CDPCKL · The First Test In the Wilderness: Thirst (Exodus 15:22-27)

The First Test In the Wilderness: Thirst (Exodus 15:22-27)

Welcome to Part 3 of Exodus! 

If you go to our website, you’ll see that we gave Part 1 of Exodus the title “Paradise Lost”, because it told the story of how the twelve sons of Israel moved to Egypt to escape from a famine — along with all 70 of their family members — only to find themselves enslaved there. Then Part 1 continued that story by showing how God called and prepared a messiah named Moses to save Israel from slavery. 

Then we came to Part 2, which we entitled ”The Crossing”, because Part 2 is all about how God’s messiah Moses went to Egypt, conducted a war against all the gods of that empire, and in the end led God’s people across the sea to new life in the wilderness on the other side. 

And last week, as we saw how Moses finished up Part 2 with a great song of victory beside the sea, we realized that the story of the first 15 chapters of Exodus actually sets the pattern for the whole history of the earth: from Adam’s loss of Paradise in the beginning, through the many long centuries of slavery and abuse, the revealing of God’s Messiah, the mighty acts of God’s final judgement upon the nations, and finishing with the death and resurrection of God’s gathered people at the end of the age. We realized that the Song Beside the Sea is a preview of us in the moments just after the end of the world, when we find ourselves completely restored and alive on the shores of a new creation. 

We also realized that the first 15 chapters of Exodus also contain the entire story of the four gospels of the New Testament — Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. The plot points are the same: just as Moses was symbolically baptized in the Nile river at the beginning of his ministry in Egypt, and then symbolically passed through the sea of death — along with all God’s people — at the end of his ministry in Egypt, so also Jesus was symbolically baptized in the Jordan river at the beginning of his ministry on earth, and then symbolically passed through the waters of death — along with all God’s people — at the end of his ministry on earth. Which means we could read the rest of Exodus now as a preview of the Book of Acts in the New Testament. 

But now, as we start into Exodus, Part 3 today, I want to go back one more time and show how the Book of Exodus also contains a third literary pattern, and this third pattern is the one we are going to be following — for the most part — for the rest of the book. 

See, we’ve already discussed how the first 15 chapters of Exodus contain the history of the world from the birth and fall of mankind all the way to the resurrection of mankind at the end — that is the super zoomed-out overview, we could say. 

When we zoom in a little closer, then we see that the first 15 chapters also contain the more detailed pattern of Jesus’ earthly ministry from his birth to his resurrection. 

But if we zoom in now for a third time, then we realize that the first 15 chapters of Exodus also contain the pattern of the first little bit of Jesus’ ministry, from his birth to his baptism by John, and the choosing of his first disciples. 

Let me highlight the relevant points: 

Moses was born, and then symbolically baptized — set apart for God — in his infancy. To save his life, God made sure he was taken into the heart of Egypt, where he grew up educated in all the wisdom of the Egyptians and was powerful in speech and action. Then, when he became an adult, he was symbolically baptized again when he passed through the waters of the sea, which confirmed his calling as Israel’s messiah. And on the other side of the sea he found himself there with a collection of people who were destined to follow him: the nation of Israel. 

In the same way, according to the gospel writers, Jesus was born, and then symbolically baptized — circumcised — in his infancy. Then, Matthew tells us, to save his life, God made sure Jesus was taken into the heart of Egypt. And Luke tells us that Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man. And when he was an adult, he was symbolically baptized again — anointed by John — which confirmed his calling as God’s Messiah. And shortly after that Jesus began to accumulate a collection of people who were destined to follow him: his disciples. 

And the reason I am telling you this is not to confuse you. The reason I am telling you this is so you can know that we are not going to be reading the rest of Exodus as if it is a preview of the Book of Acts; rather we are going to read it as a continuation of The Gospel According to St. Moses. As we go we are going to see how the rest of the Book of Exodus — from the Red Sea crossing through to the moment when the tabernacle is completed — also previews the rest of Jesus’ ministry on earth, from his baptism by John through to the moment when the Holy Spirit descends to earth and Jesus’ Church is born. 

In other words, over the coming months, as Exodus tells us the story of the early days of Israel’s journey of faith, we are going to take every opportunity we can to connect the events and themes of Exodus to events and themes in Jesus’ life, during the early days of his disciples’ journey of faith. 


