What does Paul mean in 1 Corinthians 10:4?
“… For they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ.”
—1 Corinthians 10:4
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).
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.
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This Bible History Daily feature was originally published on September 7, 2015.
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