After Moses demands that Pharaoh release the Israelites from slavery, Pharaoh cracks down with even harsher servitude. Now the Israelite state slaves must gather their own straw to make the bricks. Their taskmasters (the Hebrew texts literally calls them oppressors, or those pressing them to labor) still demand the daily quota.
To subsequent Israelites, who heard this story over and over, the slaves’ daily quota may provide a fitting contrast to what comes after Israel’s deliverance from slavery. When God freed Israel from slavery, they discovered a very different sort of master, a father who cared for them (Exod 4:22). The idiom for their “daily quota” in making bricks could be translated more woodenly, the “matter of a day in its day” (5:13, 19). The next time the same idiom is used, its other use in Exodus, is when God provides the people’s daily needs by manna (16:4). (Elsewhere, the idiom can apply to daily sacrifices in Lev 23:37, 2 Chron 8:13 and Ezra 3:4 daily worship regulations in 1 Chron 16:37, 2 Chron 8:14 and Neh 11:23; and daily provision in Dan 1:5.) The slave-drivers exploit God’s people for labor; God, who delivered his people from slavery, gave them food for which they did not need to labor. The contrast highlights the folly of the Israelites in the wilderness complaining about God’s provision (and in Num 11:5-6 even preferring their food in Egypt!)
When the Israelite slaves cannot meet their quota, the Egyptian slavedrivers beat the Israelite overseers whom they appointed to oversee the other Israelite workers. The beaten overseers protest to Pharaoh, calling themselves Pharaoh’s “servants” (5:15-16). Such a self-designation is a mandatory sign of respect given their situation with Pharaoh, and Pharaoh uses the cognate verb to order them to go “work,” or act as servants, in 5:18. Nevertheless, one should note that God is calling his people to come aside and “serve” or “worship” him (the cognate verb in 4:23; 7:16; 8:1, 20; 9:1, 13; 10:3, 26). When danger arises and the people forget God’s power, they remain ready to serve Pharaoh’s purposes (14:12).
The God who freed his people from tyranny and fed them in the wilderness is the one master who will look out for us better than we can look out for ourselves. Everybody serves someone or something. The question that leaves us is: whom shall we serve?