Then Moses led Israel from the Red Sea, and they went out into the wilderness of Shur; and they went three days in the wilderness and found no water. And when they came to Marah, they could not drink the waters of Marah, for they were bitter; therefore it was named Marah. So the people grumbled at Moses, saying, “What shall we drink?”
This short passage reminds me of “the morning after the big event” – be it graduation, the winning of a great competition, your wedding, or the delivery of a major speech and/or the winning of an election. The celebration song has been sung, Miriam has led the women in the playing of the tambourines and in dancing, and now it is time to move away from the Red Sea, where the “big event” for the Israelites took place. It is time to get on with the journey before them. God had performed a miracle. He had finally freed them from their enemies. They were free. Now comes, as Paul Harvey the famous newscaster used to say, “the rest of the story”.
Life does not usually end on a mountaintop or a high of any kind. Less than an a day ago, Prince Harry of England and three teams of servicemen and women reached their prized destination of the South Pole. According to one news network, “The teams had to trek more than 200 miles (322 kilometers) across the sparse continent, in temperatures as low as -35 degrees Celsius (-31 Fahrenheit).” That’s quite an accomplishment. But they will soon be trekking back to the world they have to live in every day. There is more to do and more to accomplish. And so it was with the children of Israel. Replaying in slow motion the “drowning of the Egyptians” in their minds as they remained by the Red Sea may have brought them great satisfaction, but ultimately they had to move on. They had not yet reached Canaan.
And so it with us. No matter what we accomplished yesterday, life must move on today, and tomorrow. Recently one of my daughters and I attended a “holiday season reception” at the invitation of some colleagues of ours. As we were leaving and getting on the elevator to go down, a former Prime Minister of Canada who also attended the same event, got on with us – along with his ‘walker’ on which he greatly depended. I remember him in his heyday but now the man was old and frail and could not walk or stand up without mechanical assistance. Old age had not, in my opinion, been his friend. Now he still had to go on. He had to manage as best he could. And from time to time, he is still useful to those aspiring to his kind of achievements who may seek his opinion.
But here is the interesting thing. As it was for the Israelites, the way “onward” to our Canaan, and often after a “Red Sea” experience, is usually through a “wilderness” – a desert that presents us with great challenges in life.
The text says Moses led the Israelites to the wilderness of Shur. Now Shur was a place southwest of Palestine on the eastern border or within the border of Egypt. But what was interesting was the meaning of the word itself. Shur means “wall”. I am in the process of reading a book, by a friend of mine, David S. Payne, called Hitting the Wall: Finding Perspective When Life Stops Working (Word Alive Press, 2010). In it, he describes how sooner or later we all “hit a wall”. It is a particularly helpful book after your life has been sideswiped by a calamity. And Shur is the place that the Israelites start hitting their “wall”. In and around Shur, they roam for three days without finding water. Depending on how well they could move, this could mean up to a distance of sixty miles. Let’s say it was only half of that as there were no roads to speak of. Can you imagine what it would be like to search, on foot no less, for water for a distance of thirty miles from where you live now?
And it was water they needed. The very thing they had ample of in Egypt for most of their lives, they had none of as they began what was to be forty years in the wilderness. Do you think you would at least start “thinking” about complaining to Moses, if not to God Himself?
Wait; there was hope. They came to a ‘no name’ place where they indeed did find water. But alas, their hopes were shattered when they discovered that the waters they found there were bitter and impossible to swallow. And so they named the place Marah, which literally is translated to mean “bitter”.
Sometimes when we are in our wilderness, we look for ‘water’ in the wrong places. We find it in our modern-day Marahs – sex, drugs, alcohol, gambling, careers, and so on. Only to find they are all bitter in the end. And we are once again deflated, now thrown against another wall – this one, a wall of hopelessness, fear, and sometimes very appropriately so, bitterness. If we were not grumbling in our Shur, we are certainly grumbling and complaining in our Marah.
In our Exodus passage at this point in the story, the Israelites start grumbling at their leader Moses. We often do the same thing. When our family hits the wall we blame our spouse. When our work hits the wall we blame the CEO who should have known better. When our own business hits the wall we blame the customers for not being loyal. When our faith hits the wall, we blame the hypocrites in the church. And we want them all to answer the question the Israelites asked, “What shall we drink?” or put it another way, “Fix it, Moses. Fix it, wife/husband. Fix it, boss. Come back customers. Confess your sins you hypocrites.”
What are we missing here? What were the Israelites missing? They were, and we are, often turning to ‘man’, and sometimes even ourselves, to fix our problems. What happened to the assurances of our song that we were singing just days earlier? What happened to God being highly exalted, His being our strength, our song, my salvation, a warrior, majestic in power and holiness, awesome in praises, working wonders, reigning forever and ever? (Exodus 15:1-18) Can we assume He too took His bow after His performing a miracle and then exited the stage, leaving His people to fend for themselves in the desert? Absolutely not. Well, what do we do?
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