One of the joys of taking a day off from a research project and writing is that you sometimes get to explore a related topic that branches off, but has your curiosity piqued, but you don’t have to time to really address it. One area of interest that I have had, which I briefly expressed the other day, is the relationship of 1 Corinthians 10.1-13 and Exodus 23.20-23. In brief, I suggested the idea that Paul’s discourse implies a connection of Jesus to the ‘messenger’ (מַלְאָךְ) of the Lord who goes before the Israelites, but I didn’t have space to expand the idea in that specific post.
Before explaining the connection, I want to situate this within the setting of 1 Corinthians as a whole. In 1 Corinthians 1-4, Paul addresses the topic of wisdom; the concern for the Corinthians is that they are failing to comprehend how Gods teaches wisdom. They regarded wisdom to be taught much as they expected in the prevailing forms of Greco-Roman wisdom, in which different people reputed to be wise would obtain a large following (Paul’s near-contemporary Epictetus is an example of the celebrity that comes with being considered wise). However, this leads to social competitions between various people considered to be wise to determine who was right and wrong through the demonstration of their wisdom. The Corinthians had treated the various Christian teachers, apparently including even Jesus, as operating in competition with each other and failed to truly comprehend that it was God who was at work in them in the crucifixion of Christ and the giving of the Spirit and failed to understand the significance of this when it comes to the life of gatherings. In 1.30-2.16, Paul defines Jesus as the source of God’s wisdom and that the teachers collaboratively together, not competitively, have the mind of Christ in virtue of the diverse inspirations of the Spirit working together. While Paul primarily emphasizes God’s work through the Holy Spirit in 1 Cor. 2, what is also at stake is an understanding of who Jesus is. He is not merely a teacher of wisdom pitted against others teachers, but He is the source of God’s wisdom, echoing a familiar theme in Proverbs 8 and Second Temple Judaism of a hypostatized wisdom that was in involved in the creation and operation of the world.
What were the Corinthians primarily thinking about Jesus? It is difficult to pin down exactly what they were thinking because we only have Paul’s side with a few briefs hints. However, a few clues could point us in the right direction. Firstly, the philosophy of Stoicism was the prevailing philosophy of the day in circles of Roman power. One of the bigger themes that the Stoics taught about God is about the providence of God. There is a regular order and function of the world and cosmos, and Stoics like Seneca and Epictetus identified this order as “God” or “Zeus.” Occasionally, noteworthy and virtuous figures of wisdom would come around who exemplified some imitable trait. For instance, Epictetus in his Discourses 3.26.27-28 says the following:
Does any good man fear that he may run out of food? The blind don’t run out of food, nor do the crippled; so will a good man run out of it? A good soldier doesn’t fail to find someone to employ him and pay him his wages, nor does a good workman or a good cobbler; so will a good man fail to find anyone? Does God so neglect his own creatures, his servants, his witnesses, the only people he can make use of as an example (παραδείγμασιν) to the uneducated, to prove that he both exists and governs the universe wisely, and doesn’t neglect human affairs, and that nothing bad ever happens to a good person, either during his lifetime or after his death?
The idea is such that particular people show off the nature of God’s providence to the world. That the Corinthians are thinking about God’s providence is evident in Paul’s demonstration of their contradictory beliefs about Jesus’ resurrection and the general resurrection in 1 Cor. 15.12-19. In v. 19 he concludes his rebuttal of their contradictory beliefs by saying: “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” (NRSV) This verse here perhaps identifies what is happening with some of the Corinthians: some are thinking that Christ is a hope for the present life alone. While the connection isn’t directly in the text, so we there is no proof of this, it is plausible to suggest that the Corinthians’ believed Jesus to be an example of God’s own caring providence, similar to how Epictetus reasoned. Perhaps some Corinthians thought Jesus as a teacher who taught the wisdom about the way the world presently is, rather than one in whom God has demonstrated His world-changing wisdom in the resurrection. Christ did not simply teach some wisdom about God and the world, but in His very person, the events of His life, crucifixion, and resurrection have revealed the very nature of God’s wisdom to be a world-changing, world-shaking wisdom from God.
