The story of the Exodus is also the story of our Christian life. We begin enslaved to sin in Egypt; Jesus is our Passover Lamb that sets us free.
As the Israelites crossed the Red Sea, so Jesus passed through the waters of death, coming out three days later on the other side. Our baptisms signify our following him through that same sea.
Then there is the long pilgrimage that we make in this world as we head to the Promised Land. Along the way there are trials and tests of our faith. We struggle and murmur in ways very similar to the Israelites in this passage.
22 So Moses brought Israel from the Red sea, and they went out into the wilderness of Shur; and they went three days in the wilderness, and found no water. 23 And when they came to Marah, they could not drink of the waters of Marah, for they were bitter: therefore the name of it was called Marah. 24 And the people murmured against Moses, saying, What shall we drink? 25 And he cried unto the LORD; and the LORD shewed him a tree, which when he had cast into the waters, the waters were made sweet: there he made for them a statute and an ordinance, and there he proved them, 26 And said, If thou wilt diligently hearken to the voice of the LORD thy God, and wilt do that which is right in his sight, and wilt give ear to his commandments, and keep all his statutes, I will put none of these diseases upon thee, which I have brought upon the Egyptians: for I am the LORD that healeth thee. 27 And they came to Elim, where were twelve wells of water, and threescore and ten palm trees: and they encamped there by the waters. (Exodus 15:22–27)
The New Testament tells us that these things all happened for our benefit:
10 Neither murmur ye, as some of them also murmured, and were destroyed of the destroyer. 11 Now all these things happened unto them for ensamples: and they are written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the world are come. (1 Corinthians 10:10–11)
How are we going to respond to trials? Grieve? Sure, that’s natural. Grumble? That’s sinful.
I. A BITTER TEST
1) God’s Test With A Basic Necessity
Exodus 15:22 So Moses brought Israel from the Red sea, and they went out into the wilderness of Shur; and they went three days in the wilderness, and found no water.
The “wilderness of Shur” is the desert region along the eastern border of Egypt. It’s the northwestern corner of the Sinai peninsula.
Exodus 15:23 And when they came to Marah, they could not drink of the waters of Marah, for they were bitter: therefore the name of it was called Marah.
There are a number of “watering holes” in the Sinai, but it would be difficult to ascertain which one was the biblical “Marah,” although attempts have been made.
“Marah” is the Hebrew word for “bitter” (Naomi, after the death of her husband and sons named herself, Mara. See Ruth 1:20).
What did it mean that it was “bitter”? Normally, we don’t think of water in terms of bitter or (in verse 25) “sweet” (Unless we are talking about Kool-Aid, and mom was stingy with the sugar). The words are probably referring to what we would understand as too much sodium or other minerals.
Exodus 15:24 And the people murmured against Moses, saying, What shall we drink?
The word for “murmured” (lwn) is mainly used in Exodus and Numbers and is always (in those books) used to refer to the Israelites murmuring against God and Moses.
This is the first time in the Bible that this word is used, and it means to grumble about one’s circumstances. In this passage, the grumbling, while still wrong and showed a lack of trust, was still rational compared to the grumbling that would come later.
It seems that, even after a great victory, people will still find something to complain about. In this case, it was an essential for life—water—so it’s a matter that strikes at our very core instinct to survive.
I struggle with whether or not I would have complained also, but it does boil down to their faith in God.
By the way, this also shows us that no part of our lives is off-limits to God. You can’t say to God, “You can have this and that, but I’m get these. If you mess with these, I have the right to grumble.”
Water is the basic necessity of life, and yet it was wrong for the Israelites to grumble about that, so there’s nothing that is off-limits to what God may use to test us.
2) God’s Test Brings Out Our Immaturity
The test actually had two parts: first, they had gone “three days” without finding water and then, second, when they had found water, it turned out to be “bitter.” It was a double blow that finally stretched their patience and faith to the breaking point.
It wasn’t that it wasn’t a difficult situation to be in, it was their attitude that caused them to fail this test. It appears from the text that they did not call out to God for help. And remember, it’s not as if God had been silent—he had shown his power in mighty and spectacular ways.
They were spiritual infants—delighted when their father makes funny faces, but crying the next moment when they’re hungry.
Children’s emotions control them—swaying them back and forth—when their selfish needs aren’t met. A mature person has more control—they understand the larger picture.
Our culture reinforces this immature mentality in many ways.
For example, instant gratification is the name of the game today. We can have fast food, two-day free shipping from Amazon, rent movies instantly online, and so forth. Nothing wrong with any of that, except that, if we aren’t cautious, it cultivates a “please me now” attitude in our hearts that expects God to jump when we call.
We’re also a culture that is concerned about individual rights. “Liberty and justice for all” has grown to be “Liberty and justice for me first.” We jump to rectify the slightest offense against ourselves.
So if God causes us to wait, or allows us to go through a painful time—we’re right there to charge him with parental neglect.
