Crossing the Sea and the Waters of Mara

Exodus 14:19-15:27

Throughout the night, God keeps His angel and His Pillar of Cloud between the Israelite camp and the Egyptians. Moses holds his staff over the waters, and God sends a great wind to blow over the sea. The waters part, allowing the Israelites to safely cross on dry land. When the Egyptians move to cross after them, however, God interferes with their movements. He instructs Moses to again stretch out his staff over the waters, and they come crashing down upon the Egyptians as they try to escape. So moved by the miracle they witness, the Children of Israel sing a song of praise to God for His salvation. Miriam, sister of Moses and Aaron, also leads the women in song.


Despite their gratitude for God’s miracles, the Children of Israel are quick to complain when, three days later, they cannot find potable water. Moses cries out to God, who shows him a tree whose bark would make the water sweet (drinkable). They name the place Mara (bitter) after the bitter waters. God also promises the people if they keep His commandments, He will never visit the diseases of Egypt upon them. From there, the people journey to Elim, where they find plenty to eat and drink.


The Israel Bible points out a Jewish tradition, that the Hebrew month ‘Iyar’ is named for an acronym from our portion, ani Hashem rof’echa (I am God your Healer).  Iyar is the Jewish month that follows the month of Nissan. Only after the Children of Israel were redeemed from Egypt in Nissan were they able to be healed from the trauma of slavery. The name of the month also serves as a constant reminder that everything, including our health, is in the hands of God.


This is not the only acronym in our portion. The Maccabees, who fought the Hellenists in the Chanukkah story, are so called because of a verse in the song the Israelites sang at the sea: mi kamocha b’elim Hashem, who is like you, God?


Virtual Classroom Discussion

The text tells us God tested (“proved” in the Israel Bible translation) the Israelites at Mara, but does not elaborate on what that means. What do you think the test was? Did the people pass?

Comments ( 17 )

The comments below do not necessarily reflect the beliefs and opinions of The Israel Bible™.

  • At Mara the people got their first test. Bitter water. Some say they should have drunk it because it would have cleansed their inside, kill worms and bacteries they had acquired while being in Egypt. (This goes together with the name of the month Iyar ) Moreover it was to warn them for the harsh circumstances in the wilderness and other than the delicious food they had been used to in Egypt. The piece of wood in the water is called in hebrew “Ets”. The wood in the Torahscroll is also called “Ets haChaim” So also a kind of prophetic sign. Reading Torah is healing for your soul. I think the people didn’t pass. The wood (“Ets”) had to heal the water. But our people failed the test. After having seen such a great miracle as the splitting of the sea and the safe guidance to the other side of the sea they should also have trusted HaShem for more……

  • In answer to the question at the top, God (Yahweh) tested the Israelites in seeing their attitude towards Him even when they are facing bitter situations; He wanted to see if they had learnt to trust Him after all the miracles He had done for them in Mitsrayim and on their way out. Hence they were tested in how they would react to having bitter water to drink. The same test applies to us today; how do we react when we are faced with bitter (bad) situations; do we say, "Yahweh, I know You are in control and I therefore trust that You will help me through this" or we react like the Israelites did at Mara? I choose the good response, the response of faith and trust.

  • Drew

    Late thoughts
    Why did God wipe out the Chariots etc?
    measure for measure..Drowning of the male babies v drowning of the male soldiers
    By wiping out the chariots etc. it left the Israelites virtually hassle free (from Egyptians ) for something like 400 years just coincedently the same amount of time they would have been in Egypt.

  • Diana Brown

    I think the test for me if I had been there, just crossing the Sea of Reeds would be…am I ready to be different now? Slavery breeds a fatalist, animalistic mentality in one’s soul. Self-preservation becomes the only thing to live for. Servitude is different. There are blessings for obedience which is something Bnei Israel wasn’t historically given by the new Pharaoh arose that didn’t remember Joseph or honor His God.
    Bnei Israel just passed through the Sea of Reeds on dry ground with walls of water on either side. They just sang…”Adonai is my strength and song, and He has become my Salvation. This is my God, and I will glorify Him, my Father’s God and I will exalt Him. Adonai is a Warrior- Adonai is His Name!”
    I don’t think they would have really understood what they were singing. Adonai sparked the hope for flourishing Life for the first time. Bnai Israel looked at Moshe and knew if anyone could speak to God on their behalf, Moshe could. But what would Adonai expect from them after their wondrous rescue? Could you just imagine the wonder in their hearts that night as they looked up into the starry sky and remembered what Abraham was told about them?
    Going from slave to servant with provision was hard for Bnei-Israel and it is equally hard for those enslaved in the sex and drug trade today. To look at people who can choose how they will live and know you can only live as you are told…so sad.

