The children of Israel had just crossed the Red Sea, observed the first Passover and sung the song of Moses. They were embarking on a wilderness journey towards the Promised Land that would continue for forty years. This generation would not see the Promised Land because of their disobedience demonstrated through lack of faith and constant complaining. Moses led them to the wilderness of Shur and they came to Marah, approximately thirty miles away having travelled for three days. But the Lord was gracious and transformed their bitter water into sweet water and refreshed them at Elim.
The Historical and Geographical Background
The Bible contains factual history and geography. That is why we have numerous Bible dictionaries and Bible atlases. The children of Israel made it as far as “Ain Hawarah” as it is known today, formerly known as “Marah,” meaning bitter. Incidentally, the water of “Ain Hawarah” is still bitter to this day.
What is significant about the history of the region of Shur? In the past God helped and provided for individuals who were especially troubled and provided for their needs. In Genesis 16, the Angel of the Lord met Hagar after Sarai had driven her out. Where did the Angel of the Lord find her? By a spring of water on the way to Shur. Hagar called the name of the Lord who spoke with her, “You are the God who sees; for have I also seen Him who sees me? (Genesis 16:13).” The well was called “Beer Lahai Roi,” meaning “well of the one who lives and sees me.”
Hagar returned only to be driven out by Sarah again and she went into the wilderness at Beersheba. Hagar was with Ishmael and the water in the skin ran out and she wept and probably expected to die. However, God opened her eyes, she found a well of water and gave Ishmael a drink and they lived. In Genesis 25:18 their descendants settled from Havilah to Shur.
Imagine three days in the wilderness without finding water. The quest for water would undoubtedly consume your thoughts and attention and the entire focus of your waking moments. You might even dream about quenching your thirst. In the desert when water is needed, locating a reliable source of water is an absolute priority.
Events leading up to the taking of Aqaba and then later Jerusalem were essential in the re-establishment of Israel as a nation. In the film ‘Lawrence of Arabia,’ there is a sobering scene at the well of Sherif Ali; where a man is shot for drinking from another’s well and the matter-of-fact explanation given was that “the well is everything!” In the Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T.S. Lawrence, wadis are mentioned frequently and journeying from one wadi to the next is essential for survival. They are almost akin to a service station in the desert providing the traveller much needed refreshment.
But the children of Israel could not drink the water because it was bitter, hence they named the location Marah. Does that remind you of anyone? Remember Naomi in Ruth 1 returning to Bethlehem with Ruth and saying, “Do not call me Naomi (pleasant); call me mara for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me (Ruth 1:20).”
The response of the Children of Israel
Now picture three million Israelites weary and without water at Marah. Bitter water would have been an absolute calamity both physically and psychologically. What could be worse than no water supply? Water that you cannot drink. Think of thirsty sailors giving way to drinking sea water and going delirious, or a mirage in the desert enticing you with the false impression of being refreshed. The desert mirage has the appearance of a lake and the air pressure plays tricks with the mind.
How did they respond? The great explorer Ranulph Fiennes recalls that in extreme survival situations tempers can suddenly flare even amongst friends resulting in disharmony or distancing. That is one of the most difficult factors to manage requiring exceptional self- control. He was asked concerning his recruitment methods and noticeably he mentioned the need for his team to have a strong faith since if they were pushed to the edge, they need something to draw from.
Again, how did the children of Israel respond? They grumbled against Moses saying, “What shall we drink.” Only a few days previously, the Lord parted the Red Sea, destroyed their enemies and provided them with possessions from the Egyptians. The Passover would be a perpetual reminder of God’s deliverance and would point them to the Saviour. Just three days previously they had celebrated, sang and danced for joy and recounted the Lord’s goodness and their deliverance in the Song of Moses in Exodus 15:1-21.
Three days later they grumbled and they would continue to complain for another forty years. We must avoid that and ensure that the above sentence is not the story of our lives. After all, what could their grumbling possibly achieve? Only forty years of sojourning and exemption from the Promised Land. Do not let that become your story because continual complaining and arguing is abhorrent to God.
That is why Paul writes in Philippians 2:14 to do everything without complaining or arguing. A.W. Tozer called complaining “a disease of the soul.” An Israeli Pastor I met explained that often people are not complaining because they are unhappy, but they are unhappy because they are complaining! In short, the attitude of complaining demonstrates a misplaced anger, rebellion against God and lack of faith in God.
The Response of Moses
We have considered how the children of Israel responded, but how did Moses respond? In Scripture, particularly in the Psalms and in Proverbs there are passages contrasting the way of the godly with the way of the unrighteous. Psalm 1 exemplifies this, comparing a tree with roots with the chaff that is blown away by the wind. The chaff looks like the wheat but when harvest comes, they are tossed into the air and separated.
Did Moses complain or grumble? No. If he had, would it have helped? No. Is there any blessing or benefit from complaining? No. Moses did what we should do and cried out to the Lord who delivered him. Selah.
Why did Moses cry out to the Lord instead of grumbling? Because he believed in God and trusted in Him. This is the outworking of faith, exercised through active obedience. What was going on inside the mind of Moses? We are not privy to that information though maybe he recounted the Angel of the Lord providing a well for Hagar. Or he might have remembered his previous forty years in the wilderness had equipped him well for his ministry leading the Israelites through the wilderness now. Surely, he recalled the miraculous events only a few days ago, over the last year and throughout his life. We would do well to draw on these examples when we face a wilderness situation.
