The incident of the Israelites’ complaints against Moses at Marah is in Exodus 15: 23-27.
The events that preceded “Moses and Mangrove Trees” included the Israelite exodus from Egypt and the destruction of Pharaoh’s army. Now, the Israelites were safe from pursuit and ready to head for the Promised Land. Moses led the Israelites southeast from the Red Sea into the Desert of Shur on the Sinai Peninsula (Exodus Map, 2002, p. 107). For three days the Israelites traveled on foot through the desert until they reached Marah. At Marah, the Israelites expected to find fresh water; instead the water was bitter. We are not told in what way the water was bitter; but, it could have had high concentrations of salt. If the Israelites drank the water, they would have become dehydrated and died.
Probably, the Israelites were foot sore, hot from traveling through the desert, and feeling the effects of an adrenaline let down after their escape from Egypt. Some were becoming aware of their situation: they had no homes and they were in the desert. There was no source of food and there no potable water to drink. The Israelites grumbled against Moses saying, “What are we going to drink?” (Exodus 15:24, New International Version Study Bible, 2002). Likely, Moses was asking the same question, “What are we going to drink?” The difference between the Israelites and Moses was that Moses cried to God with the problem. God answered Moses by showing him a piece of wood and directed Moses to throw the piece of wood into the bitter water. The result was that the bitter water became sweet and drinkable. In this verse the Hebrew word for sweet is mâthaq, which is a primitive Hebrew root word meaning “to suck” or “to relish” (Strong, 2010). The water did not turn sweet to the taste as with a sweetener added, but sweet in the sense of drinkable, and the Israelites relished it.
At Marah God made a decree and law for the Israelites. God was aware that the newly freed slaves were feeling lost. Possibly they were even afraid of him. He was a new God to many. After spending generations in Egypt, possibly many of the Israelites were more familiar with the Egyptian pantheon. This new God was unbelievably powerful. He overcame the greatest nation in the region to set them free. Now, at Moses’ cry, God turned bitter water into drinking water. In these circumstances, it was normal for the Israelites to feel stunned, awed, and frightened. So God acted to reassure them. God said that if a) they listen to him, b) do what is right in his eyes, c) pay attention to his commands, and d) keep his degrees, then he, God, would not bring on them any of the diseases he visited on the Egyptians. God concluded by telling the Israelites “I am the Lord who heals you” (Exodus 15:26, New International Version Study Bible, 2002).
The Mangrove Tree
Although there have been many books written on plants in the Bible, few authors suggested that the wood Moses threw into the water at Marah was from an actual tree (Rabinowitz, 1977; Cate, 1979; and Adeyemo, 2006). Of those authors, only Rabbi Louis Rabinowitz in Torah and Flora (1977) identified a possible source of the wood – a mangrove tree. The Avicennia marina is a species of mangrove tree that grows on the Sinai Peninsula near the Gulf of Aqaba and Red Sea (Rabinowitz, 1977; Glen, 2011). Commonly, A. marina is called the gray or white mangrove because of the color of its bark. Among species (eight or nine) of mangrove trees, A. marina is both a pioneer and a relict species (Glen, 2011; Plant Resources for Tropical Africa, n.d). Pioneer because it will be the first mangrove species that populates an area (Ecocrop, n.d.; Wet Tropics World Heritage Area, 1994). Relict because the A. marina remains in an area after other mangrove species are extinct. For example, relict mangroves remain in central Australia from the days of vast inland seas and in temperate climates on that continent.
The A. marina is an evergreen shrub or small tree (Ecocrop, n.d.). The trunk (8 – 16 inches in diameter) can be straight, but more often it is crooked in appearance. Generally, the gray mangrove is around 33 feet tall; the crown is open, branched, and rounded. Stalks (up to 5 inches long) attach leaf blades to stems (Glen, 2011). Thick leathery leaves (1–4 inches by ½-2 inches) grow opposite each other (Plant Resources for Tropical Africa, n.d.). Leaf tips can be sharply or bluntly pointed and the leaf base narrows at the stalk. The top side of leaves appear shiny and olive green, while the bottom side has dense grey hairs. A. marina branches are used for poles, ribs of boats, and fuel. Roots, bark, stems, and leaves are a source of tannin and brown dye (Ecocrop, n.d).
