Finding the Source of Water in Marah
Following the splitting of the sea, the Torah describes the beginning of the Israelites’ journey through the wilderness (Exod. 15:22–25a).
טו:כב וַיַּסַּ֨ע מֹשֶׁ֤ה אֶת יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ מִיַּם ס֔וּף וַיֵּצְא֖וּ אֶל מִדְבַּר שׁ֑וּר וַיֵּלְכ֧וּ שְׁלֹֽשֶׁת יָמִ֛ים בַּמִּדְבָּ֖ר וְלֹא מָ֥צְאוּ מָֽיִם:
15:22 Moses caused Israel to set out from the Sea of Reeds. They went out into the wilderness of Shur; they traveled three days in the wilderness and found no water.
טו:כג וַיָּבֹ֣אוּ מָרָ֔תָה וְלֹ֣א יָֽכְל֗וּ לִשְׁתֹּ֥ת מַ֙יִם֙ מִמָּרָ֔ה כִּ֥י מָרִ֖ים הֵ֑ם עַל כֵּ֛ן קָרָֽא שְׁמָ֖הּ מָרָֽה:
15:23 They came to Marah, but they could not drink the waters of Marah because they were bitter (marim); that is why it was named Marah.
טו:כד וַיִּלֹּ֧נוּ הָעָ֛ם עַל מֹשֶׁ֥ה לֵּאמֹ֖ר מַה נִּשְׁתֶּֽה: טו:כהaוַיִּצְעַ֣ק אֶל יְ-הֹוָ֗ה וַיּוֹרֵ֤הוּ יְ-הֹוָה֙ עֵ֔ץ וַיַּשְׁלֵךְ֙ אֶל הַמַּ֔יִם וַֽיִּמְתְּק֖וּ הַמָּ֑יִם
15:24 And the people grumbled against Moses, saying, “What shall we drink?” 15:25a So he cried out to YHWH, and YHWH showed him a piece of wood; he threw it into the water and the water became sweet.
At first glance, this short narrative seems like a coherent report of the Israelites’ journey. A closer look reveals problems that call the straightforward nature of this narrative into question.
Problem 1 – The Awkward Introduction
The narrative opens:
Moses caused Israel to set out (וַיַּסַּע) from the Sea of Reeds. They went out (וַיֵּצְאוּ) into the wilderness of Shur;
The phrase, “and they went out (וַיֵּצְאוּ),” does not make sense as the second verb in a series following וַיַּסַּע (caused them to set out). If Moses already “caused them to set out” then why reference that they “went out”? Nowhere else in the Bible are these two verbs used in the same verse in this way.
The LXX and Samaritan Pentateuch Reading
This problem is alleviated (somewhat) by the Samaritan Pentateuch, since it has ויוציאהו (“and he brought them out”) instead of the MT’s the ויצאו (“and they left”), which fits better with the context. The Greek of the LXX suggests a similar reading. But even this does not really smooth out the difficulty with this verb.
Doubling the Departure Verb
In general, the Torah uses a departure verb followed by an arrival verb (or at least a travelling verb)—not two departure verbs. Unlike our verse, the function of the second verb is to move the action forward in space and time, not to repeat the action of the first verb.
In a gloss, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (ad loc.) suggests that the term “and they went out/left” is meant to emphasize that they were leaving a safe and protected place to go out into its opposite, the wilderness. His answer highlights how poorly the word ויצאו fits its present context.
Problem 2 – The Naming of Marah
Another problem lies in the naming of Marah: 
They came to Marah, but they could not drink the water of Marah because it was bitter, that is why it was named Marah (15:23).
Three problems stand out.
- In general, the naming of the place comes at the end of the story, or at least after the relevant action occurs. Here it comes in the middle of the story.
- In most occurrences of place naming in the Bible, the story begins with the old name and offers a new name based on an event. In our case, Marah was the name of the place before the Israelites got there.
- Finally, if the Israelites were to name the place, considering the miracle, wouldn’t the better name be Mitka (the sweet water) and not Marah (the bitter water)? There is, in fact, a place called Mitka, referenced in Numbers 33:28-29, and Targum Pseudo-Jonathan translates the names as “a place whose waters are sweet.”
