"Let My People Go!": On Worship, Work and Laziness

I was reading the book of Exodus and came to the first confrontation between Moses and Pharaoh.

And I was surprised by something.

I was expecting, because we all know this story, to find Moses walking up to Pharaoh and saying "Let my people go!"

But that's not quite what you find in the first encounter between Moses and Pharaoh as recounted in Exodus 5. What you get is this:
Exodus 5.1
Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and said, “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘Let my people go, so that they may hold a festival to me in the wilderness.’”
Yes, we get the demand "Let my people go." But it's not a demand to leave Egypt. It's a demand for liberation and freedom to worship.

The demand is this: "Let my people go worship."

Pharaoh, we know, refuses and makes the Israelites work harder. They have to continue making bricks and make the same quotas but they have to gather their own straw.

All overworked people know the refrain.

More bricks, less straw.

And what's interesting to note in Pharaoh's reaction is that he assumes that a request for worship is symptomatic of laziness:
Exodus 5.8, 17-18
[Pharaoh said to the Israelite overseers:] "Require them to make the same number of bricks as before; don’t reduce the quota. They are lazy; that is why they are crying out, ‘Let us go and sacrifice to our God.’"

Pharaoh said, “Lazy, that’s what you are—lazy! That is why you keep saying, ‘Let us go and sacrifice to the Lord.’ Now get to work. You will not be given any straw, yet you must produce your full quota of bricks.”
What I find interesting in all this is how the worship of God is perceived to interrupt the work and quotas demanded by Pharaoh. The tension, at least here in the beginning of Exodus, isn't the clash between slavery and liberation but the clash between worship and work.

I don't know about you, but that conflict seems extraordinarily relevant to our time and place.

Will not the worship of God interrupt, disrupt and interfere with the constant demands for more and more work?

Will not the worship of God interrupt, disrupt and interfere with the constant demands for greater and greater productivity?

Will not the worship of God interrupt, disrupt and interfere with the quotas demanded by the Pharaohs of capitalism?

And will not the worship of God in our time and place be ultimately perceived as laziness?

"Don’t reduce the quota. They are lazy. That is why they are crying out, ‘Let us go and sacrifice to our God.'"

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14 thoughts on “"Let My People Go!": On Worship, Work and Laziness”

  1. Richard, that's one of the things I like about your blog. It so often gives me a jolt. Thanks for the gift of provoking insights and intriging applications.....and
    all in the name of Jesus! Keep up the good work, Sir. :)

  2. "Pharaoh, Let my people go so that they may worship me by caring for what God has created and declared 'Good'!"

    "Get back to work, don't you know that tree hugging stuff hurts profits and job creation?"

  3. God - this immediately brings to mind discussion about raising the minimum wage. People just want space to breathe and LIVE, and those with the money and power who aren't suffering look at their demands and say "You are just lazy. You need to work harder."

    Or when people hold #BlackLivesMatter signs, people shout them down and say "You bring your own problems on yourself. You could pull out of where you are if you weren't lazy."

    Seems like the rich and privileged have had that excuse for themselves for an awful long time.

  4. This conflict does seem extraordinarily relevant and renders these insights compelling snd refreshing.

    To the extent that "fellowship" is a part of worship, there are ways in which, at least in work environments I've experienced, that part of worship is viewed with suspicion as well: chatting on occasion, taking a well-timed break, etc. One would think that even pragmatics might allow for a more humane approach. "Don't muzzle the ox while it's treading out the grain"/happy or more fulfilled employees might make for greater productivity. I realize some balance is required, but I see mostly bans. Far less time required to formulate a ban.

    Would it derail the discussion to suggest an unfortunate parallel? I have in mind churches with a kind of economy focused on growth, attendance, and contribution (with related "economic indicators" running weekly in the bulletin, God viewed as a a majority shareholder who must be pleased at all costs). In such economies, people become at best a means, at worst a liability; meeting their needs is viewed as a distraction from "the work" (termed, ironically, as "souls"). Whether this is an example of the/a church being contaminated by the culture, or simply yet another manifestation of a "principality" or "power" to which we can succumb too easily in a variety of contexts, I do not know.

    Much for me to think about, including figuring out where I give in to and/or employ this dynamic myself and how I might be a buffer against it in ways similar to the Merton quote you have at the top of the site. Thank you!

  5. And in my line of work, I hear:


    Will not the worship of God interrupt, disrupt and interfere with my tee times?
    Will not the worship of God interrupt, disrupt and interfere with my only day to relax?
    Will not the worship of God interrupt, disrupt and interfere with family time?
    Will not the worship of God ultimately be perceived as yet one more thing to do in an overly packed schedule?

  6. The relationship between worship, work, liberty, and service in Exodus is fascinating. One of the important things to notice is the repeated refrain that God wants Pharaoh to release the Israelites so that they might 'serve' him. In fact, in the text of Exodus the theme of service/slavery relates far more directly to the state that Israel enters into at Sinai than it does to the state that it leaves in departing from Egypt. The popular slavery/liberation opposition tends to disguise the fact that Exodus is a story of movement from one form of service and one master to another.


    The work/worship opposition is more natural to Exodus in a number of ways, especially when approached carefully. It is clearly present in the fourth commandment, for instance. However, I wonder whether the difference is better framed as labour without rest under Pharaoh and God's granting of rest to Israel in its labours. That is, work and worship aren't in opposition, but work without rest/worship is in opposition to work with such rest and worship.


