Bulletin Articles

Bulletin Articles

“"Let my people go"”

Categories: Iron sharpens iron

Afterward Moses and Aaron went and said to Pharaoh, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘Let my people go, that they may hold a feast to me in the wilderness.’” But Pharaoh said, “Who is the Lord, that I should obey his voice and let Israel go? I do not know the Lord, and moreover, I will not let Israel go.” (Exodus 5.1-2)

Not only is this scene famous and storied, but the chain of events it kicked off is the main thrust of the book of Exodus, which itself has been the subject of many books, songs, plays, and films.  It fills us with empathy for the Israelites, and ever since those events took place, the story has been invoked by people who saw in their own circumstances a similar struggle between oppressed and oppressor.  The most famous of these was the plight of African slaves in the American south leading up to the civil war.

There’s an odd feature of the story that plays out between Moses and Pharaoh following this initial confrontation.  We all know of the Ten Plagues, culminating in the death of the firstborn throughout Egypt—the final straw that led to the Israelites’ liberation.  But Pharaoh didn’t change his mind all of a sudden after holding out for months while his kingdom fell apart around him due to God’s wrath.  Several times Pharaoh considered granting Moses’ demand—but the demand itself is the really interesting thing.  Moses and Aaron appear to be requesting a temporary leave of absence for the whole nation, rather than absolute freedom.

Then they said, “The God of the Hebrews has met with us. Please let us go a three days' journey into the wilderness that we may sacrifice to the Lord our God, lest he fall upon us with pestilence or with the sword.” (Exodus 5.3)

This is just after the very first time they’ve told Pharaoh, “let my people go.”  At the least, there’s room for misunderstanding, as if perhaps the Israelites intend to return to their burdens after they hold their religious observance in the wilderness.  This happens several more times.  For example:

Then Pharaoh called Moses and Aaron and said, “Go, sacrifice to your God within the land.” But Moses said, “It would not be right to do so, for the offerings we shall sacrifice to the Lord our God are an abomination to the Egyptians. If we sacrifice offerings abominable to the Egyptians before their eyes, will they not stone us? We must go three days' journey into the wilderness and sacrifice to the Lord our God as he tells us.” So Pharaoh said, “I will let you go to sacrifice to the Lord your God in the wilderness; only you must not go very far away. Plead for me.” Then Moses said, “Behold, I am going out from you and I will plead with the Lord that the swarms of flies may depart from Pharaoh, from his servants, and from his people, tomorrow. Only let not Pharaoh cheat again by not letting the people go to sacrifice to the Lord.” (Exodus 8.25-29)

Pharaoh cheats again, by not letting the people go to sacrifice to the Lord—but that’s beside the point.  Moses uses an awful lot of words to try to justify this scheme in Pharaoh’s eyes, when it’s really not the issue at hand, and they both know it.  They’re both talking about this as if it’s a temporary thing, but Pharaoh clearly understands that the Israelites will not come back, if he gives them leave to do what they’re asking.

So Moses and Aaron were brought back to Pharaoh. And he said to them, “Go, serve the Lord your God. But which ones are to go?” Moses said, “We will go with our young and our old. We will go with our sons and daughters and with our flocks and herds, for we must hold a feast to the Lord.” But he said to them, “The Lord be with you, if ever I let you and your little ones go! Look, you have some evil purpose in mind. No! Go, the men among you, and serve the Lord, for that is what you are asking.” And they were driven out from Pharaoh's presence. (Exodus 10.8-11)

Moses resists saying the obvious—“we’re all leaving, and we’re not coming back.”  But Pharaoh gets it, and refuses again.  This bizarre, politely euphemistic argument continues right up until the tenth plague puts an end to the discussion.

Why does this matter to us?  Just as the slaves of the antebellum south saw an analogy between Exodus and their own situation, we can see parallels to our spiritual struggle with enslavement to sin.  For us, the argument often goes the other way!  As Satan tries to hold on to us, or to recapture us, his spokesman—usually our own thoughts—refuses to be forthcoming about what he wants.  It’s just one time, we may tell ourselves, I won’t become addicted. It’s just one lie to clean up this mess and then after that I won’t have to tell any more.  It’s just one night of fun, I can always repent later.

Both parties really know what’s on the table, though.  When Satan asks for an inch, he has every intention of taking a mile.  We may convince ourselves it’s not that bad, and continue our flirtation with sin.  When we back away from its more extreme ends, we use that as evidence we can stop ourselves from letting it become a real problem.  But we know it’s a farce.  When we give in to temptation in the little things, we’re laying the foundation for another “just this once” to follow on its heels.  Add up a lifetime of “just this once” sins, and what do you get, but a life of slavery?  Instead, start taking the small steps to reject sin’s rule over you.  If you’re already enslaved, try Moses’ approach of asking for an inch with every intention of going much farther.  Try saying “no,” just this once.  If you follow the Prophet through the waters, a short distance into the unknown, you’ll get a glimpse of the freedom you’ve never had, but always wanted.  “If you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity” (1Co 7.21).

Jeremy Nettles