the substance was easier to mold by hand or to be pressed into four-sided wooden molds. Additionally, as has been established by experiments in modern times, the inclusion of straw in the clay made the sun-dried or kiln-dried bricks three times stronger than bricks made without the use of straw.
After being told that they would have to get the straw themselves and still have to produce the same amount of bricks, the laborers scattered throughout Egypt to find stubble. Although this required significant time that otherwise could have been used for making bricks, the Egyptian taskmasters insisted that the workers meet the daily production quota. When they failed, the Israelite foremen whom the Egyptian taskmasters had placed in charge of the Israelite workforce were beaten and asked why the daily quota of bricks had not been attained. Therefore, the foremen complained to Pharaoh for what had happened to them because the workers were not given straw. He callously answered them, “You are idle; you are idle. Therefore, you say, Let us go to sacrifice to YHWH. And now go, work; and straw will not be given to you, and the same number of bricks you must deliver.” (5:11-18)
The Israelite foreman recognized the impossible situation in which they had been placed. So when they met Moses and Aaron after having left Pharaoh’s presence, the foremen said to them, “May YHWH look upon you and judge, for you have made us a stench in the eyes of Pharaoh and in the eyes of his servants [or court officials] and have put a sword in their hand to kill us.” According to the Septuagint rendering, the foremen blamed Moses and Aaron for having put such a sword into the hand of Pharaoh so as to kill them. Disheartened by the unfavorable developments, Moses directed his complaint to YHWH. “Why, O Lord, have you done evil to this people? Why now did you send me? And since I came to Pharaoh to speak in your name, he has done evil to this people, and you have not delivered [literally, and delivering, you have not delivered] your people.” (5:19-23)
In his Antiquities (II, xiii, 2), Josephus indicated that Moses called Pharaoh’s attention to what he had done for the Egyptians. Moses “came to the king who had indeed but lately received the government and told him how much he had done for the good of the Egyptians when they were despised by the Ethiopians and their country had been laid waste by them; and how he had been the commander of their forces and had labored for them as if they had been his own people.” Moses “informed him in what danger he had been during that expedition, without having any proper” rewards given to him “as he had deserved.” He also told Pharaoh concerning what had happened to him at Mount Sinai, what God had said to him, and the signs God did to assure him of the authority of the commands he had given him. Moses also exhorted Pharaoh not to disbelieve what he had told him nor to oppose God’s will.