Bricks without Straw: when obedience makes things worse

Last week we looked at the calling of Moses and the burning bush.  We noted that although the people of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were burning up as slaves, they were not consumed.  God had been watching over them, and he was sending someone to lead them out of Egypt.  Moses was not the most willing candidate for the job, but he was definitely the right person for the task ahead.  We arrive on the scene in Exodus 4 today.  Read Exodus 4:1-17

God uses the staff that Moses has in his hands as a tool.  Moses had used it to herd sheep, now he will use it to shepherd God’s people. The staff becomes a means by which Moses performs miracles, and it represents the authority that Moses has from God for the people.  Moses is concerned about how he’s going to reintroduce himself when he returns to Egypt.  He left as a fugitive and the people have no way to verify what Moses might say. 

So, God shows Moses some miraculous signs he can show the people:  a snake that comes from the staff, a skin disease that appears with his hand, and water that will turn to blood.  In the Ancient Near East, the serpent was a symbol of special wisdom, fertility and healing. Serpents were worshiped in Egypt.[1]  Moses throws the staff down and runs away when it turns into a snake, which I think many of us would have done.  What we might NOT have done is follow the orders to pick it up again by the tail.  But Moses does, and it becomes simply a staff.  After that, I would never trust my staff in the dark again.  Then Moses is able to stick his hand in his cloak and pulls it out with some sort of skin disease that makes the skin look white.    

Moses still isn’t sure about all of this and gives a bit of a lame excuse: ‘Pardon me, Lord…I am heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue.’[2]  Whether Moses had an actual speech impediment, or this is hyperbole, it doesn’t matter.[3]  Moses is trying to get out of the task. But God won’t let him.  His ticket is purchased.  The flight is booked.  Moses is GOING to Egypt.    

Read Exodus 4:27-6:1

We all have good days and bad days.  Moses may not be sure about his new job, but God equips him with some pretty snazzy tools—a snake stick, a hand that changes appearance, and water that turns to blood.  He leaves his home for the past 40 years and meets up with his younger brother, which had to feel pretty good after being gone for so long, and they are going to get to work together.  He brings God’s message to the people and they believe what Moses has said—and having someone believe you about a talking bush and a snake stick means something, right?  That’s a pretty good day! 

And when Moses and Aaron decide to pay Pharaoh a visit, they have to think things are going well. GOD has set this up!  GOD called Moses. GOD brought Aaron into the picture. GOD gave the miraculous signs to Moses to perform. GOD said that miraculous things were going to happen.  Even though we don’t know what it was like for Moses to walk through the doors of the palace again after all those years, there must be a confidence that is bolstering the two of them up at that moment.  If you read the text at the beginning of Exodus 5, they don’t hesitate at all.  There are no formalities spoken to Pharaoh, no polite words of deference.[4]  It’s just straight and to the point. ‘Thus says the Lord, let my people go.’

Pharaoh is not impressed.  He doesn’t know this God and isn’t going to make this easy.  Moses and Aaron try another tactic, but Pharaoh isn’t ready to give up his workforce.  He IS a little worried that the people might get excited about this new-fangled idea of a God who cares for them. So, he doubles down on their workload and makes life very difficult. 

We tend to think of the stone pyramids of Egypt, but many of the buildings and homes were built from the mud that was available near the Nile river. 

Here’s a picture of a mud brick and mold for making a brick.

To make bricks, you would take sediment, break it up and mix it with water.  Add straw, knead it, and let it ferment a couple of nights before molding.  The mixture is carried to a brick field that has straw laid down.  The wooden mold would be dipped in water to prevent the mixture from sticking.  Fill the mold, flatten, remove it, and continue over and over.  It could take 8-9 days to finish a brick with the drying process.  Teams can be assembled to make batches of bricks: to mix, carry mortar, and to turn and stack the bricks, all coordinated by an overseer.[5]

Here is a diagram of captives making bricks

Attribution-ShareAlike 2.5 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.5) Original source: Prime, William C. “Boat Life In Egypt And Nubia.” Harper & Brothers: New York, 1874. p 172.

And a painting from the tomb of Rekhmire

Image: Dea / S. Vannini / Getty Images

You can see some of the process and the many moving parts and jobs that it took to make a brick from start to finish.  If you are not provided with the straw, you have to divide up the work differently.  Pretty soon, you’re not working until 5pm, you’re working until 7 or 8pm.  And if you don’t have access to donkeys or carts, or you have to travel further and further to get what you need each day, things look pretty bad in a hurry!  The foremen get the brunt of the punishment when the quota isn’t met.  When they complain about their treatment, Pharaoh calls them lazy. They decide to corner Moses and Aaron in the back alley after they’ve left their briefing at the palace and tell him that they’ve become a stench to Pharaoh and it’s all their fault.  After which Moses goes to God and says ‘God, WHAT- HAVE- YOU- DONE?’ 

