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Desert Wanderings – what is eau de vie?


Authors: Jo Milgrom and Yoel Duman







Desert Wanderings – what is eau de vie?


In the description of the Children of Israel’s wandering in the desert, several components recur: the people complaining about a lack of water and food and their doubts over Moses’ leadership; Moses appealing to God to resolve the problem; the Divine supply of water and food. Particularly well known is the story of the taking of water from the rock, which actually appears twice, in
Exodus 17 and again in Numbers 20. The version in Numbers is known in particular as the reason why Moses was not permitted to enter the land of Israel. Below is the text:

1 Then the sons of Israel, the whole congregation, came to the wilderness of Zin in the first month; and the people stayed at Kadesh. Now Miriam died there and was buried there.
2 There was no water for the congregation, and they assembled themselves against Moses and Aaron.
3 The people thus contended with Moses and spoke, saying, If only we had perished when our brothers perished before the Lord!
4 Why then have you brought the Lord’s assembly into this wilderness, for us and our beasts to die here?
5 Why have you made us come up from Egypt, to bring us in to this wretched place? It is not a place of grain or figs or vines or pomegranates, nor is there water to drink.
6 Then Moses and Aaron came in from the presence of the assembly to the doorway of the tent of meeting and fell on their faces. Then the glory of the Lord appeared to them;
7 and the Lord spoke to Moses, saying,
8 Take the rod; and you and your brother Aaron assemble the congregation and speak to the rock before their eyes, that it may yield its water. You shall thus bring forth water for them out of the rock and let the congregation and their beasts drink.
9 So Moses took the rod from before the Lord, just as He had commanded him;
10 and Moses and Aaron gathered the assembly before the rock. And he said to them, Listen now, you rebels; shall we bring forth water for you out of this rock?
11 Then Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock twice with his rod; and water came forth abundantly, and the congregation and their beasts drank.


However, in addition to the account of water flowing from the rock, there are stories about the purification of a spring (
Exodus 15:22-25), the discovery of springs (Exodus 15:27) and the digging of a well (Numbers 21:16-21). Although it is possible to understand the recurring stories as a reflection of the harsh reality of desert wandering, the midrashic imagination of the Sages saw in them more than just a chain of separate coincidences and more than a mere logistical problem. This view is reflected in numerous explanations in the Midrashim from various periods that seek to link all the events together and to understand them symbolically.









The Miracle of the Water in the Dura Europos Synagogue


Below is a wall painting an ancient synagogue uncovered in 1932 in the city of Dura Europos, Syria. The synagogue there was built and destroyed in the 3rd century CE.


Dura Europos, The Water Miracles in the Desert

Dura Europos, The Water Miracles in the Desert


A large menorah dominates the center of the painting; below it is an oval structure from which or to which several gray strips lead. Beside the oval structure stands a large figure pointing at it with its two hands. And 12 small figures stand before houses arrayed in an inverted U-shape. When the painting was uncovered, various interpretations were suggested. Based on a comparison of the large figure, dressed in the style of a Hellenist teacher, and
other paintings in the synagogue , the figure has been identified as Moses; the 12 small figures, dressed as Persian princes, were identified as the tribal chiefs. In other words, two major cultural influences on Dura Europos are recognizable in these figures: Roman and Persian. What we have here, then, is a painting of the camps of Israel, with the Tabernacle located at the top of the inverted U. Once one discerns that Moses is holding a staff that he inserts into the round structure, it becomes clear that this is a painting of the miracle of the water described in Exodus 15, the sweetening of the bitter waters of Mara.









Strange elements of the painting

But unexplained elements remain:

• The inverted U-shape and the placement of the Tabernacle at its top do not correspond to the description of the camps in the Torah, according to which the Tabernacle stood in the center of the camp, and the 12 tribes surrounded it on four sides in a square.

• The strips linking the spring/well to the homes of the tribes are not mentioned in the Bible at all.

• Neither the relationship between the spring/well and the Tabernacle nor the placement of the Tabernacle’s vessels (the menorah, the two altars for incense and the table of the shewbread) have not been explained adequately.

As for the Tabernacle, a look at

Numbers 20:6f
.clarifies that at least in this story, there is indeed a close connection between the Tent of Meeting, i.e., the Tabernacle and the rock from which the water emerged. In addition, it appears that there is a connection between the twelve princes/tribal encampments and the twelve springs in Exodus 15:27. And the oval structure appears to be the mouth of a well, in accordance with Numbers 21. Therefore, it seems that our painting relates to some sort of combination of all the water miracles in the Torah. But the meaning of the strips has still unclear.









The Mystery of the Paths

Since it is known that rabbinic Midrashim underlie many of the Dura Europos synagogue paintings, scholars searched sources that discuss the water miracles that occurred in the desert, in order to solve these mysteries.

Tosefta Sukka features a description of the well which is also a rock filled with compartments that spurt water out of all of its openings. The well wanders with the children of Israel and halts at every stop opposite the Tabernacle.

