22 Then Moses led Israel onward from the Red Sea, and they went into the wilderness of Shur; they went three days in the wilderness and found no water. 23 When they came to Marah, they could not drink the water of Marah because it was bitter; therefore it was named Marah. 24 And the people murmured against Moses, saying, "What shall we drink?" 25 And he cried to the LORD; and the LORD showed him a tree, and he threw it into the water, and the water became sweet. There the LORD made for them a statute and an ordinance and there he proved them, 26 saying, "If you will diligently hearken to the voice of the LORD your God, and do that which is right in his eyes, and give heed to his commandments and keep all his statutes, I will put none of the diseases upon you which I put upon the Egyptians; for I am the LORD, your healer." 27 Then they came to Elim, where there were twelve springs of water and seventy palm trees; and they encamped there by the water. (Ex 15:22-27)
This short episode occurred immediately after Israel crossed the Red Sea and immediately before God sent them manna – bread from heaven. We should consider that these two “bookends” have sacramental meaning. First is how Israel was saved by passing through the waters of the Red Sea, an image of baptism (1 Cor 10:1-2). Second is how the manna, bread from heaven, is an obvious allusion to the Eucharist (Jn 6:31-35, I Cor 10:3-4). Sandwiched in between those two important, sacramental narratives are two shorter texts that are critically related; one is the Song of Moses (Ex 15:1-21), the first song of praise and thanksgiving to the Lord, and the other is our text above. This text has strong allegorical themes related to sacramental theology.
Very simply put, these themes are (1) three days, (2) bitter water, (3) sweet water, (4) a tree, (5) trial, (6) Egypt, (7) healing, (8) twelve springs, (9) seventy trees, (10) encampment by the water. The three days should call to mind Christ’s passion, death and resurrection (see another essay). Immediately, we are reminded of the Paschal Mystery, the source of our redemption, Christ’s great work. Likewise there is mention of tree; God Himself showed it to Moses. This is a special, divine tree, therefore an image of that most special of trees, the cross; again Christ’s work of redemption is imaged here.
Alongside these images of the Paschal Mystery there is mention of water, a particular body of water which is at first bitter, but after coming in contact with the tree (i.e., the cross) is made sweet. As the church father, Tertullian, noted, this is an image of baptism, where ordinary water is made extraordinary by the redemptive work of Jesus’ cross:
Again, water is restored from its defect of bitterness to its native grace of sweetness by the tree of Moses. That tree was Christ, restoring, to wit, of Himself, the veins of sometime envenomed and bitter nature into the all-salutary waters of baptism. (On Baptism, 9).
Without this redemptive work, the water is useless, unfit for drinking; after redemption, it takes on a new quality of sweetness – it becomes drinkable and satisfies the thirst of all. In the same way, baptismal water became the source of grace, by the work of Jesus. Our life of grace is the sweetness and the satisfaction of our previously ordinary lives.
We see, then, what makes a sacrament: throw the cross on it! That is, apply the merits of Christ’s work of redemption and the ordinary becomes extraordinary, the bitter becomes sweet, the undrinkable refreshes. Our text also notes that God “proved” them, telling them to obey His commandments. This trial was given as Israel entered into the wilderness, a notorious image for our difficult lives in this world. It is also imaged by Egypt, where Israel was enslaved. But God is here revealed as their “healer,” which is the very characteristic of a sacrament – that which heals our fallen nature, to help us in the wilderness of this difficult world of trials and tribulation. Immediately after God is revealed as healer, Israel finds themselves in a place of twelve springs and seventy palm trees – a mystical oasis. As noted elsewhere, the number twelve symbolizes the presence of God in this world, while seven is the number of the covenant, also noted elsewhere. This oasis is the fruit of the sacraments: our life with God, even in this world, through the covenant. It is imaged here as an encampment, a settling down in this oasis where we find refuge and refreshment; yet only an encampment, as it is not our permanent home. The tent must eventually be rolled up and we must complete our journey to the Promised Land, our true home.