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A Bitter Test of Faith


Astute Pastor Stefan Burton-Schnüll reached out to tell me that this quarter’s Adult Bible Study Guide is actually a reprint of a lesson from 2007. Here is this week’s opening lesson from 15 years ago, and here’s the same study for this week. Other than updating some graphics, it is the same. I checked with the editor, Cliff Goldstein, who explained that when someone fails to complete their ABSG assignment and other options are not available, old lessons get rerun. 

Although understandable, there’s something discouraging about all this. Maybe it’s colored by the content of this study. Monday’s lesson takes us on a miserable Israelite journey.

Just after God led the Israelites through the Red Sea in the cloud, they followed Him through the hot, waterless desert for three days. Particularly in the desert, where finding water is so critical, their desperation is understandable. When would they get the water they needed?

So, where does God lead them? The pillar goes to Marah, where, at last, there is water. They must have been excited. But when they tasted the water, they immediately spat it out because it was bitter. “So the people grumbled against Moses, saying, ‘What are we to drink?’ ” (Exod. 15:24, NIV).

Then, a few days later, God does it again. This time, however, the pillar actually stops where there is no water at all (Exod. 17:1).

It looks at how God led the thirsty Israelites into disappointment and increased their sense of pain and impending death. According to the ABSG, the moral of the story is: keep the faith through the tough times. After all, yes, ultimately sweet water appeared. But there is something bitter about this pedagogical approach. 

Instead of just jumping to the moral of the story, what happens when we consider the morality in the story as well? It might raise some hard questions. Not so much about God, but about what humans—our Bible guides—want to draw our attention to about the divine-human experience. 

Last week in my Sabbath school commentary, I mentioned Richard Rice’s 2014 InterVarsity Press book, Suffering and the Search for Meaning: Contemporary Responses to the Problem of Pain. It really gets to the deep questions that this ABSG is trying to explore about the meaning of suffering. I wrote then, “In his third chapter, ‘Soul-making Theodicy,’ Rice details the uses and the crucial drawbacks of this crucible approach.” In a 2016 review of Rice’s book, Bradford McCall writes

The third chapter explores Irenaeus’s soul-making theodicy. In this theodicy, even our most painful experiences can be “occasions” for growth and development. According to this theodicy, the value of moral growth or character development provides us with the best explanation of suffering in the world. In fact, in this view, it is not only possible to grow through suffering, suffering is absolutely essential to our growth to become mature, well-developed and moral beings. This method of dealing with suffering connects with our inherent desire to make meaning out of our experiences. Whereas other forms of theodicy consider the world to have been perfect at the beginning, and thereafter corrupted, this one sees perfection to be the end product of life, not the beginning. This theodicy resembles the free will theodicy in many respects, but differs in that in the free will model, God wants creatures to remain loyal, whereas in the soul-making theodicy, God wants creatures to become loyal him. A prevailing problem with this view of suffering is whether it is all truly worth it—i.e., does the degree of suffering become justified by its end product?

Is this story about God using suffering to teach humans a lesson? For what purpose? 

Exodus is narrative literature, and before we snap to contemporary life application, it’s helpful to know the larger context of the story. Here is Yale Divinity School’s John J. Collins, Holmes Professor of Old Testament Criticism and Interpretation, talking with his YDS colleague Joel S. Baden, author of the 2019 The Book of Exodus: A Biography. Although they focus their discussion on the slightly earlier “crossing of the sea” story, in the video below, they make some helpful points about ancient Near Eastern associations with water. 

And now it’s time for a reflection on the specific story from the ABSG. Walter Brueggemann, William Marcellus McPheeters professor emeritus of Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary, offers a rereading. Appropriate for a rerun lesson. 

The presenting problem, shortly after the walls of water that drowned Pharaoh, is that there is “no water” (15:22). There is a cry to YHWH (v. 25). There is an immediate response from YHWH, divine action before the divine speech. YHWH exhibits a piece of wood, and throws the wood into the bitter water. It is made sweet! We do not know how it is made sweet. We are not told, and the text displays no curiosity about the transformation of the water. The God who can emancipate is fully able to transform water. The sweet water is an act of rescue and preservation, and a sign that this community is on the way from the bitter life of bondage to the sweet life of shalom.

The departure and the awaited arrival concern the materiality of life . . . labor and bondage and food and oppression . . . circumstance that produces a cry of pain and distress. It is not known yet, but the erstwhile slaves are on their way to a new obedience, even in the desert. They will need to react to the demands of Pharaoh no longer, for Pharaoh is now only at the back edge of the narrative, a remembered source of alienation and oppression that made life sterile and absent of joy. Israel must remember back through the dancing of Miriam to recall Pharaoh, but the pain remains present enough in their bodies that they can recall very well.

Walter Brueggemann continues later:

The divine speech alludes to the lethal pathologies of Egypt. We know, moreover, about the modes of pathology produced by a Cartesian anxiety that of itself precludes community. The promise that follows obedience is an alternative to Egypt. The “logic of repair” is that obedience to the alternative commands of Sinai makes new life possible. Failure to obey Sinai portends the killing fields of Pharaoh every time. And then, as though to seal the deal, the maker of sweet water offers self-identification. “I am YHWH!” What follows is stunning self-acknowledgement. “I am YHWH who heals you.” It is crucial that the sentence ends in “you.” . . .  “heals you.” More than that, this participle readily converts into a noun: “I am YHWH, your doctor,” not “the doctor.” The one for you!…doctor for you, as though the healing of this company of slaves is the single agenda of the Lord, now the Lord with the supply of sweet water. But not “a doctor.” Not “the doctor.” “Your doctor,” the one fully committed to repair . . . to repair the torn bodies scarred by Pharaoh, to repair the wounded community staggered by Pharaoh’s anti-community requirements, to enact a logic of repair of the kind Ezra will do later enact [sic] on the text. There is unleashed in the world of the text a healing agent, one who is able to counter “the diseases of Egypt.” 

Read the entire commentary, “Departure, but Not Yet Arrival: Performance in Exodus 15:22-26,” here


Alexander Carpenter is executive editor of Spectrum

Title image: Moses Sweetening the Waters of Marah by Nicolas Poussin, c. 1627–28 (public domain).

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