TESTING IN THE DESERT
Exodus 15:22-17:16, Key Verse: 16:4
“Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘I will rain down bread from heaven for you. The people are to go out each day and gather enough for that day. In this way I will test them and see whether they will follow my instructions.’”
Did you ever notice that, even after receiving a great blessing or seeing a great work of God, after that it is still hard to hold onto our faith when the realities of life hit us? Why is that the case? Well, the short answer is that our character is highly flawed due to sin’s influence. But more practically, we could say that in order to grow until we do right by our faith, we need some training.
In today’s passage, after the miraculous events by which God freed them from slavery in Egypt and helped them escape across the Red Sea, the Israelites face their first hardships and challenges as a free people. God has promised to use Moses to lead them to a land of their own, a land of milk and honey. But before that, they also need training. So we’ll see God lead Israel into circumstances that test their faith, and it ends up revealing some pretty unpleasant realities about their character. But it serves as a very good example for us, showing us the faithless elements in our own nature and how we can follow God’s leading to grow more mature.
I. God turns bitter water sweet (15:22-27)
After crossing the Red Sea, it says in Chapter 15 verse 22, Moses led Israel from there into the Desert of Shur. According to the maps I found online, that’s the northern part of the Sinai peninsula. From there they traveled southward on the peninsula, ultimately heading toward mount Sinai, or Horeb, near the southern tip of the peninsula. As the name indicates, the place where they were traveling was desert territory, dry and barren. It says they traveled for three days without finding water. Obviously, that’s a serious problem. Imagine yourself in the Israelites’ place. You had heard all of God’s promises and seen all the amazing things he had done through this guy Moses, setting you free from slavery. But now, for three days, Moses has seemingly led you right into the middle of nowhere, in a vast desert. You can’t tell if he knows where he is doing, and now your water bottle is getting down to its last dribble. What do you make of it? Would you keep entrusting yourself to God, or would you begin to despair?
But after three days, they came to a place where they found water. Hooray, they were saved! Except that, as soon as they got some in their mouths, they found it was so bitter that they could not drink it. The water must have been tainted with some kind of minerals or microorganisms or something. This was enough to make many of the Israelites lose their cool, and verse 24 says they grumbled against Moses, saying, “What are we to drink?”
Verse 23 says the place was called “Marah”, because the water was bitter and “Marah” means “bitter”. Why did God let them get so thirsty and then lead them to a place where the water was undrinkable? God did this because he wanted their faith to take root by being tested. He wanted them to remember the power of God they had witnessed just three days before. It was a pretty tough test. It can be compared to times in our lives but then when we work to reach a goal, and the road is longer and harder than we expected, and then, when we finally get the result, it’s not what we expected. At the last minute, it turns disappointing. It’s got a surprise twist at the end and it becomes not what you actually wanted, but something bitter instead. At such times the bitterness can come not just into the water but into our hearts. As a result of such disappointments, some people even seem to be permanently bitter, even about small things.
This time was also a difficult test for Moses. He knew very well that the people needed water. Had he made a wrong turn somewhere? How painful it was to listen to their complaints when he had no power in himself to give them good water. I have experienced something like this in a much smaller way. Several times through my years in UBF I’ve had the blessing to serve as a tour guide for some guests through places I myself wasn’t that familiar with. That can be pretty stressful, even if it’s not an actual desert. One vital tip I can give is to make sure everybody has a water bottle.
Moses dealt with this water crisis in the best way possible. In verse 25 it says “Moses cried out to the Lord.” He brought this urgent problem to God in prayer, not hiding the fact that he was at the limit of his own strength. Then, the Lord provided a solution. He showed Moses a certain piece of wood. Moses took the piece of wood and threw it into the waters of Marah, and miraculously the water became fit to drink. Once again, God shows his power and his faithfulness to provide his people with what they need.
Then, God told the people what he wanted them to learn through this challenging situation. In verse 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.” When they had faith, listening to and obeying God’s words, God’s power would be for them, not against them as it had been against the Egyptians, and he could save them from everything. God said about himself, “I am the Lord, who heals you.”
We are also in need of healing, physical and spiritual. Because of all the trouble surrounding life in this fallen world, life can and does become bitter for many people. You can see it in their faces. But God showed Moses a piece of wood that made the bitter water sweet. It means that God is able to change the flavor of life from bitter to sweet. He does this for us through Jesus, who took all our sorrows on himself on the cross. We have forgiveness and hope in Jesus and can let go of the wounds of the past and rejoice in God’s grace to us every day.
Verse 27 says that after this they came to a place called Elim, where there were twelve springs and seventy palm trees. It looks like a miniature paradise. The twelve springs must have reminded them of God’s promise to give the best land to each of Israel’s twelve tribes. After their test, God brought Israel to a genuinely nice place where they could get some rest. We must know that we do not need to live in a state of bitterness. God is the Lord who heals us, or as Isaiah wrote, “The punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.” (Isa 53:5)
II. Daily Bread Training (16:1-17:8)
Soon it was time to move on from Elim. Chapter 16 verse 1 says that Israel moved out from there and came to their next stopping point, in the Desert of Sin. The name of this place doesn’t actually mean “sin”, it’s just that the name in the original language sounds the same as our English word “sin”. Nonetheless, as we can see, there was definitely a lot of sin committed there.
