Bricks Without Straw

Scripture: Exodus 5:1-6:1

 

Title: Bricks without Straw

 

Structure:

  • Introduction
  • Being & having
  • Pharaoh’s having
  • God (& Moses’) Being
  • Conclusion

 

Introduction:

Please turn with me to Exodus 5, page 63 near the beginning of your pew Bibles

  • Today we continue our series on Moses
  • Moses & Aaron have managed to convince the leaders of Israel that God means to deliver the people from their slavery in Egypt
  • Now they confront Pharaoh
  • From verse 1 of Exodus 5 we read…

 

Read Exodus 5:1-6:1

 

May the Spirit of Jesus illuminate this reading for us

 

Being and having:

In 1970 Richard Bach published his classic novella Jonathan Livingston Seagull about a seagull who rejects the routine of daily squabbles over food in search of freedom in flight

  • While the rest of the flock compete for scraps of food, Jonathan finds joy in being a bird and simply flying
  • Eventually Jonathan’s unwillingness to conform results in his expulsion by the elders

 

There is a quote in the book which says…

 

“You will begin to touch heaven, Jonathan, in the moment that you touch perfect speed. And that isn’t flying a thousand miles an hour, or a million, or flying at the speed of light. Because any number is a limit, and perfection doesn’t have limits. Perfect speed, my son, is being there.”

 

Unlike his peers Jonathan the Seagull is more interested in being than in having

  • I suppose Richard Bach’s story isn’t so much about seagulls as it is about humankind
  • In competing for resources – in trying to have more than our neighbour – we have somehow lost meaning in life

Being and having – they are two different things

 

To have something is to possess it, to own it, to consume it

  • Some things can’t be had though – or were never designed to be had
  • For example, you can have a car but you can’t have a marriage
  • You can only be in a marriage – you can’t own a husband or a wife
  • Marriage is a relationship and a relationship is a state of being
  • This means a perfect marriage (or a perfect relationship) is not about having all your expectations met
  • A perfect marriage is about being there – with and for one another

 

Or to use another example, you may have money or the ability to sing or something else to offer God but you can’t have worship

  • Worship is not a possession – worship is a state of being
  • This means perfect worship is not about hitting all the right notes or experiencing some magical feeling or giving just the right amount of money
  • Perfect worship is about being there – with and for God
  • Perfect worship could happen here on a Sunday morning or it could happen out in the world during the week

 

This dichotomy between being and having is an ancient tension

  • It goes right back to Adam & Eve in the garden

 

Before eating the forbidden fruit from the tree of knowledge Adam & Eve were able to be with God

  • But they couldn’t resist the temptation of having knowledge and so they ate the fruit God warned them against
  • They chose having over being (as we all have) and they suffered the consequences

 

Having is about power & control

  • Being is about truth & freedom
  • God is all about being
  • While Pharaoh is all about having
  • God wants to be in right relationship with his people – the Hebrews
  • Pharaoh, on the other hand, just wants to have the Hebrews – to possess and control them as slaves, as human tools

 

The problem with making having our goal is that we never really have enough

  • But when being is the goal, God finds a way to throw having in
  • Being is a two for one deal

 

Pharaoh’s having:

Pharaoh is used to having things his own way

  • The ancient Egyptians believed their Pharaoh was the son of a god and it seems Pharaoh himself believed this too

 

Despite Pharaoh’s elevated status Moses & Aaron were quite blunt in their approach to the king of Egypt

  • They simply said, “The Lord, the God of Israel, says, ‘Let my people go, so that they can hold a festival in the desert to honour me.’ ”
  • The Lord God had instructed Moses & Aaron to take the leaders of Israel with them when they confronted Pharaoh, but for whatever reason it appears Israel’s leaders didn’t come
  • It makes little difference though because Pharaoh is all about having and he doesn’t know this God of Israel who is about being
  • Just as God predicted, Pharaoh refused to let Israel go

 

So Moses & Aaron ask again saying, “Allow us to travel for three days into the desert to offer sacrifices to the Lord our God. If we don’t do so, he will kill us with disease or by war”

  • Now that last part about God killing Israel by disease or war – God didn’t actually tell Moses & Aaron to say that
  • Moses & Aaron made that up – perhaps as a way of trying to persuade Pharaoh
  • Maybe they thought Pharaoh would be more inclined to let the people go temporarily if he thought he might lose his free labour permanently
  • But Pharaoh was unmoved – he is not inclined to let go
  • Having and letting go are opposites
  • Pharaoh won’t forgive – he would rather accumulate

 

That same day the king commanded the Egyptian slave drivers and the Israelite foremen:

  • “Stop giving people straw to make bricks. Make them go and find the straw themselves. But still require them to make the same number of bricks as before… Make these men work harder and keep them busy, so they won’t have time to listen…”

 

Straw was used to reinforce the mud bricks – to hold the bricks together and give them strength

  • Without the straw the mud bricks were more brittle, more likely to fall apart from lack of integrity

