22 Then Moses made Israel set out from the Red Sea, and they went into the wilderness of Shur. They went three days in the wilderness and found no water. 23 When they came to Marah, they could not drink the water of Marah because it was bitter; therefore it was named Marah. 24 And the people grumbled against Moses, saying, “What shall we drink?” 25 And he cried to the Lord, and the Lord showed him a log, and he threw it into the water, and the water became sweet.
There the Lord made for them a statute and a rule, and there he tested them, 26 saying, “If you will diligently listen to the voice of the Lord your God, and do that which is right in his eyes, and give ear to his commandments and keep all his statutes, I will put none of the diseases on you that I put on the Egyptians, for I am the Lord, your healer.”
27 Then they came to Elim, where there were twelve springs of water and seventy palm trees, and they encamped there by the water. – Exodus 15:22-27 ESV
With their miraculous crossing of the Red Sea, the Israelites were putting a four-century-long season of their life behind them. As the waters of the sea closed behind them, it was as if God closed a lengthy chapter of their existence that had been marked by slavery and persecution. They must have issued a collective sigh of relief as they realized that their days of suffering had finally come to an end. For the first time in centuries, they were a free people and on their way to the land that God had promised as their inheritance. None of them had ever set foot in Canaan before. More than 400 years earlier, their patriarch, Jacob, had entered Egypt of his own free will, bringing along the 70 members of his clan so that they could find refuge from the global famine that had left the land of Canaan a virtual wasteland.
But now, Jacob’s descendants, whose numbers had greatly expanded during their time in Egypt, were returning to the land that he had left. The promise God had made to Abraham was coming true.
“Know for certain that your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted for four hundred years. But I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions.” – Genesis 15:13-14 ESV
And God had reconfirmed that promise to Jacob as he and his family were making their way to Egypt.
“I am God, the God of your father. Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for there I will make you into a great nation. I myself will go down with you to Egypt, and I will also bring you up again, and Joseph’s hand shall close your eyes.” – Genesis 46:3-4 ESV
Jacob and his sons all died while living in Egypt. The only time his 12 sons returned to Canaan was in order to bury his body alongside those of Abraham and Isaac. But the brothers were unable to remain in Canaan because the famine had not yet ended. So, they returned to Egypt where they lived out their lifetimes in the land of Goshen.
But now, their numerous descendants were making the long journey home. But after their four-hundred-year stint in Egypt, the Israelites had grown accustomed to their surroundings. They had acclimated to the land and the ways of its people. Over time, they had forgotten the God of their fathers and adopted the Egyptian gods as their own. Canaan had become a distant memory and the promises of Yahweh had long been forgotten as each successive generation became increasingly more “Egyptianized.”
But all that was about to change. Their long-forgotten God had not forgotten them. He had just miraculously delivered them from bondage and was now leading them to their future home in Canaan. And as the scene of their emancipation and the Egyptian army’s annihilation faded into the distance, the people followed the pillar of cloud into the wilderness of Shur. Little did they know that this was going to be the beginning of a new chapter in their collective story. They were entering a new phase of their existence in which they would come to know and understand their “new” God. The ten plagues they had witnessed in Egypt had just been the opening act of His self-revelatory drama.
As they made their way to Canaan, they were going to get a steady dose of divine revelation as God displayed His glory and power. But He would also reveal the expectations He had for His chosen people. He had redeemed them for a reason. They had been set free so that they might live according to His will and display His glory and greatness to the rest of the nations.
The wilderness was to be their classroom, where they learned the painful truth about their own character and discovered the unflinching holiness and unwavering faithfulness of their God. And those lessons began immediately.
Just three days after leaving the Red Sea, they found themselves facing their first test in God’s school of spiritual enlightenment.
They traveled in this desert for three days without finding any water. When they came to the oasis of Marah, the water was too bitter to drink. – Exodus 15:22-23 NLT
Shur was not a desert as much as it was an open expanse of land, and water would have been a constant need for the Israelites. So, during their first three days of travel, the Israelites found no source of potable water. This would have been a serious concern for a group their size. How could they remain alive without water? They knew that their sizeable flocks and herds would quickly diminish if a viable source of water was not found soon.
