What a time of celebration! Moses and Aaron leading the congregation, singing to YHVH of the horses and riders being thrown into the sea. Miriam, with timbrels, leading the throng of women in song and dance. But then, inevitably, the reality of the circumstances hits as the People of Israel make their way into the Wilderness of Shur. Shur means “a wall” and possibly gets its name from the waters that parted and formed a “wall” during the crossing through the Reed Sea (even though the Hebrew word for that ‘wall of water’ is not the same). Our forefathers were also walled in by high rugged mountains, as they traipsed through deep valleys and gorges. On our journey we too are walled in by our circumstances and natural restrictions, while learning to adapt to the conditions that this faith journey presents, but let us not forget that the Spirit is hovering over and leading us.
We are keenly aware by now of YHVH’s stated reason for taking our forefathers (and us) through the wilderness. But moreover, His reason is not only in order to examine their and our hearts' condition, but also so that they (we) would come to know His heart and willfully submit. In slavery one does not choose obedience, as one is totally controlled by the cruelty of an outside force. But once that power is removed, it takes time to adjust to freedom and then to willingly obey the new master.
It did not take long for the first signs of the desert reality to manifest: “So Moses brought Israel from the Red Sea… and they went three days in the wilderness and found no water” (Exodus15:22). No wonder the travelers started to complain, crying out to Moses! They were parched and near death after three days without water. Moses their great leader, whose name means “drawn out of water”, was not able to provide them with that much needed substance, but he did cry out to YHVH. The answer came back (again) with these words: “this is a test” (v. 25). In that desert terrain the Almighty did eventually bring His people to a water source, but lo and behold - it was bitter! Our challenged forefathers did not pass the test that was before them; as it was not only the water that was bitter, but also their hearts. The memory of their slave masters lingered on, and without being able to grant forgiveness they were destined to wallow in bitterness and hatred. The environment and conditions exposed their hearts, as is indeed often the case for us as well. In our walk on this dry path we too find ourselves complaining and murmuring about our circumstances. We had envisioned wine and roses, but then our everyday situations turn sour and we feel let down, and disappointment sets in toward our leaders and others close to us. Consequently, the thoughts and words that come out of our hearts transition into deeds/works which are far from righteous (see Galatians 5:19-21). We raise our complaints, seeking for advice and prayer, to which the response is usually in the form of ideas such as: Pray more, fast, read Scriptures, attend all the meetings, pay your tithes, etc. In a way YHVH rejoined similarly to our fore-parents when He placed conditions upon them: "If you diligently heed the voice of YHVH your Elohim and do what is right in His sight, give ear to His commandments and keep all His statutes I will put none of the diseases on you which I have brought on the Egyptians for I am YHVH your healer” (15:26).
At the same time, YHVH already knew that the Hebrews were not able to “sh’ma” (diligently listen/obey) and live up to His instructions, as their spirit may have been willing but the flesh was weak. And so, being compassionate, He did show Moses an “etz” - a tree or stick – which if cast into the bitter water would make them sweet. This granted the sons of Israel temporary relief. The tree that Yeshua hung on, on the other hand, symbolizes not only Messiah’s ability to transform our bitter water (nature and experience) into sweetness, but also to do much more, and that, for all eternity. Albeit meeting the need, these desert waters were still not the living waters that Yeshua promised (see John 4:14). Let us, from our vantage point, never settle for anything less than Yeshua’s tree and living water. (Perhaps the “etz” - olive tree - of Jacob has also been thrown into the bitter waters of this world for the purpose of sweetening them.)
The “etz” that Moses cast into the waters teaches us that the Creator places in our desert environment natural elements (such as trees, plants and more) that provide a means for maintaining health and bringing about healing. In our natural state we are still subject to ailments, and so need to learn obedience through the things that our outer man suffers. By such processing we will come to hear His voice and know YHVH as our Rofeh (healer).
The demands to listen and obey were in fact commandments and statutes, even before the official giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai! What were some of those commands? The marking of Aviv as the beginning of months 12:2); Remembering the Exodus (12:42); No uncircumcised were to celebrate the Passover, and "Consecrate to Me all the firstborn, whatever opens the womb among the children of Israel, both of man and beast; it is Mine" (13:2). But perhaps the main ones were to fear YHVH, believe Him, and Moses and “listen/obey My voice”. All of these were connected to what had taken place back in Egypt. Seeing that these commands were issued at such an early stage of the journey, was indicative of the importance of remembering what YHVH had enacted for the People of Israel while yet in a state of slavery. May we too never forget, as already mentioned, that “while we were yet sinners Messiah died for us” (Romans 5:8). And just as these pre-Sinai commands were to be kept also upon entering the land, so are we to keep in mind all along the journey our own emergence out of Sin’s slavery, no matter how far along we have come on our spiritual journey.
The wilderness is naturally hard on the flesh, as it is the flesh that comes in contact with the outer environment. However, the spirit-man is hidden in the Mighty One of Israel. Paul states it this way: “For you died, and your life is hidden with Messiah in Elohim. When Messiah who is our life is manifested, then you also will appear with Him in glory” (Colossians 3:3-4; see also 1John 3:2). In other words, once we know Him, we will also know who we are.
"Moreover, brethren, I do not want you to be ignorant that all our fathers were under the cloud, all passed through the sea, all were immersed into Moses in the cloud and in the sea” (1 Corinthians 10:1-2). We too have been immersed… into Yeshua’s body on the ‘etz’ - in His impalement, burial and now also in His resurrection. The spiritual reality of the desert-sojourners has definite applications for our lives. As emerging Israelites, we are to learn, know and understand what our ancestors experienced in their wilderness journey and learn the lessons that are there for us.
Many believers today are returning to their “Hebraic Roots” and Israelite identity. In so doing, they almost immediately sing “Shma Yisrael” - hear/listen/obey. Thus, when YHVH brings us to the knowledge of our “bitter waters”, where we find ourselves judging, murmuring and criticizing others, may we remember to: “Pursue peace with all people, and holiness, without which no one will see YHVH: looking carefully lest anyone fall short of the grace of Elohim; lest any root of bitterness springing up cause trouble, and by this many become defiled” (Hebrews 12:14-15 emphasis added).
It is evident that the wilderness journey is not an individual walk. One is by necessity connected to others. It is the journey of YHVH’s firstborn nation, His household, His body, and we are all members joined together as His witness people* (read: 1 Corinthians 12).
• Twice in Exodus 13 it says that YHVH’s accomplishments for His people are to be “a sign on the hand and a memorial [or frontlets] between your eyes” (verses 9 & 16). Let us examine this curious instruction: “On the hand” in Hebrew can also mean “through (someone)”, or “by (someone)”. In other words, the “between the eyes” injunction is to keep foremost in one’s memory and expression YHVH’s deeds, and thus “through” the ones who do so will come forth the sign, testimony, and witness of: “what YHVH had done to me when I came out of Egypt” (v.8), “in order that YHVH’s Torah will be in your [our] mouth” (v. 9), and for a testimony of the “strength” of His “hand” by which “He brought us out” (vs. 9&16).