The Exodus Marah Story: A Source-Critical Solution
I suggest that the internal problems with the Exodus account of the stop in Marah can be explained by positing that the narrative is really a conflation of two different Marah accounts.
A. The Elim Story
טו:כבβa וַיֵּצְאוּ אֶל מִדְבַּר שׁוּר וַיֵּלְכוּ שְׁלֹשֶׁת יָמִים בַּמִּדְבָּר וְלֹא מָצְאוּ מָיִם: טו:כג וַיָּבֹאוּ מָרָתָה וְלֹא יָֽכְלוּ לִשְׁתֹּת מַיִם מִמָּרָה כִּי מָרִים הֵם עַל כֵּן קָרָא שְׁמָהּ מָרָה: // טו:כז וַיָּבֹאוּ אֵילִמָה וְשָׁם שְׁתֵּים עֶשְׂרֵה עֵינֹת מַיִם וְשִׁבְעִים תְּמָרִים וַיַּחֲנוּ שָׁם עַל־הַמָּיִם:
15:22aβ They went out into the wilderness of Shur; they traveled three days in the wilderness and found no water. 15:23 They came to Marah, but they could not drink the water of Marah because it was bitter; that is why it was named Marah. // 15:27 And they came to Elim. There were twelve springs of water and seventy palm trees; and they encamped there beside the water.
B. The Sweet-Water Story
טו:כבαa וַיַּסַּע מֹשֶׁה אֶת יִשְׂרָאֵל מִיַּם־סוּף // טו:כגaαaוַיָּבֹאוּ מָרָתָה // טו:כד וַיִּלֹּ֧נוּ הָעָ֛ם עַל־מֹשֶׁ֥ה לֵּאמֹ֖ר מַה נִּשְׁתֶּֽה: טו:כהa וַיִּצְעַ֣ק אֶל יְ-הֹוָ֗ה וַיּוֹרֵ֤הוּ יְ-הֹוָה֙ עֵ֔ץ וַיַּשְׁלֵךְ֙ אֶל הַמַּ֔יִם וַֽיִּמְתְּק֖וּ הַמָּ֑יִם:
15:22aα Moses caused Israel to set out from the Sea of Reeds. // 15:23aαa They came to Marah. // 15:24 And the people grumbled against Moses, saying, “What shall we drink?” 15:25a So he cried out to YHWH and YHWH showed him a piece of wood, he threw it into the water and the water became sweet.
In both stories, Marah is an early stop on the way out of Egypt. In both sources, the water in Marah is undrinkable. The main difference between the two accounts is the solution to the undrinkable water problem. In the first story, the Israelites simply leave Marah and move on to Elim, which has fresh water. In the second story, God solves the problem by showing Moses a piece of wood which, when mixed in with the water, would make it sweet and drinkable.
Having isolated two narrative strands, the next task is to see whether we can identify to which source each belongs.
The Elim Story – The Priestly Strand
In the Elim story, the Israelites go out into the wilderness of Shur, travel three days without water, arrive at the water source, cannot drink the water, name the place Marah and right away advance to Elim with its twelve springs.
Exodus does not contain the only description of the route the Israelites took after leaving Egypt. Parashat Massai (Numbers 33) lists, with several important differences, of all the stops from the Exodus up until the encampment of the Israelites on east bank of the Jordan Rivers. In this case, the alternative account in Numbers 33 is the key to identifying the source of this story, since the two have significant overlap.