There are days when you may read and hear about God’s divine power and compassion.  You believe that God is paying attention: he sees, he knows, he acts, and you trust that he will do that for you. When you do what you’re supposed to do, follow God’s leading, and act in faith, then things should go well for you, right?  After all, doesn’t God bless those who obey him?  Shouldn’t there be some kind of award and life should get easier when you surrender to God’s will?  Don’t you get a pat on the back? The honest truth is that things may get more difficult when you believe what God says. It’s in those situations that you will be faced with doubts and fears that threaten your faith.  What do you believe about God? Is God REALLY for us?

What do YOU do when you have to make bricks without straw? Life was hard enough a year ago, and then:

-Some students couldn’t graduate with their classmates…

-You took online classes and are failing one of them because online learning is hard…

-You now have to homeschool your kids and you have no idea what you’re doing…

-The office shuts down and you had to learn Zoom…

What do you do:

-When your paycheck stops coming

-When your child cries themself to sleep at night

-When the venue cancels your wedding

-When you are lonely

-When you’ve lost loved ones

-When you’ve been displaced from your office, your church and your regular get–togethers

-When you can’t sleep at night because you’re thinking about the comments you’ve seen online and you don’t know what to believe

The people of Israel didn’t turn to God when things got bad.  Instead, they complained to Moses and blamed him.  And we can relate, right?  When times are good, we’re happy, when things go bad, we complain.  Lament is necessary in times of hurt and disappointment. We NEED to lament, trusting in the character of GOD, no matter what our circumstances are.  As believers in God, the last thing we want to do is rationalize pain, or say that if something is going wrong, then you don’t have faith.  We must acknowledge the losses, and be okay with being disappointed when life changes. 

But God hasn’t changed. He’s still faithful.  He’s still powerful.  He’s still merciful. He’s still the forgiver of sins.  He’s still the healer.  He’s still the one who turns mourning into dancing. He is still for us not against us.  He is with us when we find ourselves in the wilderness, just as he was with us on the mountaintop. He is with us when we grieve, just as he was with us when we rejoiced.  Our circumstances do not change who God is.

In difficult times you might ask: Why would I want to serve a God who allowed his people to be slaves for 400 years?  What about a God who watched as Pharaoh made them create bricks without straw?  A God who takes his sweet time when things are excruciating?  What have I gotten myself into? 

But perhaps it’s good to be reminded that the same God who sees when evildoers have their way, who knows when things are hard, and the God who allows people to face the consequences of their choices, is also the God who isn’t willing that ANY should perish.  Yahweh is different than any other god of any other nation.  His very essence is self-giving, loving, merciful, gracious.  In these chapters, we learn that God cares, and that he promises that he will do what he said he would do. 

In Lent, we remember that the path to the cross that Jesus chose is the same path that God has been choosing ever since the foundation of the world.  That’s why the cross is our symbol; the torture weapon of the ancient world is our gateway to true freedom. If we want to know the power of Christ’s resurrection, we also have to share in his suffering and be conformed with Christ’s death. Being in the wilderness is not pleasant.  It is a testing ground, a battle ground, an opportunity for training and shaping and hearing God’s voice more clearly…so that we can trust him no matter what.  Because in the end, he WILL make all things new.  Sometimes we may feel like life is not going the way it should.  It’s not the way we want it, anyway.  But we can see stories like these all throughout the Bible, where the appearance of a situation looks like one thing, but God is working behind the scenes in mysterious ways to take what is evil and bring it back around for good.  And so, in all circumstances—when life is great and miracles abound, and when we are making bricks without straw; we can follow the words of the Apostle Paul: 

Friends, always rejoice in the Lord! I never tire of saying it: Rejoice!  Keep your gentle nature so that all people will know what it looks like to walk in His footsteps. The Lord is ever present with us.  Don’t be anxious about things; instead, pray. Pray about EVERYTHING. He longs to hear your requests, so talk to God about your needs and be thankful for what has come. And know that the peace of God (a peace that is beyond any and all of our human understanding) will stand watch over your hearts and minds in Jesus, the Anointed One.  Philippians 4:4-7 VOICE

PRAYER: Almighty God, you are the same yesterday, today and forever.  You are unfazed by the situations in our lives, and still you are deeply moved when you hear our cries.  We profess that you are great and powerful and that you have blessed us richly through Christ, our Lord.  Heavenly Father, we are so thankful for the good times and seasons that we experience: the sunshine, places to live, food to eat, and clothes to wear.  We recognize that those things aren’t a reality for all people and we pray for those who lack the resources needed: for those who face persecution, for those who have been abandoned, and for those who feel forgotten.

