In previous posts, we’ve seen how Paul wanted to pull the Gentile converts in Corinth into the story of Israel: despite the gracious provision of God in the Exodus and beyond, the people still acted faithlessly, and many died in the desert without entering the Promised Land (1 Cor 10:1-5).
We should assume that the stories to which Paul alludes were already familiar to his readers. His purpose is not to introduce something new, but to get them to “own” the tales as providentially preserved for their benefit, as personal warnings to steer clear of evil and idolatry (vss. 6, 11). He purposely picks stories that resonate with the problems in Corinth, namely idolatry, sexual immorality, arrogantly testing God, and their grumbling against Paul himself:
Don’t worship false gods like some of them did, as it is written, The people sat down to eat and drink and they got up to play. Let’s not practice sexual immorality, like some of them did, and twenty-three thousand died in one day. Let’s not test Christ, like some of them did, and were killed by the snakes. Let’s not grumble, like some of them did, and were killed by the destroyer. (1 Cor 10:7-10, CEB)
The central issue, in context, is the temptation to idolatry represented by the Corinthians’ stubborn insistence on their right to go to pagan temples. Paul thus leads with the story of the Golden Calf (Exod 32), in which the people grew tired of waiting for Moses to come down Mount Sinai, and demanded that Aaron give them an idol to follow and worship. Paul doesn’t say it directly, but the consequences of their folly were severe: 3,000 died by the sword that day (vs. 28), and an untold number by plague (vs. 35).
The phrase “got up to play” is probably an understatement: we might imagine instead something like the biggest frat party in history. That story segues into a reference to Israelite men having sex with Moabite women and falling into Baal worship (Num 25:1-9); the eventual consequence was that 24,000 died, again by plague (no one is certain why Paul says 23,000).
Paul then references a story from Numbers 21. The people complained against both God and Moses, even to the point of insulting God’s miraculous provision of manna: “Why did you bring us up from Egypt to kill us in the desert, where there is no food or water. And we detest this miserable bread!” (vs. 5, CEB).
The result? God sent poisonous snakes among them, and many died. Later, after Moses prayed for the people, God allowed him to fashion a bronze snake and put it up on a pole where people could see it; anyone who had been bitten and looked upon the snake would live (vss. 7-9).
How is this “testing Christ”? As suggested in a previous post, Paul in some way understands both Christ and the Holy Spirit to have been present in Old Testament events, and we should remember that Jesus himself suggested the connection between the lifting up of the bronze snake and the lifting of the Son of Man on the cross (John 3:14-15).
Finally, Paul refers to the people’s “grumbling,” the most disastrous example of which is found in Numbers 14. The people had reached the borders of Canaan. At God’s command, Moses had sent in spies to explore the land and bring back a report. They described the land as overflowing with “milk and honey” (Num 13:27), and Joshua and Caleb were enthusiastic. But the other spies were fearful, spreading rumors of the huge and terrifying inhabitants of the land (13:31-33). The people gave in to fear: they wept, complained, and rebelled against God and Moses, making plans to return to Egypt (14:1-4).
God threatened to destroy the people, but pleaded on their behalf and God relented. But not entirely. The people had dared to complain, “If only we had died in this desert!” (14:2, CEB). God’s response: all of the Israelites who were 20 years of age or older, with the exception of Joshua and Caleb, were condemned to continue wandering in the wilderness without entering the Promised Land. Their children would have to wait another 40 years, “suffer[ing] for your unfaithfulness, until the last of your bodies fall in the desert” (14:33, CEB).
Paul tweaks the Corinthians’ memory of such stories to make a point: “These things happened to them as an example and were written as a warning for us to whom the end of time has come” (1 Cor 10:11, CEB). The story of Israel is your prehistory, and even now, we are in the last chapters of the story God is writing. Heed the warning. Don’t be arrogant. Don’t play around with temptation!
Doom and gloom! Pestilence and plague! It’s not a particularly cheery passage. But Paul also has a word of encouragement for the Corinthians, if they will receive it. That gracious word will be the focus of the next post.