The rock that followed them

One of Paul’s more unusual uses of the Old Testament is found in his warning to the believers in Corinth not to fall into the same complacency as some of the Israelites had on the Exodus.

1 Co 10:1–4 I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ.[1]

But… the Israelites weren’t baptized in the sea – the whole point of the Red Sea crossing was that they did so on dry land, and baptism involves getting wet. The Israelites also weren’t baptized in a cloud – that’s not possible. They ate real food and drank real drink, not the spiritual variety. But, the oddest phrase by far is this: “they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them.”

Wait. The rock actually followed them? Up until this passage, scripture gives no indication that behind the Israelites rolled some water-dispensing boulder…

The Exodus record describes the events like this:

Ex 17:3–6 But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses… So Moses cried out to the LORD, “What shall I do with this people…” The LORD said to Moses, “Go on ahead of the people… I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.” Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel.

Here we find a rock that, when struck, dispensed water. Many years later, the Israelites encountered a similar rock:

Nu 20:1–11 The Israelites… came into the wilderness of Zin… Now there was no water for the congregation; so they gathered together against Moses and against Aaron… Then Moses and Aaron went away from the assembly to the entrance of the tent of meeting; they fell on their faces, and the glory of the LORD appeared to them. The LORD spoke to Moses, saying: …command the rock before their eyes to yield its water. Thus you shall bring water out of the rock for them… Moses and Aaron gathered the assembly together before the rock, and he said to them, “Listen, you rebels, shall we bring water for you out of this rock?” Then Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock twice with his staff; water came out abundantly…

So, on two occasions a rock was said to have dispensed water having been struck by Moses’ staff. But, where does it say in the Old Testament that it was the same rock, and that it followed the Israelites?

It quite plainly doesn’t. There is no mention of any such thing. So, where did Paul get the idea?

Pete Enns in his book “The Bible Tells Me So: Why defending scripture has made us unable to read it,” describes his shift in approach to the Bible. He describes various “turning points” in his life when his realization of the nature of scripture changed. His third turning point occurred as a teaching assistant for an undergraduate course on “The Bible and its Interpreters.” The question raised was, “how did they [the Israelites] get their water in their forty-year desert journey between Rephidim and Kadesh?

According to the Jewish professor teaching the course:

Some creative, ancient Jewish interpreters came up with the perfectly insane idea that the rock at the beginning and the rock at the end were actually one and the same rock. “How can that be?” (asks any normal person). “Simple” (say these ancient Jewish interpreters of the Bible); that one rock had “obviously” been following the Israelites around in the desert for forty years, sort of like a moveable drinking fountain.[2]

That really does seem to be the answer. Paul was not quoting scripture, and he wasn’t extrapolating from scripture. There isn’t an Old Testament passage that he’s got in mind; he’s likely entering directly into the world of Jewish Tradition.

Let’s take a look at a couple of examples of the sort of thing he may have had in mind. The first is from the Tosefta, a 2nd century AD document recording earlier Jewish oral tradition. Here’s what it says about “the rock that followed them”:

Tosefta Sukkah 3:11 And so the well which was with the Israelites in the wilderness was a rock, the size of a large round vessel, surging and gurgling upward, as from the mouth of this little flask, rising with them up onto the mountains, and going down with them into the valleys. Wherever the Israelites would encamp, it made camp with them, on a high place, opposite the entry of the Tent of Meeting.[3]

Sounds about right. Another example:

Pseudo-Philo 11.15 …he [God] commanded him [Moses] many things and showed him the tree of life, from which he cut off and took and threw into Marah, and the water of Marah became sweet. And it followed them in the wilderness forty years and went up to the mountain with them and went down into the plains.[4]

Though Paul gives the idea a uniquely Christian twist (“that rock was Christ”)[5], he does appear to have been building on Jewish tradition as if it was authoritative – as if the rock really had followed the Israelites around Sinai. What to do with this?

Well, it’s no big deal: Paul had a Jewish background, so that’s going to show through in his interpretation and teaching – that’s true of other New Testament writers too.

So, let’s be on the lookout for such phenomena in scripture, and let’s not turn them into things we have to believe were historical events. Instead, let’s try to understand what the writers aimed to get across to their first-century AD audience. In this case, that the Christians in Corinth should read of the events, and understand that,

… these things occurred as examples for us, so that we might not desire evil as they [the Israelites] did. – 1 Co 10:6.

Further reading


  1. All scripture quotations from the NRSV unless otherwise stated.
  2. Peter Enns, The Bible Tells Me So (HarperOne, 2014), 16-17.
  3. Jacob Neusner, The Tosefta (Ktav, 1981), 220.
  4. James H. Charlesworth, The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha and the New Testament: Expansions of the “Old Testament” and Legends, Wisdom, and Philosophical Literature, Prayers, Psalms and Odes, Fragments of Lost Judeo-Hellenistic Works (vol. 2; New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 1985), 319.
  5. Roy E. Ciampa and Brian S. Rosner, “1 Corinthians,” in Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI; Nottingham, UK: Baker Academic; Apollos, 2007), 724.

Author: Nat R