Bricks without Straw

Pharaoh said, “Lazy, that’s what you are—lazy! That is why you keep saying, ‘Let us go and sacrifice to the Lord.’  Now get to work. You will not be given any straw, yet you must produce your full quota of bricks.”

          Exodus 5:17-18


In 1998, I made my first trip to India.  We stayed in a hotel near Karnala and our drivers drove us to Dolvi, to a steel mill.  This area is south of Mumbai, in the province of Maharashtra.  The steel producer wanted the most ultra-modern facility that money could buy, but we drove past such abject poverty and work performed with ancient technology.  Nothing could have been more ancient than brick making along the road between the hotel and the steel mill.  There were several different work crews.  It was February, twenty years ago.  The brick makers were in a hurry to make bricks before the spring monsoons, which would leave their work area under water.


In the photograph, you see a migrant group making bricks roughly the same way that they did in the time of Moses.  This technology is at least 3,300 years old.  These workers will call in trucks to haul the bricks away.  It is not all ancient.


Pardon me for the detail, but I am both a degreed engineer and a long-time job-task analyst.


First, they dig a mine shaft, of sorts, to find the exact type of soil that they need.  The wooden wench, similar to an old water well pulley system, is hidden by the crowd of people to the left in the photograph.  Instead of hoisting water, they hoist the dirt and eventually their co-workers from the hole, all using a pulley on a wooden shaft by rope.  That is why they make bricks in the dry season, when the water table is lower than the dirt they desire.


The dirt is then moved to the mud pit to the right.  The man in the white shirt is probably the leader.  To his left is a man stooped over and you may be able to see two or three black dots.  Those are the heads of children, possibly younger than ten-years-old.  It is the children who ‘play’ in the mud, stomping their feet, until the mud is the right consistency to make bricks.  At this point, a little bit of straw is added to hold the formed bricks together.  If you look at old bricks around your house, you can sometimes see ‘fossils’ of plant life.  That is where straw was near the surface and was burned away during firing.


When the mud is ready, it is formed with a mold and laid out to air dry.  Between the two lighter color walls in the middle of the photograph, there are rows of wet bricks, one layer high, laid to dry in the sun.  When these bricks are dry enough, they are stacked to the side (lower right corner of the photo).


When there are enough air-dried, but still wet, bricks prepared for firing, a pyramid is created.  Think Mayan pyramid with a flat top rather than Egyptian.  Just in front of the trees to the back left, a man in a white shirt is sitting on a pyramid, completing the roof.  If you look carefully, you can see a row about halfway up the side on the end of the pyramid with gaps between bricks.  Those holes will be used for combustion control.  Another pyramid (completed) is to the right and behind the woman in the red sari.


Inside the pyramids are alternating rows of wet bricks and combustion material.  The combustion material consists of sticks, straw, and cow dung.


When ready to fire, the workers light the dried cow dung near the base of the pyramid.  The combustion control experts watch the smoke and toss sand into the holes that are mentioned above to control the temperature of the fire.  This controls the amount of oxygen that can be used to burn the fuel.  This is important so that they will have bricks instead of a pile of rocks made of hardened brick clay.


If you are wondering, you really cannot avoid the smell of cow dung smoke.  It soaks into everything, including your clothing, but it smells better than the raw human sewage in other places along the road.  If you go to underdeveloped countries and you are hit with a wall of stench, it is mostly raw human waste that creates that smell, that and the smell of death.  As a friend of mine told me, you go to India, or other such places, and you smell these foul-smelling people around you on the airplane.  When you return home, the foul-smelling person is you.  To India’s benefit, if you stay in the cities, the smell is not as bad, and most of the people have all the modern conveniences.  Just massive traffic jams.


When the combustion expert (or could we call him the brick baker?) says that the bricks are done, the outer layer of old bricks (the lighter colored brick walls in the photograph) are carefully set aside to be used again, and the finished bricks are sent to the customer.