Then let the journey begin: Moses and his people have taken the time to stand and sing for joy over their salvation from the army of Egypt. The people have very definitively decided that they believe in Moses’ name, they trust that Moses really is God’s messiah for them, and they have voted with their feet. They have followed him through the depths of the sea and survived; they are ready now to follow him anywhere! 

So [22] then Moses led Israel from the Red Sea and they went into the Desert of Shur. 

Now, the people of Israel already have a bit of a history with the Desert of Shur. Back in Genesis, when their ancestor Abraham was trying desperately to have a son, he took his wife’s Egyptian serving maid, named Hagar, as his concubine. She got pregnant. She began to despise Abraham’s first wife, Sarah. Sarah responded by abusing Hagar until Hagar ran away. And Genesis tells us that the Angel of the Lord found Hagar near a spring in the desert; it was the spring that is beside the road to Shur. 

Basically, Hagar the Egyptian maidservant was trying to find her way home to Egypt; she was travelling on the same road that the Israelites are now on, but in the opposite direction. 

And this ancient story about Hagar would have offered two immediate lessons to the Israelites: first, there is water along this road if you travel far enough. Second, the Angel of the Lord has met people along this road before. 

In fact, he met an Egyptian maidservant along this road, a foreign woman who was not really central to God’s larger plan. More than this, God revealed himself to this foreign woman by using his name “The LORD” — a name that he had only used once before when he introduced himself to Abraham. And if God was willing to reveal himself on this road to such an unimportant individual in the past, then the Israelites could be confident that he would do even more for them, since their nation is officially God’s first-born son, and the Angel of the Lord is already right there, leading them in the form of a pillar of fire and smoke! 

So for three days they traveled in the desert without finding water. 

But that’s okay: they know from history that there is water somewhere along here! 

But [23] when they came to Marah, they could not drink its water because it was bitter. (That is why the place is called Marah.) 

So of course the people said, “Nemind, it’s okay la. The Angel of the Lord will provide water for us — just like he once provided water for Hagar when she was lost in the desert!” They responded in faith. 

…no, they didn’t, did they. Instead: 

[24] The people grumbled against Moses, saying, “What are we to drink?” 

[25] Then Moses turned around and cried out to the Lord, and the Lord showed him a piece of wood 

— literally, in the original Hebrew language, God showed him a tree of some kind. 

He threw it into the water, and the water became fit to drink. 

So…that’s pretty gracious of God, isn’t it? The people don’t ask for water, they don’t pray in faith. They grumble instead like ungrateful children. But God does not lose his temper and wack them. Instead, he provides what they need! 

So that is a good thing to learn about the God of Israel: he is very patient and kind with his people, even when they misbehave. 

But that is not actually the end of the episode. Moses goes on to say this: 

There the Lord issued a ruling and instruction for them and put them to the test. [26] He said, “If you listen carefully to the Lord your God and do what is right in his eyes, if you pay attention to his commands and keep all his decrees, I will not bring on you any of the diseases I brought on the Egyptians, for I am the Lord, who heals you.” 

Okay. What just happened here? 

Well, we could put it like this: now that the first crisis has been resolved, God sits down with his kids and he says, “Listen, boys and girls, gather around: we need to talk about what just happened. 

“So, look: that was actually a test, the first of a series of exams that I have lined up for you. And that was actually the easiest one — since you should have known from your own history that I have given people good water to drink in this desert before. Suffice it to say: you failed this exam, and you will have to re-sit for it sometime in the next few weeks. 

“But before that, I do want to let you know explicitly what lesson I expect you to learn from this failure. Okay? This is the lesson: If you listen carefully to me, and do what is right in my eyes, if you pay attention to my commands and keep all my decrees, I will not bring on you any of the diseases I brought on the Egyptians, for I am the Lord, who heals you.” 

Okay. So that was basically a family meeting: a debrief, and a lesson. 

But now we are all wondering: what does this lesson mean? What is the connection between God’s words here and the exam they just failed? 

Well, in short, God is pointing out that he did not just wack them right away, though he could have. It is like he is saying, “Did you notice how I provided water for you even though you behaved in a childish, unbelieving, poisonous kind of way? And did you notice how I took poisonous water and ‘healed’ it so that it could ‘heal’ you of your poisonous behaviour? Now, do you know why I did that? Because I am the LORD, who heals you.” 

