Beyond the Lectionary Text: Exodus 15:22-27
by Lora Copley
Three days is a long time to go without finding water, especially if you have little ones under four. Nursing mothers are beginning to get desperate. When water is sighted, the kids run to it, laughing, whooping, but just a taste leaves them gagging, spluttering, wiping their tongues on their sleeves. The water is bitter, brackish, diseased!
The people look at God with a look of “you betrayed us.” They open their mouths to speak and the Marah life pours out. In Hebrew, the word Marah means both bitter and rebellious.
Marah unchecked ends up calcifying into hard-hearts and stiff-necks. When Pharaoh demonstrated both toward the Lord, disease and death for his people resulted.
But God wants life for his people. He shows Moses an “etz,” a tree. And Moses throws the “etz” into the water and the waters are healed, sweetened. God does more than just provide a one spring, however. He leads his people to Elim. Not only are there twelve springs– a spring for each tribe -but 70 palm trees. At Elim, God’s people experience that even in the desert, the Lord will take care of them… and that abundantly.
So why didn’t God lead them straight to Elim? Why face the ugly scene at Marah at all? We must remember God’s purpose for bringing his people out to the desert in the first place. He wants a bride, a partner who will trust Him and love Him. But Israel is full of rebel Egypt (cf. Josh 24:14; Num.11:4-5; Ex 16:3). She needs to be healed of her distrust, and her Egypt-loving ways.
And so this isn’t just a straightforward miracle of provision. It is parable-like, more like the “signs” of the John’s gospel, pointing to a reality beyond itself. The Lord himself explains what the healing pictures in verse 26: “If you listen to the Lord, if you do what is right, if you attend to his law and keep his decrees, I will not bring on you any of the diseases I brought on the Egyptians, for I am the Lord, who heals you.”
God’s people are told, and they just experience, that the Marah waters of their hearts need healing. He- Yahweh Rophe- will accomplish healing. But what is this instrument that He uses, this “etz” -this tree or wood or stick?
For centuries, our spiritual ancestors have wondered about that “etz.” Two main thoughts emerged on what this tree could picture or point to in the healing ministry of God in our lives.
The most ancient understanding is the tree points us to God’s Torah. (See Textual Point 1 below.) Ancient and modern Jewish commentators say the way God heals us is as we listen and keep and obey His law, the Torah. Verse 26 definitely supports this understanding.
This “etz” then reminds us of the “etz” in Eden. Obedience (read: trust) was at stake there too. But Eve thought the fruit looked sweet and disobedience would be likewise. Her deadly taste confusion is now in all our DNA. We say “Independence is sweet! Yummy!” And we say “Obedience! Bah! Bitter!” (cf. Isaiah 5:20.)
But it was in the beginning, (is now, and ever shall be), obedience to God’s word is a tree of life, and those living by His words find it “sweeter than honey from the comb.”
I remember one night when the sweetness of obedience really hit me. It was midnight and I was doing what every woman does when she can’t fall asleep… dishes. Elbow deep in suds, I listened to an NPR interview of a fellow named Dave Ellis. Dave Ellis is a secular gentleman who says he’s discovered a life of sweetness, even wrote a book entitled Falling Awake: Finding the Life of Your Dreams. He spoke of habits he developed over his lifetime that made him truly happy.
Habits like living off 25% of his income and giving away the rest.
Habits like ending each day by rehearsing the day’s joys.
Habits like operating his million-dollar business by helping his business rivals.
Habits like forgiveness. He shared how after a business partner embezzled millions of dollars from the company, everyone advised Dave to sue the pants off the guy. But Dave decided he didn’t want to live life scrambling for just desserts so he forgave the man and now they have breakfast together once a month.
The host of the radio show kept exclaiming:“Why this is unbelievable! I have not thought anyone could live this way! I’ve never heard of anything like this!”
But here I kept thinking the opposite: “This isn’t new! We hear this every Sunday—forgiving your enemies, being thankful, better to give than receive.” The difference is this secular guy was living it! He found life full and sweet and didn’t even know these radical choices were really obedience!
I suddenly found myself stepping away from the sink, shaking off the bubbles, jealous of the fellow! I swear I thought, “Oh yeah, oh yeah, if this nudnik can la-de-da his way through life by following God’s ways, then you bet your boots, I can too! I’m not going to let him get all the good stuff!” ☺
God’s law is right. Period. Even for non-believers. Dave Ellis (unknowingly) obeys the seemingly hard, bitter commands of God, and finds these hard things—like forgiveness, sacrifice, etc— are really disguised sweetness. Warhead Candies. At first suck, commands about Sabbath, about not lusting, about generosity— at first suck these commands seem to, well, suck. But this is God’s way to a sweet center. These the grooves for the best way to live life.
