After Moses had concluded his stunning interview with Jehovah at the site of the burning bush, he was commanded to:
Go, and gather the elders of Israel together, and say to them, Jehovah, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob, has appeared unto me, saying, I have surely visited you, and seen that which is done to you in Egypt: and I have said, I will bring you up out of the affliction of Egypt... (Exodus 3:16-17).
Subsequently, the elders were instructed to approach Pharaoh and ask permission to “go three days journey into the wilderness, that we may sacrifice to Jehovah our God” (3:18). This text has been seized upon by Bible critics as an opportunity for charging the Lord God with deception. A gentleman recently wrote, indicting God in the following fashion:
In Exodus chapter 3, doesn’t God command Moses to ask that Pharaoh let them go “three days journey” in order to sacrifice, when in reality, that was just a ruse to get them out so they can leave and never come back? Much more than just three days journey! Is this not a commanded lie? Was not the intent to deceive Pharaoh?
In logic there is a maxim designated as the “law of rationality.” The well-recognized principle states that one should draw only such conclusions as are justified by “adequate evidence” (Lionel Ruby, Logic – An Introduction, Chicago: Lippincott, 1950, 127). The question then is this: Is there any way of interpreting Exodus 3:18 without accusing the holy God of Israel with dishonesty? Is one forced to that conclusion by the Exodus text?
There are two things in this connection that must be considered. First, did God know that Pharaoh ultimately would refuse the Israelites permission to go into the wilderness to worship, and eventually stubbornly resist their leaving Egypt? Of course he did; the Lord is omniscient (Job 42:2; Acts 1:24; 1 John 3:20). But one must bear in mind that knowing is not the equivalent of coercing. Second, Jehovah allows man the freedom of choice — to obey or to disobey (Joshua 24:15; Isaiah 7:15-16; John 5:39) — even though he knows what course the person will pursue. God’s love for humanity provides options of obedience — even in the face of resolute disobedience.
It is entirely consistent with the love of God, therefore, to offer an incremental test of obedience, in preparation for more difficult challenges in the future. If Pharaoh had obeyed the Lord in such a small request (a three-day excursion to worship), he might have “softened” his heart, instead of hardening it, and thus been spared the heartache that followed — including the death of his son and the destruction of his army. Thus, as Old Testament scholar Walter Kaiser, Jr. observed, “Here we can see God’s tender love and concern for Pharaoh” (Kaiser, et al., Hard Sayings of the Bible, Downers Grove, IL, 1996, 138).
But the king of Egypt stiffened his neck and declared that the people of Israel would not be released from their labor (of making bricks) — not even for only three days; instead, their burden would be increased. They would be required to gather their own straw in the making of bricks, with the production quantity not diminished (Exodus 5:1-9).
In his excellent commentary on Exodus, W.H. Gispen wrote:
The request to be allowed to make a three-day journey into the desert to offer sacrifices to God was sincere. Why not? Could not the Lord test the king of Egypt first in the lesser thing before He presented him with the demand to release His people? (Exodus – Bible Student’s Commentary, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1982, 57).
It is hardly necessary, therefore; indeed it is entirely foolish, to accuse the “God of truth” (Psalm 31:5) with deception.