50. Bitterness in the desert – Marah

Meditations in Exodus: 50. Bitterness in the desert – Marah

Ex 15:23   When they came to Marah, they could not drink its water because it was bitter.

In the previous meditation we noted that, Moses led Israel from the Red Sea and they went into the Desert of Shur. For three days they traveled in the desert without finding water.” (v.22) Remember we are talking about possibly over a million people (or two million even) with their flocks and herds. No doubt they had some water with them but as the days pass this must surely be getting used up. They are experiencing a new environment. They had no doubt been in desert conditions before but not as their own masters in control of their own destiny – except they are not that now for it is the Lord who is leading them. That is very significant for if anything appears to be going wrong, He is going to be the focus of their ‘why’ questions.

Again, to be fair to them, it is well to remember their only knowledge of the Lord is what has been passed down through the generations about how He dealt with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. That story ended in Egypt and for over four hundred years the story had gone silent. It was only when Moses arrived back after a forty year absence that they hear through him of His encounter with Moses, and then the leaders see the miracle of the staff and the leprous arm. From then on they are observers of the plagues, largely as bystanders. The stories of Moses’ encounters with Pharaoh filter back but mostly, as far as experience goes, they have been bystanders watching God from a distance as He deals with Pharaoh and his people. But now He is ahead of them leading them through the desert and water is running out – and then they come to Marah.

It is thought that Marah was probably a waddi, which is a valley or ravine that is dry except in the rainy season.  In other words it was not a natural source but was a collection source; the water ran into it from the surrounding land and hills. Now I am told that in the present day waddi that is believed to be the site of Marah, it is in fact a water collection laced with calcium and magnesium, again possibly washed in there from the surrounding area and so the high mineral content makes the water almost impossible to drink. Moreover this water has a very high purging or laxative affect so any of the first people arriving and trying it would very shortly be having severe stomach problems – and we’ll leave it there for the moment!

As our verse at the top records,

When they came to Marah, they could not drink its water because it was bitter.(v.23) They have a problem, and as we noted above, God is their guide and  so, the people grumbled against Moses, saying, “What are we to drink? (v.24) Moses is God’s mouthpiece so he is the one to whom they complain. Now, as I said, to be fair to them, they are in a learning situation and all that is going on is about that. What follows is amazing: Then Moses cried out to the LORD, and the LORD showed him a piece of wood. He threw it into the water, and the water became sweet.(v.25a)

Now whether this is a straight forward miracle or whether something in the wood, its sap maybe, or maybe the bark, affected the water and suddenly it is clear and sweet to drink. I am less supposed to accept the idea of a natural outworking becausethis one ‘piece of wood’ seems to affect all the water which appears sufficient to meet the needs of all the people and their flocks and herds.

The key words that stand out to me in that verse are “the Lord showed him”. Was there something special about this particular piece of wood or was it just that it was a piece of wood? We don’t know but the important understanding is that here naturally was polluted water and the Lord showed Moses a way (possibly miraculously) to cleanse it so that the people could drink. i.e. God provided for them what they needed from the limited natural supply. A fundamental lesson for God’s people. He is a miraculous provider.

Now there are a number of lessons that flow on from this and we’ll consider them more fully in the next meditation. However we might start that exercise by asking ourselves how we cope in such circumstances. How might we have responded if we had been part of Israel at that time. I suspect the truth, if we may dare be honest, is that we too would have grumbled. I say that as a grumbler. I am not very good when things go wrong and God seems at a distance. Yes, I will pray for help, which is a good start but I think my life is a bit like that water – polluted with the ‘chemicals’ of modern life, like the desire for instant responses. Why doesn’t God answer straight away? Or the complaint of ‘why had God let this happen?’  I know God tests and trains and is in the process of changing me but although I have known Him over forty years, I still don’t find it easy when things go wrong. You may be a highly sanctified individual who copes well when things start going pear-shaped but the majority of us, I am fairly sure, don’t do terribly well!

Now this is not to get morbid and guilt-laden, it is simply to recognize our frailty and humanness while at the same time rejoicing in the fact that the Lord loves and understands us as we are. It is not an excuse to sit back and be complacent but it is a cry for honesty which then in turns reveals God’s grace even more. The story of these wanderings to Sinai are a story of God’s grace as He patiently seeks to teach these people that not only is He there, but He is there for them and when things are too difficult for us, they are never too difficult for Him.

After Sinai, it is different but for the moment, this is Junior School for Israel. I think, looking back, I may often have struggled with the trials but He has never failed me and always been there in them, even if I have only realised it afterwards. That is what this Christian life is about; it’s not that we have arrived, but that we have begun the biggest learning course going.  It is all about, initially at least, learning that God IS our provider, but more of that in the next study.

Ah, just one thing to pick up that the most studious will have noticed and wondered about. A piece of wood was thrown into the water and changed it. Two pieces of wood provided the means for the Son of God to die in our place and open the door for our blessing. Here’s a thought: the Cross is the answer to EVERY difficulty. Jesus’ work on the Cross deals with every moral issue and his work on the Cross opens the way up for heaven to bring changes in our lives that otherwise could not happen. Jesus’ work on the Cross opens the way for my life to be purified of those ‘chemicals’ of modern life I referred to. His work on the Cross opens the way for a supply of living water to be made available to me, clean and pure and sweet. And for you too. Hallelujah.


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