When they arrived, it was the fifteenth day of the second month after they had come out of Egypt, or in other words, a month and a half after the Exodus. The next crisis Israel faced was about another great necessity of physical life—food. They were not able to find enough food and the supply they carried was beginning to run out. At this time, the people could have trusted God, remembering the great power he had to solve any problems. They could have sent their elders to Moses to say to him, “Please pray to the Lord for us so he may lead us to a stable food supply.”
But that is not how they responded. We see that the community of Israel once again began to grumble against Moses and Aaron, and this time, their language is much worse. In Chapter 16 verse 3 they say, “If only we had died by the Lord’s hand in Egypt! There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death.” They turned the drama all the way up, saying they should have died, which cannot be a sincere statement. They seemed to remember Egypt as being some kind of gourmet heaven. They went as far as to directly accuse Moses and Aaron of trying to starve them to death.
What is wrong with them? It’s clear that they are sinning seriously in what they are saying. But I think if we examine ourselves, we find that we also have acted similarly and even spoken similarly to this. I know I have many times. It may be an instinctive kind of reaction to a situation, but that doesn’t make it right.
At this point, God could have cursed Israel in return and abandoned them. But instead, he once again took action to provide for them, not only physically but also in a way to help them spiritually, to train them. God’s generosity is incredible. In verse 4 the Lord said to Moses, “I will rain down bread from heaven for you.” In other words, God would solve their food problem completely. Even in this affluent society we live in of well-stocked grocery stores, could even we imagine having our food supply problem so utterly solved as having bread fall out of the sky for us? Can you imagine a world where no one would have to work for food?
Well, the Israelites would have a work a little. They wouldn’t have to do the long and hard work of plowing the ground and planting and watering crops and harvesting. All they would have to do is as verse 4 says: “The people are to go out each day and gather enough for that day.” The food would be there for them, they just had to go out and gather it day by day. There was only one exception to the rule: On the day before the sabbath, they would gather exactly two days worth, and then on the Sabbath day they would not gather at all.
It was really wonderful. But first, the Israelites needed to understand how they had sinned. Moses and Aaron brought together the assembly of all the Israelites, and in verses 6 and 7 said, “In the evening you will know that it was the Lord who brought you out of Egypt, and in the morning you will see the glory of the Lord, because he has heard your grumbling against him. Who are we, that you should grumble against us?” The people of Israel may have thought they were just complaining about Moses and Aaron, their human leaders, but in fact they were grumbling against God. To drive the point home, the pillar of cloud appeared before them. Moses and Aaron said that when the food came, they would know it was the Lord, because their root problem was how quick they were to forget the Lord. The mindset of the grumbling people is what we call the “slave mentality”, because it comes from a habit of feeling powerless. When we forget our mighty God, we feel powerless and we just blame and accuse others, as if that were a good way to get help.
The slave mentality takes root when we don’t take our responsibility to remember what God has done and promised to do for us. God knew that his people needed training to grow out of it. Their training was to get up every morning, go out and gather the food God provided. God said, “In this way I will test them and see whether they will follow my instructions.” We call it “daily bread training”, and it’s just as important in the spiritual dimension.
God began the era of daily bread training with it with a great “opening night” feast of quail, which was blown in by the wind until it covered the camp. Then, the next morning, there was a layer of dew on the ground, and when it evaporated, there were thin flakes that looked like frost on the desert floor. The people looked at these flakes, and looked at each other, and said “What is it?” And so, the bread from heaven got its name, “manna”, which sounds like the Hebrew for “What is it?”
Moses told them to each gather as much as they needed, an omer for each member of the family, which is a little less than a gallon in volume. In verse 31 it says the flakes of manna were “white like coriander seed and tasted like wafers made with honey.” Because of this, and because it said it looked like flakes of frost on the ground, I always imagined that manna tasted like Frosted Flakes cereal, though probably not as sweet. Of course, they usually didn’t eat it straight but made various types of bread and porridges out of it. The supply was just enough for everyone to have what they needed. It says, “The one who gathered much did not have too much, and the one who gathered little did not have too little.” (18) The manna demonstrates how perfectly God is able to provide for each person.
How did the people of Israel do with their daily bread training? Not all of them listened to the directions. Moses clearly told them. “No one is to keep any of it until morning.” However, some of the Israelites really wanted to have leftovers and they set aside some to keep for the next day. This could remind us of how some people were panic-buying large supplies of pasta and toilet paper at the beginning of the COVID crisis. But when they got up the next morning, the Manna from yesterday smelled bad and was already full of maggots. It was designed to be food for one day and that’s it—except, of course, on the Sabbath, when God miraculously made Friday’s double supply of Manna remain fresh and maggot-free through Saturday.
