When I was 26, someone cut me with a machete in the jungles of Panama. That person was me. It was a self-inflicted wound because I was a complete moron.
It was pretty much my first time ever in something resembling a wilderness. I was with an aid group hiking to a remote mountain village, so we were surrounded by nature, many hours away from the closest hospital.
I had recently bought a cheap machete and I was very proud of that machete because it was like I had a sword. And even though I technically didn't need it, I was happily slashing away at any branch or leaf which was in my path.
At one point we had to cross a stream, and like a doofus I kept my machete out. As I was crossing with my heavy pack I slipped on a loose rock and started going down. The whole time I was falling I thought, ""Is this how I die? Stabbed to death by my own machete?""
I tried to keep the blade as far away from me as possible but when I hit the stream, my hand bounced back and I sliced open my arm a little bit.
I was fine, but I needed to put a Band-Aid on, so I set my pack down on the bank, right onto a nest of fire ants, which I had to knock off my pack as my group left me further and further behind. A few moments later, as I tried to catch up with the group, I had to jog straight uphill through a field of something called razor grass.
I was a wet, sweaty, bloody mess.
It was then I realized I probably needed to take the wilderness a bit more seriously...
I mean, I got lucky, but if something really bad had happened? It would have taken a really long time to get medical care. The truth is, being in the wilderness is no joke.
Being in the wilderness tests you. It pushes your limits. And in many cases, it reveals who you really are.
For the next four weeks, we're going to talk all about being in the wilderness. Of course, as you're going to see, we're not just talking about the physical wilderness.
We're talking about the wilderness of our lives. How we choose to respond when we find ourselves miles away from safety or comfort or easy answers.
When we're facing hardship, pain, unexpected loss...the wilderness.
How do we respond when we're just not sure we're going to make it?
To explore that, we're going to look at a group of people in the Bible who were in just that situation. We are going to pick up right where we left off last September in our series,""Freedom,"" all about the Israelites' exodus from Egypt.
If you remember, the Israelites were slaves in Egypt, God sent Moses to set them free and bring them to the land promised to their ancestors. The Promised Land. Pharaoh wouldn't let them go, so God sent plagues (frogs, boils, gnats, etc.) to pressure Pharaoh to relent.
*By the way, one of those plagues was turning the water of the Nile to blood, making it undrinkable and toxic...File that away for today's passage.*
Eventually, the Israelites leave Egypt, cross through the Red Sea in a miraculous intervention by God, and come out the other side free people. And that's where we'll pick up the story today. The Israelites leave the Red Sea and head into the wilderness.
For the next few weeks we're going to look at what happened between the Red Sea and Mount Sinai, where God gives them the law: Israel's first experience traveling through the wilderness alone and having to trust in God to protect them and keep them alive.
But these are more than just stories. There's a reason these accounts are in our Bible.
You see, the Israelites don't do a great job of trusting God in these stories. They struggle, they grumble, they complain... (they cross streams with open machetes). They're just not super great at this. And it seems like every time God comes through for them, they turn right around and forget all about it one second later.
""Are we there yet, Moses? ""Stop it! So help me, I will turn this camel around.""
Which raises an interesting question. The book of Exodus is a story the Israelites wanted to pass on to future generations, right? They wanted everyone who came after them to understand what they experienced in the wilderness.
If that's the case, then why would they depict themselves as such doofuses? Why not smooth over some of the more embarrassing parts?
Well, I don't believe the Israelites were trying to pat themselves on the back. I don't think they had any interest in showing themselves at their best.
No. The Israelites wanted their descendants to understand what it's really like following Yahweh - following God - in the wilderness. Because they knew there was a lot more wilderness ahead.
The wilderness of a broken world.
Let's dive in and I'll show you what I mean. Grab a Bible and turn to Exodus 15.
Then Moses led the people of Israel away from the Red Sea, and they moved out into the desert of Shur. They traveled in this desert for three days without finding any water. When they came to the oasis of Marah, the water was too bitter to drink. So they called the place Marah (which means ""bitter"").