We proclaim that even in the darkness, you are still light.  Even in these evil days, you are still good.  Even when we face sickness, you are the healer.  Holy Spirit, when we are tired—give us strength.  When we are overwhelmed—give us calmness.  When we despair—show us your face. 

Jesus, may we continue to follow you even as you gave up your rights, submitted to the will of the Father, and became one who was despised and rejected.  May we hold fast to you, God, no matter what our circumstances are.  Hold on tight to us, so that we will not drown when circumstances surround us and threaten to engulf us.  Hold us, keep us, and secure us until the day when all things will be made new and we will be with you for the age that is to come.  Come quickly Lord Jesus.  We give you all the praise and honor and glory, Amen. 

Going Deeper Questions

Read Exodus 4:1-9

–What are the signs that God gives to Moses to show the people?  How much credence would you give someone today if they performed those signs for you?  What kinds of things WOULD it take to prove to you that someone was sent from God? 

Read Exodus 4:10-17

–Does God’s anger to Moses’ objection surprise you?  Why or why not? 

— Is there anything that you’ve been asked to do that you believe is hard for you but easier for someone else?  What kinds of excuses do you use when it comes to serving God?

Read Exodus 4:27-31

–Describe the mood of the people that Moses and Aaron met with.  How much confidence do you think Moses had at this point in the story?

–Have you ever had a time where you did something right, but everything went wrong?  Explain.  How did that make you feel?

Read Exodus 3:19-22, and then Exodus 5:1-9

–What do you think Moses was expecting to happen after he met with Pharaoh?  Do you think he was surprised?  (If you didn’t know about what was coming next, you may have assumed that showing the people the signs and going before Pharaoh would be a very basic and quick rescue scene)

–Do you easily get discouraged when your obedience doesn’t result in an instant blessing?  What is a good motive for being obedient to God? 

–Do you think Pharaoh believed that Moses’ request was reasonable?  According to Pharaoh, what is the value of the Israelites?  What is their purpose?  What are the false words he is afraid that they might believe?  (see Ex. 4:31)

–The people of Israel were forced to make bricks without straw.  Their first response wasn’t to turn to God, it was to complain and blame Moses.  How easy is it to complain when things get hard? 

–Was there ever a time when you thought that it might be easier NOT to follow God? 

–Have you ever had to make bricks without straw? 

In Exodus 5:2, Pharaoh says, “Who is the LORD that I should obey His voice to let Israel go?”  Read through these passages that describe God’s character.

–I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me. I make known the end from the beginning, from ancient times, what is still to come. I say: My purpose will stand, and I will do all that I please. Isaiah 46:9-10

–The LORD is gracious and merciful; Slow to anger and great in lovingkindness. Psalm 145:8

–And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. Colossians 1:17

–The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. 2 Peter 3:9

–Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.  James 1:17

–God is not human, that he should lie, not a human being, that he should change his mind. Does he speak and then not act? Does he promise and not fulfill? Numbers 23:19

–For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you. Deuteronomy 10:17-18

–But the plans of the LORD stand firm forever, the purposes of his heart through all generations. Psalm 33:11

–Who is a God like you, who pardons sin and forgives the transgression of the remnant of his inheritance? You do not stay angry forever but delight to show mercy. You will again have compassion on us; you will tread our sins underfoot and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea.  Micah 7:18-19

–Praise be to the Lord, to God our Savior, who daily bears our burdens. Our God is a God who saves; from the Sovereign LORD comes escape from death. Psalm 68:19-20

–For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. John 3:16

–These verses remind us that our circumstances DO NOT change who God is.  He is still faithful.  He is still powerful.  He is still merciful.  He is still the forgiver of sins.  He is still the healer.  He’s still the one who turns mourning to dancing.  He is with us when we find ourselves in the wilderness, just as he was with us on the mountaintop.  He is with us when we grieve, just as he was with us when we rejoiced. 

–Pray and ask God to help you stay the course and follow him, even when things are difficult. 


[1] John I Durham, Word Biblical Commentary: Exodus, Waco: Word Books, 1987, 44.

[2] John Goldingay, The First Testament, Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2018, 56.

[3] Robert Altar, The Five Books of Moses, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2004, 327. 

[4] Alter, 333. 

[5] Virginia L. Emery, Mud-Brick Architecture. UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, Los Angeles, 2011, http://digital2.library.ucla.edu/viewItem.do?ark=21198/zz0026w9hb

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