Bittersweet Water

Exodus chapters 15, 17, 32 and Numbers 20

Shortly after God delivers the Hebrews from the armies of Egypt, they encounter a new enemy named thirst. Having left Egypt in such a hurry, it seems that a plan for survival was never really revealed to them so they naturally panic at the first sign of trouble. In Exodus 15, they have been traveling through the desert of Shur for three days without any water until they reach a stream at Marah. Imagine the immediate change from relief to horror as they find that the water is so bitter it’s undrinkable. One might understand their grumbling and outrage towards Moses given that the human body can shut down as early as 2 days without water (drastically more dangerous in the desert). However, it is a bit much considering that had already God sent plagues, parted the seas and thrown fire down from heaven to save them thus far.

Moses cries out to God as he should and God points out a tree (or branch) to throw into the water. The wood makes bitter water become sweet and thus Lord reveals that he is the kind of God who alters the reality of the situation down to a scientific level to provide for his frightened people. Whereas God held the waters up at the Red Sea, he changes the substance of the water for them to drink it. They find themselves in similar situation 2 chapters later only this time, there is no water to be sweetened. They start the grumbling and complaining again and Moses turns to the Lord in faith. We should recognize as Moses did, that when we rage against those in authority over us, many times we are taking our frustration against God out on them instead. As weird as throwing a branch into the water was, God now tells Moses to strike a rock with his staff to draw water. Moses doesn’t question the Lord but gives the boulder a good smack and water gushes out for everyone to drink. It is estimated that there may have been as many as 6 million Hebrews that left Egypt. 


The next big drinking scene occurs not because of thirst, but mostly because of boredom in Exodus 32. Moses is up on mountain with God for days and the people become so restless that they demand Aaron make Gods for them to worship. Aaron is afraid of the people and gives into the peer pressure. Oddly enough, Aaron seems to be under the impression that he might still be honoring God with his work. He uses the image of the cow most likely because the cattle went first as they left Egypt so it seemed like a reasonable enough idea. He declares that there will be a “festival to the Lord.” What he doesn’t seem to get is that he is altering the people’s perception of their almighty God by reducing him to the image of a dumb animal. He is also trying make Yahweh into a more relatable pagan image that they are more used to. Least of all, but still grievous, is the fact that they are melting down the gold of Egypt that God gave them into a cow. It’s like burning up all of your birthday gifts as a way of saying thanks to the gifts rather than to your dad who paid for them. INSANITY.

The indication is that the people are breaking into a big pagan worship party

and get so loud that Moses and Joshua hear them from the mountain top. Joshua thinks it’s the sound of war, but Moses correctly assesses it as the “sound of singing.” The people are crying out not in battle, joy or grief. They are crying out in misplaced desperation. We are built for worship, but when we grow impatient and give up on the Lord, we will worship something else. This becomes one of those rare times in which God is so grieved by his people he wishes to wipe them out completely as he did with with the days of Noah and Sodom. Oddly enough, God tells Moses to leave him alone to destroy the Hebrews which we might assume is for one of two reasons. The first possibility is that God has determined to actually go ahead with this and the second is that he is just testing Moses to see what it is in his heart. In either case, God is righteous, but he hears Moses and shows mercy to the people. Moses’ understanding of God is clearly shown in that he knows God is faithful in mercy and is bold enough to ask for it despite God’s insistence. A bit later, Moses melts down the golden calf and  mixes the gold in the water and makes the people drink it. Not only does this help the people to taste the bitter reality of their sin, but it also reminds them of the bitter waters of Meribah. When we sin and continue to do so, sometimes God allows us to hit rock bottom and to taste how horrible sin really is to remind us how far he’s rescued us. We otherwise won’t remember how good he is by comparison. I’ve always found the next part to be both comical and infuriating. Moses asks his brother how all of this happened and Aaron explains that the people put him up to it and that the calf magically emerged from the fire after he threw in the gold. Have you ever told a lie that was so dumb that even neither you nor the person were telling it to could buy it? I would have loved to have seen Moses’s face when his idiot brother recounted the events. Moses proceeds to ask the people who is on the Lord’s side. This causes division between those who have given themselves to worshipping the calf and those who have turned to the Lord. Moses then orders the faithful ones to kill the others. This has always been disturbing to me, but in this sort of situation, this is actually the safest thing for the camp. This division makes the ungodly into enemies of the rest of the camp and risks more violence and disease from rebels. It’s always bothered me that Moses allows Aaron to live through this. I think that other than having a soft spot for his brother, Moses saw him as a victim of fear placed on him from the people. Skipping ahead to Numbers 20, we’re about to see a conclusion to this situation. Once again, the Hebrews are having to make a stop because they can go no further. There is no water in sight and so they become afraid and start complaining to Moses and Aaron. Moses seems to be hanging by a thread as anyone would be at this point, but he does the right thing by crying out to the Lord with his brother. God instructs them to gather the elders and the people together at the rock where Moses will speak to it so that water will gush out. Previously, they have struck a rock with the same staff that was used in the parting of the Red Sea and also thrown a branch into bitter water to make it sweet. This is an even more daring act in that Moses is asked to merely speak to the rock without the staff and wait for the waters to run. Imagine his embarrassment if the water doesn’t come out. God does even tell him what to say. Instead of following the Lord’s instructions, Moses barks at the people and then strikes the rock in anger causing the waters to flow. God is so displeased with this that he ordains that Moses will never enter the promised land. This often strikes people as a ridiculously harsh act of discipline considering all that Moses has suffered for these people. The fact is that this is a multi-layered act of disobedience. First of all, he ignores God’s instructions and does what he thinks will work instead. Second, he is showing a lack of faith by the staff in familiar fashion as if God is not really the one who is performing the miracle. Third, he his misrepresenting God’s heart in this situation. God does not say anything to Moses about rebuking the people in anger, but tells him to speak to the rock which is a quiet, gentle act. God is merciful and compassionate to the people even those they deserve to be blasted, but Moses makes this into a show about himself that belittles God in every way. God shows that no one is above discipline, not even the leaders of the camp. Aaron gets the worst of this. This is Moses’ first major recorded offense while Aaron has stirred rebellion alongside Miriam, given people the calf to worship, and now participated in this childish act. God then tells the people to gather to the mountain as Aaron’s robes are removed and given to this son....because Aaron is going to die. What a soul-shaking scene. Imagine if you got an email stating that your church is going to have an impromptu meeting to see your pastor off as he drops dead in front of everyone. Aaron has become more of a liability at this point and God chooses to make an example of him. Moses is banned from the promised land and Aaron is struck down. Unsurprisingly, the New Testament gives us some greater insight into these passages. A great question for us to ask ourselves when reading the OT is “Where do I see Christ?” In this case, look to 1 Corinthians 10:1-4. Paul refers to water they drank as a “spiritual drink” and the rock as “Christ.” What? This always seemed  like a baffling exaggeration, but the explanation is found in Psalm 78:15-16.  Christ is the rock because he is everlasting and unchanging, but he is also the rock that splits open to pour out new life upon his people even in a place where living water is impossible. This is why the sins of Aaron and Moses are so great. We should never misrepresent God or alter his image for ourselves or for others. God is both wrath and mercy, judgment and compassion. He is perfect in every way and the best way to dwell in his holiness is by living in obedience without altering his commands.

Scott HowardComment