Moses, unlike the people, knew where to go for help.
Exodus 15:25a And he cried unto the LORD; and the LORD shewed him a tree, which when he had cast into the waters, the waters were made sweet:
Of course, people have tried to identify some sort of tree that might absorb the minerals in the water. But the text doesn’t indicate anything about kind of tree.
The text also doesn’t indicate if the tree was symbolic (like if it represented the tree of life). Rather, it just seems to be an issue of Moses’ faith—would he obey the command to cast the tree into the water? He did.
It was obedience that was what the Lord wanted the Israelites to learn, obedience in the face of the greatest of trials.
II. A BETTER WAY
God used the situation at Marah to show the Israelites the better way of obedience. He showed them the benefits of obedience.
Exodus 15:25b …there he made for them a statute and an ordinance, and there he proved them,
Exodus 15:26 And said, If thou wilt diligently hearken to the voice of the LORD thy God, and wilt do that which is right in his sight, and wilt give ear to his commandments, and keep all his statutes, I will put none of these diseases upon thee, which I have brought upon the Egyptians: for I am the LORD that healeth thee.
First, we see the condition for the Israelites to obey in order to receive the benefits: “If thou wilt diligently hearken to the voice of the LORD thy God, and wilt do that which is right in his sight, and wilt give ear to his commandments, and keep all his statutes,”
We sometimes think that God doesn’t have conditions for his blessings. That’s not true. In the New Testament, one of the most famous promises has conditions attached—conditions that few people quote when they recite Romans 8:28—
28 And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose. (Romans 8:28)
For all things to work together for good for you, you have to be one of those “who are called according to his purpose.” You also need to “love God.”
So you need to be a Christian, because the “good” that is promised, according to verse 29, is that God will make you more “conformed to the image of his Son.” In other words, don’t quote this to your unsaved friends to try and comfort them in a time of trial!
Then there is the promise for keeping the condition: “I will put none of these diseases upon thee, which I have brought upon the Egyptians:” He’s probably referring to the boils that were one of the plagues that the Egyptians suffered.
We need to understand that the Lord wasn’t saying that they wouldn’t get sick. He specifically said that it was the diseases that he had “brought upon the Egyptians” that he would protect them from.
We need to be aware of exactly what God promises and not claim more than what he promises.
Healing is one of the areas that Christians have been negligent in claiming more than what God promises, usually by misunderstanding a Bible verse.
24 Who his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness: by whose stripes ye were healed. (1 Peter 2:24)
Christians have jumped on the phrase, “by whose stripes ye were healed,” as a blanket promise for claiming God’s healing. But the context of the verse clearly shows that it’s the spiritual healing that comes from salvation that is in view here (see Isaiah 53:5).
3) God’s Character And Power
Finally, there is a reminder of God’s character and his power: “for I am the LORD that healeth thee.” God doesn’t ask for their obedience without reason. He gives them a reason to obey—he is their healer! He is Jehovah-Rapha/Rophi.
Above all else, we need to trust God for who he is. We may not understand what he is doing, but we can know his character and trust that he will always do what is ultimately best for us. Therefore, we can obey, even when we can’t see the human logic for our obedience.
After the bitter test at Marah, and the Lord’s lesson in obedience, he showed them his love and care for them:
Exodus 15:27 And they came to Elim, where were twelve wells of water, and threescore and ten palm trees: and they encamped there by the waters.
Would “twelve wells” be enough for two million people? If we think of the wells in terms of a hole in the ground that only one person at a time could access, then no, it wouldn’t be.
I figured that if 500,000 women took one minute apiece to get the water for their family it would take a month to get through them all.
But we don’t have to think in those times. The word for “well” could be translated “spring” or “fountain,” as it is in Genesis 16 (notice that Hagar is in the same general area):
7 And the angel of the LORD found her [Hagar] by a fountain of water in the wilderness, by the fountain in the way to Shur. (Genesis 16:6)
It’s not hard to imagine that each of these twelve fountains had large pools surrounding them, where multiple people could get water at once.
The point being, that God is good and cares for his children, even when he leads them to the wilderness.
We might be tempted to say that it’s not fair that God leads his children to the wilderness. But we must remember that God even led his only begotten Son to the wilderness.
1 Then was Jesus led up of the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil. 2 And when he had fasted forty days and forty nights, he was afterward an hungred. (Matthew 4:1–2)
This good for us that Jesus was also in the wilderness, because he shows us how to obey in the wilderness.
3 And when the tempter came to him, he said, If thou be the Son of God, command that these stones be made bread. 4 But he answered and said, It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God. (Matthew 4:3–4)
Jesus fought the devil by quoting scripture, but also by trusting the author of the scriptures. He trusted that his Father had good reason for not supplying him with food yet, and therefore he committed himself to obey.
Do we trust the Father enough to obey—even in a wilderness?