Last week’s Old Testament reading (Exodus 16:2-15) told the story of God feeding the people of Israel with manna after they crossed the Red Sea. This week’s reading (Exodus 17:1-7) recounts God’s subsequent provision of water from the rock. The apostle Paul saw the Christian sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper prefigured in these events.
For I do not want you to be ignorant of the fact, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud and that they all passed through the sea. 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. Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them; their bodies were scattered in the wilderness. (1 Corinthians 10:1-5)
“Prefigured” may be too weak a word. God delivered his people through the waters of the sea and then nourished them with spiritual food and drink in the wilderness. For Paul, the future messiah was present in these events. The rock from which Israel drank was Christ himself. Christ gave himself as spiritual nourishment to the Israelites in the desert and he gives himself to those who belong to him at the table.
But there is a “nevertheless” in Paul’s argument. He reminds his audience that all but two of the Israelites who crossed the sea and ate the manna and drank from the rock perished in the desert. God fulfilled his purposes and brought Israel into the land of promise, but countless individuals who had experienced his grace failed to inherit the land.
To put it bluntly, Paul is telling the Corinthians, “Just because you were baptized and take communion, you can still fail to inherit the kingdom of God.” And Paul makes this argument even though he had a “high” view of Christ’s presence in the sacraments.
Paul uses this episode to remind the Corinthian Christians of the need for God’s people to remain faithful. He warns them against idolatry, sexual immorality, failure to trust Christ and grumbling. He sees these things in the subsequent story of Israel, as well as in the life of the Corinthian church.
The authors and editors of Exodus use the story for a similar purpose. As Exodus tells the story, Israel crossed the sea into freedom by means of an unbelievably powerful act of God. Immediately, the people began to complain in a way that displayed a lack of trust in God’s ability to provide for them.
In the desert the whole community grumbled against Moses and Aaron. The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the LORD’s hand in Egypt! There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death.” (Exodus 16:2-3)
So they quarreled with Moses and said, “Give us water to drink.” Moses replied, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you put the LORD to the test?” But the people were thirsty for water there, and they grumbled against Moses. They said, “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to make us and our children and livestock die of thirst?” (Exodus 17:2-3)
How can people who witnessed the miracle at the Red Sea not believe that God will sustain them? The circumstances looked hopeless, but no more hopeless than when Israel’s back was to the sea, with Pharaoh’s army staring them in the face.
The stories reminded later generations that God had done great things in Israel’s past and warned them not to mistrust God. Israel’s situation might look hopeless when foreign armies marched through their fields and besieged their cities, but God’s people must continue to trust him. The real threat to Israel’s future wasn’t the army of Assyria or Babylon; it was Israel’s own propensity for unfaithfulness.