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.
Have you ever noticed that valleys tend to come fast on the heels of mountaintops? Why is it that the greatest moments tend to give rise to the most anticlimactic moments? There are times when we are tempted to agree with T.S. Eliot’s famous conclusion to his poem “The Hollow Men.”
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.
There is almost a cruel irony to life.
I once spoke with a man who told me that his great-grandfather survived the brutal and bloody 1862 Battle of Antietam in which the combined number of dead, wounded, and missing was over 22,000. Shortly after the end of the war, however, a hoisted cotton bail fell on his grandfather and killed him.
In the oft-repeated words of Kurt Vonnegut from Slaughterhouse Five, “So it goes.”
Perhaps that is how the Israelites felt when they came to the bitter waters of Marah after having just survived the Red Sea. Which is to say that it would indeed be ironic to survive the Red Sea only to die beside an oasis. But for a moment this looked like exactly what was about to happen.
For a moment.
God delivers the grumbling children of Israel through a contrasting water miracle.
The Israelites have just been delivered from Pharaoh’s army in the startling passage through the Red Sea. God is on their side. Then, in the first part of Exodus 15, they rejoice with singing and dancing! These are thrilling times indeed. Now they set out toward home. But there is a problem.
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?”
Three days in and the people, understandably, were parched. Surely God did not bring them through the Red Sea simply to have them die in the wilderness, did He? The “water of Marah” may refer either to “the Bitter Lakes” or an oasis called Bir Marah “where the water is saline with heavy mineral content.”
Clearly this was an untenable situation. Hundreds of thousands of thirsty Israelites hear that water is near. Their hearts soar with expectation! They rejoice at the faithful provision of God. They begin to press forward. Then those at the back hear an approaching murmur. It grows louder as it spreads. What is that they are saying? “It is undrinkable! It is marah! It is bitter!”
You will perhaps recognize this word marah. It is what Naomi renames herself in the end of Ruth 1 as she launches her complaint against God to the Bethlehemite women. Bitter! The water is bitter!
Nobody likes undrinkable water, not even the Lord! As He says to the church of Laodicea in Revelation 3:15-16 concerning their bland non-commitment, “I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.” Furthermore, in Jude 12, Jude writes of the taunting disappointment of expecting water and finding none when he metaphorically describes the false teachers as “waterless clouds.”
Whether it be grossly lukewarm or bitter or merely a mirage that does not deliver what it promises, undrinkable water is a plague. Thus, they “grumbled” against Moses. Moses, in turn, “cried to the Lord.”
But before we see how this episode concludes, let us ponder a moment on the nature of human fickleness. To respond with unraveling fear before a bitter oasis when the Lord God miraculous delivered you through the waters of the Red Sea just three days earlier is as glorious an example of human fickleness as one could ever want. “What is remarkable,” Philip Ryken writes, “is not that God was able to perform the miracle at Marah, but that he was willing to do it for such a bunch of malcontents…God’s grace is so amazing that he even provides for whiners, provided that we really are his children.”
This is very well said. How very, very quickly we forget. And this is why it is difficult to judge the children of Israel too harshly. Do we not do the exact same thing? Do we not fret about oases after being delivered through seas? Certainly we do. No sooner has the Lord delivered us from life-threatening challenges than we start complaining about challenges that are trifles in comparison.
To be sure, the prospect of slowly dying from lack of water in the wilderness is no mere trifle, but, again, this episode happened after the most staggering act of miraculous deliverance in human history to date. The Lord, however, is indeed merciful to His grumbling children.
25a 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.
Once again, God saved His people in a watery miracle, this time by having them throw “a log” into the water that rendered it drinkable. Victor Hamilton explains that, “ʿĒṣ normally means “tree,” but “stick, twig” is the meaning in some passages (Ezek. 37: 16, 19).” Regardless, it had the desired effect.
Was the tree just a tree that God miraculous enabled to change the nature of the water, or did the tree have inherent neutralizing properties unknown to the Israelites and God simply pointed them to the natural solution to their predicament? Both cases have been argued. Roy Honeycutt, for instance, suggests that “the tree possessed purifying qualities, and the Lord utilized the created order for the fulfillment of his own purposes. The latent energies of the world came to life under the responsible direction of a man committed to the will of God, and Israel was delivered.”
I personally see this as a miraculous transformation of otherwise normal wood into an agent of change for the water. Regardless, God showed up once again and saved His people. I say this is a “contrasting water miracle” because it does indeed offer ironic contrasts to the miracle of the Red Sea. Consider:
- At the Red Sea Israel did not want to go into the water but they had to. At Marah Israel wanted to get into the water but could not at first.
