How did the bitter waters turn sweet at Marah?

What was the tree that did it?

THE BOOK OF EXODUS IN THE BIBLE records that when the Israelites camped at a place called Marah, in the wilderness of Shur, they could not drink the water there because it tasted bitter. Then God showed Moses a tree, which when cast into the waters, turned the water sweet and drinkable.

Skeptics have doubted that there are trees that can purify water quickly this way. But one tree being used to purify water today is Moringa oleifera. This tree has been used successfully to cleanse turbid waters from the River Nile and other areas. Could this be the one referred to in the Bible?

Moringa oleifera - the tree that turned bitter waters sweet?After Moses led the Israelites through the miraculous Red Sea crossing, described in the Bible's book of Exodus (15:25), they went into the wilderness of Shur — in the north-west of the Sinai Peninsula.

The Israelites travelled for three days without finding water. When they finally came to a place with water, which they named Marah, they decided to camp there.

But they could not drink from the waters at Marah because the taste was too bitter. They complained to Moses, who asked God what they could drink.

Then God showed Moses a tree, “which when he had cast into the waters, the waters were made sweet”.

What was this tree? Are there really trees that can turn bad water into clean drinking water — trees that will purify water quickly to make it drinkable?

Moringa oleifera

One of the most remarkably useful trees is one being cultivated heavily for use in the Sudan. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations said that village women had successfully used the tree Moringa oleifera (pictured at top) to cleanse the highly turbid water of the River Nile. After trying other moringa species in Egypt, Namibia, Somalia, and Kenya, they too have shown properties that clarify water quickly.

Bottles of dirty and clean water When moringa seeds are crushed and poured into a pot or bottle of dirty water, the water turns transparent within seconds. The seeds' anti-bacterial properties can turn low, medium, and high turbidity waters into tap-water quality in an hour or two.

Studies on the effectiveness of moringa seeds for treating water have been done since the 1970s, and have consistently shown that moringa is especially effective in removing suspended particles from water with medium to high levels of turbidity (muddiness or dirtiness).

In water with high turbidity, a litre of water needs only one of the horseradish-smelling seeds for effective treatment. In low turbity, one seed may do 4 litres. When the water is boiled, this increases its nutritional effectiveness by making inactive a nutrition-inhibiting protein (lectin).

Widely cultivated

The moringa tree today seems to be native only to the southern foothills of the Himalayas, but it has been grown wonderfully elsewhere in dry, sandy soil, and it tolerates poor soil. It can grow to a height of about 10 metres.

Apart from Africa, moringa trees are being cultivated in India, Sri Lanka, Guatemala, Mexico, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and elsewhere. We are now growing a few Moringa trees around our Creation Tips office in Australia, as we are situated in a semi-rural area and rely mostly on tank water.

Moringa flowers

Above: Beautiful moringa flowers are used for decoration and in health products.


Moringa oleifera seeds Almost every part of Moringa oleifera is useful. The leaves are inexpensive and are used in soups, and with meat, chicken and vegetable dishes. The leaves are somewhat like spinach in both looks and nutritional value. Fresh leaves have 4 times the calcium of milk, 7 times the vitamin C in oranges, and 4 times the vitamin A in carrots. They are used in tea, soup, and porridge.

Moringa's bark, roots, fruit, flowers, leaves, seeds (photo at right) and gum are used as an antiseptic and in medicines to treat rheumatism, bites and other ailments. The seed pod has been used to desalinate sea water.

The bark and roots are used as a spice and in soap; seed oil is used in cooking, machine lubrication, and cosmetics; the wood is used for fences and firewood. The flowers are also used in religious festivals, churches, and to decorate houses. Powdered moringa is used in cakes, fish feed, and cattle feed.

The Marah tree?

Moringa shoot 12 days after planting We cannot be dogmatic in saying that the moringa was the tree the Israelites used to purify the waters of Marah. The Bible does not give us enough information about either the tree or the water. (Marah means “bitterness” by the way, which is why they named that place Marah).

It is also not certain whether the miracle was in God's revealing to Moses the type of tree that would solve the problem, or in God's producing a one-off miracle using a tree at the campsite. But the wording that says “the Lord shewed him [Moses] a tree” seems to be saying the solution was in a tree that was already growing in the area.

In any case, we do know that the moringa has remarkable properties — especially for rapidly purifying undrinkable water. So if we want to know, “Is there a tree that can quickly purify undrinkable water?”, the answer is clearly Yes. “Can the tree grow in that area?” Again the answer seems to be Yes.


Moringa flowers photo by Harvey McDaniel is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 License.

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