At some point in our lives it is likely we will be in situations beyond our control and in which we are tested. This may be for a season and we will be tempted to become anxious, complain and distrust God. We must respond how Moses responded by seeking the Lord instead of second guessing our Creator who is sustaining and upholding the universe. Experiences are more difficult when we do not understand them and cannot make sense of what is happening. We must come to the Lord for living water for our thirsty souls and seek Him and live.
In the very next chapter the children of Israel complained again. How short their memory was! God provided bread from heaven and later our lord would feed the 4000 and 5000 respectively on separate occasions. We must remember that God is the same and does not change and to draw on these examples for our encouragement in times of dire need.
Look to the Lord, not to a log!
The Lord showed Moses a log and he threw it in the water and it became sweet. Suffice it to say that commentators have discussed the type of log used over the centuries and to little avail. There has been speculation about the chemical properties of that log and some of which are outlandish. I have occasionally used water purification tablets when hiking overseas in mountainous areas. I would attempt to find water on high ground, preferably running water and of decent quality. I would have been reluctant to use my tablets in “bitter water” unless absolutely desperate. This water provided refreshment for three million Israelites which draws our attention to the fact that it is not about the log! Similarly Moses’s staff was not a magic wand but merely an instrument which he used to serve God. The wood did not produce a magical effect upon the water; it was symbolic as was the staff of Moses.[i]
Ibn Ezra writes, “We do not know what type of tree this was. What happened can only be described as a miracle. [ii] The miracle at Marah was the reverse of what happened when the first plague struck which is especially relevant in view of God’s promise that if they were obedient, he would put none of the diseases upon them which he put on the Egyptians (Exodus 15:26). Rabbeinu Bahya notes that this march of a nation was unprecedented and the illogic of bitter wood turning bitter water sweet, points towards the Israelites being dependent on God’s goodness.[iii]
What was the purpose of digressing about the log? When you face the wilderness, look to the Lord, not to the log. How so? When we face spiritual doubt or crisis, go to the Lord rather than searching for a miracle cure. Some are convinced they have to discover something spectacular they must do, a person they must see or a certain prayer to be prayed in a certain way. I have seen people on endless and fruitless quests often involving protracted counselling and some of which is based on conjecture.
So the water was bitter, but God transformed it into sweet water and without water they would die. Isaiah promised, “with joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation (Isaiah 12:3).” To the woman of Samaria at Jacob’s well, Messiah offered living water (John 4:12-13). The water that Jesus gives not only saves but grants eternal life. At the Feast of Tabernacles in Jerusalem there was a grand water ceremony proceeding from the pool of Siloam to the temple. The Lord Jesus offered rivers of living water (John 7:37-38) and whoever comes to Him will never thirst again.
The Lord promised the Israelites that if they diligently obeyed His commands that He would not put the diseases on them which He brought on the Egyptians since He is the Lord that heals them. There are two points to consider here. The first is that God tested them to strengthen their faith and Hebrews 12:6 explains that the Lord disciplines those who He loves. This is not pleasant at the time but nevertheless yields the peaceable fruits of righteousness, so the believer grows in their faith. In addition, the believer will learn to rely more upon God and their character and conduct will also become more like Messiah, as they draw close to Him.
Secondly, we must be careful not to treat the healing mentioned here as a blanket promise. Israel was a theocracy and still has specific covenant promises which are applicable today which cannot simply be applied to the United Kingdom. This was in the context of Israel’s obedience. God had already demonstrated the difference between His dealings with them and Egypt through the plagues affecting the Egyptians, not the Israelites. If we claim this for ourselves, then we are taking the matter out of context. Much harm has been caused through claiming biblical promises taken out of context and assuming the benefits. This is confounded further when people are not always healed and they are subsequently accused of being lacking in faith. We must therefore look carefully at God’s word to avoid that.
A similar example is taking Isaiah 53:5, “By His stripes we are healed” as guaranteed physical healing when the context of the chapter concerns Messiah making atonement for our sin and providing spiritual reconciliation with God. In heaven, believers will have perfect health and there will be no more sickness, crying or death. God may heal someone today though equally we live in a broken world and we can only be guaranteed perfect health in heaven.
Elim or Marah?
The Israelites arrived at Elim which is known today as “Wadi Gharandel.” There is no comparison between Elim and Marah, but we must choose between the two. We can have life or death, refreshment at Elim, or bitterness at Marah. It must have been a beautiful place at Elim with twelve springs of water and seventy palm trees.
There were twelve tribes of Israel and Moses appointed seventy to help him judge Israel. The Lord had twelve disciples and sent out another seventy to witness for Him. The same God provides for our needs. God had a plan for His people Israel and is able to accomplish that. Are you willing to walk with Him? Are you determined to listen to him in faith and believe in Him? In your heart, will you obey Him?
[i] John F. Walvoord, Roy B. Zuck The Bible Knowledge Commentary Old Testament (Victor Books, 1989; USA), p133
[ii] Ibn Ezra on Exodus 15:25 https://www.sefaria.org/Ibn_Ezra_on_Exodus.15.25.1?lang=bi
[iii] Rabbeinu Bahya on Shemot 15:22 https://www.sefaria.org/Rabbeinu_Bahya%2C_Shemot.15.22.3?lang=bi