Water in the Desert

By Mary Jane Chapin Chaignot


How do you find water in a desert? How did the Children of Israel find water in a desert?


The problem is not just finding water in the desert. The problem is finding water for roughly two million people in the desert -- for 40 years! That number is derived from Exodus 38:26 and repeated in Numbers 1:46, 2:32 which state that 603,550 males left Egypt. Factoring in women and children, the figure rises to approximately two million thirsty people. Forty years later upon the brink of entry into the Promised Land the figure goes to 601,730 males (Num. 26:51), a decrease of only a few thousand.

(Are the numbers real? Some scholars don't think so, saying that the land could never have supported such a large number of people. If they are right about the land, then their argument only adds to the enormity of what God did in sustaining the Israelites for forty years! We can speculate about the number, but most scholars admit it was a very large group.)

The Israelites' first challenge comes a mere three days into their wilderness experience, after crossing the Red Sea. They grumble to Moses; Moses cries out to God. That first time God told Moses to toss a stick into some bitter water and immediately it was made sweet. They, then, had plenty of water to drink and the crisis was over quickly. That event established the pattern that would be repeated time after time in Exodus. No water meant they would grumble to Moses, and Moses would plead their case before the Lord. In Exodus 17:7 after they'd been traveling for a while, they ran out of water again. Of course they knew God was caring for them. At this point, they were already receiving manna every morning, but they needed water, too. This time God instructed Moses to strike a rock with his rod, and boom -- water came rushing out.

There are parallel stories, and parallel numbers of thirsty people, in the book of Numbers (see Num. 20:5-6). This time when the people are complaining that they have no water, God tells Moses to "speak" to the rock and water will come gushing forth. Their complaints about not having water later in Numbers led to the plague of the fiery serpents. That led to the lifting up of the brass serpent on the pole, which took care of the serpents, and since there is no more talk about not having water, we presume their water problem was resolved as well (Num. 12:6ff).1

Of course there were times when water was plentiful. It says they camped in a place where there were twelve springs and lots of palm trees (Ex. 15:27; Num. 33:9). But they couldn't stay in these places forever.

Most of these water incidents serve a theological purpose. They come at times when the people are being tested, when their trust in God is on the line. They have just been delivered from Egypt, from 400+ years of bondage. And their deliverance occurred through a series of pretty remarkable circumstances, leading to wonderment and awe on the part of the Israelites. After all, these are the folks who watched the Red Sea part so they could pass through. Yet at the first sign of hardship, they are grumbling against Moses (and God) and longing for the "good ole days" of slavery back in Egypt. It's a daunting moment. God responds in miraculous ways, but these ways don't convince them. After receiving water from a rock, they will make a Golden Calf and break the covenant they had just agreed to. When given another chance, they basically repeat the same mistakes, which are chronicled in the book of Numbers. Although the sheer thought of God sustaining such a large number of people in a desert for forty years is amazing, what is even more amazing is that God never abandoned them. The covenant relationship was oftentimes strained, but God abided with them throughout. God simply took care of them the whole time. Is it any wonder that this is the defining story of their history?

1ff means "following." So Num. 12:6ff means verse 6 and the verses after 6.