They were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. They all ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ. I Corinthians 10:4 2-4: NIV
In the Old Testament, a rock can be:
- a physical hiding place or refuge from enemies
- a symbol of the barrenness of wilderness
- a geographical landmark
- a memorial to an event, such as the crossing of the Jordan or winning a battle
- a burial marker
- an alter for burnt offerings
An Old Testament rock is, in other words, a surprisingly flexible image. Our passage today references a story about the Rock of Horeb from Exodus 17. At Horeb, God provided water for his thirsty people by having Moses strike a rock with his staff, at which water poured out. In this case, the nature of the rock seems to emphasize the miraculous nature of God’s provision: A rock is something very hard and very solid, something unchanging and predictable. One would not, ordinarily, expect water to come gushing forth.
Why,1 in the passage above, does Paul associate Christ the risen Lord with the rock of Horeb in the desert?2 I believe it’s an echo of the first verses of the gospel of John, in which the writer so poetically emphasizes that Christ was with God from the beginning, because Christ is God. Paul is pointing out that Christ has been part of the story all along, and in so doing he puts a new twist on a familiar story. Not only is the rock in this story a miraculous demonstration of God’s provision for his people, this rock is the saving presence of Christ himself, ready to provide for the physical needs of his people, but also ready, with the grace he will secure on Calvary, to forgive their sins and provide for their spiritual needs as well.
Water rushing from rocks in deserts and manna falling from the sky can seem a little remote and outside our experience. The Christmas image of the baby Jesus saying in a manger is beautiful to us, in part, because it is relatable. The emotions that a newborn baby excites in us are tender and sweet, and at Christmas, the human nature of Jesus – the fact that he is like us “in every way” (Hebrews 2:17) seems more real and easier to accept. Today’s passage, however, reminds us that the mystery of the incarnation is about God’s providing in unexpected ways. The people of Israel did not expect to find water flowing from a rock, and the Jewish people, though watching and waiting for the messiah, did not expect to find him in a humble baby boy laying in a feeding trough.
In this advent season, when we celebrate the incarnation, let us be careful to not let the sentimentality of the Christmas story hide the mystery of the God of the universe becoming that vulnerable child laying in a manger. That child is the same rock that miraculously provided for the Israelites in the desert, and he is the same rock in whom we can trust today. Look for him in unexpected ways this advent season.
In contrast, its use in the New Testament seems more mundane. It is most often used simply to refer to a feature of the physical terrain. This may be due to differences between the Hebrew language of the Old Testament and the Greek in which the New Testament was written. Only in I Cor 10:4 is it used to refer to Christ, when Paul refers to Christ as that rock at Horeb, through which God provided drink for His people. ↩
Some commentators believe that Paul is referring to the Jewish oral tradition that in addition to the pillar of cloud/fire that followed Israel, a physical stone did as well, which provided water for them on all of their wanderings. This would be a good way to make sense of what Paul means when he refers to “the spiritual rock that accompanied them”. However, I don’t think it’s necessary to appeal to an extra-Biblical explanation when the rock that provided water is already explained in Exodus as the rock of Horeb. It does make me wonder a bit what Paul meant by spiritual in “they ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink”. ↩