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Exodus 15:22-27: Bitter Water and Sweet Wood

Steve Rodeheaver

Today we're looking at Exodus 15:22-27. Moses, Miriam, and the Israelites have finished singing, and now it is time to journey on. Moses leads the Israelites into the desert and they go for three days without finding water. Imagine travelling on foot from Yuma to Tucson and going for three days without water. This was a life-threatening situation. Finally they came to some water and their hopes skyrocketed - only to be dashed by the bitterness of the water. It was undrinkable. The Israelites named the place "Marah", which means "bitterness." Imagine literally dying of thirst, finding water, then discovering that it was salt water. Not a good life or death.

When the Israelites came to this bitter water they did what you and I would do: they grumbled against their leader Moses. Moses in turn cried out to Yahweh. Yahweh showed Moses a piece of wood which Moses promptly threw into the water. Immediately the water was made sweet and the Israelites were able to drink it. Moses then led them to a place called Elim which had twelve springs and seventy palm trees.

This story is about the journey from Marah to Elim, from bitter water to twelve springs and seventy palm trees. The journey takes place externally and internally. The external journey is the obvious one. Moses and company find themselves in a very bitter situation. They have been three days in the desert without coming upon a source of water. The water they have come to is undrinkable. Death is threatening. Moses cried out to Yahweh and Yahweh made the bitter water sweet. Refreshing themselves, they are revived and journey on to Elim.

It is another revelation of the power and trustworthiness of Yahweh. The message for us is clear: Whatever the bitter obstacles that we encounter in life's journey we can count on God to transform them, to use/redeem them for good, as God leads us to Elim. When we cry our Marahs out to God, God is able to "sweeten" them, that is, to make them drinkable, to turn them into a resource for the next leg of the journey. God is big enough to deal with, redeem, and even transform whatever external problems we might face.

The internal journey is less obvious, but it is the one on which the text focuses. Our English translations obscure this focus because of the difficulty in translating the verb for Yahweh "showing" or "directing" Moses to a tree/piece of wood. The verb used actually means to instruct or teach. Yahweh instructed/taught Moses a tree. That does not make much sense, but it is important to note because this verb is the root verb of the word "Torah". Torah means instruction, and it specifically refers to the instruction/law that God gave Moses on Mount Sinai for how the Israelites were to live in covenant with this God who brought them up out of Egypt. We might say that Yahweh "torah-ed" Moses a tree.

When Moses cast this torah tree into the bitter water, the water became sweet. Torah is not for water, however, but for people. The bitter waters of Marah revealed the bitterness that lodged in the hearts of the Israelites. Notice that they grumbled against Moses while Moses cried out to Yahweh. The external obstacle revealed the internal realities of their hearts. Moses trusted Yahweh and cried the problem out to Yahweh. The Israelites, on the other hand, betray a lack of trust as they grumble amongst themselves against Moses. What becomes evident in the face of Marah is that the Israelites needed deliverance from more than just Pharaoh. They need deliverance from their grumbling, mumbling, bitter selves. And Yahweh is set to bring about that deliverance. Yahweh torahs Moses a tree of transformation.

Right then and there, after Moses/Yahweh sweetened the water with the tree, Yahweh "made a decree and a law for them, and there He tested them. He said, 'If you listen carefully to the voice of Yahweh your God and do what is right in His eyes, if you pay attention to His commands and keep all His decrees, I will not bring on you any of the diseases I brought on the Egyptians, for I am Yahweh your Healer.'" This text makes it plain that the emphasis is on the transformation of the Israelites rather than the water of Marah. In a word, Israel is to be "Yahweh-centered" in all their living. Remember, down in Egypt life had been Pharaoh centered.

So Yahweh "tested" the Israelites there at Marah. This testing was for the purpose of training them, to reveal their hearts in order that their hearts might be changed where needed. The test revealed that Moses was Yahweh-centered and that Israel was not. The test was a training exercise for Israel, designed to bend their bitter, grumbling hearts toward Yahweh.

How did the bitter water become sweet? The tree. How does one become Yahweh-centered? The answer is Torah, God's instruction. It's kind of a circle. By listening to Yahweh one becomes Yahweh-centered which in turn enables one to be a better listener which in turn increases one's Yahweh-centeredness.

How did the bitter water become sweet? Yahweh, the giver of the tree. How does one become Yahweh-centered? The answer is Yahweh, the giver of Torah. "I am Yahweh, the One who heals you." Yahweh is the One who heals the heart, who is able to transform the bitter waters of the heart to waters of renewal. Again, notice that this internal transformation is the main point of the text, for Yahweh does not say "I am Yahweh, the One who heals the water" but "I am Yahweh, the One who heals you."

Yahweh transforms the heart by means of Torah, Yahweh's instruction/word for sweet living. "And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. . .." Jesus is our Torah, our transforming Word from Yahweh on and for life. As we receive and follow Jesus, as we become Jesus-centered, we discover a healing transformation being worked within our hearts. It is the internal journey from the bitter waters of Marah to the twelve springs of Elim, from barren desert to seventy palm trees.

May the tests of life bend us towards Jesus, that we might open ourselves to Jesus at ever new depths, heeding His word and experiencing His healing. By the grace of God in Christ, may we make the journey and know His healing, that we might live the Jesus life. If life is bitter, stir in some Torah.

-Steve Rodeheaver, Copyright 2011, Steve Rhodeheaver and CRI/Voice, Institute
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