Shemot/Exodus 5:10 Thus says Pharaoh: I am not giving you straw.
The Hebrew phrase is a standard authority formula - we are told by Umberto Cassuto, "with which messengers introduce the words of their senders."1 It is composed of the particle , "thus, so, in this manner"2 (Davidson), and , the Qal 3ms affix part of perhaps the most frequently used verb in the Hebrew Bible, , "to say", and is followed first by the name of the authority or sender, and then by the words brought by the messenger. The formula is used 461 times in the Hebrew Scriptures, starting with, "Thus says your servant Ya'akov" (B'resheet 32:5, JPS) - the words Ya'akov instructs his servants to say to Esau when they meet him with their gifts of livestock - running through the history and the prophets to the last verse of the Hebrew Bible, "Thus says Cyrus king of Persia" (2 Chronicles 36:23, ESV) where Cyrus announces thatHaShem has instructed him to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem and encourages the Jews in exile to return to the Land. In particular, it is used of HaShem - - 291 times.
Cassuto comments that the formula is "repeated here in parallelism with the statement in verse one": "Thus says the L-RD, the G-d of Israel: Let My people go that they may celebrate a festival for Me in the wilderness" (Shemot 5:1, JPS), where Moshe and Aharon deliver HaShem's demand to Pharaoh. Cassuto again: "The command of Pharaoh, who is deemed a god in Egypt, is arrogantly announced in language similar to that in which Moshe and Aharon proclaimed the words of the L-rd." It is not that Pharaoh is not allowed to issue commands, send messengers and have them speak in his name. It is that Pharaoh immediately denied HaShem's authority - "Pharaoh said, 'Who is the L-RD that I should heed Him and let Israel go? I do not know the L-RD, nor will I let Israel go'" (v. 2, JPS) - and then issued his own commands using the same authority formula, thus mocking HaShem and claiming equality with Him at the same time. Nahum Sarna points out that "Pharaoh is now set upon a collision course with the G-d of Israel."
Questions of authority were very important in the ancient world. After the prophet Jeremiah had spoken to warn the king and the people - "For thus said the L-RD of Hosts, the G-d of Israel, concerning the vessels remaining in the House of the L-RD, in the royal palace of Judah, and in Jerusalem: They shall be brought to Babylon, and there they shall remain, until I take note of them -- declares the L-RD of Hosts -- and bring them up and restore them to this place" (Jeremiah 27:21-22, JPS) - he was challenged by the prophet Hananiah, "in the House of the L-RD, in the presence of the priests and all the people" (Jeremiah 28:1, JPS). Hananiah invoked the authority formula and contradicted the words that Jeremiah had spoken, saying, "Thus said the L-RD of Hosts, the G-d of Israel: I hereby break the yoke of the king of Babylon. In two years, I will restore to this place all the vessels of the House of the L-RD which King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon took from this place and brought to Babylon. And I will bring back to this place King Jeconiah son of Jehoiakim of Judah, and all the Judean exiles who went to Babylon -- declares the L-RD. Yes, I will break the yoke of the king of Babylon" (28:2-4, JPS). What were the people to think? Whom were they to believe? The L-rd stepped in to stop the confusion, sending Jeremiah to tell Hananiah, "Listen, Hananiah! The L-RD did not send you, and you have given this people lying assurances. Assuredly, thus said the L-RD: I am going to banish you from off the earth. This year you shall die, for you have urged disloyalty to the L-RD" (vv. 15-16, JPS). The text drily records what happened next; only two months after he challenged Jeremiah, "the prophet Hananiah died that year, in the seventh month" (v. 17, JPS). There was no doubt who spoke for the L-rd!
Authority was still being contested in Yeshua's day. Yeshua taught "as one having authority" (Matthew 7:20, NASB) and performed miracles of healing and cleansing to demonstrate His authority. When healing the paralysed man brought to him, He said, "that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins ... I say to you, rise, pick up your bed and go home" (Luke 5:24, ESV). Nevertheless, He was often challenged about His authority: "When He had come into the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to Him as He was teaching, and said, 'By what authority are You doing these things, and who gave You this authority?'" (Matthew 21:23, NASB). Time and again, as Rav Sha'ul travelled through Asia Minor and Greece, speaking in the synagogues, his authority to teach was always challenged when he departed from standard Jewish material. That is why he emphasises that "I am a Jew, born in Tarsus in Cilicia, but brought up in this city, educated at the feet of Gamaliel according to the strict manner of the law of our fathers, being zealous for God as all of you are this day" (Acts 22:3, ESV). To his audience, this matters; it is what gives him his credentials and authority to speak: "circumcised the eighth day, of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the Law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to the righteousness which is in the Law, found blameless" (Philippians 3:5-6, NASB). The rabbinic world today bases its authority on knowing who taught you and then who taught him - so that everybody has a place and a level.