Targum Yonatan, which contains extensive midrashic material, adds to the text in Numbers 21 that Miriam’s well wandered with the children of Israel throughout their journey and its waters flowed to the entrance of the tent of each and every one of the children of Israel.

And in the book Biblical Antiquities, a composition dating to the Second Temple era, there is a Midrash that deals with the water crisis at Mara, which occurred at the beginning of the period of wandering (Exodus 15). In this composition too, the well travels with the nation, but here Moses sweetens its waters using the Tree of Life, identified as a metaphor for the Torah. This identification, also found in Proverbs 3:18 (“she is a tree of life”), is based on the unique wording of the text in Exodus 15:25:

 

And he cried to the Lord and the Lord showed him a tree, which when he had cast into the waters, the waters were made sweet. There he made for them a statute and an ordinance and there he tested them.

 

Note the use of the Hebrew word, vayoruhu, `and the Lord showed/taught him.`
It seems that according to the Midrashim, the rock, the well and the spring are none other than symbols or metaphors for one thing – the Torah.

 

The source of fresh water [i.e., the Torah] traveled with the Children of Israel for 40 years and stood opposite the entrance to the Tabernacle at every camp and disappeared when they were idle from Torah study            Targum Yonatan








The Significance of the Pictures Structure


Now let us again consider the painting from Dura Europos, here shown only with the basic structure of the camp. Next to the painting from Dura Europos is a medieval depiction of the layout of the Israelites camp. As in the painting from Dura Europos, tents are used to portray the tribes encamped around the Tabernacle.


The two depictions are almost identical. But in the later painting, the tents are arranged in a square and the Tabernacle is in the middle. In the Dura Europos painting, the artist drew in the middle the contents of the Tabernacle: the well-rock-spring = the Torah as well as the Tabernacle vessels. In order to display these objects, he had to open the bottom side of the square and move the Tabernacle to the upper edge. Thus, the Dura Europos painting is more than just an illustration of a passage from the Torah. Using the Midrashic imagination, the artist is teaching the role of the Torah as the most basic need, the source of living water and the guide of the People of Israel, for his own time just as for the generation of the Desert wandering, in a world full of difficulties and uncertainties.


Article Sources:

Exodus 15:22-26
22 Then Moses led Israel from the Red Sea, and they went out into the wilderness of Shur; and they went three days in the wilderness and found no water. 23 When they came to Marah, they could not drink the waters of Marah, for they were bitter; therefore it was named Marah. 24 So the people grumbled at Moses, saying, What shall we drink? 25 Then he cried out to the Lord, and the Lord showed him a tree; and he threw it into the waters, and the waters became sweet.
There He made for them a statute and regulation, and there He tested them. 26 And He said, If you will give earnest heed to the voice of the Lord your God, and do what is right in His sight, and give ear to His commandments, and keep all His statutes, I will put none of the diseases on you which I have put on the Egyptians; for I, the Lord, am your healer.
 
Exodus 15:27
Then they came to Elim where there were twelve springs of water and seventy date palms, and they camped there beside the waters.
 
Exodus 17:1-7
1 Then all the congregation of the sons of Israel journeyed by stages from the wilderness of Sin, according to the command of the Lord, and camped at Rephidim, and there was no water for the people to drink. 2 Therefore the people quarreled with Moses and said, Give us water that we may drink. And Moses said to them, Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord? 3 But the people thirsted there for water; and they grumbled against Moses and said, Why, now, have you brought us up from Egypt, to kill us and our children and our livestock with thirst? 4 So Moses cried out to the Lord, saying, What shall I do to this people? A little more and they will stone me. 5 Then the Lord said to Moses, Pass before the people and take with you some of the elders of Israel; and take in your hand your staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. 6 Behold, I will stand before you there on the rock at Horeb; and you shall strike the rock, and water will come out of it, that the people may drink. And Moses did so in the sight of the elders of Israel. 7 He named the place Massah and Meribah because of the quarrel of the sons of Israel, and because they tested the Lord, saying, Is the Lord among us, or not?
 
Numbers 20:1-11
1 Then the sons of Israel, the whole congregation, came to the wilderness of Zin in the first month; and the people stayed at Kadesh. Now Miriam died there and was buried there.
2 There was no water for the congregation, and they assembled themselves against Moses and Aaron. 3 The people thus contended with Moses and spoke, saying, If only we had perished when our brothers perished before the Lord! 4 Why then have you brought the Lord
’s assembly into this wilderness, for us and our beasts to die here? 5 Why have you made us come up from Egypt, to bring us in to this wretched place? It is not a place of grain or figs or vines or pomegranates, nor is there water to drink. 6 Then Moses and Aaron came in from the presence of the assembly to the doorway of the tent of meeting and fell on their faces. Then the glory of the Lord appeared to them; 7 and the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 8 Take the rod; and you and your brother Aaron assemble the congregation and speak to the rock before their eyes, that it may yield its water. You shall thus bring forth water for them out of the rock and let the congregation and their beasts drink.
9 So Moses took the rod from before the Lord, just as He had commanded him; 10 and Moses and Aaron gathered the assembly before the rock. And he said to them, Listen now, you rebels; shall we bring forth water for you out of this rock? 11 Then Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock twice with his rod; and water came forth abundantly, and the congregation and their beasts drank.
 
