By Tom Smith
I have never been better served in my life than when I have had to confront something difficult. We want truth but we dislike pain. However, they are often bound together. The pressure that pain forces us into can allow us to see truth that we would have otherwise avoided.
In 1 Corinthians 10:1-13, Paul presses the church into a painful place because he is concerned that they are avoiding a truth that they must confront. The Corinthians have not properly located themselves in Scripture. They have forgotten where they actually live. They might think they live in Corinth. But according to divine geography, they live in the desert.
Paul opens this passage with a seemingly strange move. He writes of Israel being baptized in the Red Sea by Moses. This allows Paul to lay the groundwork for a comparison between Israel and the Church. For Paul is going to claim that the experience of Israel in the wilderness, is, figurally, the very experience of the Corinthians. It is not an analogy or similitude. What happened to Israel continues to happen to all people who interact with God. Paul further establishes the relation between Israel and the Church by saying that the one who saved Israel was none other than Jesus himself. He was the rock in the desert that received their blows, and from those wounds gave forth living water.
As Paul recounts this he then makes a somewhat terrifying statement. Jesus not only saved the Israelites, he also judged them. So when the Israelites deemed God’s desert provision of food and water to be inadequate, they in fact rejected Jesus himself. Indeed, they would have preferred to remain in Egyptian slavery. Denied this return, they reverted to a sort of “eat, drink, for tomorrow we die” nihilism, essentially saying, “Well, if we can’t get back to Egypt, we might as well get drunk and sleep around.”
Therefore, when Paul says that the Israelites were baptized, and then sustained and judged by Christ, he’s doing something more than providing a moral example. He’s placing the Corinthian church in figural correspondence with Israel. Through Paul’s interpretation, the Corinthians would not have been able to look at the Old Testament as merely the record of an angry God punishing an inept Israel. Instead, it’s a baptized community’s interaction with Jesus.
For Paul, it is not only that the Father is present in the Old Testament; Jesus was there — in an incarnate, sacrificial manner (even if hidden). But, more to Paul’s point in this passage, Jesus was not only saving his people, he himself was the one judging them. Paul seems to want to make the Corinthians afraid of Jesus.
First Corinthians 10:6 says, “Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did.” This might lead one to understand that the Old Testament is essentially a record of things that happened, mostly erroneous, that shouldn’t be repeated. For Paul, imaginatively laying the Old Testament directly on top of the Church does something far more.
In a figural sense, it is factually true that the Corinthians live in the desert. They have to wake up to this reality. For the desert is full of dangers: external threats, our own choices, even Jesus himself.
Since Paul is reading the Old Testament as a record of a baptized community’s interaction with Jesus, it seems like he views Jesus as fire. He gives us light, warms our house, and keeps us safe from predators. But, if the element is not respected and the rules of care not obeyed, the fire can break out and burn us and our house to the ground. “Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall” (10:13).
Anglicans used to say Psalm 95 every morning as the Invitatory to Morning Prayer. It ends: “Forty years long was I grieved with this generation … Unto whom I sware in my wrath that they should not enter into my rest.” Admittedly, this is harsh. The American prayer book did away with saying the full psalm in 1789, omitting the verses about wrath and inserting part of Psalm 96. The 1979 prayer book provides options for reciting the Venite in its entirety, either in its traditional form (p. 146) or the contemporary translation in the Psalter (p. 724). The Canadian prayer book retains the whole psalm, however the widely-used Book of Alternative Services follows the American pattern, by omitting the verses on judgment and rejection.
I understand the impulse behind these decisions is driven by the desire to edify believes during public worship. But I am not convinced; I want the truth even if it stings. It appears to me that Anglicans used to say the whole psalm because they wanted to maintain a healthy fear. They wanted to remember where they truly lived and not get themselves hurt by neglecting the landscape.
If my family and I were suddenly dropped in the middle of the Sahara, I’d be out of my mind to goof around and relax. Instead, we’d need to find food, water, and shelter as soon as possible. The only proper response to being in the desert would be a reasonable amount of fear.
Or let’s imagine that a friend wanted to take me hunting in the mountains during the fall. I’ve never been hunting so my friend tells me everything I need to survive. But, rather than listen, I show up with shorts, t-shirt, and no water. My friend would be rightly wrathful toward me. I have forgotten where I am. Exposed to elements, I could get myself killed.
When we avoid the idea of divine wrath and fear of judgment, it shows we have forgotten where we live. Christians do not live in indulgent Corinth or comfortable America. We live in the desert. The appropriate response is a degree of fear. And, moreover, we might even be grateful for the occasional warning of divine wrath to remind us: Psalm 95.
The Israelites’ fundamental problem in the wilderness was that they did not see Jesus’ way of providing for them to be satisfactory. They rejected the means of survival but, being in the desert, this obviously only got them killed. There was nothing else out there to keep them alive.
Paul is convinced that the same is true for the Corinthians. They have been baptized and so joined themselves to Jesus. Whether they fully grasp it or not, the Exodus event of being saved by Jesus has now placed them in a desert. It is understandable that they were not expecting this to be the case. No one ever does. One would think that being saved leads next to the Promised Land. Not so. The Corinthians will learn this from Paul or they will learn the hard way. But one cannot just wish the desert away. It’s where we are. It is in our best interest to admit this and adjust. Denying it is only going to get us hurt.
If Paul is right, and the Corinthians are traversing the wilderness, then the next question they need to ask themselves is, “Is Jesus enough for us?,” because if they go looking for something else to satisfy them, then they will in fact be rejecting Jesus. But to reject Jesus, after being saved by him and entering into covenant with him, is to be judged by him.
It is then not surprising that Paul makes the figural connection between manna and the Lord’s Supper in 10:14-22 and then in chapter 11, going as far as to as say that those who eat unworthily risk judgment (“many of you are weak and ill and some have died”). As Israel was judged for rejecting the manna (Jesus), we Christians will be judged for choosing food other than Jesus to sustain us in the desert.
All these themes (Israel, Church, food, wrath, fear, honesty, truth, and lies) are tied to a figural geography. Paul’s reading of the Old Testament suggests that the records of Israel are not merely something that happened, but something that happens. Too often we read the Old Testament as only the account of the disastrous actions of incompetent Israel. Paul seems to be saying that this is an enormous mistake that fails to confront the true location of the Church in divine time and place (as opposed to our own conception of where and when we are). It is of greatest importance that we be brutally honest about this.
The Church will walk the course that Israel walked (and that Jesus walked — rejection, death, and, ultimately, resurrection). No one gets to leap over the desert and into the Promised Land. That is hard to swallow, but it is true. However, facing this truth only benefits us, because it will better prepare us for life in the desert. We can be grateful for the pain and the pressure. Distractions will not help. In fact, they may get us killed. Psalm 95 was said every morning for a reason: It is all too easy to forget.