Gateway to the Classics: Moses and the Exodus by Rev. J. Paterson Smyth
Moses and the Exodus by  Rev. J. Paterson Smyth

Lesson V

The Return to Egypt

Read Exodus IV. 29 to V. 23.

§ 1. The Condition of the Slaves

R ECAPITULATE. Forty years in Midian. God's message from the burning bush.

During all these forty years in Midian how had things been going on with the slaves in Egypt? Very badly indeed. King Rameses, the mighty builder, having made peace with the Hittites, was able to give the more attention to the enormous building works, the store cities of Pithom and Rameses (ch.  i.) for storing arms and provisions of war, the canals from the Nile to irrigate the land, the great wall of Egypt along the borders of Goshen. He had an enormous command of human labour, all his slaves and prisoners of war. But he needed them all. They were tasked to the utmost, and doubtless the Hebrews, whom he wanted to crush, were tasked most cruelly of all. A Jewish historian, Philo, who afterwards lived in Egypt, and probably knew the Jewish and Egyptian records, tells us that the taskmasters "became daily more and more savage, like wild beasts in human shape, with hearts as adamant, making no allowance for any shortcomings." And the result was, he says, great mortality, the people perished in heaps; the slave settlements were like a city of the plague, where the dead were cast out upon the desert land to be devoured by wolves and jackals. An awful master indeed was Rameses II. A famous French explorer says, "There was not a stone in his monuments that had not cost a human life," and he adds that it gives one a thrill of horror to look at his mighty erections and to think of all the thousands of captives that must have died under the lash to gratify his insatiable vanity. And the worst of it was that he had a long reign of sixty years.

At length he died. Perhaps the slaves hoped for some relief then. Did they get it? (Exodus ii. 23, etc.) "Cried by reason of the bondage." The new Pharaoh Merenptah was no improvement on his father. He too was a builder. Dr. Petrie in exploring Tanis found this king's name, too, cut on the pillars and sphinxes. But his work is very inferior and in execrably bad taste. So the great national works went on, the taskmasters still plied their whips and the cry of the poor children of Abraham "came up unto God." (ch.  ii. 24). Poor creatures! how hopeless they grew, wondering was there any God or did He care at all. Doubtless some faithful hearts still trusted and hoped and perhaps crept off at night to Joseph's grave to think of his brave prophecy and to pray and cry to God. But most of them lost heart and joined in Egyptian idolatry. (See Joshua xxiv. 14;  Ezekiel xx. 5-9.)

Had God forgotten them? How little they thought that at that very time on a lonely mountain, 500 miles away, the coming Deliverer was bowing down before God and listening to Him telling what? "I have seen  their affliction, and heard  their cry, and know  their sorrows, and am come down to deliver them." How differently they would have felt if they had known that! Anybody like them now? When big sorrow comes or pain or sickness or some dear one dies, is God looking or caring? How much happier for us if we could believe in God behind it all, caring and pitying and wanting to bring blessing out of the sickness and pain—if when the Church is afflicted we should remember her Master is watching, if when one dies we could look into the beautiful Waiting Life where our dear one is nearer to Christ's presence than ever. Don't you think we should gain greatly if we had more faith in God?

§ 2. The Secret Slave‑Meeting

Now after all these years comes a vague rumor through the brick-fields and along the great canal about the two old men from far-off Midian with a most startling message. Who? What message? And one, it was said, was that Moses, whose exciting story their aged elders still talked about, the story that had so stirred the slave settlements long ago—when a prince of Egypt, who was one of themselves, had, for their sakes, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh's daughter.

Then came the secret messages from Moses and Aaron to the heads of families. Before going to Pharaoh they must first be sure that their leadership will be accepted by the people. You can imagine the secret gatherings from Zoan and Pithom and Rameses and Memphis, and along the canals—the secret midnight meetings such as slaves must hold away in the desert or in the inaccessible swamps—desperate men assembling at risk of their lives, such as one reads of in Uncle Tom's Cabin,  or The Tale of the Dismal Swamp.  Read me the account of one of these meetings (Exodus ix. 29-31). Can't you shut your eyes and imagine the whole scene? the old slaves, the elders of the tribes, with the first dawn of hope in their eyes. Did they believe? Were they glad? How did they show it? Ah! poor wretches, one needs to have suffered like them to understand the goodness of finding out that God cared after all.

§ 3. The Embassy to Pharaoh

What is the next step? Embassy to Pharaoh. Pharaoh was dangerous to approach—held power of life and death—was worshipped as a god. Were they not afraid to face him? Why not? Because God had sent them there, and God was responsible. What a power it gives one to have faith, to believe in God, to know that you are on God's path, and that nothing else matters much. That is the lesson taught us of the two old men standing up fearlessly in God's name against the most powerful king in the world. Can people act thus now? Give instances. Schoolboy kneeling down at night among sneering comrades. Business man or politician or clergyman saying or doing things greatly unpopular because he feels it his duty. No cringing, no yielding, where God's will is concerned, "Whether it be right in the sight of God to hearken unto you more than unto God judge ye." (Acts iv. 19).

Do you think Moses knew that he was risking his life? Do you think he was anxious about that? No. But something else he was anxious about? Lest he might injure the cause of the people. He felt he was an awkward speaker; that unless Aaron could say out well what was needed it would not be said at all. So he kept in the background. Aaron took the lead and made the speech for him. Yet which of the two was the greater and nobler man? So you see it is not mere fluent speaking, but faith in God and self-sacrifice that makes men great and noble.

