Klein, David J. “Proving and Provision at Marah,” Kerux 15.1 (2000) 24-29.
Copyright © 2000 by Northwest Theological Seminary. Cited with permission.
Proving and Provision at Marah
David J. Klein
Three days from Moses' song to the murmuring of sedition. How shock-
ing this is in the light of
ing plagues in
and an outstretched arm, passing through the
reached the other side, they turned just in time to see the walls of water col-
lapse, crushing Pharaoh's army. The whole assembly erupted with shouts of
great joy; they sang the song of Moses and the women danced Miriam's
dance. Yet three days later, the murmuring of rebellion. What could have pro-
duced such a failure of trust?
We have before us an account of God's wilderness proving (in the Old
English sense of "testing"). And what kind of trial was it? No doubt it was a
physical trial. Three days dwindled
nothing can live. You can imagine how each day, as the jugs got a little emptier,
the song of Moses got a little quieter, and Miriam's dance and timbrel got a little
slower, until no more song, no more dance, only the murmuring of rebellion. No
doubt it was also an emotional trial. As the Israelites saw water from afar, an
oasis in a vast desert wasteland, you can imagine their excitement. They ran to
it, kneeling down to drink, expecting it to taste so refreshing and sweet. But as
they drank the water--bitterness! Bitterness not only because of the taste, but
because it was the exact opposite of the sweetness they expected.
But more than a physical trial, more than an emotional trial, the bitter water
of Marah represented a spiritual trial that challenged the very heart of God's
groaning of his people and promised to deliver them on account of the cov-
enant he made with their fathers. And from what did God promised to deliver
them? Exodus 1:14 tells us: the Egyptians made the lives of the Israelites bitter
with hard labor. And as the Israelites left
remembrance of the bitterness of
bitterness. God's promise to deliver
them from bitterness. And now, after the Red Sea
herself drinking from the bitter waters. Do you see the trial? Bitterness in
yond physical need, beyond emotional frustration, this trial reaches down to
the very depths of faith in the God of Israel.
As the first narrative on the other side of the
teaches us something important about the character of the wilderness. The
wilderness is a place of trial, where the promise of God seems to have come to
naught. Though she has been redeemed through the
the presence of God in the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night,
finitively delivered, she awaits the consummate rest of the promised land. She
has not yet crossed the border into the land flowing with milk and honey. And
in the meantime,
question the truthfulness of God's promises.
And what did
became bitter. The bitter water acted like a catalyst
for the bitterness of
forsaking the Lord (Jer. 2:19). God's people, on the other side of their salvation,
have become bitter.
You must grasp this because
26 Klein: Marah
ness sojourn. Speaking of
things happened to them as types, and they were written for our instruction,
upon whom the ends of the ages have come" (1 Cor. 10:11).
sojourn is a type (often poorly translated in 1 Cor. 10 as "example") of the
church's heavenly journey. You are the last, the heavenly, the eschatological
wilderness community. You are the wilderness community upon whom the
ends of the ages have come. You are not between
the land of
between the redemption from the bondage of sin and the new Jerusalem. You
have been redeemed from sin, you have the down payment of the Spirit, but
you do not yet have the fullness of your inheritance. You have not yet come to
the land flowing with milk and honey. Rather, you have proving trials which
appear to invalidate God's promise. You find yourself in this life before the Lord
returns in a period of trial, in a wilderness where it seems that the promise of
has come to naught and you are tempted to be bitter.
But our text is not only an account of God's wilderness proving, but also
of his wilderness provision. God provides a tree to heal the bitterness of the
waters. At this point let me encourage you not to make too facile of a jump from
the tree to the cross, for if you do you will miss something very significant
about our text as well as an answer to a source-critical objection often lodged
against it. Many commentators want to reject the unity of our text, assigning
verse 25a to one source and verses 25b-26 to another. They cannot see how
the verse on throwing the tree into the water relates to the verse on the statute
and the regulation to keep all God's commandments. Therefore, they say that
the verses came from two different authors and were put together at a time well
What I want you to see is that there is an essential unity between the
throwing of the tree into the water (v. 25a) and the statute and regulation to
keep all God's commandments (vv. 25b-26, which I will hereafter refer to as the
Marah statute). What is implicitly pictured in God showing Moses the tree and
Moses throwing the tree in the waters is explicitly stated in the Marah statute
in the following verses. Both implicitly and explicitly, what is being revealed to
us is the requirement for the Israelites' obedience to receive blessing.
God shows Moses a tree. The word translated "show"' is a word which
means to instruct.1 It is the word from which we get Torah. When the passage
says that God showed Moses a tree, what we have is God instructing Moses
concerning a tree. We could translate the verse, "God gave Torah to Moses."
