Bitterness Into Sweetness

13-6 Miners Beach River 3

And when they came to Marah, they could not drink the waters of Marah, for they were bitter[1]; therefore it was named Marah. So the people grumbled at Moses, saying, “What shall we drink?” Then he cried out to the LORD, and the LORD showed him a tree; and he threw it into the waters, and the waters became sweet. (Exodus 15:23-25)

Moses had just led the Israelites out of Egypt and across the Red Sea that God parted for them.  All the women had taken up timbrels[2] and followed Miriam[3] dancing and celebrating, exalting God for rescuing them from the Army of the Pharaoh. From there, Moses began to lead the newly freed nation into the wilderness.

They had wandered only three days, but it was three days without water. They found water at Marah, but it was too bitter to drink. So, the people began to get restless and “grumbled[4]” to Moses. This is only the beginning of the grumbling, a theme that would continue throughout the years wandering in the wilderness. Even after God did miraculous things, like part the Red Sea and rescue them from certain capture and calamity, the people were quick to fall back to the habit of complaining.

Moses, however, turned to God “cried out[5]” to Him. There was urgency and earnestness in Moses’ petition to God, and God responded by showing him a tree[6]. It may have been simply a branch or piece of wood. We do not know, but imagine what Moses was thinking:

“Could God really by telling me to look at that branch? Why?! What does that branch have to do with anything? We need water!”

Moses was a man of faith. He had experienced God at the burning bush. He had learned to listen to God when He spoke, no matter how crazy it seemed. God had not let him down. Though he was full of self-doubt and insecurity about himself, God was faithful.

A branch might have made sense if they needed fire. That would have been obvious. Moses did not need God to show him a branch if fire was what they needed. But Moses had learned to listen for and hear the God speak. If God was showing him the branch, it must have something to do with what they needed and what Moses and cried out for.

Moses knew God’s nature: that He responded with ready help when help was needed. Since God showed him the branch, Moses took hold and cast it into the water. Moses acted in faith on what God was showing him, “and the waters became sweet[7]” and pleasant to drink.

When the people asked, “What shall we drink[8]?” they were not simply asking for “right now”. They were asking a deeper, farther reaching question: Who will quench our thirst now and into the future? Who will take care of us out here in the wilderness? How will we survive?

The answer, clearly, is God. As Jesus tells us, God can number the hairs on our heads. He knows what we need. We do not need to be worried; we need to trust and rely upon what we know of God’s character.

There is something else going on with this story involving Miriam, the sister of Moses and Aaron. Ironically, the root word for her name is “bitterness”. Miriam was a prophetess (leader) in her own right. She led the celebration after the parting of the Red Sea, but she would later become jealous of Moses and question his authority. (Num. 12)

She apparently became embittered by the fact that God was using her little brother, the one she helped save from the Pharaoh’s decree, and not her or Aaron. Moses, who got to live like a king in the Pharaoh’s own house, then killed a man and was exiled. No doubt she wondering why Moses, of all people, should get all the glory.

Trusting in God means not only letting go of worry and the desire to complain; it means letting go of selfish ambition and jealousy towards others. Trusting God means finding contentment in our present circumstances and lot in life. It means learning, like Paul did, to become content in whatever circumstances I am. (Phil. 4:11)

When we are able to grasp on to these things by faith, God turns bitterness into sweetness.


[1] 4843/Mar or Marah – bitter or bitterness. It can also mean discontented, embittered, bitterness (n the figurative sense) or greatly distressed. Interestingly, it can also mean fierce.

[2] 8596/Toph – a drum, percussion instrument that came to be used in Temple worship. They ranged in size.

[3] Miriam was the older sister of Aaron and Moses. Interestingly, her name is from a family of words having a root form that suggests bitterness. Miriam was about 12 when Moses was born and played a role in protecting him from the Pharoah’s decree for all male babies to be killed. She was a prophetess, and therefore  leader. She, however, had differences with her brother, Moses who God chose to lead his people out of bondage. She influenced Aaron to speak against Moses and his leadership. (“Has God indeed only spoken by Moses? Has He not spoken also by us?” Num. 12:1) Miriam and Aaron became jealous of God’s anointed one, and Miriam was smitten with leprosy. (Num. 12:12) Miriam had great influence, but she wanted the power given to Moses. She desired a higher place of honor than God gave her, and she suffered for giving in to that temptation. (See Bible Gateway)

[4] 3885b/lûn – to murmur, complain. Complaining is a grave mistake when it relates to faulting God when He authorizes difficult events in our lives.  This murmuring demotivates and brings loss of inheritance from ascribing something unworthy to God.

[5] 6817/āʽa – literally, make loud sounds which resemble a clapping thunderbolt or bellowing bull (cf. Semitic cognates) – summoning the right person who has authority to deliver; used of crying (shouting) aloud for God’s help; an urgent cry of distress, summoning. This root conveys “more than a physical cry; it is an anguished petition such as with repentance” (Nigel Turner, Christian Words, 345).

[6] 6086/עֵץ (“ets”) – from an unused word; tree, trees, wood.

[7] 4985/Mathoq –  a prim. root; to become or be sweet or pleasant.

[8] The imperfect Hebrew form (imperfect tense) depicts action as ongoing (“unfinished”) that either: goes on in the present, will happen in the future, or repeatedly happened in the past.  The context shows which time frame applies, or when more than one applies simultaneously.


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