    • Drew

      Yes it,s easy to praise God when things are going well, not so easy when the going gets tough.

  • Kenneth Osterman

    Regarding the insightful video in related resources : I agree – Mt Horeb, the mountain of God, is in the land of Arabia, the land of Midian. If anyone has not seen the video, it is recommended.

    • Drew

      So do i Kenneth, so do i.

  • Magda

    Directly after the text says: “there he proved them”, He promises His blessings of Healing and deliverance from diseases IF the children of Israel Sh’mah His commandments, His statutes and ‘do what is right in His eyes’. By having them experience the bitter water (reminiscent of bitterness of the slavery in Egypt) the opportunity is created for them to turn to the Lord as provider of their deliverance. In a concrete way – Mosheh has to throw a tree in the water – He is again miraculously changing the bitterness to sweetness (reminiscent of the ‘sweetness’ of their newfound freedom of slavery). I would say Adonai the Lord proved them by giving them the opportunity to turn to Him for help, instead they ‘murmured’ against Mosheh – sadly a pattern often to be repeated in future. Nevertheless, He remained the merciful Healer.

    • Thanks Magda. I think there is a lot of truth in what you are saying. This episode seems to highlight God as ‘healer’ or ‘protector’ if the people will follow His commands. As long as the nation follows the word of God, He will protect them, just as He is able to ‘heal’ the waters that were not potable. The tree, as Drew mentioned, is a metaphor to the Torah; the Torah has the power to ‘heal’ the waters, ie following the Torah ensures our protection.

  • Kenneth Osterman

    Not an answer to the question, but a perception from a child upon this great deliverance.
    A few years when our youngest granddaughter heard this story of deliverance through the sea she was distressed by the fact that God killed the horses. She said, the horses did not do anything bad, why did they have to die?
    Obviously, I had no perfect answer for her as she missed the point of the story because of a detail. But it brought to mind how the Israelites and we as modern Israelites are distracted from what God is doing in our lives because we are focused on what is important to us and not what God deems important.

    • Thanks for sharing. Your granddaughter asks a very interesting, and faith-based, question, regarding values that she sees as important. This is actually a question asked by some of the sages-it was asked in a number of different contexts. For example, why did all the animals have to die during the Great Flood, and why is there a command to kill Amalek’s animals as well. One idea brought forth is that animals are affected by the actions and values of their masters. ‘Evil’ people can turn their animals into ‘evil’ beings, while compassionate people will train their animals to behave with care. So the Egyptian horses became a product of their environment and were ‘tainted’ by the cruelty of their owners. It is a powerful lesson on the affect and power our environments have on us, and the importance of making sure we are surrounded by positive people.

      • I agree, our atmosphere influences us, animals likewise, hence the Egyptian horses had become evil too. Thank you.

  • Drew

    Is it about them or Him (Moses)? and what commandments and statutes had been revealed at this time?
    I cant see what the test was.

    • Drew

      Three Days
      The Mekhilta turns the entire incident into a metaphor.88 The living, life-sustaining water symbolizes
      the Torah; to be deprived of its spiritual sustenance for three days is life-threatening. (Hence,
      the Torah is read publicly each Sabbath, Monday, and Thursday.) The parable is reinforced by the Hebrew
      verb va-yorehu, “He showed him,” which comes from the same stem as Torah, and by ‘ets, “a tree log,”
      which is a symbol of Torah described in Proverbs 3:18 (cf. 3:1) as “a tree of life to those who grasp her.”
      The verse succeeding this Exodus passage further enhances the homily.
      a fixed rule Apparently, the sentence is a parenthetic note that reflects a now lost tradition about
      some law(s) given to Israel at this site. The Mekhilta believes they were the Sabbath laws.89 The next
      episode indeed presupposes knowledge of these laws prior to the Sinaitic revelation.90
      He put them to the test Rashbam understands the lack of drinking water to have constituted a
      test of Israel’s faith in God. The particular item of legislation might also have served the same purpose.

      • Drew

        Anyone looking for a good TORAH and commentary book, try Etz Hayim, full of great insights.

      • Drew, thanks so much for bringing that Midrash (Mekhilta) to our attention. I really like the metaphor! I also think these ‘tests’ in the desert (this episode, the mana, etc.) are a part of a process God is putting the Children of Israel through, in order to remove the ‘slave’ mentality from them, and enable them to properly become servants of God, ready to inherit the Land of Israel.

      • Kenneth Osterman

        I like the idea of this tree as symbolic of the Tree of Life. The Tree of Life is a material source of God’s healing in Genesis 3 (unfortunately taken away) and the tree is mentioned again in Ezekiel 47:12 when it returns in multitude and HEALS.

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