    The themes of the second half of Exodus bear this out, I think, especially in the way that they allude back to the pattern of creation. God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh, so Israel too must enjoy rest in its labours. The creation of the tabernacle follows a seven day creation pattern, culminating in the enjoyment of rest and the presence of God in Israel's midst—Israel enters into God's pattern of creation and, through that, shares in his rest. The book of Exodus begins with Israel building palaces for Pharaoh without rest: the book of Exodus ends with Israel building a palace for YHWH, in which God rests and invites his servants into fellowship with him.

  7. Thanks, Alastair. I guess the question then becomes: What happens next? Fast forward to Solomon. Following the trajectory of the construction of the swanky tabernacle in Exodus 35ff., talk about a "a palace for YHWH"! Brueggemann:

    "As is well known ... Solomon devoted great energy to the temple, a standard royal enterprise that is laden with dynastic ideology underscoring the ostensible piety of the king, and which provides public evidence of divine commitment to the royal dynasty. The temple, of course, is opulent in its appointment. Its three-chambered design, moreover, witnesses to a hierarchical ordering of social power ... The three-chambered arrangement, a standard in royally operated temples, created a system of graded holiness that, given the centrality of the cult, embodied gradations of social power and social wealth -- that is, an ideological stratification of social worth.The architecture of the city attests to what is to be valued and who is to be consigned to the margins of whatever wealth their guarantees may be offered."

    Moreover, Solomon's "state apparatus of building, trade, military, and tax policy all depended upon cheap labor -- or more properly, forced labor whereby men are conscripted to serve the aims of the regime even when that course violated their own vested interest." No wonder, then, that "Solomon is remembered as having policies that replicated and imitated those of Pharaoh in ancient days."

    Now fast forward to Herod's magnificent Second Temple (all 12 football pitches of it): same old same old.

    My point is that we must not only contrast the exploitation of labour (in the context of pharaonic economies, ancient and contemporary, whose raison d'être is to increase and protect the wealth and power of the affluent) with the dignity of work, we must also apply a hermeneutics of suspicion to worship itself which, ideologically, may be more in the service of Mammon (and his child Injustice) and Mars (and his child Patriotism) than YHWH. Thus, at least, the prophetic tradition, from Amos to Jesus.

  8. Kim,
    If you get a chance and see this, would you list the title of the Brueggemann book or essay you quote above? Also, thank you too for the point you raise about applying a hermeneutics of suspicion to worship and ideologies of worship.

  9. Sure thing: Mandate to Difference: An Invitation to the Contemporary Church (Louisville/London: Westminster Press, 2007).

  10. Thanks, Kim.


    I have always felt that Brueggemann's hand slips at this point, so covering the text with the (necessary) seasoning of suspicion that the fundamental flavour of the narrative is quite disguised.


    Within the biblical text, Solomon's Temple is fundamentally seen as a good thing, an expression of God's presence among and blessing upon his people and certainly not simply some architectural establishment of dynastic ideology (although it is alloyed with that in various ways). The temple is associated with the 'rest' of peace and national prosperity that the Kingdom enjoys in Solomon's reign. It brings Gentile figures into the frame, not just as Israel's antagonists, but as his allies. However, Brueggemann is justified to challenge the idealization of Solomon and his temple by bringing in elements of suspicion. Indeed, the text does the same (and not just the prophetic critiques, but the more immediate historical accounts).


    The Deuteronomic ideal of kingship (Deuteronomy 17:14-20) is in the background of the text, as is Samuel's indictment upon the people and his warnings concerning the behaviour of the king in 1 Samuel 8. Solomon's dynasty is shown to be torn between two models of kingship—the Deuteronomic model (which Solomon expresses in his choice of wisdom for wise rule as God's servant over God's people, rather than riches, military dominance, long life, and majesty in 1 Kings 3) and the Pharaonic model of the nations (which is seen in Solomon's turn to Egypt and the many echoes of Pharaoh in the narrative). The text holds Solomon up for criticism on these fronts, not least for the 'heavy yoke' that he placed upon the people, a Pharaonic yoke that ultimately broke the back of the united Kingdom (1 Kings 12:1-24). Within this context, Solomon's Temple is never exempted from the ambiguity surrounding his kingdom more generally.


    I don't think that we should fast forward from Solomon's Temple to Herod's Temple. Rather, we should reflect upon the rebuilding of the Temple and the walls of Jerusalem under Ezra and Nehemiah. Like the tabernacle, the popular character of these building projects is emphasized in the text (e.g. Ezra 2:68-70; Nehemiah 3): the Temple and Jerusalem's walls are principally constructed from freely given gifts and volunteer labour—God's house is built from his people's hearts. The prophets Haggai and Zechariah present the new temple, despite its diminished appearance, as more glorious than the Temple of Solomon that preceded it.


    The later Second Temple of Herod is not presented in so favourable a light. Rather, it is the model of the tabernacle and rebuilding of the temple after exile that provide the primary models for the construction of the Church as the temple of the Holy Spirit.

  11. As one deploys Sabbath to seize territory in the spiritual world, the reflexive beast tries to take a bite out of ones material world. As Jesus indicated earlier, oddly the deployments of an anti-tribute attitude inherent in the Day of Rest and other spiritual disciplines amount to violent seizure of the Kingdom.

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