In Shemot 3:17, at the Burning Bush, Hashem tells Moshe to gather the elders of Israel and tell them of His plans to redeem the Children of Israel from the afflictions of Egypt and bring them to the Land of Israel:
וָאֹמַר אַעֲלֶה אֶתְכֶם מֵעֳנִי מִצְרַיִם אֶל אֶרֶץ הַכְּנַעֲנִי וְהַחִתִּי וְהָאֱמֹרִי וְהַפְּרִזִּי וְהַחִוִּי וְהַיְבוּסִי אֶל אֶרֶץ זָבַת חָלָב וּדְבָשׁ.
In the very next verse, Hashem commands Moshe to follow this up by speaking to Paroh, and He dictates to him what should be said to the king. As the reader waits expectantly to hear "Let my people go!", Hashem instead tells Moshe to petition Paroh to permit the nation to depart for only a three day holiday in the wilderness:
וְשָׁמְעוּ לְקֹלֶךָ וּבָאתָ אַתָּה וְזִקְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶל מֶלֶךְ מִצְרַיִם וַאֲמַרְתֶּם אֵלָיו ה' אֱלֹהֵי הָעִבְרִיִּים נִקְרָה עָלֵינוּ וְעַתָּה נֵלֲכָה נָּא דֶּרֶךְ שְׁלֹשֶׁת יָמִים בַּמִּדְבָּר וְנִזְבְּחָה לַה' אֱלֹהֵינוּ.
These verses raise a host of questions. Why would Hashem instruct Moshe to ask Paroh for only a three day furlough if His real intent was to take the nation to the Promised Land forever? Was this an attempt to deceive Paroh? Why would Hashem choose to resort to deception rather than being upfront about the ultimate goal?1 What would have happened had Paroh consented to the three day request? Did Paroh know of the plans to leave permanently? Did the Egyptians know? Did the Israelites all know?
Two subsequent verses confirm that Moshe followed Hashem's instructions to the letter. In Shemot 5:3, when Moshe and Aharon meet Paroh they tell him:
וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֱלֹהֵי הָעִבְרִים נִקְרָא עָלֵינוּ נֵלֲכָה נָּא דֶּרֶךְ שְׁלֹשֶׁת יָמִים בַּמִּדְבָּר וְנִזְבְּחָה לַה' אֱלֹהֵינוּ פֶּן יִפְגָּעֵנוּ בַּדֶּבֶר אוֹ בֶחָרֶב.
Similarly, in Shemot 8:23, in the aftermath of the fourth plague of ערוב, Moshe reiterates:
דֶּרֶךְ שְׁלֹשֶׁת יָמִים נֵלֵךְ בַּמִּדְבָּר וְזָבַחְנוּ לַה' אֱלֹהֵינוּ כַּאֲשֶׁר יֹאמַר אֵלֵינוּ.
In fact, Moshe's dialogue with Paroh throughout the entire set of Plagues appear to indicate that Paroh continued to believe that the Israelites were supposed to return to Egypt after their desert holiday. For this reason, even during the negotiations following the ninth plague of darkness, Paroh insists that the Israelites' livestock remain in Egypt to guarantee that their owners would come back after their holiday.
וַיִּקְרָא פַרְעֹה אֶל מֹשֶׁה וַיֹּאמֶר לְכוּ עִבְדוּ אֶת ה' רַק צֹאנְכֶם וּבְקַרְכֶם יֻצָּג גַּם טַפְּכֶם יֵלֵךְ עִמָּכֶם.
This leads us to the ultimate question: When Paroh finally agreed to let the Israelites go after the Plague of the Firstborn, was he expelling them permanently (as the usages of the root גרש2 might imply) or merely granting them a temporary leave of absence for religious worship? Or, formulated alternatively, when Paroh chases after the Israelites in Shemot 14, is he doing so because they appeared to be vulnerable ("נְבֻכִים הֵם בָּאָרֶץ סָגַר עֲלֵיהֶם הַמִּדְבָּר") and he regretted expelling them ("וַיֵּהָפֵךְ לְבַב פַּרְעֹה") or because he had expected that they would return ("כִּי בָרַח הָעָם")?
Gifts or Loans
The matter of the three day request is intertwined with the question of the nature of the gold and silver vessels the Egyptians gave the Israelites – see Reparations and Despoiling Egypt. Did the Egyptians intend them as loans, anticipating that the Israelites would be returning, or as outright gifts knowing full well that the Israelites were leaving for good? In Exegetical Approaches, we will explore the relationship between the various expectations of Paroh, the Egyptians, and the Israelites.