Beyond the Lectionary Text: Exodus 15:22-27
by Chelsey Harmon
Exodus 15:22-27 is one of numerous stories driven by Israel complaining, grumbling, or murmuring because of the conditions of the exodus. Like God does in the other stories, God provides for the Israelites even though they are rebellious against him.
But what stands out in this particular narrative is God’s self-proclaimed title in verse 26: “for I am the Lord who heals you.” In the Hebrew text, the word “heal” is a participle, which allows for this even more symbolic interpretation: “for I am your healer” or the more modern, “for I am your doctor.”
If we begin with this statement from God when we examine the text, the story goes from a simple case of the grumbles to a sweeping promise of God to heal and restore body, soul, and mind. This narrative is at the beginning of a cycle of learning to trust in God’s provision in the desert, and here we have God declaring his good purpose (the way God will work good from the consequences of the people’s sinfulness): to heal, both now and for forever.
After experiencing the Red Sea miracles, the people sing God’s praises. Then Moses leads the people three days into the desert—the distance God told Moses to ask Pharaoh to allow the people to go in order to worship Yahweh. It’s a hard three days, and when they finally find water, it’s bitter—hence the name Marah (which literally means bitter as well as symbolically means rebellious). The people are “marah” themselves, complaining to and against Moses. Moses “cries out” (that oft used verb to describe God’s people crying out for help) and God performs a miracle that serves as a visual sign of the healing he will/is providing to the people.
God shows Moses a piece of wood that, when Moses throws it into the water at Marah, makes the water potable. The water goes from bitter to sweet; in essence, it is healed and the momentary needs of the people are provided for. Then God brings them to Elim, “where there are twelve springs of water and seventy palm trees.” (v 27) The number 70 (7 x 10) symbolizes a perfect completeness; 7 is associated with perfection and 10 with completeness. The number 12 stands for each of the tribes of Israel, also known as the people of God. Thus, when God brings them to Elim, God brings them to a place that will provide for all of them fully; it is a picture of complete healing and restoration. Elim is the place where God proves himself faithful and trustworthy, and provides the Israelites with yet another lived experience they can remember and build their faith upon.
Nestled in the midst of the sign from God is a covenantal arrangement. At Marah, God begins the renewal of the Abrahamic covenant that will be spelled out conclusively at Mount Sinai with the Ten Commandments.
Remembering that he is the healer, the doctor, we should read God’s covenant requirements as a guide for life rather than as requirements for redemption. God has already saved them from slavery, now he is showing them the best way to live. The one who heals tells his people that the way to stay as healthy as they can is to follow God’s commandments, listen carefully to God’s voice, and do what is right in God’s sight by keeping all of his statutes (ways). The alternative way of living, as evidenced by the experience of those in Egypt, is to suffer the consequences of one’s actions because those actions go against what God wants for the world and his people.
We aren’t meant to read this as an absolute principle of cause-and-effect. Not everyone who is physically suffering or experiencing a disaster of plague-like proportions is literally being punished by God. Instead, remembering that God is the great physician, we should read it as God’s prescription for healthy living. In much the same way our family doctors will tell us to eat healthy and exercise, God says to listen to his voice (which requires us to stay close to him), see the world as he sees it, and keep his laws. If we live a lifestyle contrary to this, there will likely be suffering—suffering that could have been prevented. In much the same way that poor nutrition, having unprotected sex with multiple partners, or smoking will have negative repercussions on our health, disobedience and rebellion against God are not good for us.
The story of the bitter water made sweet establishes God as a healer on multiple levels. First, there is the immediate healing and meeting the needs of a thirsty people. Second, there is the prescription for how to stay healthy through the renewal of the covenant relationship. Third, there is the promise, or more precisely, the foretaste, of fully realized healing as experienced at Elim. Fourth, there is the healing that God is presently providing to his people that they may not even realize is happening: the healing of the saved-from-slavery-soul.
Drawing on the role of God as doctor and healer, the momentary pit stop at Elim can be seen as a treatment or therapy session for the newly freed people. The Israelites that left Egypt have never known freedom. They have never known true rest or what it is like to have enough to be thrive in life. They have not really even known their God. Beyond the physical maladies they must have suffered, such as malnutrition and injuries due to being overworked, stress and despair and the psychological toll surely must have still had a firm hold on them. They have only been free for a matter of days; healing from all of their wounds, the visible and the unseen, will take time. As they begin that journey, not realizing how deep they will have to go, God declares himself as the one who heals.
In a story without a physical human healing, we should not miss the power of God calling himself the healer. God saved their lives, and unlike the trauma surgeon who moves on to treat other patients and passes responsibility for rehab to another professional, God is going to see their redemption all the way through. Yahweh has already shown himself to be with them with the pillar of fire by night and cloud by day, and in this story, he begins a practice of provision, both with a recovery plan for healthy living, the covenant, and a treatment for some of their injuries, water for the parched and rest for the spent.
Israel will not always follow the recovery plan, and it will set back their healing—they will not obey when God says to take the promised land and it will end up costing them forty years of wandering the desert. But during those forty years, the great “doctor is in,” holding the Israelites close to his heart, (Isaiah 40.11) healing them of their deeper wounds.
The style of covenant-making in this text is just like covenant-making practices of the Ancient Near East. What I find interesting is that God lays out his part, but there is no answer from the Israelites. Covenants are agreed upon by both parties, so perhaps we can read their silence as part of their wondering about this really powerful God who they are just starting to really get to know. Drawing again on the doctor imagery, they are still early enough in the relationship that they can switch to another health care provider—or even return to the ones they just left, which we know they ask, even try, to do more than once.
Many modern readers don’t like the stories that talk about God putting people to the test, as he does here. Is there a better way to describe what that word means in the context? Instead of thinking of it as a purposeful tempting, what if we thought of it as an opportunity to prove where one really stands? Better yet, what if we saw it as the doctor giving us a test of strength to see how we’re recovering? When God tests his people in Scripture, we find that he always provides what is needed so that the awful thing the people think they may have to do doesn’t actually come to fruition (i.e. the ram in the place of Isaac in Genesis 22). In other words, the testing is done in a safe environment with our healer right on hand to rescue us if things start to go off the rails.
In our text, God’s test is the people’s obedience and his promise to heal. We know the people fail the test, just as we continue to fail the test. Yet, God’s healing is never taken from us. God continues to be the one who heals, even healing us from our failures to keep his commands, see the world as he does, and to listen closely to his voice. In the end, God’s grace trumps our sinfulness.
It is also helpful to keep in mind the sequence of things. God saves the people, then gives them a picture of the way he wants them to live. Law keeping isn’t about redemption, but about grateful living, about experiencing the full blessings and presence of God. Through Jesus and the work of the Holy Spirit, this sequence becomes abundantly more clear: God saves, we respond with gratitude, offering our whole lives in worship and service to him by following his prescription for holy living. Jesus and the Holy Spirit continue the work of Yahweh in providing healing and restoration, and soon we will know the full restoration pictured at Elim—that is our eschatological hope.