- At the Red Sea Israel thought they would die beside a large body of water. At Marah Israel thought they would die before a small body of water.
- At the Red Sea God saved Israel by keeping them from contact with the water. At Marah God saved Israel by enabling them to have contact with the water.
- At the Red Sea Israel moved from fear to joy. At Marah Israel moved from joy to fear to joy again.
It is indeed intriguing to consider the nature of these watery miracles. The constant, however, was the love and grace and provision of Almighty God, Who delivered His people.
God delivers His children through an early giving of Law.
There is another miracle here, and it does not involve water. In fact, we may be tempted not to consider it a miracle at all, but truly it is. I speak here of God’s giving of an initial law to Israel as well as His charging them to obey and live.
25b 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.
I say that this giving of “a statute and a rule” is a miracle because revelation always is. Out of the abundance of His own mercies, God established His law with His people. We are not at Sinai yet and the great giving of the Law, but here we find a kind of proto-law. Furthermore, he reinforced in their minds that obedience will lead to life. Specifically, the Lord told Israel that if they were obedient and kept His commandments, “I will put none of the diseases on you that I put on the Egyptians”
That was an interesting way to put it: “I will put none of these diseases on you.” Victor Hamilton has offered some fascinating insights into how we likely should understand this saying
To what might “the sicknesses that I set upon Egypt” refer? Possibly characteristic Egyptian sicknesses like dysentery or elephantiasis. More likely the reference is to the plagues of chaps. 7– 12, although the word “sickness” is never used to describe any of them. If this is correct, the plagues in Egypt begin with nobody being “able to drink the water” (Exod. 7: 18, 21, 24). Similarly, Israel’s journey Canaan-ward begins with nobody “able to drink the water.” Egypt’s water got a staff (Exod. 7: 17). Israel’s water got a stick.
Hamilton is right. This is likely a reference to the plagues put on Egypt. God is telling His people that He will not do to them what He did to Egypt, but they need to trust in Him and walk with Him and obey Him.
Hamilton’s point about the first plague of Egypt rendering the water undrinkable (by turning the water of the Nile into blood) is important. Perhaps God’s assurance that He would not do to Israel what He did to Egypt is evidence that the Israelites were grumbling precisely this accusation beside the bitter waters of Marah. Perhaps some of them were thinking, “He rendered their water undrinkable. Now He has done it to us. He has brought us out here to strike us with the same plagues with which He struck Egypt.”
To which God says, “No! I will not treat my own people as I treated wicked, murderous Egypt. But you must walk with Me and obey Me.”
This principle still applies. God is immutable, unchanging, and does not vary how He deals with His people. To obey God’s commandments is to walk the path of life. To disobey is to walk the path of death.
Of course, this presents us with a dilemma, as none of us are able to walk the path of obedience with perfection or complete purity. This is where the gospel shines the most splendidly, for this gospel tells us that there was One who walked the path of perfect obedience for us: Jesus. When we come to Him, we are covered by His righteousness, His obedience, and His perfection. This, of course, must not give rise to thoughts of lawlessness on our parts, as if the righteousness of Christ could be stolen and manipulated by wicked hands. In truth, the man who comes to Christ will never dare consider that the righteousness of God is in any way a license for sin. Paul deals a definitive deathblow to such an absurd idea in Romans 6.
1 What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? 2 By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? 3 Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. 5 For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. 6 We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. 7 For one who has died has been set free from sin. 8 Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. 9 We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. 10 For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. 11 So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. 12 Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions. 13 Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness. 14 For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.
Here we begin to understand that what God did for Israel at the waters of Marah God does for the hearts of all who will come to Christ: He changes the bitter into sweet, the unpalatable into the delightful, death into life. God is still in the business of delivering His grumbling children. He does so through and in Jesus, the King who makes all things new.
Are you stuck in the bitter waters of Marah? Come to the everlasting waters of Christ! Take His hand and take His way and He will lead you home.
 John H. Walton, Victor H. Matthews and Mark W. Chavalas, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), p.91.
 Philip Graham Ryken, p.422.
 Hamilton, Victor P. (2011-11-01). Exodus: An Exegetical Commentary (Kindle Locations 8013-8014). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
 Roy L. Honeycutt, Jr. “Exodus.” The Broadman Bible Commentary. Vol.1, Revised (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1969), p.379.
 Hamilton, Victor P., Kindle Locations 8129-8133.