According to Kavin Rowe,3 the argument set up in our text - "Thus says Pharaoh" vs. "Thus says the L-rd" - remains key in the book of Acts. There the issue is that Caesar has adopted the title "Lord of All" and divine status, bringing him (whichever Caesar it happens to be) onto a direct collision course with believers in Yeshua who recognise that, on the contrary, Yeshua is "Lord of All" (Romans 10:12). Rowe says, therefore, that reading the book of Acts (in particular, the New Testament in general) as an apologetic trying to persuade the Romans authorities that Christians are good law-abiding citizens and represent no threat to Roman civilisation, is invalid. On the contrary, the gospels, the letters and Acts all proclaim the lordship of Yeshua - "at His name every knee shall bow ... and every tongue shall confess Him as Lord" (Philippians 2:10;11). This proclamation radically undermines the basis of Roman law and order, religion and society because it insists that Caesar is not "Lord of All" but is a sinful man like everyone else. All the strings of the world do not flow through Caesar's hand.
The question of authority remains at the forefront today. Civilised society has set itself up as a god, proclaiming that it is lord of all. It offers wrap-around child-care and education from birth onwards, employment or benefit throughout life, social medicine and social care until death, while protecting all its citizens and keeping them safe from enemies of the state and each other. We don't even have to think. In fact, thinking is discouraged - it leads to bad ideas and will only get you into trouble. Society sets our values, our standards, our dress code, our morals and our ethics; it dictates what we watch, listen to and read - it is big brother. And yet, it is fundamentally on a collision course with the G-d of Israel because not only does it not believe in or acknowledge Him, it denies Yeshua and actively tries to remove Him from all official society functions such as education, welfare and justice. At the same time, society seeks to draw down goodwill, skills and volunteer labour from the followers of Yeshua to carry out its own program. Churches are co-opted to run creches, after school clubs, literacy programs, senior citizen activities - all the while having to promise not to proselytise - in the hope that parents and clients will ask the questions that enable a kingdom conversation. Who is in authority here? Is the kingdom of G-d being clearly presented and honoured? Is Yeshua proclaimed as L-rd of all?
At a personal level, we need to recognise the challenge in Pharaoh's words: I will no longer give you straw. If we have been set the task of making bricks by our G-d, then He will provide everything we need to accomplish that task. It is not within Pharaoh's remit to withdraw the straw or any other necessary provision that G-d has promised. If turbulence happens, then we must turn to G-d in Yeshua, cry out to Him and make sure that He is L-rd of all in our lives so that we proclaim Him in everything we do and the choices we take, even without words. He will not fail us; He is more than sufficient and - most importantly, He is L-rd of All.
1. - Umberto Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Exodus, Magnes Press, Jerusalem, 1983, 965-223-456-7
2. - Davidson also notes "here, now, meanwhile" as possible meanings in other contexts.
3. - C. Kavin Rowe, World Upside Down: Reading Acts in the Graeco-Roman Age, Oxford University Press, 2009
Further Study: 2 Chronicles 32:9-22; Ezekiel 13:1-7; Acts 2:32-36; Romans 14:8-9
Application: Is the world constantly pulling the rug out from beneath your feet? Do you feel defeated and brought down by the constant pressure to survive? Know that Pharaoh has no authority over you unless you choose to allow it. He is nothing but a defeated enemy growling at the end of his chain. Yeshua is L-rd of all and will more than supply all our needs if we ask and trust in Him.
© Jonathan Allen, 2017
08:00 15Jan17 Tim: Really interesting discussion of the place of authority this morning. Reminded me of the Greek philosopher Protagoras and his statement "Man is the measure of all things" and the ensuing discussion about whether there was such a thing as absolute truth.
09:03 15Jan17 David: Yet another excellent drash. I do appreciate these exegeses and the work that goes into them.
10:23 15Jan16 Theresa: This latest piece is such a great reminder as we face Big Brother in government. We look only to the Lord Jesus and his gracious Father for our provision. May we be bold in this day to witness to our only Lord!
14:38 16Jan17 Cathee: I think that this is "spot on". Praise the Truth!
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