Then the people complained and turned against Moses. ""What are we going to drink?"" they demanded. So Moses cried out to the Lord for help, and the Lord showed him a piece of wood. Moses threw it into the water, and this made the water good to drink.
At the beginning of this story, it says ""Moses led the people...away from the Red Sea."" The Hebrew word there is
na?sa?: to set out, to break camp
This is the first step away from relative safety and into the wilderness.
As we'll see in verse 27, at the end of this story they make it to a nice, comfortable oasis - springs of water, palm trees, the whole deal...And they camp there. The Hebrew word for that is h?a?na?h.
h?a?na?h: to set up camp
So they na?sa? - they break camp - heading into the wilderness, and they h?a?na?h - they make camp at their destination.
What we have here is a pattern. Most of the stories we'll look at this month start with the Israelites na?sa? - breaking camp, entering some kind of wilderness - and then h?a?na?h - making camp at the end. na?sa? - wilderness - h?a?na?h
Here';s why this is important. There are layers to this pattern of breaking camp and making camp.
Yes, it shows up in each individual story, but it also shows up in the bigger story. The Israelites na?sa? from the Red Sea and h?a?na?h at Mount Sinai, where they meet with God and he gives them the law.
But even bigger than that. In Exodus, the Israelites na?sa? from Egypt itself, and in the book of Numbers, they h?a?na?h at the edge of the Promised Land. They make camp in the land flowing with milk and honey.
But it gets even bigger. In Genesis, when Adam and Eve are banished from the garden of Eden, they stick around the area (Eden was a region, not just a garden), but then it says their son Cain goes east, into the land of Nod; literally the land of ""wandering."" He enters the wilderness.
The same thing happens after the flood. It says humans na?sa? from Noah's ark and head to the east where they try to build the tower of Babel and then are scattered all over the world.
In both cases, humanity writ large leaves relative safety and begins to wander. They na?sa?, but in this grand storyline, there is no h?a?na?h at the end. At least in the Old Testament humanity is lost in the wilderness, trying to get back to Eden.
I believe the Hebrew Bible is painting the picture that the whole experience of humanity, living in this broken world, is - in a sense - a kind of wilderness. And that wilderness has not yet found its end.
So when we see stories like this - with the Israelites grumbling and thirsty in the wasteland - we have to remember that this is not just some historical tale.
No. This is a story passed down to us from our spiritual ancestors and written in a very particular way to show us what it means to trust Yahweh in the wilderness.
To trust Yahweh in a broken world. When the Promised Land seems impossibly far away. When Eden seems like little more than a dream.
Ok. That was a long rabbit trail. But I hope that helps explain where we're coming from in this series. These stories are about the Israelites. But they're also about us. And I think they have a lot to teach us.
Alright, so let's talk about what happens to the Israelites in this patch of wilderness. Verse 23. They've gone three days without finding water, and then all of a sudden, here it is! An oasis! Water!
But the water is really bitter and they can't drink it at all. Keep in mind, this isn't just water for them to drink. It's water for their cattle, water they need for cooking...
It's really rough, so of course they complain. And then, verse 25: Moses cries out to God and he shows him a piece of wood. He throws that in the water and all of a sudden it's good to drink.
Yahweh has saved the people.
But then the story says something kind of interesting. Take a look at the second part of verse 25.
It was there at Marah that the Lord set before them the following decree as a standard to test their faithfulness to him. He said, ""If you will listen carefully to the voice of the Lord your God and do what is right in his sight, obeying his commands and keeping all his decrees, then I will not make you suffer any of the diseases I sent on the Egyptians; for I am the Lord who heals you.""
After leaving Marah, the Israelites traveled on to the oasis of Elim, where they found twelve springs and seventy palm trees. They camped there beside the water.
Ok what's this whole decree and standard all about? God's testing their faithfulness? And if they don't obey God's going to send plagues on them like the Egyptians? It's kind of weird, right?
Actually there's a lot of debate and confusion around this passage because of that. But I think it actually makes a lot of sense when you understand that this story is tapping into bigger patterns in the Bible. Just like na?sa? and h?a?na?h.
