COVID-19 has significantly changed life as we knew it and forced us on a journey. Like the children of Israel, we must go forward by faith, not knowing exactly where we’re going. But unlike them, we cannot and should not allow unpleasant experiences to retard our progress toward our Promised Land. Let’s press on by drawing lessons from an event in the journey of ancient Israel tucked away in Exodus 15:22-27.
In this short episode of their very long journey, the whole camp of Israel, led by Moses, walked from the Red Sea into the wilderness of Shur. There they got a glimpse into the future. And what a glimpse it was: for Shur was actually a place full of serpents and scorpions, a place of drought and the shadow of death. Shur, which also means “wall,” was an uninhabited wasteland the Egyptians used as a border fortress. It became a great barrier between the Israelites and their Land of Promise.
Angry and bitter as they left the pleasant shores of the Red Sea, they trekked through the parched heat of the desert for three long days and found no water (verse 22). Their fresh water from the Red Sea springs had evaporated and their vessels were empty. Metaphorically, they themselves were drained and empty, which was demonstrated by their complaining and criticism of Moses.
Note that the text does not say “there was no water,” but rather “they found no water.” Water may have been present, even in the desert, if only they had had the faith, strength, and desire to look for it. And although they couldn’t find water, Moses kept them moving, walking, seeking, hoping to find water. And they did when they came to an oasis called Marah.
Israel’s journey didn’t end at Marah; God had already provided a way of escape to Elim.
Imagine their relief: water in Marah. But their sweet joy quickly turned to bitter sadness when they couldn’t drink the desperately desired liquid. Marah means “bitter,” and so was the water. It increased their thirst rather than quenched it.
How utterly ironic—to finally chance upon a seeming source of survival, only to find the water undrinkable! Even worse, to later learn that God had led them there to test them (verse 25). That which they thought would enable them to survive the desert turned out to be a deterrent. Their disillusionment that they might die in the desert increased, making them even more bitter than the waters of Marah.
Bitterness caused God’s people to blame Moses for their dilemma. But he didn’t defend himself or retaliate against them. Instead, he turned to God and, get this, cried out to the Lord. The Lord showed Moses a piece of wood. Moses threw it into the waters, and the waters became sweet (verse 26).
Israel’s journey didn’t end at Marah. Unbeknownst to them, God had already provided a way of escape to Elim, just a few miles away, where 12 springs of fresh water and 70 palm trees waited for them (verse 27). They learned, as we must, that what they lacked was faith and strength of conviction because Elim, which echoes the word alim, meaning “strong or powerful,” by God’s marvelous grace, was always nearby and waiting to sustain them, as it also is for us.
Hyveth Williams is a professor at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University.