So the most ancient understanding of this healing “etz” is that it points to the Law and our ability to trust and obey.
But there’s another take on what this tree points to—and the earliest writing of our church fathers unpacked it. They saw this “piece of wood” in Israel’s story had all the contours of another “piece of wood” in Jesus’ story. Contours of bitterness and sweetness. Contours of curse and healing. The contours of tree of Calvary, the cross.
(In case I need to defend this point from the charge of smelling like allegory, please note even as faithful a New Testament exegete as Frederick Dale Bruner recognized: “Allegorical (spiritual or mystical) exegesis, when practiced with Christo-centricity and with historical-critical restraint, is not only allowable but is even demanded of the Christian expositor, particularly when interpreting OT texts.” (Bruner, Matthew, pg 567.)
The Calvary tree was soaked in all the Marah of our sin. And there in Gethsemane, Jesus was presented with a bitter cup –a cup smelling of horseradish and baking chocolate, a cup that foamed with the wrath of God against our Egypt rebel hearts. Jesus asked again and again that the cup be passed. But in the end, he obeyed God–tasting it in the garden and draining it to the dregs on the cross. He became diseased with all the diseases we deserved (for not keeping vs. 26), and we got the sweetness of life that was His.
It is only the cross, ultimately, that heals both our rebel hearts and the bitter experiences we face. Its grace heals in the here-and-now (cf. Naomi/”Mara” story) and in the Hereafter. (See the healing tree – that grows out of a sweet-water river, flowing from the Presence of God himself, whose leaves are for the eternal healing of all nations.)
For the Christian, these two pictures — Torah and the cross– are linked. The Law drives us to the cross. And the cross becomes the motive, the only true motive, for our obedience to the Law. Not only so, our law is now to find sweet life by taking up our cross daily, as we die to self. 2 Peter 2:24 pulls this all together -“For He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by His wounds you have been healed.”
As we journey with the Lord, if He leads us to Marah waters, will we trust Him? Or will we respond with Marah mouths and bitter hearts? We must look to the One who drank undiluted bitterness and took its punishment, so that we would be healed. Then, even at Marah itself, we can still resolve to trust and obey, as we sing “the bud may have a bitter taste, but sweet will be the flower.”
The verb in verse 25 “the Lord showed” is not like the Vanna White kind of “showed.” In fact the Hebrew “yarah/yoreah” is the verb form of the noun “Torah.” It’s as if the text is saying “God “torahed” (instructed) Moses a tree. Jewish scholars connect this verse with Proverbs 3:18, which says the wisdom in the Torah is a tree of life to those who embrace her.
Also note the word “nasah” in vs 26- “to test.” Remember this is the first of three rapid-fire training episodes (also Exodus 16 and 17) where the Lord will show Israel both herself and Himself (cf. Deuteronomy 8:2). Our text (and in Ex. 16, 17) call these “tests” but the word “nasah” conveys also the sense of “tried,” “exercised.” Their “trust muscles” are being challenged. These are the best kind of tests, as much learning experience as evaluation, as much formative as summative.
When my son was 2 yrs old, he found a bar of baking chocolate and hollered “Yum! Cannee!” Part of me thinks I should stop him but another part, the sinful part, wants to laugh. So my son takes a big bite, and his expression quickly changes to a look of “you betrayed me.” He acks and sticks out his tongue and tries to wipe the chocolate off.
Sin often looks so sweet but ends up like baking chocolate. Disguised bitterness.
Obedience is like Warhead Candy. Warhead candy is sour at first taste and you want to spit it out. But if you keep sucking it, keep working at it, you find only sweet sugar at its core. Obeying God is often like that– disguised sweetness.
Pastor Lee Eclov tells this nice communion tie-in: Konstantin Makovskii, a prominent Russian painter of the 19th century, painted a wedding feast. The guests are holding out their cups toward the bride. The painting’s explanation says they are shouting, “Gor’ko! Gor’ko!” meaning, “Bitter! Bitter!” referring to the wine. Like our wedding custom of tapping on glasses, Russian custom says the newlyweds must kiss in order to make bitter wine sweet again.
When the Great Bridegroom and his bride kiss, the Isaiah 25 (and John 3) promise of the finest of wines will come to pass. The wine, once bitter, will be sweet indeed.
Rev. Lora A. Copley is ordained by the CRCNA. She is a teacher for Classis Red Mesa’s Leadership Development Network and preaches by invitation.