When you have been so signally blessed in the most amazing deliverance, as Israel had been, what would you expect to come next? Surely it ought to be the final completion of the Lord’s promised redemption coming true?
Well, for Israel, no. They are led by God (by the hand of Moses) into the wilderness and in that wilderness they are led for 3 days without water. They are led into suffering and pain; they are led into a time of testing.
Having crossed the Red Sea on dry ground, this was probably very far from what Israel expected. But the wilderness would be a place of profound, and often shocking, discoveries for Israel.
When they reach water after three days only to discover that it is bitter, the people “grumbled against Moses, saying, ‘What are we to drink?’” Their deep disappointment is quite understandable but is their grumbling excusable?
This is the first of 3 scenes in which the people react badly to their challenging circumstances. We’ll look more fully at their responses as we work through these scenes but, from the off, they don’t present a model of faith and contentment in the Lord.
Having had such sultry weather for these past weeks, we can no doubt empathise with their thirst – they’ve been in this desert for 3 days without water; how hard that must have been. And if they could manage their own thirst, their children would have been crying out incessantly.
But if we can empathise to a degree with their predicament – and their sense of frustration that the water they come to with such great expectation turns out to be bitter must have been a very hard blow to take – we must also try to factor into the picture the recent amazing deliverance that they have experienced. The Lord is not calling them to follow him in blind faith but on the back of the most stunning show of loyalty and loving determination to take them as his people.
And that’s exactly where the rubber hits the road for us too. We have no Red Sea to look back to but something far greater – the events we have just recalled at this table. Here is love, vast as the ocean, loving-kindness as the flood…
But even with Jesus and his cross so often before us, we grumble and we mistrust the Lord who bought us.
When a baby sees its parent leave the room, it thinks they’ve gone forever and howls in protest and dismay. But that’s babies; they can’t help it. They don’t know any better. They’ll learn. As for us, our howls of protest are out of place; we really need to grow up in our faith. The Lord is worthy of our trust and he is honoured by it.
2. God’s answer(s)
i) Wood into the water Moses’ response is to cry out to the Lord (a good model for the people) and the Lord shows him a piece of wood. There is no record of the Lord telling Moses what to do with it; he simply takes it and throws it into the water and the water is sweetened.
Some see here a natural remedy – apparently there are trees that can be used in that way and are found near bitter waters (much in the way that doc leaves grow near stinging nettles). Others would want to suggest that this is just so clearly a miracle and that we should not shy from saying so.
I don’t think we have to worry too much over those points; often that sort of question leads us away from the main focus of the text. And the main focus here is that it is the Lord who is at work and is at work in grace among his people.
They have begun to grumble and will do a lot more grumbling before their years in the wilderness are over but here is the Lord graciously meeting their need and doing so without rebuking them for their lack of faith and their self-centredness.
Israel has entered adolescence and the Lord knows their frame and is being patient and gracious with them.
ii) Teaching and training But this scene and those that follow are not simply about the Lord putting-up with his grumpy people; this is about teaching and training his people. This is a test, after all, and the Lord makes “a decree and a law for them” and exhorts them to “listen carefully…and do what is right”; then they will know the Lord not as judge but as healer (v.26).
In fact, the emphasis on teaching is hinted at in v.25 where the Lord “shows” Moses the wood; the term used there is later used to mean ‘teach’ and is linked to the term ‘torah’ (instruction; law).
This scene looks forward, both implicitly and explicitly, to Sinai and the giving of the law. The people that the Lord has redeemed are going to need to be directed and trained by the law; without such direction they will forever go astray.
This puts the emphasis on this wilderness period on the training of the people. We know from the NT that we, too, as the Lord’s people need training and undergo such training and teaching at the Lord’s hand. But where does the law fit into our training?
The NT makes plain to us that the law was given to Israel to govern the time of her infancy (see Paul’s argument in Galatians 4). But it never could bring fullness and maturity, being weakened by sin, and is now declared to be obsolete. So what form does our training take?
In Galatians, Paul goes on from that passage about the law as a trainer to speak of the coming of the Spirit and emphasises that we are to be governed and led by him, not by the law and not by our flesh. The Spirit teaches and trains us so that the righteous requirements of the law might be met in us through our living by the Spirit. Law-keeping is not the way to Christian maturity; walking by the Spirit is.
But where does that leave the 10 commandments? That’s a complex issue and we’ll return to it next time but, for now, we should notice that the law given at Sinai are an expression of the fundamental requirement that we should love God and that we should love our neighbours as ourselves.
In all sorts of situations, and by all sorts of means, God by his Spirit is training us, leading us into the maturity of genuine love. Our wisdom is to trust him and to work with him in that grand project of restoration into the likeness of his Son.
3. A foretaste of fullness
This initial wilderness scene ends with a gracious encouragement from the Lord to his people: they come to Elim where they discover 12 springs of water and 70 palm trees. The encouragement goes beyond the simple provision of more water and a pleasant place to camp; there is something deeply-symbolic about this scene.
The 12 springs of water symbolise the provision of water for the 12 tribes and the 70 palm trees can be seen as symbolising a place of rest for all the family of Jacob who went down into Egypt (Gen. 46:27).
The God who has redeemed his people from Egypt and who has led them into a time of hardship in the wilderness will in his time lead them into the fullness of blessing that he has promised. Elim is a foretaste for them of that fullness and was no doubt a great boost for their flagging spirits.
Times of difficulty should not make us doubt the reality of God’s promises nor his ability to deliver on what he has promised. But, such is his gracious way with us, he not only makes promises but gives foretastes of blessing along the way. We have been given in his Spirit the down-payment of all that will one day be ours in glory.