 

Pharaoh is a pretty smart dictator – in a variety of ways he takes the straw out of the bricks of Hebrew resistance

 

As Terence Fretheim points out…

  • Pharaoh is running a pyramid scheme whereby the few benefit from the labour of the many
  • By depleting the energy of the oppressed, the threat of organised resistance is lessened
  • One of Pharaoh’s strategies is to keep the people so busy they don’t have the time for complaints or rebellious thoughts
  • By making the work harder Pharaoh is getting the people to think their well-being depends on his goodwill – so don’t mess with the system [1]

 

Another part of Pharaoh’s strategy is to use the Hebrew foremen to create internal divisions among the people

  • Some say the Hebrew foremen were essentially collaborators
  • They served as walking examples of the opportunity to improve your standard of living by supporting Egypt’s system of exploitation [2]
  • Oppressors of every age and culture do this in one way or another
  • The Romans of Jesus’ day used Jews to collect taxes from fellow Jews

Pharaoh also tries to turn the people against Moses & Aaron

  • After being beaten for not meeting their quotas the foremen say to Moses & Aaron, ‘God is going to punish you for making the king hate us’

 

Martin Luther King, Jr. made the observation that…

  • The Pharaoh’s had a favourite and effective strategy to keep their slaves in bondage: keep them fighting among themselves. The divide-and-conquer technique has been a potent weapon in the arsenal of oppression. But when slaves unite, the Red Seas of history open and the Egypt’s of slavery crumble [3]

 

The other thing Pharaoh does, to take the straw out of the bricks of Hebrew resistance, is to blame the Israelites

  • When the Hebrew foremen complain to Pharaoh that they can’t meet their quotas because he has taken away their straw Pharaoh says…
  • ‘No – it’s not my fault. It’s your fault because you are lazy
  • Of course it is not true that the Israelites are lazy and the Israelites themselves know it’s not true but the Egyptian people will believe Pharaoh’s lie because it serves their purpose
  • It enables them to have the moral high ground (at least in their own imagination)
  • We call this ‘scapegoating’ – blaming the Jews for the problem – getting the Egyptians united around the lie that the Hebrew people deserve what is happening to them because they are lazy & dishonest
  • Scapegoating is quite convenient for dictators really – just blame other people for your mistakes
  • Hitler did this with the Jews just last century

Tiring the people out with busy-ness

  • Creating internal divisions among the people
  • And blaming the Hebrews for their own misfortune
  • These are the three main ways that cunning old Pharaoh tries to undermine the Hebrew resistance
  • These are the strategies for having and keeping what you have

 

God (and Moses’) Being:

It’s interesting isn’t it – that we are not called ‘human havings’, we are called ‘human beings

  • Being is somehow integral to our humanity

 

Being real, being honest

  • Being loyal, being a friend, being an enemy
  • Being alone, being in community
  • Being in prayer, being pregnant
  • Being on holiday, being wise
  • Being present
  • Being hungry, being warm, being cold
  • Being tired, being sick, being well, being happy, being angry
  • Being alive

 

Being puts us in touch with life – with what is real and true

  • Consequently, being comes with feeling
  • Not superficial feelings (like infatuation or adrenalin) but deep down feelings (like rage and fear and joy and the will to be free), which are always there like tectonic plates of the soul moving underneath to change the landscape on the surface

 

Moses is certainly in touch with some deeper emotion in verse 22 of Exodus 5 where he says to God…

  • “Lord, why do you ill-treat your people? Why did you send me here? Ever since I went to the king to speak for you, he has treated them cruelly. And you have done nothing to help them”

 

Now some people might criticise Moses at this point for complaining to God

  • After all, God did tell Moses more than once that Pharaoh would be stubborn and refuse to let the Israelites go
  • Well, in Moses’ defence, Pharaoh hasn’t just refused to let the people go – Pharaoh has actually made things considerably worse for the people, which I’m not sure Moses was told about

 

In any case, I don’t think we should be too hard on Moses

  • It is one thing to be told you are in for some rough weather
  • But another thing entirely to actually go through the storm

 

The words of the foremen to Moses & Aaron would have really hurt – salt in the wound of failure

  • Just as Pharaoh had blamed the foremen for failing to meet the quotas, so too the foremen pass the blame onto Moses & Aaron
  • It would not have been easy for Moses to hear criticism from the lips of men who collaborated with the Egyptians
  • But Moses allows it – he doesn’t defend himself to them, even though their words are unkind and unfair
  • Leadership can be a pretty lonely experience, especially when things go wrong

 

Another thing to say, to Moses’ credit, is that (unlike Pharaoh and the Hebrew foremen) Moses does not take his frustrations out on other people

  • Moses takes his complaint to God who is big enough to handle it
  • And that in itself is interesting isn’t it
  • Who we complain to says something about who we believe is in charge
  • By taking their complaint to Pharaoh the foremen seem to be acknowledging on some level that Pharaoh is in charge
  • But Moses takes his complaint to God, which tells us that Moses believes God is in charge

