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No. 51: The Rock That Followed Them

BIBLICAL Horizons, No. 51
July, 1993
Copyright 1993, Biblical Horizons

Paul’s passing comment about the rock that followed the Israelites in the wilderness has often been treated as a bit of Jewish tradition that crept into Paul’s epistle. This comment from The New Jerome Biblical Commentary is typical: "There is no hint of movement of the rock in the OT, but a legend developed on the basis of a Jewish interpretation of Num 21:17." Numbers 21:17 tells us that when Israel came to Beer ("well"), where Moses assembled the people to receive water, "Then Israel sang this song, `Spring up, O well! Sing to it!’" Jewish tradition apparently said that the water on this occasion came from the same rock that Moses had struck in Exodus 17, and which thus had travelled with the people to this new location.

It is true that the mobile rock was part of Jewish tradition, and it is plausible to suggest that Paul was referring to that tradition in 1 Corinthians 10:4. At the same time, I think it is also plausible that Paul was simply reflecting on the records of the Old Testament. Or, perhaps, the Jewish tradition itself grew out of meditation on Scripture.

This conclusion is suggested by the following considerations. First, "Rock" was one of Moses’ common designations for the Lord. The ways of the Rock are perfect and just (Dt 32:4). It was the Rock that brought salvation to Israel (Dt 32:15) and begot her (Dt 32:18). The rocks of the nations are not like "our Rock" (Dt 32:31, 37). Because of Israel’s sin, the Rock sold her and gave her up to defeat; if the Rock had not turned from Israel, she would have been invincible (Dt 32:30). In many of these instances, Moses’ use of "Rock" goes beyond metaphor and approaches personification.

Similar expressions are found outside the Pentateuch. The Rock spoke to David and cut a covenant with him (2 Sam 23:3-7; cf. 2 Sam 7). Numerous Psalms borrow this imagery as well (e.g., Ps 18:2, 31, 46; 62:2, 6; 89:26; 92:15; etc.). According to Isaiah, the everlasting Rock is trustworthy (26:4). Idols may be graven of rock, but in reality there is no other Rock (44:6-10).

More specifically, the "Lord our Rock" was present when Moses struck the rock in the wilderness. When the people complained, the Lord instructed Moses, "Behold, I will stand before you there on the rock at Horeb; and you shall strike the rock, and water will come out of it, that the people may drink" (Ex 17:6). That the Lord appeared in visible form on the rock of Horeb is evident from the fact that He "stood before" Moses (Ex 17:6). In what visible form did the Lord appear? In the context of Exodus, the only reasonable answer to this question is that the glory-cloud stood before Moses on the rock (Ex 13:21-22; 14:19, 24). According to James Jordan’s exposition of this passage, the glory-cloud stood before Moses and when Moses struck the rock, his rod passed through the cloud. The Lord thereby submitted to the rod of judgment, taking the punishment the people deserved for their insolence, and out of His vicarious suffering provided life-giving water. In short, when Moses struck the rock, he was also striking the Rock–and it was the latter that really provided water for the people.

This verbal play on the two senses of "rock" is also employed in Psalm 78. When Israel complained against the Lord, Moses struck the rock and water gushed out (v. 20). Later, the Lord sent meat that became poison to Israel (vv. 21-33). But "when He killed them, then they sought Him, and returned and searched diligently for God; and they remembered that God was their Rock, and the Most High God their Redeemer" (vv. 34-35). Other passages likewise suggest that the Rock is associated with the glory-cloud. Isaiah 30:27-33 undoubtedly refers to the Lord’s appearance in the storm cloud; the "name of the Lord" (v. 27) comes to the "mountain of the Lord" (v. 29) in burning and smoke (v. 27), flame, cloudburst, downpour, and hailstones (v. 30). In the midst of this description is an invitation to meet in festive assembly with the "Rock of Israel" (v. 29). Thus, the empirical reality that Paul calls the "Rock" may well have been the fire-and-cloud theophany that led Israel from Egypt.

The Rock of Israel, moreover, definitely followed, as well as led the Israelites through the wilderness. He was not only their guide, but their rear guard (Ex 14:19). In the context of describing the return from exile as a new Exodus (Is 52:4; cf. 48:20-21), Isaiah says that the Lord would go before and follow Israel (Is 52:12; 58:8). Paul’s emphasis on the fact that the Lord followed Israel is striking, however.

Finally, Paul calls the Rock that followed Israel "Christ." This, too, might be inferred from a careful study of connections between the glory of God, the Rock, and the Messiah in the Old Testament. The Rock is, after all, the Rock who brings salvation, and the Messiah is the agent of redemption. Moreover, the glory is a manifestation not only of the Spirit but also of the Son. (For evidence, I will simply refer the reader to Meredith Kline’s discussion in Images of the Spirit, especially pages 23-25). Thus, the event recorded in Exodus 17 points to Jesus, the image of the glory of God and Rock of offence, who was struck and from whom flows living water.