The Waters of Marah; The Amalekites

5th century, with medieval and modern restorations
Mosaic
Nave, Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome

The upper register gives a remarkably economical rendition of Exodus 15:23-25. On the far right the Israelite in green tastes the water of the river Marah, and the one behind him puts his hand to his face to signal that the water is too bitter, illustrating 15:23, "they could not drink the waters of Mara, because they were bitter." A third Israelite, behind them, raises his hand up in the gesture of address and asks Moses, "What shall we drink?" (15:24). Then cries to the Lord, who "shewed him a tree, which when he had cast into the waters, they were turned into sweetness" (15:25). Consequently, the same three Israelites are shown on Moses' right, drinking eagerly from the sweetened water.

On the left side of the upper register Moses, Aaron, and the others seem to gesture to the river. The mosaics in this series tend to read left to right chronologically, so this scene may represent the initial arrival at the river. However, if we are supposed to read right-to-left this time Moses would be either telling the people about the sweetened water or telling them of God's promise (15:25b-26) that he will be their "healer" if they obey his laws.

The lower register depicts the prelude to the battle against the Amalekites (Exodus 17:8-9). The text says the Amalekites first "waged war" against the Israelites, but he mosaic only shows them gathered outside their stronghold at Rephidim. On the right, Moses tells Joshua, "Choose out men: and go out and fight against Amalec: to morrow I will stand on the top of the hill having the rod of God in my hand." This is what happens in the next mosaic panel.

This is part of the extensive series of Old Testament scenes portrayed in mosaics along the two walls of the nave. To view the others, follow this link.

View this image in full resolution.
Read more about Moses..

Photographed at the basilica by Richard Stracke, shared under Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license.