Exodus Day Sixteen
July 22, 2020, 4:00 AM

Making Bricks
Exodus 5:7-13

“You shall no longer give the people straw to make bricks, as in the past;
let them go and gather straw for themselves.
But the number of bricks that they made in the past you shall impose on them,
you shall by no means reduce it, for they are idle.
Therefore they cry, 'Let us go and offer sacrifice to our God.'
Let heavier work be laid on the men that they may labor at it and pay no regard to lying words.”
So the taskmasters and the foremen of the people went out and said to the people,
Thus says Pharaoh, 'I will not give you straw.
Go and get your straw yourselves wherever you can find it,
but your work will not be reduced in the least.'
So the people were scattered throughout all the land of Egypt to gather stubble for straw.
The taskmasters were urgent, saying,
‘Complete your work, your daily task each day, as when there was straw.'”

When we think of slavery, we inevitably think of the evil “peculiar institution” that led to the American Civil War. Chattel slavery, the wretched buying and selling and owning of human beings. (Of course, there are other examples of slavery that plague us in the modern world, such as sex slavery, child labor, sweatshops, etc.) But as an amateur historian, it’s painful to read about the political struggles, particularly the years from 1836 through 1861, when the nation heated up, boiled over and imploded over “the question” that wouldn’t resolve or go away. The issue agonized the collective public conscience, even from the days of the Colonial Founding generation. No one, except for the true, passionate believers on the ideological frames of the question — the slave holders and the abolitionists – thought it possible to resolve the matter to anyone’s satisfaction. As we see, the troubled, collective conscience persists to this very day.

The slavery we encounter in the Bible is not of the chattel variety. In ancient Israel, there were two basic categories of slavery: Prisoners of war and indentured servanthood. The Mosaic Law was very specific about the treatment of those unfortunate souls. The so-called “household codes” in Paul’s letters seem to be an application of these requirements. They are not property! They are human beings, created in the image of God. The New Testament trajectory, in my estimation, looked to the day when slavery would be no more. Onesimus, the slave of Philemon in the Biblical book that bears the name of the latter, is referred to by Ignatius of Antioch (late first century) as the bishop of Ephesus!

By contrast, the slavery in Egypt was merciless, utilitarian and unregulated, a close cousin to what we know of the “peculiar institution.” Call it “state slavery.” Nahum Sarna describes it thus: “The organized imposition of forced labor upon the male population for long and indefinite terms of service under degrading and brutal conditions. The men so conscripted received no reward for their labors; they enjoyed no civil rights, and their lot was generally much worse than that of a household slave. Organized in large work gangs, they became an anonymous mass, depersonalized, losing all individuality in the eyes of their oppressors.” (Exploring Exodus, p.21).

Of note in the description, it seems the women were not conscripted. Families were not broken-up and sold off. They were not slummed. It was a state greed need to accomplish a building project cheaply. Free labor was available at the bottom of the social ladder. Israel had fallen that far from the days of Joseph. However— apparently, ironically, the Israelites were living in the same “neighborhoods” as their Egyptian counterparts. Goshen was a desirable place to live!

The labor of the Hebrews was every bit as bitter as described in the pages of Exodus and elsewhere. It involved, among other things, ensuring the canals were always clear so that water from the Nile could reach the workstations. Mud and water were needed in very large quantities for brickmaking. The work was grueling, no matter what end of the endeavor one happened to find themselves. Sarna, again, on the dreaded brick quotas: “A practiced artisan in present-day Egypt, where the same brickmaking technique as employed from time immemorial can still be observed, is capable of turning out three thousand bricks in the course of a seven to eight-hour working day. Such a quota imposed on raw slaves [read: Hebrews] would constitute an intolerable burden.” (Exploring Exodus, p.23). And so it was — “They ruthlessly made the people of Israel work as slaves and made their lives bitter with hard service, in mortar and brick, and in all kinds of work in the field. In all their work they ruthlessly made them work as slaves.” (1:13-14).

I have had a thought that I can’t seem to shake as of late as I work through Exodus this time. I’ve always appreciated the way the wilderness wanderings parallel the life of the Church in Jesus, wrestling through the wilderness of life, looking to the Promise of the Promised Land. The powerful imagery, too, of the new Exodus through the new Moses (Jesus) is a major theme in the Gospels. The writers of the New Testament want us to think on these things. But the imagery of slavery is one that keeps rearing its ugly head this time through. Specifically, pastorally, why do people want to stay in Egypt? Why not cross through the Red Sea on dry ground, and head for “the Land Flowing with Milk and Honey?” Why would anyone want to make bricks without straw? That’s what you say you want when you say “No thank you” to Jesus. "I’ll just stay here in glorious Pharaoh land." The mendacity of unbelief!

Brings to mind the Keith Green song, “So You Wanna Go Back to Egypt.” Great song! I’m posting the song for you. Enjoy. Humorous song, about a serious matter. (BaManna Bread is much better than leeks and onion, by the way, IMO)

 


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