Don Isaac Abravanel (1437-1508) was a preeminent Jewish thinker, scholar, and prolific Biblical
commentator. In Exodus Chapter 5, Moses and Aaron petition Pharaoh in the name of God: Let My
People Go. The king was unmoved, let alone impressed. “And Pharaoh said: Who is God that I should
harken unto His voice to let Israel go? I know not God…”
“And afterward Moses and Aaron came, and said unto Pharaoh: Thus
says God, the God of Israel: Let My people go, that they may hold a
feast unto Me in the wilderness. And Pharaoh said: Who is God that I
should harken unto His voice to let Israel go? I know not God, and
moreover I will not let Israel go.”
Abravanel asks about Moses and Aaron’s follow up, after Pharaoh categorically refused them. “And they
said: The God of the Hebrews has spoken to us. Let us go, we pray you, three days’ journey into the
What in the world, Abravanel questions, were Moses and Aaron thinking? Pharaoh had just stated: “I
know not God, and moreover I will not let Israel go.” Further, what did the two brothers hope to
accomplish with the threat: “Lest He fall upon us with pestilence, or with the sword?” Pharaoh couldn’t
care less about such chatter.
Really, Aaron and Moses knew exactly what they were doing. After they heard Pharaoh profess
ignorance of God, and a refusal to let the Jews celebrate in the desert, the two men doubled down: “The
God of the Hebrews has spoken to us.” It amounted to giving Pharaoh a primer in Jewish history, and
the decisive role God played in it.
Abravanel elaborates on the lecture Moses and Aaron gave to the Egyptian monarch. Pharaoh, they
fired away. Have you heard of the God of Shem and Eiver? Have you heard of the God of Abraham, the
Hebrew, Who rescued the patriarch from a fiery furnace? What about that God Who brought military
victories to Abraham over enemy forces far greater than his?
Aaron and Moshe continued, Abravanel learns. Have you heard about the God of Isaac, Who brought
King Abimelech, the king of the Philistines, to his knees? What about that same God of Jacob, Who
The two brothers again addressed Pharaoh, now in present tense. You don’t stand a chance against the
God of the Hebrews. He watches over the Jewish people. That same Almighty spoke to us in a
prophecy, and commanded that we serve Him in the wilderness. A modest request – for you the king
to accept. We’re asking for three days in the desert, to sacrifice to the Almighty.
Moshe and Aaron concluded their remarks with a simple cost/benefit analysis. Besides, Pharaoh, the
celebration will benefit you. Should you turn us down, divine wrath will be brought to bear, in the
form of pestilence and the sword. Consequently, your slaves will be decimated, causing you great loss.
And all because you will not let the Hebrews celebrate for three days!
In sum, Abravanel explains the cogent argument put forth by Moses and Aaron to Pharaoh. The Bible
points out the king’s hubris and obstinacy. Though obnoxious, those traits did not cause Egypt’s utter
ruin. His ignorance of the all-powerful God of Israel did.