If you were noticing, straw is used twice.  Once in holding the clay together until the brick is fired and as a combustion fuel.  Without the former, the brick would most likely not hold together during the air-dry process, much less the combustion firing.  With the latter, the combustion process would not go so well.  You’d have uneven heating, under-firing some bricks while other bricks would shatter from overheating.  The cow dung is the easily-lit, highly flammable material.  The sticks provide the sustained combustion, but the straw is the intermediate combustion material that balances the other two fuels.


By the way, I watched this site go from wet bricks to finished material in a month’s time.


Pharaoh was not saying to make bricks without straw as many people interpret in this passage.  Usable bricks could not be made in this method without straw.  He was saying that the Israelites had to go fetch their own straw.  They had been supplied straw by the Egyptian straw vendors.  The Israelites couldn’t buy their own straw.  They were poor slaves.  So, in the pre-dawn hours, they now had to go to the fields and gather their own.  It is more work and less sleep for people who were already too tired in the first place.


The same day that I read this in my daily Bible reading, I got a contract job with my old employer.  When they asked if I would be willing to teach a class in Birmingham, AL, they didn’t start off with, “Hi!  How are you?”  If they had and I was honest, they’d know about my health problems and the doctor dictated limits on my lifting – hopefully temporary.  They simply got down to the issue that concerned them, would I be willing to do something for them that they don’t know how to do?  I make a few bucks.  They make a lot more.


Then, after they sent confirmation of a sale and a three-week deadline for completion, I let them know about my limitations.  Their reply was, “We will have people do the lifting here at the office, but you have to rent the truck and drive to and from the site.  You are on your own getting people to help once on the site.”  Two of the crates weigh about 200 pounds each.  My restriction is 13 pounds.  I cannot stay within those restriction carrying a box of books.  What is more, no one knew where my computer server was, the server that had all my photographs, drawings, and presentation materials.  There were so many other issues about the job that I instantly regretted taking it.


When I got the news that I was on my own without any assistance, my heart raced.  I had chest pains.  I’m sure this was GERD instead of a heart attack, but the blood pressure was high.  I heard a lot of arguments in my head.  I heard recriminations for taking the job without spending time in prayer, time that they did not allow for my decision.  But as the anger boiled, my sense of the Holy Spirit’s presence was instantly gone.  That scared me.  I repented.  I made this bed.  I would show God’s love to others.


What does this have to do with the Scripture?  Big business today is like Pharaoh.  Big business wants someone else to do the work.  Don’t bother them with details.  Just get it done.  When you are finished, they’ll put the thousands of dollars of profit in their back pocket, while you go off to have a coronary problem.  To them, they had nothing to do with the aftermath.  They only want the money.


Pharaoh was not concerned with the Israelites going into the desert to worship their God.  He would impress on them that he was the only god of importance for the Israelites.  Pharaoh bossed people around.  They worked until they died, and Pharaoh collected the money without lifting a finger.


When we meet the modern Pharaoh’s in our lives, God gives us the strength to do the job.  God gives us the wisdom to curb our anger and frustration.  God gives us the love, so that we might show that love to others, even the naughty ones.  But only when we have faith in God.


With this job, my meltdown only lasted an hour or so.  I pray that the next time I am asked to do a small job, I can take the job with full knowledge of the upcoming frustrations.  I pray that God will keep me tranquil through the rough seas.  There are inevitable rough seas, but I seem to remember Jesus sleeping through a storm until…


Mark 4:39 states, “He got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, “Quiet! Be still!” Then the wind died down and it was completely calm.”


The job is far from ready, but I finally have what I need to finish it, through God’s strength.  I once had no ‘straw for my bricks,’ but now I do.  In my case, Jesus told me to be quiet and still, and He moved circumstances to make the path straight.  I was simply there when it happened.  After all, Jesus promises everyone that He is willing to do that very thing for each of us.


Praise the Lord.

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