Priestly Text in Exodus
יד:ט וַיִּרְדְּפוּ מִצְרַיִם אַחֲרֵיהֶם, וַיַּשִּׂיגוּ אוֹתָם חֹנִים עַל הַיָּם, […] עַל פִּי הַחִירֹת, לִפְנֵי, בַּעַל צְפֹן.// טו:יטb וּבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל הָלְכוּ בַיַּבָּשָׁה, בְּתוֹךְ הַיָּם.// טו:כבβa וַיֵּצְאוּ אֶל מִדְבַּר שׁוּר וַיֵּלְכוּ שְׁלֹשֶׁת יָמִים בַּמִּדְבָּר וְלֹא מָצְאוּ מָיִם: טו:כג וַיָּבֹאוּ מָרָתָה וְלֹא יָֽכְלוּ לִשְׁתֹּת מַיִם מִמָּרָה כִּי מָרִים הֵם עַל־כֵּן קָרָא שְׁמָהּ מָרָה: // טו:כז וַיָּבֹאוּ אֵילִמָה וְשָׁם שְׁתֵּים עֶשְׂרֵה עֵינֹת מַיִם וְשִׁבְעִים תְּמָרִים וַיַּחֲנוּ שָׁם עַל־הַמָּיִם:
14:9 the Egyptians […] overtook them encamped by the sea, near Pi-hahiroth, before Baal-zephon.// 15:19b the Israelites marched on dry ground in the midst of the sea.// 15:22aβ They went out into the wilderness of Shur; they traveled three days in the wilderness and found no water. 15:23 They came to Marah, but they could not drink the water of Marah because it was bitter; that is why it was named Marah. // 15:27 And they came to Elim. There were twelve springs of water and seventy palm trees, and they encamped there beside the water.
Priestly Text in Numbers
לג:ח וַיִּסְעוּ֙ מִפְּנֵ֣י הַֽחִירֹ֔ת וַיַּֽעַבְר֥וּ בְתוֹךְ הַיָּ֖ם הַמִּדְבָּ֑רָה וַיֵּ֨לְכ֜וּ דֶּ֣רֶךְ שְׁלֹ֤שֶׁת יָמִים֙ בְּמִדְבַּ֣ר אֵתָ֔ם וַֽיַּחֲנ֖וּ בְּמָרָֽה: לג:ט וַיִּסְעוּ֙ מִמָּרָ֔ה וַיָּבֹ֖אוּ אֵילִ֑מָה וּ֠בְאֵילִם שְׁתֵּ֣ים עֶשְׂרֵ֞ה עֵינֹ֥ת מַ֛יִם וְשִׁבְעִ֥ים תְּמָרִ֖ים וַיַּחֲנוּ שָֽׁם:
33:8 They set out from Pne-hahiroth and passed in the midst of the sea into the wilderness, and they traveled three days in the wilderness of Etham and encamped at Marah. 33:9 They set out from Marah and they came to Elim. There were twelve springs of water in Elim and seventy palm trees, and they encamped there.
As pointed out above, the sources are not identical. The geographic conception in Numbers is different from that of Exodus (Shur vs. Eitam), and Exodus has a tradition of Israelites thirsting for water which Numbers does not have here. Nevertheless, the overlap is so extensive, that the two must be genetically related.
Connection to the Sea Narrative Strand
In addition, the verb ויצאו fits in well with P’s conception of the sea account. Classic source critical analysis has identified in the Sea account two sources with contradictory miracles. 
- Splitting the Sea – In the P story, Moses lifts up his staff over the sea and divides it (Exod. 14: 16, 21a1,b), causing the water to stand as two walls (14:22, 29), and the Israelites march through.
- Pushing the Sea back – In the other story, which I would identify as E, God drives the sea back by a strong southern wind, pushing the water northwards, and makes the sea into dry land (14a2–3). (If the water in this story also stood up like a wall, it was only one wall.)
As a P text, the account in Numbers references the Israelites passing through the sea. Thus, in P’s geographic conception, the Israelites leave their encampment at Pi-Hahirot, cross through the water, and end up in the wilderness (of Etam). Assuming that the same conception undergirds the account in Exodus, this would explain the unusual verb that appears only in the itinerary note of the Marah episode ויצאו – and they came out, i.e. they came out of the sea (15:19b).
וּבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל הָלְכוּ בַיַּבָּשָׁה בְּתוֹךְ הַיָּם // וַיֵּצְאוּ אֶל מִדְבַּר־שׁוּר…
And the Israelites marched on dry ground in the midst of the sea // and they came out into the wilderness of Shur…
Like in the Numbers text, the Israelites leave their encampment, cross through the water, and end up in the wilderness (of Shur).
