15:22 1 Then Moses led Israel to journey 2 away from the Red Sea. They went out to the Desert of Shur, walked for three days 3 into the desert, and found no water. 15:23 Then they came to Marah, 4 but they were not able to drink 5 the waters of Marah, because 6 they were bitter. 7 (That is 8 why its name was 9 Marah.)
15:24 So the people murmured 10 against Moses, saying, “What can 11 we drink?” 15:25 He cried out to the Lord, and the Lord showed him 12 a tree. 13 When Moses 14 threw it into the water, the water became safe to drink. There the Lord 15 made for them 16 a binding ordinance, 17 and there he tested 18 them.
1 sn The first event of the Israelites’ desert experience is a failure, for they murmur against Yahweh and are given a stern warning – and the provision of sweet water. The event teaches that God is able to turn bitter water into sweet water for his people, and he promises to do such things if they obey. He can provide for them in the desert – he did not bring them into the desert to let them die. But there is a deeper level to this story – the healing of the water is incidental to the healing of the people, their lack of trust. The passage is arranged in a neat chiasm, starting with a journey (A), ending with the culmination of the journey (A'); developing to bitter water (B), resolving to sweet water (B'); complaints by the people (C), leading to to the instructions for the people (C'); and the central turning point is the wonder miracle (D).
2 tn The verb form is unusual; the normal expression is with the Qal, which expresses that they journeyed. But here the Hiphil is used to underscore that Moses caused them to journey – and he is following God. So the point is that God was leading Israel to the bitter water.
3 sn The mention that they travelled for three days into the desert is deliberately intended to recall Moses’ demand that they go three days into the wilderness to worship. Here, three days in, they find bitter water and complain – not worship.
4 sn The Hebrew word “Marah” means “bitter.” This motif will be repeated four times in this passage to mark the central problem. Earlier in the book the word had been used for the “bitter herbs” in the Passover, recalling the bitter labor in bondage. So there may be a double reference here – to the bitter waters and to Egypt itself – God can deliver from either.
5 tn The infinitive construct here provides the direct object for the verb “to be able,” answering the question of what they were not able to do.
6 tn The causal clause here provides the reason for their being unable to drink the water, as well as a clear motivation for the name.
7 sn Many scholars have attempted to explain these things with natural phenomena. Here Marah is identified with Ain Hawarah. It is said that the waters of this well are notoriously salty and brackish; Robinson said it was six to eight feet in diameter and the water about two feet deep; the water is unpleasant, salty, and somewhat bitter. As a result the Arabs say it is the worst tasting water in the area (W. C. Kaiser, Jr., “Exodus,” EBC 2:398). But that would not be a sufficient amount of water for the number of Israelites in the first place, and in the second, they could not drink it at all. But third, how did Moses change it?
8 tn The עַל־כֵּן (’al-ken) formula in the Pentateuch serves to explain to the reader the reason for the way things were. It does not necessarily mean here that Israel named the place – but they certainly could have.
9 tn Heb “one called its name,” the expression can be translated as a passive verb if the subject is not expressed.
10 tn The verb וַיִּלֹנוּ (vayyillonu) from לוּן (lun) is a much stronger word than “to grumble” or “to complain.” It is used almost exclusively in the wilderness wandering stories, to describe the rebellion of the Israelites against God (see also Ps 59:14-15). They were not merely complaining – they were questioning God’s abilities and motives. The action is something like a parliamentary vote of no confidence.
11 tn The imperfect tense here should be given a potential nuance: “What can we drink?” since the previous verse reports that they were not able to drink the water.
sn It is likely that Moses used words very much like this when he prayed. The difference seems to lie in the prepositions – he cried “to” Yahweh, but the people murmured “against” Moses.
12 tn The verb is וַיּוֹרֵהוּ (vayyorehu, “and he showed him”). It is the Hiphil preterite from יָרָה (yarah), which has a basic meaning of “to point, show, direct.” It then came to mean “to teach”; it is the verb behind the noun “Law” (תּוֹרָה, torah).
sn U. Cassuto notes that here is the clue to the direction of the narrative: Israel needed God’s instruction, the Law, if they were going to enjoy his provisions (Exodus, 184).
13 tn Or “a [piece of] wood” (cf. NAB, NIV, NRSV, TEV, CEV); NLT “a branch.”
sn S. R. Driver (Exodus, 143) follows some local legends in identifying this tree as one that is supposed to have – even to this day – the properties necessary for making bitter water sweet. B. Jacob (Exodus, 436) reports that no such tree has ever been found, but then he adds that this does not mean there was not such a bush in the earlier days. He believes that here God used a natural means (“showed, instructed”) to sweeten the water. He quotes Ben Sira as saying God had created these things with healing properties in them.
14 tn Heb “he”; the referent (Moses) has been specified in the translation for clarity.
15 tn Heb “there he”; the referent (the Lord) is supplied for clarity.
16 tn Heb “for him” (referring to Israel as a whole).
17 tn This translation interprets the two nouns as a hendiadys: “a statute and an ordinance” becomes “a binding ordinance.”
18 tn The verb נִסָּהוּ (nissahu, “and he tested him [them]”) is from the root נָסָה (nasah). The use of this word in the Bible indicates that there is question, doubt, or uncertainty about the object being tested.
sn The whole episode was a test from God. He led them there through Moses and let them go hungry and thirsty. He wanted to see how great their faith was.