When Moses and Aaron first go before Pharaoh they are faced with his scorn, and the scorn of the all the wisdom of Egypt. “Who is the Lord?”
He is going to find out. We know how the story goes for Pharaoh, but at this point Moses and Aaron still are not clear about that. They don’t understand how implacable Pharaoh is, how much he can endure, and what it will take. They actually try to get him to relent by suggesting that that he is more merciful than God.
The God of the Hebrews has met with us, they say, and if you don’t let us go . . . uh, he’s going to punish us or smite us or something.
That is a strange thing to say. It is a strange thing to say because God never said any such thing. He told Moses he had seen the oppression of his people and remembered his covenant. As a result, he was going to visit them and rescue them. Moses was instructed to tell Pharaoh to let God’s people go, not instructed to tell the people that if they didn’t leave they would be punished. It is a strange reversal. It is also strange because of the only possible reason Moses has for doing this: he’s trying to soften the imperative, to massage the message, to appeal to Pharaoh’s goodness. But can there be mercy with Pharaoh?
There is, of course, no mercy with Pharaoh. Pharaoh grows suspicious and as a result makes things worse for the people of Israel. They find themselves in a bind that is worse than before. The new policy is unreasonable and for Israel, hopeless.
So the elders of Israel go and try to appeal to the king. They are helpless, they think they have no one else to turn to. Maybe there was some oversight, maybe some underling exceeded his authority. Egypt’s economy no doubt changed: its markets were flooded with straw. All the supply of straw going to the brick industry was diverted elsewhere and no doubt the price of straw collapsed. Perhaps the elders of Israel wondered if Pharaoh understood what was going on in his country. Perhaps if Pharaoh knew what was really happening he would not be so harsh. Could there be mercy with Pharaoh?
Instead of turning to the Lord, they turned to Pharaoh. And there was, of course, no mercy with Pharaoh. He berated them and remained implacable. And the end was that everybody was bitter and discouraged, including Moses. Why, he asks the Lord, are you bringing trouble on this people? What am I even doing here?
The Lord had his purposes. He was preparing to abase Pharaoh for one, and no one will question his procedure when all is done. He was also showing his people that they have no help or hope apart from God who alone hears their cries and alone can rescue them. They will learn soon enough that there is no mercy with Pharaoh, because they will soon enough know there is only mercy with the Lord.