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Kitto's Popular Cyclopedia of Biblial Literature
Ma´rah (bitterness). The Israelites, in departing from Egypt, made some stay on the shores of the Red Sea, at the place where it had been crossed by them. From this spot they proceeded southward for three days without finding any water, and then came to a well, the waters of which were so bitter, that, thirsty as they were, they could not drink them. The well was called Marah from the quality of its waters. This name, in the form of Amarah, is now borne by the barren bed of a winter torrent, a little beyond which is still found a well called Howara, the bitter waters of which answer to this description. Camels will drink it; but the thirsty Arabs never partake of it themselves; and it is said to be the only water on the shore of the Red Sea which they cannot drink. The water of this well, when first taken into the mouth, seems insipid rather than bitter, but when held in the mouth a few seconds it becomes exceedingly nauseous. The well rises within an elevated mound surrounded by sand-hills, and two small date-trees grow near it.
The Hebrews, unaccustomed as yet to the hardships of the desert, and having been in the habit of drinking their full of the best water in the world, were much distressed by its scarcity in the region wherein they now wandered; and in their disappointment of the relief expected from this well, they murmured greatly against Moses for having brought them into such a dry wilderness, and asked him, 'What shall we drink?' On this Moses cried to Jehovah, who indicated to him 'a certain tree,' on throwing the branches of which into the well, its waters became sweet and fit for use. The view which has been taken of this transaction by Dr. Kitto, in the Pictorial Hist. of Palestine, ii. 209-210, is here introduced, as it has been judged satisfactory, and as no new information on the subject has since been obtained.
'The question connected with this operation is—whether the effect proceeded from the inherent virtue of the tree in sweetening bad water; or that it had no such virtue, and that the effect was purely miraculous. In support of the former alternative, it may be asked why the tree should have been pointed out and used at all, unless it had a curative virtue? And to this the answer may be found in the numerous instances in which God manifests a purpose of working even his miracles in accordance with the general laws by which he governs the world, and for that purpose disguising the naked exhibition of supernatural power, by the interposition of an apparent cause; while yet the true character of the event is left indisputable, by the utter inadequacy of the apparent cause to produce, by itself, the resulting effect. This tends to show that the tree, or portion of it, need not be supposed, from the mere fact of its being employed, to have had an inherent curative virtue. It had not necessarily any such virtue; and that it positively had not such virtue seems to follow, or, at least, to be rendered more than probable by the consideration that, in the scanty and little diversified vegetation of this district, any such very desirable virtues in a tree, or part of a tree, could scarcely have been undiscovered before the time of the history, and if they had been discovered, could not but have been known to Moses; and the Divine indication of the tree would not have been needful. And, again, if the corrective qualities were inherent, but were at this time first made known, it is incredible that so valuable a discovery would ever have been forgotten; and yet it is manifest that in after-times the Hebrews had not the knowledge of any tree which could render bad water drinkable; and the inhabitants of the desert have not only not preserved the knowledge of a fact which would have been so important to them, but have not discovered it in the thirty-five centuries which have since passed. This is shown by the inquiries of travelers, some of whom were actuated by the wish of finding a plant which might supersede the miracle. No such plant, however, can be found; and whatever the tree was, it can have had no more inherent virtue in sweetening the bitter well of Marah, than the salt had, which produced the same effect, when thrown by Elisha into the well of Jericho.'
Kitto, John, ed. Entry for 'Marah'. "Kitto's Popular Cyclopedia of Biblial Literature". https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/eng/kbe/m/marah.html.