First of all, in verse 26, it says ""I will not make you suffer...the diseases I sent on the Egyptians; for I am the Lord who heals you."" Remember, in Egypt God turned the water into bitter, undrinkable blood. And what do we have here? Bitter, undrinkable water.
The point isn't that God forced the bitter water on them to test them, but that he made it pure. He's the God who heals.
The test is in how they experience this healing. Look at what it says. Listen carefully to his voice, do what is right, obey his commands, and keep his decrees... In other words, trust that God knows what's best, and the healing will follow.
But what was there to obey here? How did the Israelites keep his decrees?
Well again, this story is working on many levels. Look back at verse 25. It says""The Lord showed [Moses] a piece of wood."" Literally, ""a tree.""
The word choices here are kind of weird. There are other Hebrew words for ""show,"" but this one is also the word for ""teach."" It's the root of the word Torah - teachings (a.k.a. The first five books of the Bible - the story of God teaching the Israelites how to live).
So the verse is essentially saying God taught Moses a tree.
But get this: in the Hebrew Bible, guess what else represents God's Torah - his teachings? A tree!
The tree of life in the Garden of Eden - in the Bible it becomes a symbol for wisdom and obedience to God.
Wisdom is a tree of life to those who embrace her.
Wisdom and Torah and obedience and life are all layered on top of one another in the Bible. The poetry of God's work is spectacular and the biblical writers are geniuses for capturing it. It's what makes the Bible so amazing.
So in verse 25 God's not just showing Moses some random branch that happens to make bitter water sweet. He's teaching him Torah. Moses throwing that wood in the water represents obedience to God's commands.
In this small story, I believe God is not just saving thirsty people. He's providing an object lesson for them to remember for generations. He's laying out the ground rules for how to survive in the wilderness.
""Let me teach you,"" God says. ""If you obey what I think is best for you - If you have wisdom and trust in my teachings, I will see you through. Because I am the Lord who heals you.""
This story is the first of several we're going to look at which all point to the same big idea:
If we want to make it through the wilderness, we must trust God's wisdom, not our own.
When we face bitter water, God will show us the tree. He will teach us wisdom if we're willing to listen. We have to trust him enough to throw that wood in the water.
Over the next few weeks we're going to see that idea put to the test.
We're going to see the Israelites learn to trust in God's provision.
We'll see them learn to trust in God's timing.
And we'll see them learn to trust that God will fight their battles.
The people of God who passed these stories down to us wanted us to learn from them.
So my hope and prayer for this series is that this would not just be some nerdy deep dive into ancient stories, but an invitation for us to renew our trust in God especially if we're getting thirsty and our water is bitter.
So to prepare our hearts for what God will teach us this month, let me ask you this...What kind of wilderness are you facing right now? What's causing your throat to be parched?
I want you to take a moment and reflect on whatever wilderness you're facing right now.
As I mentioned before, the Bible paints the picture of humanity setting out - na?sa? - into the wilderness of this broken world. And we're still in that wilderness.
Now we know that because of Jesus we will eventually make camp - we'll h?a?na?h - in an oasis of life. The New Creation. Where the wilderness of this world's brokenness will come to an end forever.
And we know that right now, through the Holy Spirit, we can taste the sweet, life-giving water of God's provision. But just like the Israelites, that fresh water comes through trust.
By trusting God to show us - to teach us - the tree of life. To teach us wisdom. That's what this book is all about.
How easy it is for us to forget that. How easy it is for us to try and survive the wilderness by our own ingenuity. To flail our machetes around like we have any idea what we're doing.
Our path through the wilderness is not strength; it's trust.
You may have no idea how you're going to make it through this. But I want you to hear this today. You are not alone. Here's what God says about your wilderness:
I am about to do something new.
See, I have already begun! Do you not see it?
I will make a pathway through the wilderness.
I will create rivers in the dry wasteland.
Our God is a God who brings life in the wilderness. And he will see you through. Do you trust him?