Even if the translation of "showed" is preferred, God clearly showed Moses
the tree to tell Moses what to do with it. Moses then followed God's instruction
by throwing the tree into the water and the water became sweet. Note the
progression: God gave Moses instruction, Moses followed God's instruction,
and the result was healing and sweetness. The whole focus of what happens at
Marah is on the effect of obedience to God's word. When Moses follows God's
instruction, the result is sweetness. The sign indicates the blessing and heal-
ing that comes from being obedient to God's commands.
This, then, is what is explicitly stated in verses 25b-26. The statute con-
veys the exact same message: if you are obedient to God's commands, God will
be your healer. Note here the relationship of works to blessing. This is not
evangelical obedience. This is "do this and
live" obedience. If
obedient, God threatens them with the diseases of the Egyptians, the marks of
divine curse. The statute hearkens back to the relationship of works to bless-
ing in the garden. As the
people are being led to
receive the yoke of the law and will themselves ratify the law covenant, they
are already being prepared for the theocratic principle of inheritance. If the
people want to retain the blessings of God, if the people want God to be their
healer, they must follow his Torah.
keep the Marah statute. This is the generation that fell in the wilderness. They
could not keep the commandments of God and God was not their healer. Even
once a new generation entered the land, they failed to keep the commandments
1 Most English versions translate verse 25 as "God showed him," because of their
dependence on Brown-Driver-Briggs which lists one of the meanings of yrh as "to show,"
citing this text. But yrh in the Hiphil with the double accusative has the clear meaning "to
instruct someone concerning something," so much so that many of the new dictionaries no
longer list "to show" as a meaning. For an example, see Dictionary of Classical Hebrew, ed.
D. J. A. Clines (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1998), vol. 4, p. 291-292. For other
passages with the same grammatical construction as ours, where the meaning is clearly God
instructing someone concerning something, see Psalms 27:11, 86:11 and 119:33.
28 Klein: Marah
of Yahweh and were cast out of the promised land in exile, a type of judgment.
obedient to the commandments of God if God is to be our healer. While the
wilderness trial is a type of the Church, it is first and foremost a type of Christ.
The obedience required of the Israelites to merit God's healing is fulfilled in
He is the true
11:1). In Matthew 4 and Luke 4, it is Christ who passes the probation in the
wilderness. This is a recapitulation of the temptation experiences of Adam and
The glory of the new covenant is that the Marah statute points not to
what you must do, but what has been done for you. Christ is the one who gives
earnest heed to the voice of the Lord, and does what is right in his sight, and
gives ear to his commandments, and keeps all his statutes. Hence it is on
account of the obedience of Christ that God is our healer.
Did not the Israelites already see this as they looked into the face of
Moses and saw a covenant mediator who was obedient to God's command and
healed the bitterness for the people? Yet this is the generation that perished in
the wilderness, despite Moses' mediation. Despite Moses' obedience and in-
tercession, the bitterness and rebellion of the people made God lay them low in
the wilderness. Moses himself could not usher them into the Promised Land
(which he himself did not enter). So just as
history of redemption to a new
tory of redemption to a new Moses. This Savior is so glorious, he is so wonder-
ful, that in his person the
faithful covenant mediator who acts on behalf of the people by being obedient
to all of God's commandments. He is the one who brings healing to the people.
He does this by his resurrection. Christ is greater than Moses because Christ
himself drank the bitter waters of Marah on the cross. And because death had
no hold on him, he was raised into the new paradise. His resurrection now
guarantees our access into the Promised Land.
What then of the tree? Perhaps you thought I was going to leave this out!
God did not show Moses a rock, Moses did not put his staff in the water. The
reference to the tree is not incidental. The tree is obviously the instrument of
healing. Does not the collocation of tree and healing immediately bring to mind
Revelation 22, where in the new paradise there is the tree of life whose leaves
are healing to the nations? That which was the future reward held out in the
garden, that which is the final provision of the
intruding itself into the wilderness. The tree represents nothing less than the
new order penetrating into the old. As Geerhardus Vos wrote, "The kingdom of
God, what else is it but a new world of supernatural realities supplanting this
natural world of sin." And access to this
tree of life comes only via
tree. The sweetness of heaven, the new heavenly order, comes to us by the
work of Christ. His obedience merits for us the eschatological reward of the
tree of life. He drank the bitter waters on the cross, he endured the bitter wrath
of God, he tasted the bitterness of death, that you might know the sweetness
of the forgiveness of sins, the sweetness of sonship, the sweetness of com-
munion with the Father. Christ has taken the bitterness out of your wilderness
sojourn, because even now in your wilderness you have access to this tree of
life, because of Jesus' tree.
Notice how our text end. God brought them to Elim in the wilderness. It is
no doubt a picture of paradise: twelve springs of water and seventy date
palms. Elim is the promise that the wilderness sojourn has an end. What gives
the wilderness meaning and makes it bearable is its relationship to paradise.
as surely as God has brought
promised land, the new paradise of God.
This material is cited with gracious permission from:
Northwest Theological Seminary
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