The Test of Bitter Water

By: Chris Johnson

With the closing lines of “The Song of Moses” still echoing in our ears, we come to these words in verse 23 of Exodus 15: “When they came to Marah, they could not drink the water of Marah because it was bitter; therefore it was named Marah. And the people grumbled against Moses, saying, ‘What shall we drink?’ And he cried to the LORD, and the LORD showed him a log, and he threw it into the water, and the water became sweet.

“There the LORD made for them a statute and a rule, and there he tested them, saying, ‘If you will diligently listen to the voice of the LORD your God, and do that which is right in his eyes, and give ear to his commandments and keep all his statutes, I will put none of the diseases on you that I put on the Egyptians, for I am the LORD, your healer.’

“Then they came to Elim, where there were twelve springs of water and seventy palm trees, and they encamped there by the water.”

Believe it or not, in this odd account is a beautiful depiction of the meaning of Christmas.

First off, we can see that it seems that the “bitter water” was somehow related to diseases they were experiencing AND the diseases were somehow related to their faithfulness to God. It even says that the waters of Marah were a “test.”

Perhaps Numbers 5:12-31 can shed a little bit of light. Here we have another obscure passage, again having to do with “bitter water.” This time, the scripture has to do with testing the faithfulness of a wife. And though our scientific minds may balk at the instructions found there, this is the Word of the Lord and we must rest in the knowledge that it fulfills its purpose. Here is the gist of the passage from verse 24: the priest “shall make the woman drink the water of bitterness that brings the curse, and the water that brings the curse shall enter into her and cause bitter pain… vs 28 …but if the woman has not defiled herself and is clean, then she shall be free and shall conceive children.

Again, we have a relation of bitter water, testing for faithfulness, and pain/disease.

I think the parallels are clear. God has only just begun His relationship with the people of Israel when they come to the waters of Marah in the wilderness. While He has made promises to their forefathers, they have not yet entered into the covenant on Sinai, but here, already, he is testing their faithfulness. And they cannot drink, because the bitter water (apparently) causes sickness. Already, with the praise of God in Moses’ song sprung fresh from their lips, they have failed the test of faithfulness.

God performs the same test later, in Exodus 32, when Moses goes up to the mountain to receive the Ten Commandments and the people show their faithlessness by asking Aaron to create the golden calf. When he sees the unfaithfulness of Israel, Moses grinds up the calf into powder, puts it in the people’s water and forces them to drink it. Verse 35 says, “Then the Lord sent a plague on the people, because they made the calf, the one that Aaron made.”

So, Israel was unfaithful; that’s not news to those who’ve read the Old Testament. God commonly refers to them as “stiff-necked.” Much later, throughout the prophets, and most poignantly Hosea, He again picks up the theme of Israel as a harlot bride.

God had taught them at the waters of Marah: “If you will diligently listen to the voice of the LORD your God, and do that which is right in his eyes, and give ear to his commandments and keep all his statutes, I will put none of the diseases on you that I put on the Egyptians, for I am the LORD, your healer.”

But as the verse which has been called the theme verse of Judges says of the days after Israel had taken possession of the Promised Land: “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes…” (17:6)

So it’s a little surprising when we come to the book of Ruth, which introduces itself as taking place “In the days when the judges ruled,” and hear straight away of a man named Elimelech, which has been translated “God is King.” The happily-named Elimelech is married to Naomi, which means “pleasantness.” But “God is King” and “Pleasantness” have two sons, “Sickness” and “Weakness,” or as they’d probably prefer to be called, Mahlon and Chillion. And this family is leaving Israel, because there is a famine in the land.

I think it’s worth flipping back a few pages here to Leviticus 18:28 which reads: “you shall keep my statutes and my rules and do none of these abominations, either the native or the stranger who sojourns among you (for the people of the land, who were before you, did all of these abominations, so that the land became unclean), lest the land vomit you out when you make it unclean, as it vomited out the nation that was before you.”

Ruth is an incredible story, but it’s also amazing in how it relates to the rest of God’s Word. Ruth has so many little reminders of other portions of scripture and the more you dig at the similarities, the more obvious it is that the Biblical writings were guided by One Great Mind. In Ruth, we see a family being “vomited out” of the land, which is another proof of Israel’s unfaithfulness.

You know the story from here: Elimilech dies, Mahlon and Chillion take Moabite wives and then die themselves, leaving the three widows vulnerable. Naomi and Ruth return to Bethlehem from Moab, Boaz fulfills the role of the kinsman redeemer, and they all live happily ever after.

But what does Ruth’s story have to do with the test of the bitter water and what does it have to do with Christmas? Well, the name of that body of water was Marah, while you may remember that Naomi, in her years of bitterness, demands that others call her Mara, a variation of the same name.

The waters of Marah are made sweet when Moses throws in a branch, or, as some translations say, a “tree.” What is it that makes Mara become Naomi or “pleasant” again? When Ruth lays baby Obed in her arms. Obed, the father of Jesse, the father of King David, the ancestor of Jesus. Isaiah 11:1, in the prophesy written of Christ, says, “A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.” That which is bitter is made pleasant, when the tree of Jesse is given.

And remember what the bitter water revealed! The unfaithfulness of the bride, yet when Christ is applied to the test of fidelity, that which the water would have revealed as unfaithful and defiled is seen as pure, life giving, and pleasant.

There’s one more amazing way these two stories are related: after the testing at Marah, Israel camps at Elim, where there is plenty of shade and water. Elim is translated by some as “out from God.”Elim has the same root as Elimelech, which we’ve already seen, means “God is King,” and that name carries with it the connotation of Allammalech, which is pronounced the same way and means “Oak of a King.”

Just in the way these names are related, I think, we have the root of the whole story: The tree of kingship, grown out from God.

Christ has come to make the bitter, sweet. He has come to cover our unfaithfulness. He comes to make His blessings flow, far as the curse is found.

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May the Lord bless you and may you have a very Merry Christmas!

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