Pharaoh insults God (Exod 5:2) and orders his slaves to just get back to work (5:4-5). He treats their request for a religious festival as nothing but an excuse to get off work. Even though most people in antiquity allowed for the existence of other people’s gods, Pharaoh assumes that the Hebrews’ god must be very weak, since powerful Egypt, with its powerful gods, has enslaved the Hebrews.
Moses and Aaron do not yet offer signs—perhaps they were ushered from Pharaoh’s presence before they could do so (or perhaps we just do not receive enough details to understand that the instructions are for later; cf. 7:20, “as the Lord commanded”). But Pharaoh in any case offers a response much more massive than signs such as turning a rod into a snake or making one’s hand look leprous. He punishes all the Israelites because they have put forward leaders asking for a holiday. Egypt had festivals for its gods, but Israel could have none for theirs. It seems highly unlikely that Pharaoh was giving them their weekly sabbath either. Pharaoh acts with a firm hand to quell any thought of asking for concessions.
After all, “the people of the land are many” (5:5), a problem that generated their enslavement to begin with (1:9-11). Their being “many” also meant that asking for a holiday would interrupt the productivity of a great work force. To teach them not to look for time off, Pharaoh shows them that even requesting such concessions will only result in further punishment, a heavier yoke. Now they had to gather their own straw for the bricks without reducing their brick quota. Although Pharaoh was not doing the work himself, he was ready to demand a humanly impossible output from those he oppressed.
Pharaoh complains that the Israelites are “crying out” to him for relief (5:8); soon they will instead “cry out” to him because of the very order he now gives (5:15). (Ironically, when Egyptians cried to an earlier Pharaoh, he sent them to Joseph for relief, Gen 41:55.) Yet it is the Lord who has truly heard his people’s “cries” (Exod 3:7, 9), because he hears the cries of the oppressed (22:23, 27; cf. Gen 4:10). Likewise, it is to the Lord that Moses will continue to cry (Exod 8:12; 15:25).
And because the Lord hears the oppressed, soon there will be a “cry” of agony in Egypt as the roles of suffering are reversed (11:6; 12:30).
So Pharaoh increases their “work” (Exod 5:9; already harsh in 1:14; 2:23), undoubtedly assuming that he is ensuring that they will not ask for relief again. Pharaoh undoubtedly congratulates himself on making his point to the slaves, and probably is congratulated with hearty laughter from his courtiers.
The slave-drivers employ a formula not unusual for decrees: “Thus says [the king],” in this case, “Thus says Pharaoh” (5:10). This formula highlights, however, the extent to which Pharaoh is defying and challenging the authority of YHWH, for it evokes YHWH’s own command in 5:1. When Moses and Aaron had come to Pharaoh, they had declared, “Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, ‘Let my people go …’” (cf. also 4:22).
To the Israelites themselves, it must appear as if the flesh-and-blood Pharaoh holds the real power that their invisible God does not. But the Lord will soon surprise everybody with his works for which no one yet had much faith. His chosen time to act had come.