 

God is not at all like Pharaoh – and we can see that quite clearly in the contrasting ways in which God & Pharaoh respond to complaints

 

As we’ve already heard, Pharaoh does not want to accept responsibility for the complaint

  • When the Hebrew foremen criticise his policy of withholding straw Pharaoh puts the blame back on them by saying they are lazy
  • The message is: No criticism is allowed under Pharaoh and so you are not free to express how you truly feel
  • If you live under Pharaoh then you must meet certain expectations and behave in a certain way in order to be accepted (or at least not abused)
  • The problem with this is that it creates a kind of false reality because no one feels able to be honest with you

 

Unlike Pharaoh, God is into being and that includes being honest – allowing others to criticise him (even if their criticism isn’t entirely accurate or fair)

  • When Moses complains to God, God allows it
  • God does not disagree with Moses
  • He lets Moses express what he is feeling
  • After all, feeling goes hand in hand with being
  • By the same token God doesn’t give Moses an explanation either
  • Just like he didn’t give Job an explanation for his suffering
  • God doesn’t normally explain our suffering – but he does share it
  • He allows himself to be in the situation with us – he feels our pain

So I reckon Moses is on the right track here

  • By making his complaint to God, Moses is acknowledging that God is in charge
  • And by being honest with God, Moses is relating to God on a being level – not a having level

 

As painful as it was, the foremen’s criticism of Moses & Aaron actually had a positive affect

  • Their rebuke revealed the truth of Moses’ motivation
  • No one could say Moses was in this for public adulation or the glory of it
  • Those foremen did Moses a favour in a way – they took the ego trip out of it for Moses
  • And in so doing they inducted Moses into a deeper dependence on God

 

This is often how God uses failure & disappointment in our life – to purify our motives and strengthen our integrity

  • If things come too easy – then we might think we did it ourselves
  • And if all we hear is praise – then we should be concerned – it could mean we are behaving like Pharaoh and not allowing criticism

 

In verse 1 of Exodus 6, after listening to Moses’ complaint, the Lord responds by saying…

  • “Now you are going to see what I will do to the king. I will force him to let my people go. In fact, I will force him to drive them out of his land”

 

This translation is unfortunate I think

  • It’s not accurate to say that God forces people to do things
  • God doesn’t trample over freewill.
  • A better translation might read…

 

“…Because of my mighty hand [Pharaoh] will let them go; because of my mighty hand he will drive them out of his country.”

  • Which means God isn’t forcing Pharaoh to do something – rather he is creating a situation in which Pharaoh will choose to let the people go
  • God will bring Pharaoh to the point of wanting to be rid of the Israelites

Now, God’s personal message to Moses, in all of this, is quite surprising

  • Traditional wisdom says, ‘lower your expectations’
  • Don’t get your hopes up because then you risk being disappointed
  • But God effectively tells Moses to risk hope and raise his expectations

 

What an incredible thing to say to someone who has just tasted failure and disappointment

  • But that’s God for you – God dares us to risk it all, not when we are feeling confident, but when we have lost confidence

 

Returning to Jonathan Livingston Seagull for a moment – it’s like God is saying to Moses…

  • “Don’t believe what your eyes tell you. All they show is limitation. Look with your understanding. Find out what you already know and you’ll see the way to fly.”
  • There is a wisdom in all of us – if only we could unlock it
  • What does Moses already know?
  • That with God nothing is impossible.

 

Conclusion:

Jesus is all about being

  • He wasn’t into having so much

 

In the first instance he was about being human – fully human and all that entails, including being vulnerable

 

When Satan tempted Jesus in the wilderness – he tempted Jesus with having

  • Turn these stones into bread so that you will have something to eat
  • Jump from the roof of the temple so you will have fame
  • Bow down in worship to me so you will have power
  • But Jesus wasn’t interested in having
  • Jesus was satisfied with being God’s Son

 

Much of Jesus’ ministry was about setting people free from having

 

Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us

  • That’s about not having to be right – not having the moral high ground
  • That’s about letting go of our hurt and our hate and simply being

 

Come to me all you who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.

  • That’s about not having to perform – not having to meet Pharaoh’s quota
  • That’s about learning how to be in a relationship with God – finding our fit in his will

 

In Luke 10 when Martha was complaining to Jesus about all the work she was having to do, demanding that Mary help her, Jesus responded…

  • Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better and it will not be taken away from her.
  • Mary chose being over having and Jesus supported her in that choice

 

We could go on but you get the point…

  • God is about being and Pharaoh [the Satan] is about having
  • Jesus invites us into being with God
  • So choose being – choose the way of Christ

 

[1] Terence Fretheim, Exodus, page 84

[2] Ibid, page 85.

[3] Martin Luther King, Jr. ‘Where do we go from here? Chaos or Community’, page 124.

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