Numbers 21:16-19
16 From there they continued to Beer, that is the well where the Lord said to Moses, Assemble the people, that I may give them water.
17 Then Israel sang this song:
Spring up, O well! Sing to it!
18 The well, which the leaders sank,
Which the nobles of the people dug,
With the scepter and with their staffs.
And from the wilderness they continued to Mattanah, 19 and from Mattanah to Nahaliel, and from Nahaliel to Bamoth, 20 and from Bamoth to the valley that is in the land of Moab, at the top of Pisgah which overlooks the wasteland
 
Psalms 78:13-31
13 He divided the sea and caused them to pass through,
And He made the waters stand up like a heap.
14 Then He led them with the cloud by day
And all the night with a light of fire.
15 He split the rocks in the wilderness
And gave them abundant drink like the ocean depths.
16 He brought forth streams also from the rock
And caused waters to run down like rivers.
17 Yet they still continued to sin against Him,
To rebel against the Most High in the desert.
18 And in their heart they put God to the test
By asking food according to their desire.
19 Then they spoke against God;
They said, Can God prepare a table in the wilderness?
20 Behold, He struck the rock so that waters gushed out,
And streams were overflowing;
Can He give bread also?
Will He provide meat for His people?
21 Therefore the Lord heard and was full of wrath;
And a fire was kindled against Jacob
And anger also mounted against Israel
 
Psalms 105:41-42
41 He opened the rock and water flowed out;
It ran in the dry places like a river.
42 For He remembered His holy word
With Abraham His servant;
 
Pseudo-philo 11:14
And then God spoke unto him his justice and judgments, and kept him by him 40 days and 40 nights. And there did he command him many things, and showed him the tree of life, whereof he cut and took and put it into Mara, and the water of Mara was made sweet and followed them in the desert 40 years, and went up into the hills with them and came down into the plain.
 
Targum Yonatan Numbers 21:17-20
17. Behold, therefore, Israel sang praise (in) that song at the time when the well, which was given to them by the merit of Miriam, after it had been hidden, returned: Rise, O well! Rise, O well, they were singing to it and it rose. 18. The well which the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the leaders, dug from of old; the chiefs of the people, Moses and Aaron, the scribes of Israel (dug it; they) measured it out with their staffs. And from (the time of) the desert (sojourn) it was given to them as a gift. 19. And be­cause it (the well) was given to them as a gift, it turned to ascend the high mountains with them, and from the high mountains it descended with them to the valleys, going around the entire camp of Israel and giving them drink, each and everyone of them at the door of his tent. 20. And from the high mountains it de­scended with them to the deep valleys and disappeared from them at the borders of the Moabites, at the top of the height, which is oriented in the direction of Jeshimon, because they have neglected the words of the Law.
 
 
Tosefta Sukka 3:3
… all the waters created at the Creation are destined to go forth from the mouth of this little flask.
And so the well which was with the Israelites in the wilderness was a rock full of compartments surging and gurgling upward, as from the mouth of this little flask, rising with them up onto the mountains, and going down with them into the valleys.
Wherever the Israelites would encamp, it made camp with them, on a high place, opposite the entry of the Tent of Meeting.
The princes of Israel come and surround it with their staffs, and they sing a song concerning it: Spring up, O Well! Sing to it; the well which the princes dug, which the nobles of the people delved with the scepter and with their staves(Num. 21:17-18).
And they well upward like a pillar on high, and each one [of the princes] draws water with his staff, each one for his tribe and each one for his family, as it is said: The well which the princes dug.
And from Mattanah to Nahaliel, and from Nahaliel to Bamoth, and from Bamoth to the valley lying in the region of Moab by the top of Pisgah. which looks down upon the desert (Num. 21:19-20).
This surrounds the entire camp of Israel and provides water for the whole desert, as it is said, Which looks down upon the desert.
And this is turned into mighty streams, as it is said, The streams over­flow(Ps. 78:20).
They sit in small boats and come together, as it is said, It flowed through the desert
like a river(Ps. 105:41).
He who goes up on the right goes up on the right, and he who goes up on the left goes up on the left.
So the water which flows forth from it is made into a great river and flows into the Great Sea.
And they derive from it all necessary goods, as it is said, For the Lord your God has blessed you in all the work of your hands; he knows your going through this great wilderness; these forty years the Lord your God has been with you; you have lacked nothing(Deut. 2:7).