Moses and Aaron had met with the elders of Israel and told them what happened and how God promised to deliver them from Egypt. So they next take their request to pharaoh, and not only does he deny them, he actually makes life worse for the Israelites. Pharaoh says “who is the LORd, that I should heed his voice?”
This is a very prescient question for him to ask, because he’ll know very well who God is by the time this book of the Old Testament is over. If you think about it, he has a point too; here’s two people speaking on behalf of a God he’s never heard of, and he’s supposed to just listen to them? Over the next few chapters we’ll clearly see that for him personally, and his kingdom, it would’ve been best if he had. But I really can’t blame him at this point for being uncooperative.
hat he does in response though just shows how cruel and capricious he could be. It’s one thing to say “no”, it’s another to then make like more difficult for everyone involved. He calls in his taskmasters and instructs them to keep the slaves working at all times, and to take away one of the raw materials they used in their work. They’re out in the hot Egyptian sun making bricks, and now they have to scavenge and forage for the straw used in brickmaking, all while still meeting their quotas, or the punishment was a beating.
He says this is all because they’re too idle and if they work more they won’t have need for time off to worship God. Keep in mind that the initial request was to take three days to go into the wilderness to make sacrifices to God, so if he’d just said yes they would’ve been back in no time, but due to his hardness of heart they’re going to be liberated and leave forever.
After their straw is taken away and the people are beaten, they come to Moses and accuse him of just making life worse for them. And while this is absolutely true in the moment, they have no concept of a better future. This plays out over and over again during the Exodus; they complain about today and forget about tomorrow. It’s easy to read this and think it’s a problem confined to the 2nd millennium BC and to these particular people, but we can do it too. We pray and ask God to help us with an immediate problem, but when the fix doesn’t come today we can lose heart very easily and get dejected, but God is still with us even when we are being ungrateful like these Israelites are going to be from this point forward till they enter the promised land.
Moses seems to take their criticism hard and goes to the Lord and asks why he was even sent on this mission if things are going to get worse like this. So God goes back over all the promises made to the patriarchs from Abraham all the way down to Moses himself and promises that when this is all over, the children of Israel will be slaves no longer.
This chapter begins with the parable of the workers in the vineyard. This is meant to reflect the history of Israel and their role in the story salvation. They had been there, and laboring in the vineyard so to speak, since the beginning of this story, and then others came along (gentiles) and are being brought in to work the vineyard late in the day. These latecomers do far less work, and for far less hours, but the pay (eternal life) is the same. There’s no Jewish section and gentile section of heaven, all who work this vineyard receive the same reward. And we have no right to demand any more for ourselves, or take issue with what others are paid, because it’s all a grace from God that we are actually unworthy of. That’s the essence of what He is telling them here.
Early Christian theologian, Origen, had another way of looking at it. He said that it wasn’t so much a commentary of Jews and gentiles, it was about those who’d been Christians all their lives and those who converted right before they die. In the end we all receive the same reward, but that’s not unjust because we are all undeserving of it to begin with.
After this parable, Jesus again tells the disciples about His coming passion. So when the mother of James and John, two of His closest apostles, approached and asked that her sons be given preferential positions in Christ’s kingdom, and Jesus asks if they can drink the cup which He will drink, we see He is referring back to the previous statement. The cup is the same cup He later prays about in the garden of gethsemane after the Last supper. I highly recommend checking out Scott Hahn’s book “The Fourth Cup” for more on this.