And if you have been reading with us through the Book of Exodus so far, then you know that this name — The LORD — is a name that is saturated with grace. When God says here “I am the Lord, who heals you,” he is saying, “I am the Covenant-Keeping God who is determined to make sure you grow up and become better than the exam-failing children you are now. I am the Covenant-Keeping God who remains faithful to you even when you do not remain faithful to me. 

“But,” God is saying, “this test — and your failure — is also designed to make you want to learn to remain faithful to me! You feel pretty rotten right now, you want to do better next time. So I just letting you know that, if you want to do better next time you have got to start practicing now, while you are small, while the tests are easy, while we are just starting out together. In the weeks to come I am going to be giving you more detail about how I want you to obey me. But for now all I want you to remember is this simple lesson: follow me. Stick close to me. Listen carefully to my voice. Pay attention to my Angel that is leading you. Do not wander away on your own into the wilderness. If you can remember these simple instructions, then I will not bring on you any of the diseases I brought on the Egyptians, you will never have to experience the death and judgement the Egyptians experienced.” 

So, in summary, God is telling his people what they can expect from him: his commitment to their healing. And God is telling his people what he expects in return: their commitment to stay close to his healing. “I am the Covenant-Keeping Lord, who heals you,” he says. “Therefore, become my covenant-keeping people by learning to trust in my healing.” 

And then, as if to prove that he really is trustworthy, the Angel of the Lord moves them on, and: 

[27] Then they came to Elim, where there were twelve springs and seventy palm trees, and they camped there near the water. 

Now, that’s nice, of course. 

But if you were here for our very first sermon in the Book of Exodus, then you already know that these numbers twelve and seventy are not just numbers, they also carry a symbolic meaning that is greater than the surface meaning. You will remember, from that very first sermon, that the twelve sons of Israel, when they first moved to Egypt, moved there with 70 family members. And back then, in that first sermon, we realized that the 70 family members were symbolically connected to the 70 nations of the earth that were listed early on in Genesis. And you know that 70 is a symbolic number that means ”all” — the list of “70” nations symbolizes “all” the nations. And so we realized, even in the first sermon of Exodus, that the fall of the nation of Israel into slavery was a symbol for the way all nations on earth have fallen into slavery. 

And if you also recall, when Israel left Egypt and passed through the sea just now, many other people from many other nations went up with them — so by this point in Exodus, the 70 family members of Israel have now expanded to contain people from many different nations. So we are also supposed to realize that the rise of the nation of Israel into new life is also a symbol for the way all nations on earth will one day rise. 

The fall of Israel into slavery symbolized how all nations have fallen into slavery. The resurrection of Israel out of slavery symbolizes the resurrection of people from all nations. 

And so now, what do we have here? An oasis in the desert where there are twelve springs and seventy palm trees. What does this mean? It means there is enough water for each one of the twelve tribes of Israel, and there are enough palm trees to shade and feed all the “70” family members of Israel, and their descendants, and the many other people who have joined them — symbolically, there are enough palm trees here to shade and feed all the “70” nations on earth. 

But not just to shade, not just to feed. Going back a few verses here, what was it that Moses threw into the water? It was some kind of tree, some kind of wood that “healed” a little bit of water so that it could give life to God’s people. Well, here we find that concept expanded to 70 trees ”healing” an abundance of sweet, life-giving water, enough — symbolically — to heal all the nations on earth. 

In other words, friends, this oasis of Elim is a physical foretaste of paradise for the people of Israel. This is a taste of the end, a taste of their destination, long before they actually arrive — and, Moses is hinting, this is also a spiritual promise that one day people from all nations will be healed by the trees of paradise. 


And what can we say in response, except: what kind of amazing God is this? What kind of Father is this, who — even when his children absolutely bomb their first exam — just goes ahead and gives them abundant life anyway? 

There is simply no other Father God like this, who heals his people even when they do not deserve it. 

So at this point we could ask a number of important questions, like: how can we make sure that Moses’ God becomes our God? I don’t know how it is for you, but in my experience every other kind of god or government out there just wacks you right away if you grumble, or refuses to provide water until you ask properly, as some kind of malicious teaching moment. But Moses’ God is clearly not like that! So — how can we make sure to become the children of this healing God, so we can also receive this amazing grace? 

Another important question to ask might be this: if we do become his children, how can we apply our Father’s particular lesson here to our lives? 

Let’s start with the first question: how can we make sure that Moses’ God becomes our God, that we are his children? 

