Water from a Walking Rock

What does Paul mean in 1 Corinthians 10:4?

This Bible History Daily feature was originally published in 2015.—Ed.

“… For they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ.”
—1 Corinthians 10:4


A WALKING ROCK IN THE DESERT. A walking rock, sailing stone, moving rock or sliding rock are all names for a rock that moves along a smooth valley floor without the assistance of humans or animals. What does Paul mean in the Bible when he talks about the “spiritual rock that followed” the Israelites during their wanderings in the wilderness? Is he talking about a walking rock? No—the natural phenomenon of a walking rock is very different than the miraculous water-giving rock mentioned in 1 Corinthians 10:4. Photo: Lgcharlot’s is licensed under CC-by-SA-4.0

What does Paul mean in the Bible when he says that the Israelites drank “from the spiritual rock that followed them” during their wanderings in the wilderness?

Paul makes this claim—in 1 Corinthians 10:4—while recounting how the Israelites were sustained in the wilderness after their dramatic Exodus from Egypt before they entered the Promised Land. They “all ate the same spiritual food” and “drank the same spiritual drink” (1 Corinthians 10:3–4).

Those familiar with the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) might stop and wonder: What does Paul mean? In the Bible, it says that the Israelites miraculously received water from a rock two times (Exodus 17:1–7 and Numbers 20:1–14). Both times Moses hit the rock, which then produced water, but the text never claims that the Israelites were followed by a water-giving rock. Therefore, what does Paul mean in 1 Corinthians 10:4?

John Byron examines this passage in his Biblical Views column “Paul, Jesus and the Rolling Stone” in the September/October 2015 issue of BAR.

Byron notes that, interestingly, Paul is not the only person to suggest that the Israelites were followed by a water source during their wilderness wanderings. A first-century C.E. source called Pseudo-Philo’s Biblical Antiquities makes a similar claim: “But as for his own people, he led them forth into the wilderness: Forty years did he rain bread from heaven for them, and he brought them quails from the sea, and a well of water following them” (10.7).

In the free eBook Paul: Jewish Law and Early Christianity, learn about the cultural contexts for the theology of Paul and how Jewish traditions and law extended into early Christianity through Paul’s dual roles as a Christian missionary and a Pharisee.


MOSES HIT THE ROCK, and water gushed forth—as depicted in this fresco by Raphael Sanzio. Did a water-giving rock follow the Israelites through the wilderness? If not, what does Paul mean in 1 Corinthians 10:4?

Pseudo-Philo claims that a well of water followed the Israelites through the wilderness, whereas in 1 Corinthians 10:4, Paul says that it was a rock that followed them. How did these two ancient interpreters come to their conclusions?

“What they seem to have concluded,” Byron explains, “is that since Moses named both the rock at Rephidim (Exodus 17:7) and the one at Kadesh (Numbers 20:13) ‘Meribah,’ the logical conclusion was that both were one and the same rock and that it, therefore, must have accompanied Israel on their journey.”

1 Corinthians 10:4 reflects a common ancient interpretation—that the Israelites were followed by a water source during their wilderness wanderings, which is demonstrated by Paul’s casual reference and supported by Pseudo-Philo.

In the passage, Paul makes a second unusual claim: The rock that followed the Israelites through the wilderness was Christ.

How should we respond to these two claims? Was Paul speaking literally or figuratively?

“At the end of the day it’s unclear whether Paul really thought the rock followed Israel in the desert,” Byron says. “Most ancient and modern commentators assume that Paul is reading Israel’s story typologically rather than suggesting that Jesus was present with Israel in the wilderness in the form of a movable water source.”

To see John Byron’s full explanation of 1 Corinthians 10:4, read his column “Paul, Jesus and the Rolling Stone” in the September/October 2015 issue of BAR.


BAS Library Members: Read the full Biblical Views column “Paul, Jesus and the Rolling Stone” by John Byron in the September/October 2015 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

Not a BAS Library member yet? Join the BAS Library today.

This Bible History Daily feature was originally published on September 7, 2015.


More on the Exodus in Bible History Daily:

Exodus in the Bible and the Egyptian Plagues

Who Was Moses? Was He More than an Exodus Hero?

Out of Egypt: Israel’s Exodus Between Text and Memory, History and Imagination

Searching for Biblical Mt. Sinai


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  • Chris says

    1 Cor 10: 4 says plainly that the rock was Christ and that it was spiritual. Jesus said that we live by every word that proceeds from the mouth Of the living God and his words are spirit and life. Could it be that Christ was with the Israelites speaking to them the words of life, the words of God and which include the Ten Commandments as well as the levitical laws?. Could it also be that he spoke many other things to them that are not recorded. Moses and his aide Joshua son of Nun Exodus 33: 11

  • Paul says

    Jesus is the only God that man has ever dealt with. I hope this edifies.


  • Paul says

    Hatshepsut was given a royal coronation no different than the male possessors of the title Pharaoh (Great House) and she also is purified in a ritual involving two gods. In this instance, Amon and Khonsu, each pouring water over the soon-to-be god incarnate king. In her temple at Deir el-Bahri these words were recited during the second purification ritual in which the queen is led away by the god Kheseti:
    “Leading the way to enter the ‘Great House’ (by) the ‘Pillar of his Mother’ (a priestly title) of the ‘Great House’ (for the) purification of ‘Great House.'”
    At the completion of the coronation the god Horus says “Thou hast established thy dignity as king, and appeared upon the Horus-Throne” (“Ancient Records of Egypt, vol.2, by James Henry Breasted, pp. 99-100).
    Thus does the pharaoh become the god-incarnate “Living Horus,” and thus was the meaning of the argument, “Its Jehovah in our midst or not?” (Exodus 17:7).

  • Paul says

    That is, the star-studded night (?).

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