Their story, your story (part 2)

Paul ends 1 Corinthians 9 with an implied warning.  Even he, a full-fledged apostle, refuses to rest on his laurels, freely subjecting himself to rigorous discipline so that he won’t be “disqualified” (vs. 27) from receiving the prize that awaits him.  He says nothing about what such disqualification might mean, and that’s not his point.  What he wants is for the Corinthians to have the same focus, the same hope-filled orientation: to want God’s glorious future so badly that they’re willing to do whatever is necessary to discipline themselves in the present.

In chapter 10, the warning becomes explicit:

Brothers and sisters, I want you to be sure of the fact that our ancestors were all under the cloud and they all went through the sea.  All were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea.  All ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink.  They drank from a spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ.  However, God was unhappy with most of them, and they were struck down in the wilderness.  (1 Cor 10:1-5, CEB)

Frankly, from where I sit culturally and historically, Paul’s language seems head-scratchingly odd.  We don’t know all that Paul’s imagery might have suggested to his original readers, but the basic meaning seems clear enough, and the verses that follow will further the point.

Notice first that Paul calls the Corinthians his “brothers and sisters” before referring to the Israelites as their common “ancestors.”  As suggested in the previous post, Paul is inviting these Gentiles into the “family story” of Israel.  He begins with the Exodus and the gracious intervention of God on behalf of his chosen people–but the story quickly turns into a cautionary tale of the disastrous consequences of idolatry.

Paul makes fragmented references to the Exodus narrative, assuming that his readers already know the story: the pillar of cloud which led the people by day, and which took a rearguard position between the Israelites and the Egyptian army as the people passed through the sea; afterward, the miraculous provision of food and drink in the wilderness, from manna and quail to water that gushed from a rock.

But Paul’s telling seems strange.  What does he mean by “baptized into Moses”?  Why does he use the word “spiritual” to describe food, drink, and even a rock?  Is he saying that a rock actually followed the people around from place to place (I can’t help but think of the Horta from the original Star Trek), giving them water as needed?  And what could he possibly mean by saying that “the rock was Christ”?

Who knows.  Scholars have to make their best guesses without full certainty.  Here’s what I think makes sense from what I’ve read:

  • Paul is concerned about how the Corinthians have been thinking about and celebrating the sacraments; indeed, much of chapter 11 will take them to task for their offensively clueless approach to the Lord’s Supper.  Here, therefore, he sets up his later argument by importing the metaphors of baptism and the common meal (food and drink) in a way that may feel awkward or forced to us.
  • “Spiritual” doesn’t necessarily suggest something non-physical or insubstantial, but something from or by the Spirit.
  • And what about that rock?  Some scholars point to rabbinic teachings of a miraculous well of water that actually accompanied the people in their wilderness wanderings.  Paul knows that his readers are familiar with the legend, and therefore draws on it in his imagery.  To then call the rock “spiritual” and to identify it with Christ may be his way of insisting in some way on the participation of both the Holy Spirit and the preexistent Christ in God’s gracious provision.

In other words, in the context of what he wants to accomplish pastorally through his letter, it would take us too far afield to read Paul as teaching some strange new doctrine.  The point of his all-too-brief cautionary tale is that the story of Israel is also their story, and just as the Israelites tragically took the incredible grace of God for granted, so too were they in the same danger.  Watch out, Paul will say shortly.  Don’t be so sure of yourself that you ignore the family story and fall down spiritually.

Do we take grace for granted?  Hmm.