Flowers, creamy yellow and small, attach to stems by short, square stalks. Flowers have three to five petals, bloom in dense round heads for 2 – 5 days, and are sweetly scented (Glen, 2011; Plant Resources for Tropical Africa, n.d.). Bees collect nectar from flowers and make it into honey. Flowers are bisexual and can self-pollinate. The A. marina fruit is a small (1 inch long) green oval (Glen, 2011). The fruit has two sides with a seed in between, similar to an apricot. Plant students should be aware that from time to time, the mangrove fruit is confused with the mango, which are two totally different fruits. The mangrove fruit is not generally consumed. As with all mangroves A. marina seeds germinate on the tree; then seedlings dropped from the tree. Seedlings and fruits travel can travel long distances propelled by wind and water currents.
The A. marina requires an environmental temperature between 46 – 82 degrees Fahrenheit (Ecocrop, n.d.) and grows best where skies are bright and clear. Although mangroves are partial to a basic (pH of 6.5 – 7.0) or salty soil, they grow in pH neutral soils (pH 6.5 – 7.5). The gray mangrove prefers well-drained soil that is 20 – 60 feet deep. Trees do not grow deep tap roots, but run extensive roots under the surface of the soil. A. marina grows a series of peg/pencil roots (called pneumatophores) that protrude from the ground at intervals following the root growth.
In the past, botanists believed that mangrove trees required salt to live. The latest research demonstrated that mangroves grow best in salt water diluted by 50% fresh water; but they can grow in fresh water (Wet Tropics World Heritage Area, 1994). The A. marina uses two mechanisms to extract salt from sea water. First, salt which enters the tree is quickly excreted. The leaves of the Avicennia genus have special salt glands that are among the most active salt-secreting systems known. Second, Avicennia mangroves concentrate salt in the bark and in older leaves which carry salt with them when leaves drop. It is possible that A. marina grew in the area of Marah in 1450 B.C. (Old Testament Chronology, 2002) and was used as the wood (branch and leaves) that turned bitter water into drinkable water. In normal circumstances, the process of A. marina extracting salt from water would take days; however, God was in the process as he was in the burning bush that was not consumed. When God is present, natural processes can become supernatural.
The mangrove wood healed the bitter water at Marah. This symbolism mirrored what God told the Israelites at Marah, “I am the Lord, who heals you” (Exodus 15:26, New International Version Study Bible, 2002). Healing means to make sound or whole; to mend an undesirable condition; and to restore to original integrity (Merriam-Webster Incorporated, 2005). If Israelites needed to be healed, then they were in some way unsound or un-whole. Probably, the Israelite’s unwholesomeness was related to their perception of themselves as slaves. In Leviticus 26:13, God reminded the Israelites “I …brought you out of Egypt, so you would no longer be slaves to the Egyptians; I broke the bars of your yoke and enabled you to walk with you head high” (New International Version Study Bible, 2002). Only three days out of Egypt with generations of slavery behind them, most Israelites were not walking with heads held high. Very likely the Israelites still believed they were no more than property, their opinions were worthless, and they could not take care of themselves. God was more than willing to heal them from these negative self images. In fact, God wanted to make them a cohesive and great nation who would capture and occupy all of Canaan.
To be healed, individuals must first recognize how and when they are sick and then want to be restored to health. In the four gospels we read many examples of Christ healing physical, psychological, and spiritual illnesses. Today, Christ wants to heal whatever is unsound or un-whole in us. We can respond positively to Christ or be like the Israelites who did not seem to understand that they were sick. In Exodus 15:26, God told the Israelites explicitly what they should do to be healed; however, in the Sinai journey many failed to carry out the requirements for healing. Likewise, Christ demonstrated in Matthew chapter 9 how we can be healed. First, we need to have Christ forgive our sins (verse 3). Then, we need to follow Christ (verse 9). Finally, we need faith that Christ can heal us. In verse 22, Christ told the woman who had been subject to bleeding for 12 years, “Take heart daughter, your faith has healed you” (New International Version Study Bible, 2002).
This morning my husband and I were taking our morning walk. Bruce asked me what I was studying.
My response was, “Healing; last night I read all of the verses in the Old Testament about healing.”
“What did you learn?” Bruce asked.
“All through the Bible, time after time, God wanted to heal the Israelites; but they would not respond to him” I replied.
“I guess they were not much different than we are today” Bruce replied.
Silently, I walked along thinking; finally I agreed, “I guess you’re right.”
Reflection. God wants to heal all of your undesirable conditions. Are you willing to turn to Him and be healed?