Some of the Israelites also disobeyed the Sabbath rule and went out on the Sabbath to look for Manna. Of course, they didn’t find any. The Lord rebuked them through Moses, saying, “How long will you refuse to keep my commands and my instructions?” (28) They remind me of some of my students who never catch anything just by being told and have to learn everything the hard way. But, through gathering daily bread day after day, practicing depending on God, the Israelites did learn. They even began to be a people who kept the Sabbath day.
What is the spiritual meaning of daily bread training? It’s training to depend on God’s provision on a daily basis. Jesus taught us to pray, “Give us today our daily bread.” Why can’t we pray for enough bread to last a month or so? Because, as the Israelites show us, there’s no way we humans can remember something and hold on to it for month! It doesn’t mean we should only go grocery shopping for a single day at a time. It means that to grow in faith and godly character, we need to practice depending on God day by day until we are really changed. One of the best habits for that is re-centering our thought world on the Lord first thing every morning, based on the Bible. The Spiritual daily bread God gives us is his word, as Job said, “I have treasured the words of his mouth more than my daily bread.” (Job 23:12) It’s the real bread from heaven which can feed our spirits so that we may live eternally.
The daily bread training God gave Israel also taught them to keep the Sabbath day holy, to make one day a week not just focused on how to take care of our physical needs. This shows that God really does not want his people just to live their lives thinking on the survival level. He wants them to be free to grow as a holy nation. God even said this at the end of their 40-year journey, in Deuteronomy 8:3. It says: “He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your ancestors had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.”
God’s provision for Israel of Manna never failed through the forty years they were in the desert. Many times God was angry with them, but he never stopped the Manna. Moses had them keep one jar of Manna preserved as a sample to remind the future generations of what he had done. Let’s pray we may practice spiritual daily bread so we may also not forget how we can rely on God’s provision.
III. Another sin and battle training (17:1-22)
As Chapter 17 starts, it was time for the community to travel to their next stop. They set out from the Desert of Sin and soon came to camp at Rephidim. However, at Rephidim, there was again no water for the people to drink. How did the people react this time? Verse 2 says they quarreled with Moses and said, “Give us water to drink.” To their previous grumbling they added a new activity: quarreling. Moses warned them about the sin, but they just grumbled more and accused again, saying, “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to make us and our children and livestock die of thirst?” (3)
It’s hard to understand why the people of Israel would lose their faith again so easily, over an issue that God had already shown his power to solve for them. Couldn’t the Lord who provided them food in such a miraculous way every morning be trusted to give them water also? But the people’s spiritual condition actually got worse. Moses diagnosed their attitude as “putting the Lord to the test”. Putting the Lord to the test is something beyond just doubting and complaining. In verse 7 it says that they tested the Lord by saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?” When they dared to accuse God of not being with them, despite all they had seen, they were really trying to manipulate God. As M. Mary Kim said in our Bible study Friday, the Lord is not an object of our testing, to see if we can make him do what we want; he is the object of belief, of trust. Still, the Lord provided for the Israelites. God commanded Moses to take the staff he had used in Egypt and strike a rock with it. When he did so, water flowed out of the rock for the people to drink.
The last event in this passage is the first actual battle that the nation of Israel fought. As Israel camped at Rephidim, a people known as Amalekites came out and attacked them. It was time for Israel to begin to fight for herself, and also for Joshua to receive some military training. Moses told Joshua to go choose some men and go out to fight against the Amalekites.
What would Moses do for the battle? He said he would stand at the top of the hill with the staff of God. It means he would pray. As the battle went on all day, they found that while Moses held his hands up, the Israelites were winning, but when he put them down, the Amalekites started winning. So it was clear what Moses needed to do. But it’s very hard to hold your hands up all day! I don’t know if I could do it for even five minutes. So first, they got a rock and put it under Moses for him to sit on. Then, when Moses’ arms got too tired, two people, Aaron and Hur, stood at his sides and held his arms up so he could keep them up until Israel won the victory. This event teaches us that every battle has a physical side and a spiritual side. The spiritual battle is fought through prayer. Keeping up a spiritual battle isn’t easy, and so we need prayer partners who support each other.
Today we saw how God revealed himself to Israel and trained them through the events of their wanderings in the desert. In the New Testament, Paul takes the events we read about today as symbols of Christ. In 1 Corinthians 10:3-4 he writes of the Israelites, “They all ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ.” How does the rock the water flowed from symbolize Christ? When I think about how hard it was for Israel to learn to trust God, I realize that even if we see great miraculous signs and wonders, the sin problem in our heart may not be solved. The only real solution to the sin problem is Jesus himself, his body and blood. He can give us true spiritual life in place of our old sinful life. Jesus said “For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink.” When Jesus met a Samaritan woman who had come to a well to draw water, he said to her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.” He said, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” May God bless you through the trainings God gives. Most of all, may God bless you with real life and freedom from sin in Jesus.