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In Exodus 5:3 (KJV) it is written:

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.

Why would the Israelites be afflicted if Pharaoh was the one preventing them from going into the desert to perform sacrifices to God? Why did Moses and Aaron say this to Pharaoh?

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    I think it’s important to define ‘us’ and whether or not it included Pharoah and the Egyptians, therefore making an indirect threat, should their request not be granted. That’s just an aside about one word. – Nihil Sine Deo Mar 20 at 14:16
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The pagan gods (Egyptian gods as well) were known for their capriciousness and volatility. They were petty and unreasonable and could lash out or punish their human subjects for no apparent reason (like demons and monsters, and much like ancient dictators and rulers); especially if the expected sacrifices were not delivered on time. That is why they were so feared by the pagans who constantly had to appease them with sacrifice (sometimes even human) and ritual, so that their gods' wrath does not flare up and bring upon them disaster. This has a lot to do with how they identified their gods with nature, and the logic goes like this: Since nature is capricious and strikes at civilians for no apparent reason, then it must be that the divine is capricious as well (nature they believed is an embodiment of the divine), thus the only way to keep them at bay, they believed, is through sacrifice, gifts and appeasement. Greek mythology is replete with such imagery in which a god gets angry with a human being for some petty offense, whereby a sacrifice is quickly offered to appease its wrath.

Moses here was using the Egyptian/pagan belief system to his own advantage. He was telling Pharaoh, we have a festival now, our God is expecting sacrifices from us, if we do not deliver them on time he might punish us and send pestilence or some other horrible death, that is why you must let us go. Pharaoh could very well relate to this, and Moses thought it would appeal to him and he would let them go, but, alas, Pharaoh would not hear of it.

  • I really love your explanation +1 @Bach but that would make for a reall backfire. Because on both counts it wouldn’t affect Pharaoh. If he doesn’t let them go and it’s true what you said, then only Israel is affected and if it’s false that God would do as you explained then nothing changes. So pharaoh would rather lose them inside of Egypt than a few days journey head start. Personally I think for it to have some credibility Moses’ request had to include threat to Pharaoh beyond loss of slave labor – Nihil Sine Deo Mar 20 at 15:17
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    Both your answer and tblue's are brilliant explanations for this verse, but I chose this as the accepted answer as it really does resonate with me, especially since Moses must have been acutely aware of how the Egyptians worshipped their gods and talked to Pharaoh in a way that he would understand. – Brisk Mar 21 at 22:06
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This is what Rashi has to say on the verse, Exodus 5:3...

https://www.sefaria.org/Rashi_on_Exodus.5.3.1?lang=bi&with=all&lang2=en

LEST HE LIGHT ON US — They should have said, “Lest He light on thee (Pharaoh) [with pestilence] etc.” — but they showed respect to royalty (the king) by thus expressing themselves. This term פגיעה “lighting on”, “meeting” denotes meeting with death (Exodus Rabbah 5:15).

Makes one wonder if Pharaoh didn't know exactly what they were really saying, and that is why he immediately took away the giving of straw to the Israelites for the bricks. He was defying the threat to himself by their God.

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