This unexpected predicament caused the people to turn their anger against Moses. Just as they had done when they found themselves backed up against the sea with the Egyptian army bearing down on them, the people of Israel took out their fear and frustration on God’s appointed leader.
“What are we going to drink?” they demanded. – Exodus 15:24 NLT
And by this time, Moses must have been questioning why he ever agreed to lead this ungrateful and easily disgruntled band of hotheads. As God’s spokesman, he became the target of the people’s wrath. When they became unhappy with their circumstances, they took their complaints to Moses and his brother, Aaron. These two elderly men had shown up in Egypt with lofty promises of emancipation and relocation. They had declared themselves to be the official representatives of Yahweh, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and they had come to lead God’s people out of Egypt and back to the land of promise.
So, when things didn’t go well, the people held Moses and on as responsible. And when Moses felt the heat, he turned to God for help.
So Moses cried out to the Lord for help, and the Lord showed him a piece of wood. Moses threw it into the water, and this made the water good to drink. – Exodus 15:25 NLT
What’s important to note in this story is that there was water, but it was undrinkable. Their problem wasn’t a lack of something, but it was that the solution to their need was “bitter.” It was plentiful but undrinkable. It wasn’t that the water was non-existent but that it was worthless in its current condition. And this non-potable water contained a powerful lesson for the Israelites.
The Hebrew word translated as “bitter” is מַר (mar), which can also be translated as “angry” or “discontented.” Little did the Israelites know that the water was a symbol of their own spiritual condition. Despite all God had done to set them free from their bondage in Egypt, they were a bitter and discontented people. In a sense, they were unusable. Instead of displaying gratitude for all that God had done, they quickly resorted to anger and blame. And their blatant displays of dissatisfaction were evidence that their hearts were bitter and in need of change.
So, God took this opportunity to teach the Israelites a much-needed lesson on how He was going to transform the bitter condition of their hearts. He had Moses take a particular piece of wood and throw it into the bitter water. This act of faith on Moses’ part had an immediate effect, transforming the bitter, worthless water into a refreshing and live-giving source of sustenance for the people of God and all their livestock. The bitterness was removed.
Hundreds of years later, the prophet Ezekiel would record the following promise that God made to His people.
“I will give you a new heart, and I will put a new spirit in you. I will take out your stony, stubborn heart and give you a tender, responsive heart. And I will put my Spirit in you so that you will follow my decrees and be careful to obey my regulations.” – Ezekiel 3626-27 NLT
From the very beginning, God revealed His desire to transform the hearts of His people. Their real problem had never been slavery. They suffered from a heart condition that had left them bitter, angry, and discontented. Their 400-year separation from God had reduced them to a state of spiritual stagnation and impurity. They had become polluted by the culture and robbed of their ability to be a source of life to the nations around them. So, God was going to intervene and, over time, begin His miraculous plan of heart transformation.
One of the things that Moses makes clear is this event at Marah had been a test of their faithfulness. God wanted to know if they were going to trust Him or would they continue to display their distrust through bitter displays of discontentment and dissatisfaction. So, He had Moses give them a warning.
“If you will listen carefully to the voice of the Lord your God and do what is right in his sight, obeying his commands and keeping all his decrees, then I will not make you suffer any of the diseases I sent on the Egyptians; for I am the Lord who heals you.” – Exodus 15:26 NLT
God had used an ordinary piece of wood to transform bitter water into a life-giving source of sustenance. He had just proven, yet again, that He could meet all their needs. And all He was asking in return was that they live in obedience to His commands. If they did, they could expect to see more miraculous evidence of His provision, but they would also experience protection from His judgment. Obedience would bring blessing. Disobedience would result in curses. This would become a recurring theme in their relationship with God. He could both heal and hurt. He could bless and curse. And all He asked of His people was that they could trust and obey so that He could turn them into a life-giving source of sustenance to the nations of the world.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.