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

                                        Exodus 15:22-27



                                                 David J. Klein


            Three days from Moses' song to the murmuring of sedition. How shock-

ing this is in the light of Israel's recent history. They witnessed the discriminat-

ing plagues in Egypt. They were delivered from slave labor with a mighty hand

and an outstretched arm, passing through the Red Sea on dry ground. As they

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 Israel's water supply, and without water

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



                                                            Kerux                                                              25



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

promise to Israel. At the beginning of the book of Exodus, God heard the

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 Egypt, they ate the bitter herbs in

remembrance of the bitterness of Egypt (Ex. 12:8). Egypt was characterized by

bitterness. God's promise to deliver Israel from Egypt was a promise to deliver

them from bitterness. And now, after the Red Sea redemption, Israel finds

herself drinking from the bitter waters. Do you see the trial? Bitterness in

Egypt, bitterness in the wilderness: has God really done anything at all? Be-

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 Red Sea redemption, this text

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 Red Sea, though she has

the presence of God in the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night,

Israel does not yet have the fullness of her inheritance. The wilderness is

Israel's already/not yet experience, her semi-realized eschatology. Though de-

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, Israel is confronted with proving trials which seem to call into

question the truthfulness of God's promises.


And what did Israel do? She became bitter. The water was bitter and Israel

became bitter. The bitter water acted like a catalyst for the bitterness of Israel's

soul. Israel tasted not just the bitterness of the waters but 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 Israel's wilderness sojourn is your wilder-



26                                            Klein:  Marah



ness sojourn. Speaking of Israel's wilderness journey, Paul writes, "Now these

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). Israel's wilderness

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 redemption from Egypt and

the land of Canaan, but between the realities to which they point. You are

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

God has come to naught and you are tempted to be bitter. Israel's story is your



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

after Israel's exile.


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.



                                                            Kerux                                                              27



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 Israel is not

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 Mt. Sinai where they will

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.


Yet Israel's history in the wilderness is a sad testimony of their inability to

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.


Israel's failure points to the need for a new Israel, an Israel which can be

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

Christ. He is the true Israel, "Out of Egypt I called my Son" (Mt. 2:15; Hos.

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

Israel. Where Adam and Israel failed, Christ prevailed.


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 Israel's failure points ahead in the

history of redemption to a new Israel, Moses' failure points ahead in the his-

tory of redemption to a new Moses. This Savior is so glorious, he is so wonder-

ful, that in his person the typology of Israel and Moses converge. Christ is 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



                                                            Kerux                                                              29


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 heavenly Jerusalem, is already

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 Calvary's

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.

And as surely as God has brought Israel to Elim, he will bring his people to the

promised land, the new paradise of God.


Mt. Vernon Orthodox Presbyterian Chapel

Mt. Vernon, Washington





This material is cited with gracious permission from:

Northwest Theological Seminary

            17711 Spruce Way

            Lynwood, WA  98037-7431


Please report any errors to Ted Hildebrandt at:  thildebrandt@gordon.edu