Every now and then I read something in the apostle Paul’s letters that trips me up—where he makes a claim or statement without offering any explanation and then moves on. For instance, while arguing why women should cover their heads during worship, he throws in the line “because of the angels” (1 Corinthians 11:10), but Paul never explains what he means. He just keeps writing and ignores the mental train wreck behind him as readers are left asking: “Wait, what about the angels?” And since nature and scholarship both abhor a vacuum, numerous explanations have been offered as to what Paul might have meant. Alas, we don’t know if any of the proposed solutions is in fact what Paul had in mind since he never tells us.
Another tricky passage is 1 Corinthians 10:4. There Paul recounts the story of Israel’s Exodus from Egypt and period of wandering in the wilderness. As he narrates how God led them through the Red Sea and fed and watered them in the desert, he makes the incredible claim: “For they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ.” If one isn’t reading carefully, it’s easy to miss Paul’s claim that the rock Moses struck to give the Israelites water followed them around the desert. But compare Paul’s claim with the Hebrew Bible, which nowhere states that the rock followed Israel around the desert—much less that Jesus was present in the shape of a rock. One is left wondering if Paul knew what he was talking about.
It would be easy to dismiss this as another example of a Pauline throwaway line, except that Paul is not the only person to suggest it. In another first-century C.E. document known as Pseudo-Philo’s Biblical Antiquities, we read: “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).
While there are some differences between Paul and Pseudo-Philo (a rock vs. a well), the parallels are striking. Both authors believe that a movable water source followed Israel in the desert during their wanderings. But how did they arrive at this interpretation?
The key seems to be something ancient interpreters observed in Israel’s Exodus story. Twice God miraculously provided Israel with water from a rock, once near Rephidim at the beginning of their wandering period (Exodus 17:1–7) and again at Kadesh toward the end (Numbers 20:1–14). Ancient interpreters may have asked the question: “What, then, did they drink in between?” What they seem to have concluded 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. Adding possible weight to this exegesis is Psalm 105:41, which states: “He opened the rock, and water gushed out; it went [Hebrew: klh] through the desert like a river” (author’s translation).
The “it” here is ambiguous. Did the rock travel through the desert or the water? Once again, some interpreters concluded that it was the rock that followed them.
With Paul and Pseudo-Philo we have two first-century sources that provide the earliest evidence for this interpretive tradition. The difference between identifying the water source as a well rather than a rock can probably be explained by the presence of a song in Numbers 21:16–20, where we read how Israel arrived at a well in Beer where God promised to “give (Hebrew: ntn) water to them.” Israel responds by singing about the well (21:17–18).1 The song is followed by a list of places on their itinerary: Mattanah, Nahaliel, Bamoth and a valley in Moab.
Some interpreters didn’t read “Mattanah” as the first stop on the itinerary but as a form of the Hebrew verb ntn (“it was given”). This led them to understand the itinerary as being that of the well rather than Israel.2 One place where the popularity of this interpretive tradition is evidenced is the Aramaic Targumim.3 One of the more developed and humorous versions of this tradition depicts the well as delivering water door-to-door: “And because it (the well) was given to them as a gift, it turned to ascend the high mountains with them and from the high mountains it descended with them to the valleys, going around the entire camp of Israel and giving them drink, each and every one of them at the door of his tent” (Targum Pseudo-Jonathon Numbers 21:19).
Nonetheless, the apostle Paul identifies the water source as a rock, not a well. It’s possible he was unaware of the moving-well tradition found in sources such as Pseudo-Philo and the Targumim. But his retention of the moving rock tradition may be for 066 practicable and theological reasons.
First, Exodus, Numbers and Psalm 105 all indicate that it was a rock, not a well, by which the Lord gave Israel water. Second, the rock was more relevant than the well for identifying Jesus as the water source that followed Israel. Paul may be reading Exodus 17:1–5 and Numbers 20:1–13 in conjunction with Psalm 118:22, which reads: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.” The “stone” in this psalm was interpreted by several early Christian interpreters as referring to Jesus (Matthew 21:42; Acts 4:11; 1 Peter 2:7). Thus, when Paul read the story of the water from a rock in Exodus and Numbers, he may have done so through the identification of Jesus with the stone in Psalm 118:22. By combining both of these interpretations, he concluded that Jesus was the rock that followed Israel around the desert providing them with water.
At the end of the day it’s unclear whether Paul really thought the rock followed Israel in the desert. 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. But the off-handed way in which he makes the comment demonstrates that it was a well-known interpretation in his day. A statement that creates a mental stumbling block for modern readers was probably taken in stride by those in Paul’s first audience who were familiar with Jewish methods of interpreting the Bible. And so in this case, Paul really does know what he’s talking about.
Every now and then I read something in the apostle Paul’s letters that trips me up—where he makes a claim or statement without offering any explanation and then moves on. For instance, while arguing why women should cover their heads during worship, he throws in the line “because of the angels” (1 Corinthians 11:10), but Paul never explains what he means. He just keeps writing and ignores the mental train wreck behind him as readers are left asking: “Wait, what about the angels?” And since nature and scholarship both abhor a vacuum, numerous explanations have been offered as to […]