Well, the people of Israel became God’s children by following their messiah Moses out of slavery, through the wilderness, into paradise. So is there a messiah for us to follow? 

Moses says yes. Later on he wrote about a final Messiah who would come after him and lead people from all nations out of slavery into paradise. Moses described this final Messiah through explicit prophecies and through the implicit patterns of his own life. And Moses said, “When that Messiah comes, you must listen to him. You must follow him.” 

Now, Jesus of Nazareth is the only person in history who matches all those prophecies and patterns. No one else has — and no one else will, because the conditions of the world have changed and it is actually impossible for any human being at this point to fulfill all the requirements Moses described. Jesus Christ is our Messiah, the Messiah Moses wanted us to listen to and follow. 

Okay. But how? Jesus has not lived on this earth for almost 2000 years. What does it mean for us to listen to him and follow him so that Moses’ healing God can become our God? 

Well, let’s look for an answer in scripture. 

Earlier I suggested that this part of Exodus, which tells us about the early days of Israel’s journey with Moses, can be seen as a preview of the early days of the disciples’ journey with Jesus. So what we are going to do now is scan forward and search the New Testament gospels for a passage that contains similar patterns and themes to this passage in Exodus. 

And there are probably a number of connections we could make. But for today let’s focus in on just one in the Gospel of John: 

So, by the end of John, Chapter 1, Jesus has been officially recognized by John the Baptizer, and he has gathered his first disciples to himself: Andrew, Peter, Philip and Nathanael. 

Then, in Chapter 2 of John’s gospel, we find out that on the third day after he chose those disciples a wedding took place nearby, and Jesus, his mother, and his disciples were invited. 

And they run right into a crisis: the wine runs out. And everyone knows you cannot drink water at a wedding! They are starting to grumble, “What are we to drink?” So Jesus’ mom says to him, “They have no more wine.” And Jesus says, “Mom, why do you involve me as if this is my problem to solve? I haven’t been crowned king of Israel yet, this world is not yet paradise. Running out of wine is just kinda what happens during this age of the earth!” 

But his mom involves him anyway. She turns to the servants and says, “Listen to him! Do whatever he tells you.” 

And what does Jesus tell the servants to do? He tells them to fill some stone jars with water, and then he miraculously changes the water into the very best wine ever tasted. Crisis resolved! 

So, just like Moses in Exodus, Jesus took water that would have been bitter to drink during a wedding, and transformed it — “healed” it — so that it became the richest kind of life-giving drink there is. And John, the writer of that gospel, makes it clear that Jesus’ miracle there was meant to be a foretaste of paradise, just like the oasis at Elim here in Exodus. Through that miracle, Jesus was making a promise that, even though he had not yet been crowned king of Israel, even though this world is not yet paradise…it will be. He was making the point that the world around him was now so pregnant with the coming kingdom of God that that future kingdom was breaking through backwards in time and showing up in Jesus’ ministry right there at that wedding! 

Okay. But how does answer our question about how to listen to Jesus and follow him? 

Well, let’s listen again to the main point Jesus made when he changed that water to wine. Through that miracle he was telling us that the future kingdom of God is connected to him and him alone. Jesus was the seed of the new creation then, he is the living center of the new creation now, and Jesus is the foretaste of our future paradise. 

Basically, Jesus was telling his disciples — and all of us — that if we want Moses’ God to become our God, so that we too might get a chance to drink the living water, the new wine, and be healed, then what we need to do is listen to his testimony and respond by believing his testimony that he is the center and source of our new creation. 

And as we discussed last week, believing Jesus’ testimony means taking action. And the action in this case means following him through the waters of baptism and joining his Church in the wilderness. 

So if you are here today and you are not yet a Christian, if you are tired of your slavery to gods and governments and the corrupted, hateful societies of mankind, if you are hearing now about the amazing gentleness and kindness of Moses’ God, and if there is a sudden longing within you for the healing shade of paradise, but if you struggle to believe that this Heavenly Father could be your Heavenly Father, then do this: cry out to Jesus. Just speak — out loud or in your heart — and say, “Jesus, I want to believe. Help me overcome my unbelief!” And he will. 

That answers our first question: how can we make sure that Moses’ God becomes our God. If you have listened to Jesus’ testimony about himself, and if you have believed him, so that you are seeking baptism — so that you have been baptized — then Moses’ healing God is your healing God. 

