Scriptures are cited from the King James (Authorized) Version, unless stated otherwise.
Question: In Exodus 3: 7-10 the Lord declares to Moses that He intends to free the Israelites
from slavery in Egypt (“I am come down to deliver them . . .”). However, in Exodus 5: 1, 3
Moses asks Pharaoh for only a three-day journey into the desert so that they may “sacrifice” to
the Lord. Why the discrepancy?
Answer: Exodus 5: 1, 3 reads:
1 And afterward Moses and Aaron went in, and told Pharaoh, Thus saith the LORD
God of Israel, Let my people go, that they may hold a feast unto me in the wilderness.
3 And they said, The God of the Hebrews hath met with us: let us go, we pray thee,
three days’ journey into the desert, and sacrifice unto the LORD our God; lest he fall
upon us with pestilence, or with the sword.
At one point, Pharaoh consented to let the people take their festival, on the condition they remain
within the provincial borders of Rameses (Exodus 8: 25). Moses protested that their public
sacrifices would make them obnoxious within the land, and that the Egyptians might assault
them (“will they not stone us?”; Exodus 8: 26). Moses therefore reiterated his original request
(“We will go three days’ journey”; v. 27).
Given the size of the Hebrew population of more than 600,000 (Exodus 12: 37; about the size of
the current population of Las Vegas. Nevada, USA), the logistics required for a “journey” of
three days would have been complex. And even at an unlikely fast walking pace of four miles
per hour for, say, eight hours over three days, such a multitude would have managed not more
than 100 miles.
It appears, then, that this was not what lay behind Moses’ plea. He sought not a three-day hike,
but a convocation of three days’ duration outside the provincial borders of Rameses. This
suggests that the absence of the Israelites from their workaday jobs would have run into at least a
week, but probably much longer. Pharaoh and his advisors would naturally baulk at such a loss
of valuable manpower, upon which the Egyptian citizenry had come to depend. Indeed, it is not
uncommon today for nations to rely on immigrant workers to perform menial or laborious tasks
which their own workers won’t do.
The request that Moses made regarding this departure was in harmony with God’s previous
instruction in Exodus 3: 18, to which God adds (v. 19), “And I am sure that the king of Egypt
will not let you go, no, not by a mighty hand.” This reasonable petition probed Pharaoh’s
resolve, exposing his stubbornness, on the principle that the man who will not accede to a
modest demand, will not yield to the more stringent one. (Compare this principle with that of
Luke 16: 30, 31: “If they hear not Moses . . . neither will they be persuaded, though . . . .”)
Moses did not tell Pharaoh that the object in view was a permanent leave-taking, nor was he
duty-bound to do so. The Israelites’ bondage was unjust in the first place; they had never
forfeited their liberties through either war or debt. They had entered Egypt as a free people and
they retained the moral right to leave at any time. Had Pharaoh consented to Moses’ initial
request, the Israelites in response might have agreed to remain in Egypt, although on altered
terms, as befits a free and noble people. But Pharaoh not only refused to grant the plea for the
sacred holiday, but increased the people’s chores. This action raised the stakes to the next level
of pressure – the ten plagues, which eventually compelled Pharaoh to release all the Hebrews, as
Jehovah had forecast.
On a related note, there is a broader significance to the three days. The experiences of literal
Israel generally foreshadow the trials and tribulations of God’s people throughout the centuries
1. As the first-born in Israel were delivered in a special sense, so Christ’s Church of the Gospel
Age comprised the special, elected ones delivered from out of mankind.
2. As the whole nation of Israel was delivered by Moses, so will the entire world of mankind be
delivered by Christ.
3. As Pharaoh’s army was destroyed at the Red Sea, so Satan and his army of supporters will
eventually be destroyed by God.