§ 4. God's Gentleness Towards Egypt

Tell me Moses' first demand. Did he at first demand that Pharaoh should set free all this crowd of useful slaves and all their cattle and property? Afterwards he did—but now he only asked what? That was much easier and more reasonable. And if Pharaoh had done that probably the whole course of the story would have been changed.

Remember then that God dealt gently with Pharaoh at first. You see God had to care for Pharaoh's good and Pharaoh's training, as well as for that of Israel. Many people read Old Testament history as if God cared nothing for Egyptians or Canaanites—only for Jews. Is this right? No. Scripture carefully read teaches that it is not. It tells of God speaking in dreams to Laban and Abimelech. It tells of Melchizedek in heathen Canaan, and Jethro in heathen Midian, and Jonah in heathen Nineveh, and Job in heathen Arabia, and Balaam in heathen Mesopotamia—worshippers and priests and prophets of God. So we read of Confucius in China and Buddha in India, teachers of unselfishness surely taught by God, though their teaching is now so corrupted. And in this very Egypt long before Moses we have marvellous records of God's revelation to the conscience of the nation. We have found their ancient Book of the Dead,  with its wonderful teaching about justice and righteousness and purity—life after death and judgment of men according to their deeds on earth. Do you think that could come except through God helping them? So if people think that God was the God of the Hebrews only and did not care for the Egyptians they cannot understand aright Old Testament history. Most of the Israelites thought thus. Even the inspired writers in these early days did not get free from this national bias.

God began gently. How did Pharaoh respond? Flung back the suggestion angrily. Who is Jehovah that I should obey him? I,  the Pharaoh, the child of the Gods! Pharaoh was not an ignorant heathen. The religious books of his nation, especially the Book of the Dead,  taught of a righteous God who insisted on justice and kindness, even to slaves. That was, I think, why God was so stern with him. He was sinning against light. His own will was the only will he would trouble about. And therefore he gradually lost all sense of a righteous will of God over the world.

Well, he learned by-and-by that God had other ways of talking to him if gentleness failed. What? The ten plagues, the death of his son, the drowning of his host. But for the present he could defy God. "What care I for God? These are my slaves—let them to their burdens." I think he even claims Moses and Aaron themselves as his by right—sons of a slave. "Get you  to your burdens," he says.

§ 5. Moses' Disappointment, The Store Chambers of Pithom

Surely this was a disappointing end to their interview with the king. But worse was to come before evening. For Pharaoh's anger at their audacity grew hotter when they were gone, and he determined to punish them by increasing the sufferings of the slaves. He  would teach them to take liberties with the Pharaoh!

What terrible order did he give? (vv.  6-9). "Supply no more straw for the bricks! Let them gather straw or stubble! But demand the full number as before!" What did they do? How did they plead with him? Was it any use? No. "Ye are idle; ye are idle. I'll soon teach you to come talking about sacrifices to the Lord your God."

A most interesting confirmation of this whole incident seems to have come in modern days. I told you how M. Naville discovered the store city of Pithom, which the Israelites were building for Pharaoh. From the inscriptions amongst the ruins he discovered that the god of the city had been TUM, and that its religious name had been PI‑TUM the abode of TUM, which corresponds with the Hebrew Pithom. The founder of the place appeared to be King Rameses II., the Pharaoh of the Oppression, and it had evidently been built as a fortified military storehouse or granary in which provisions were gathered for the use of armies or caravans bound across the Eastern desert. ("Treasure cities," Exodus i. 11, should be translated "store cities.") The bricks were composed of the common material, Nile mud mixed with chopped straw, but in places the bricks are apparently made with stubble or of mud alone, without straw or stubble.

So this was the sad result of Moses' effort to help them, "The people were scattered abroad throughout all the land of Egypt to gather stubble instead of straw."

Poor slaves, after all their hopes! How natural it was that they should turn on Moses in their bitterness of soul. What did they say? (v.  21). Oh, it was terribly hard on Moses. Did he retort on them? I am sure he saw there was some excuse for their bitterness. And probably, like men of his type, he put the blame on himself; that he had been too hasty or made some mistake; that it was his fault. What did he do in his disappointment? Rushed off to be alone with God. He remembered all his doubts and fears at the Burning Bush about his ability and about his eloquence. And now, in his misery, he struggles with the Lord. "Oh, God, why did You send me? why did You send me? I am an utter failure. Thou hast not delivered Thy people at all."

Moses in his bitter disappointment rushed to pour out his soul before God, like a child hurt, running to his father at once. So the Psalmists, the Prophets, the Apostles, the Lord Jesus Himself in His trouble and care about men, "continued all night in prayer to God." The most helpful habit we can ever form is the habit of Moses when trouble was upon him. He "complained unto the Lord."


IV. 19, In Midian.  It would seem, therefore, that Moses did not set off at once, but waited for this fuller intimation that the time was come.

IV. 21, I will harden.  See Lesson VII on the hardening of Pharaoh's heart.

IV. 22, My firstborn.  In numberless inscriptions the Pharaohs are styled "own son" or "beloved so" of the deity, so Pharaoh would easily understand the meaning.—See Speaker's Commentary.

In two papyrus documents of about the date of Moses, found in Egyptian tombs, one passage says, "I have no one to help me in making bricks, no straw," etc., and another tells of twelve labourers punished for failing to make up their daily tale of bricks. This shows how thoroughly Egyptian is the story of Pharaoh and his slaves here.

Questions for Lesson V

How were things going on in Egypt during this time?

Tell of the secret slave meeting in the brick-fields.

Who was with Moses in the embassy to King Pharaoh?

They asked only a small request at first. What?

How did Pharaoh receive it?

Tell of Moses' complaint to God. What lesson has this for us?

What do you know of the store cities Pithom and Rameses?

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