Now, for our second question: what about those of us who have already become God’s children, how can we apply our Father’s particular lesson here to our lives? What should do in response to his revelation that he is the Lord who heals us? 

Well, our Father’s application for us from this passage is really pretty simple and direct: “Now that you are following me, keep on following me! Stay close to me, and you will not suffer death and judgement.” Basically, this is just an extended version of his command during the Passover night back in Egypt: “Go inside, and stay inside, until my judgement has passed over.” 

And quite naturally we might think, “Well, yeah! Now that I have experienced this great deliverance through the waters of death, and now that I know that God is the healing God, of course I am going to stay close to him!” 

…yeah. That’s what we say. But if you have been a Christian for more than a few days then you have already discovered that there can be quite a distance between what we say and what we do. Speaking for myself, I am periodically surprised at the extent of my own faithlessness and ingratitude. Our Father has given me so much! So how can it be that — even after all these years — as soon as I find my desires frustrated I turn to grumbling like a child who has never received anything good? Too often I am like the Israelites in the desert, going, “Oh great! Now what are we gonna drink?” I’m like Jesus’ mother at the wedding: “Hey, Jesus, they have no more wine! Do something! Now!” Too often I finally get what I think I have always wanted — and it turns out to be bitter, poisonous, unfulfilling, not what I expected at all. And I find myself standing beside my disappointment crying, “Why, God? Why won’t you just give me what I want when I want it?” 

Why, indeed! 

As Moses pointed out to us here, in this passage, at this point the Lord issued a ruling and instruction for them and put them to the test. Our Father is not just the Lord who heals his people, he is also the Lord who tests his people. And the testing is part of the process of healing. 

And we touched on this a few weeks ago, when we saw how God drove Pharaoh to drive his own kingdom into starvation. God was causing the Egyptian people to hunger, so that when he fed them they would know that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord. And we realized then that God was going to test his people the same way when they got into the wilderness — because hunger refines our human appetites, teaching us and reminding us that God alone is the true source of all life, all fulfillment. 

Well, today this was Israel’s first test in the wilderness. And our Father tests us in the same way, causing us to hunger and then feeding us, because this is the Covenant-Keeping God who is determined to make sure we grow up and become better than the exam-failing children we were at first. This is the Covenant-Keeping God who remains faithful to us even when we do not remain faithful to him. 

And these are lessons we could not learn if we were not tested, and if we did not fail those tests from time to time. This is why God does not always give me what I want when I want it, because it is that disappointment that most reliably reveals the bitterness and unbelief that always lives secretly within me. And I fall for it almost every time! I don’t get what I want, so I jump up and shout, “Hey! Now what?” 

…and then my Father provides in ways I did not expect. The water that was too bitter to drink is somehow transmuted into the wine of joy; an oasis appears where I never saw one before: shade, and cool running water. And I am left a bit red-faced. I did not have to shout at him. I did not have to grumble to get his attention. It’s like coming home when you’re a kid and going, “Mommm, I’m so hungry, when are we going to eat?! — oh, dinner’s ready. And there’s cake for after! Eh heh heh heh…Sorry?” 

So we say we are going to stay close, but when our desires are disappointed we often don’t. But that failure just gives our Father a chance to say, again, “Hey, stay close, yeah? Remember, I am the Lord, who heals you.” 

And he is. He really does heal. I do not want to leave you with the impression that the Christian life is a continuous series of failed exams, without any progress made. That is not the case. I want to testify that, in my own life, as I fail each exam and then receive again the life I do not deserve, I can tell now that I really am being healed. After all these years of my Father’s faithfulness to me, I find I am grumbling a little less than I used to, I am just a little bit faster to lift my eyes and wonder how my Heavenly Father is going to resolve this next crisis. Progress is slow. Each exam seems harder than the one that came before. But where exams abound, there grace abounds all the more. And so there is progress. If you are ever feeling discouraged about this, sit down and talk to some of the wiser older people in our congregation, those who have been travelling toward the mountain for 30 years or more. They’ll be able to encourage you. 

In summary, then, what is our application, we who are the children of the Lord who heals? Stay close to him. Listen to him. Obey his commands. And when frustrated desires reveal our grumbling hearts so that our Father has to say, “Hey, stay close! Remember, remember who I am!” — well then, let us accept our correction with good cheer, knowing that somewhere just ahead is the oasis with twelve springs and seventy palm trees, the paradise of our God. 

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