by Joshua Chambers
The Exodus is the birth of a nation. As they passed through the waters of the Red Sea, God essentially gave birth to Israel (see Deut. 32:18). Israel is God’s firstborn son (Ex. 4:22). The rescue from oppression is now complete. The enemy is dead. Now, the training begins. Israel must learn who they are and, more importantly, who their new God, Yahweh, is. The hand-picked training ground is the sparse, dry wilderness — the harsh no-man’s land between the luxury of Egypt and the new Eden of the Promised Land. Three days into the journey the training begins with a severe trial of thirst and no water. What Israel must learn is to trust God to provide all their needs.
The God Who Heals the Water (v. 22-25a)
As we see throughout the wilderness wanderings, God has wisely planned their route. As they march on into desolate places, their water dries up. In the heat, an adult can expect to live about 3-4 days without water. And as dehydration sets in, headaches, fatigue and delirium follow. This is a dire situation. God hasn’t simply withheld a needless luxury or led his people through something hard to overcome difficulty. This is a trial that strikes at Israel’s continued existence. Water is a necessity of life. So when they happen upon a source of water and find that it is totally undrinkable, the people grumble; virtually rioting against Moses. They aren’t wrong to say “What shall we drink?” (v.24). But their attitude of faithless grumbling was wrong. They lacked faith in God to provide for their needs when many were sinking (via dehydration) into the grave.
This should sober us about God and his purposes. Perhaps this should make us think twice about being too hard on these poor people.
However, in the flow of the narrative, it’s clear that Moses wants us to be shocked about their lack of trust in God to provide. After all, he is the God of the Exodus. They were just singing his praises. And it’s only been three days.
But God is gracious. When the people grumble, Moses cries out to Yahweh. He quickly attends to the cry for mercy, showing Moses a tree. Moses throws the tree into the water and it becomes sweet. Once again God uses his mediator to work the miracle in the sight of Israel. And this is a miracle. There is no possible naturalistic explanation for this. Sticks thrown into poisonous ponds can’t filter water for two million people.
The God Who Heals His People (v. 25b-26)
Not only is this a gracious provision of God, it is a sign picture pointing to the main point of this passage. It’s a signpost to highlight and deepen the teaching moment. The lesson is that God will be Israel’s healer. More than their need for water, they need God’s word to live. As David wrote, “O God, you are my God! I long for you! My soul thirsts for you, my flesh yearns for you, as in a dry and parched land where there is no water” (Psalm 63:1).
Notice the pattern. In the healing of the water, God instructs Moses, he obeys, therefore, the water is healed. As Israel proceeds to Mt. Sinai and on to the Promised Land, God gives instruction (Torah), statues, ordinances, commands, etc. If Israel obeys, God will not put the plagues of the Egyptians on them. Put more positively, if they obey, he will bless them. Not only will they avoid judgment and destruction but God will go before them as their healer. “I am Yahweh, your healer” (v. 26). Sadly some twist this into a promise for physical health and prosperity. That false interpretation misses the point and, frankly, aims too low. On the contrary, this is a high promise of spiritual blessing, salvation from judgment and the gift of God’s life-giving presence.
And notice how he is already beginning to fulfill it. Recall the first plague in Egypt: the good water of the Nile was turned to blood, becoming undrinkable. This was judgment on Egypt and their false gods. Here, God the Healer turns undrinkable water into sweet, refreshing water — a reversal of the first plague. This is blessing upon his people because the true God is with them.
This prepares them for what is to come. Will they learn the lesson? Will they trust his provision and timing? Will they believe in God their Healer or will they rely on their own wisdom and strength to provide for their daily needs? God is training his firstborn son.
The God Who Gives Paradise to His People (v. 27)
Beyond the signpost pointing to this promise, Israel finds a lush oasis in the wilderness. God is giving them a taste of his goodness; a taste of the new Eden to come in the Promised Land. This reminds them of their destination. God has promised to bring Abraham’s offspring back into the land and bless them. He has already told them it is “a land flowing with milk and honey” (Ex. 3:8, 17; 13:5). To seal this promise he offers a taste of what’s to come. In Elim they find 12 springs and 70 palm trees. That is one spring for every tribe of Israel and one date-filled, shady palm tree for each member of Jacob’s house who went to sojourn in Egypt (Gen. 46:27). The symbolism reminds us of God’s faithfulness to his promises.
The God Who Completes the Story
We should be in awe of how God leads and deals with his people in the wilderness. He is doing so much more than what was evident to these specific people. Paul says that “these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did . . . they were written down for our instruction” (1 Corinthians 10:6, 11). As we consider how this applies to our lives today, we must first consider how this relates to Jesus in his life, death and resurrection. Where Israel fails the tests of Exodus chapters 15-17, Jesus obeys. The generation in the wilderness who heard God’s instruction in v. 26 died under his wrath. They didn’t heed the warning or believe in the promise. The lesson they received did no good to them, because of their lack of faith (Hebrews 4:2).
But the condition was met when Jesus “humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8). All those united to him by faith experience God as their Healer. “Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience” (Heb. 4:11). The warnings in Hebrews don’t imply that true believers can fall away. Rather, the warnings are a means that God has ordained to keep his people to the end.
Dear Christian, receive this instruction. Believe in his promise. God is our Healer and will bring us safely home to Eden because of his perfect Son, Jesus the Messiah. Only by meditating on this reality can we ever have the power to pass our smaller tests of faith. Therefore, let us strive together.