The Sweet-Water Story – The E Strand
In the non-Priestly story, Moses leads the Israelites from the Sea of Reeds and they arrive at Marah; they cannot drink the water; the people murmur; Moses cries to God; following God’s instruction, Moses throws a tree into the water, and the water is sweetened.
Although less straightforward than the identification of the Elim story with P, I believe there are enough clues that allow us to identify this story with E.
The Name “ים סוּף”
The opening verse uses the name ים סוּף – the Sea of Reeds. The only document that uses the name Sea of Reeds as a reference to the place where the miracle occurred is E (Exod. 13:18).  The other sources simply refer to the place as “the Sea” and use the toponym Sea of Reeds as a later station in the journey.
The Giving of the חק
The other hint comes from the follow up to the non-Priestly story, after Moses sweetens the water.
טו:כהb שָׁ֣ם שָׂ֥ם ל֛וֹ חֹ֥ק וּמִשְׁפָּ֖ט וְשָׁ֥ם נִסָּֽהוּ:טו:כו וַיֹּאמֶר֩ אִם שָׁמ֨וֹעַ תִּשְׁמַ֜ע לְק֣וֹל׀ יְ-הֹוָ֣ה אֱ-לֹהֶ֗יךָ וְהַיָּשָׁ֤ר בְּעֵינָיו֙ תַּעֲשֶׂ֔ה וְהַֽאֲזַנְתָּ֙ לְמִצְוֹתָ֔יו וְשָׁמַרְתָּ֖ כָּל חֻקָּ֑יו כָּֽל הַמַּֽחֲלָ֞ה אֲשֶׁר שַׂ֤מְתִּי בְמִצְרַ֙יִם֙ לֹא אָשִׂ֣ים עָלֶ֔יךָ כִּ֛י אֲנִ֥י יְ-הֹוָ֖ה רֹפְאֶֽךָ:
15:25b There He made for them a law and statute, and there He put them to the test. 15:26 He said, “If you will heed YHWH your God diligently, doing what is upright in His sight, giving ear to His commandments and keeping all His laws, then I will not bring upon you any of the diseases that I brought upon the Egyptians, for I YHWH am your healer.
The existence of this “law and statute” (חֹק וּמִשְׁפָּט) reappears in the story as part of Moses’ answer to Jethro his father-in-law. Jethro asks Moses why he sits in judgment of the people all day, and Moses responds:
כִּֽי יִהְיֶ֨ה לָהֶ֤ם דָּבָר֙ בָּ֣א אֵלַ֔י וְשָׁ֣פַטְתִּ֔י בֵּ֥ין אִ֖ישׁ וּבֵ֣ין רֵעֵ֑הוּ וְהוֹדַעְתִּ֛י אֶת חֻקֵּ֥י הָאֱ-לֹהִ֖ים וְאֶת תּוֹרֹתָֽיו
“When they have a dispute, it comes before me, and I decide between one person and another, and I make known the laws (חֹק) and teachings of God.” (Exod. 18:16)
But where did Moses learn the laws and teaching so of God? Chapter 18 comes before the Sinai revelation. The answer is Marah. The logic of the story is that since God gave laws to Israel at Marah, Moses has laws with which to judge the people. Now, as Jethro appears only in the E narrative—in J his name is Reuel and in P he does not exist—I believe this confirms the affiliation of the non-priestly text of the Marah story with E.
The narrative of Marah is short but much more complicated than it looks because two different accounts have been spliced together.
P tells a straightforward etiological story—explaining the name Marah—and ends with the non-miraculous solution of moving on to Elim, which has plenty of water.
E, on the other hand, tells a story of God’s miraculous curing of the bitter waters, and ends with God giving laws at Marah and promising not to afflict the Israelites like he did to the Egyptians, if only they follow God’s commandments.
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January 26, 2015
December 11, 2020
Dr. David Ben-Gad HaCohen (Dudu Cohen) has a Ph.D. in Hebrew Bible from the Hebrew University. His dissertation is titled, Kadesh in the Pentateuchal Narratives, and deals with issues of biblical criticism and historical geography. Dudu has been a licensed Israeli guide since 1972. He conducts tours in Israel as well as Jordan.
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