The Israelites could have used one of three main routes out of Egypt to Canaan. One is up the coast, called the Way of the Philistines. We have in the historical records that one of the Roman generals marched his troops from Egypt up to what we would call the Gaza Strip in only five days. The trouble with this route is that there were Egyptian fortifications along the way, and the people would have had to fight. God said that if the Israelites would have faced war, they might have changed their minds and gone back to Egypt (Ex. 13:17).
The remaining two ways were across the desert. The one was further to the south, and the other, the Way of Shur, was a bit closer to the coast. (Shur means “wall,” and it probably refers to a walled fortification on the borders of Egypt.) But they didn’t go any of those three ways; instead, they went down into the Sinai Peninsula. And they had a lot of lessons to learn along the way.
As Christians read these stories in Exodus, they see parallels to the Christian life. We think of Canaan, the land to which they’re headed, as being a picture of heaven, and the passage through the wilderness representing the pilgrimage of this life. The parallels are not always exact, but certainly they are in this respect: the people were not mature; they had to learn to trust the Lord and see His provision for them. And seeing how God provided for them during those years of wandering is very instructive for us as we go through life as Christians.
There are four major incidents that we need to study. The first is when they come to Marah and find bitter water. It’s hard to know exactly where the Jewish people went when they left Egypt and headed south. We don’t have many place names in the biblical texts, and in addition, the names have changed over the years. There is a place, however, that today is called Ayun Musa, which means “the springs of Moses.” There is an oasis here and probably the people passed that way shortly after they crossed the Red Sea.
Now we can imagine how they started out. They had just seen God’s wonderful deliverance at the Red Sea. The Egyptians that were pursuing them in chariots were defeated. They saw their enemies drowned, lying upon the shore. The Lord had overshadowed them with a cloud and protected them, and then they had sung that great song of Moses and Miriam as they stood there rejoicing at all that God had done.
After that, however, there was a long march to a place called Marah, about forty miles from Ayun Musa. If you had a large company of people who were driving animals, that probably would have been about a three-day journey. Moreover, traveling over this desert way wasn’t easy. It’s a dry, stony plain that runs along the Gulf of Suez, and then it turns into a glaring stretch of sand where there is no water. As the people went along looking for the next oasis, their water began to run out.
Moses may well have known this area, since he had spent time on the far side of the desert for forty years, driving the flocks to different places. And if he did know this region, he knew that there was an oasis farther up the road. He probably encouraged the people with this, telling them that he knows this is tough now, and their water supply is getting low, but God will provide. He knows where they can get water.
The only problem was that when they got to the oasis the waters were bitter. They couldn’t drink them. That’s why they named the oasis marah, which means “bitter” in Hebrew. Naomi uses the same word to describe herself in the book of Ruth. She tells the women to call her “Marah,” because her life had been so bitter.
Now Moses was in trouble. It had taken a lot of faith to lead two million people out across the desert sands without provisions. He had trusted God to provide. However, when they finally arrive at the oasis they discover that it’s undrinkable! The people had forgotten how God had provided for them in the past, and now they’re complaining about their circumstances.
But one thing Moses had not forgotten early on: when you are in trouble, turn to God. And so what we find him doing in the story is crying out to the Lord in prayer. In response, God told him to take a piece of wood and throw it into the water (Ex. 15:25). When Moses obeyed, the wood made the water sweet.
I’m always amused when I read commentaries on sections like this one because there is a certain ludicrous disposition of the academic mind. Even evangelical commentators begin to search around for wood with qualities that can make water sweet. However, I have never heard of a piece of wood that could turn bitter water into sweet water for two million people. This is an outright miracle. You can’t explain it by hunting around for certain qualities in wood.
The lesson of the story is not to go find a piece of wood that will turn bitter water sweet. The lesson of the story is to do what Moses did and present your case before the Lord. And God provides, sometimes by natural means, sometimes by supernatural means. In our case, it’s usually natural means. We don’t see a great many things that we would call miracles today. But however a thing is done, it’s the Lord who does the providing.