Now, this brings us to 1 Corinthians 10.1-13. Before getting into its relationship to Exodus 23, we can imagine one possible purpose for Paul in this discourse for the Corinthians in their hearing. If they have understood Christ as simply a teacher that made known God’s providence, then what is the harm of failing to obey? In the Stoic philosophical, wisdom was in part about aligning oneself to the way the world is ordered. But in 1 Corinthians 10, Paul portrays Jesus as actively involved in the life of Israel in the wilderness. This is no mere providence that failure to obey simply lead to some mild consequence based upon failing to be appropriately aligned to the order of things; Israel’s disobedience leads to God’s displeasure and action even as Christ was providing for them. This would serve as a warning to the Corinthians that even as they are experiencing the blessings of Christ through the Spirit, God could be displeased with their behavior.
What I want to first highlight here is that Paul does not portray Christ as the destroyer. He is Israel’s protector and provider, but as stated in 1 Cor. 10.9, Israel’s response to Christ (or the Lord depending on the manuscript) lead to the appearance of serpents. Paul doesn’t say that Christ sent the serpents, but only suggests there was a connection between the two. But if you take a close look at the passage Paul is referring to, Numbers 21.4-9, the only people being said to be spoken against is God and Moses (v. 5). While those of us who are confessional, orthodox Christians might be tempted to connect Jesus in 1 Cor. 10.9 to God, the Old Testament did not express a latent Trinitarian theology. What I want to suggest, however, is that Christ is identified by Paul as the one that joins God and Moses together; that is, a messenger who both expresses God’s will and guides Moses. To speak against both God and Moses, therefore, is to speak also against Christ.
This is where Exodus 23 comes in. The figure introduced is described in Hebrew as a מַלְאָךְ. If you were to peruse through the Old Testament, מַלְאָךְ would often be used to refer to figures that we ourselves would refer to as angels, such as the angel who comes to Abraham in Genesis 22.9-19. But מַלְאָךְ is not used exclusively for what we would refer to as angels. Numbers 20.14-16, for instance, uses the word to refer to a messenger sent by Moses and a messenger sent from God. The word here can be clearly used to refer to human messengers in addition to the “messenger” that God sent to protect Israel. In other words, מַלְאָךְ doesn’t have to mean angel.
The problem that has occurred with our reading of the Old Testament is what I would describe as an ontic assumption of semantic meaning: that is to state that the meaning of a word is determined by what it is used to reference. For instance, a cat refers to a figure that we know in our head as a “cat.” The ontic assumption of semantic meaning is a regular feature of Western philosophy where to know something is to know its substance/essence/nature. We know something by knowing what it is. When this way of thinking penetrates into language, we think “our language refers to what something is.” So, when we see the word מַלְאָךְ, we are tempted to think “angel.” But then, this type of reading deconstructs in Numbers 20.14-16. מַלְאָךְ isn’t an angel, but rather a messenger. מַלְאָךְ seems better defined as describing the role someone has taken rather than a description of their nature. The sense of the word מַלְאָךְ is not to describe an ontological class of beings, but rather the purpose these entities have in relationship to Moses and to God.
In other words, I would say Exodus 23.20-23 is not referring to an angel, but to an entity that serves the purpose of guiding and directing Israel. We see this explicitly stated of this messenger in 23.21: “Be attentive to him and listen to his voice; do not rebel against him.” This figure had the role of instructing Israel as he led Israel along the way. However, as the narrative develops, we don’t see this figure teaching Israel. It is Moses who teaches Israel.
I would suggest it is in this narrative silence that allows Paul sees Christ as guiding and leading Israel, including but not limited to leading them through Moses. Hence, he can consider Christ being tested when God sends the serpents. However, we also see him being the one who followed Israel (1 Cor. 10.4) just as the messenger of the Lord followed the camp of Israel (Exodus 14.19).1 Furthermore, the messenger of the Lord in Exodus 23.20-23 is never spoken of as attacking people, but rather the Israelite’s response to the messenger will determine how God acts and responds to his enemies; likewise Paul does not describe Christ as destroying the Israelites. Finally, and for the cherry on the top, this messenger is said to have “[God’s] name in him.” (Exodus 23.21)
However, it needs to be clarified: if this is the case, this is not Paul reading Christ as appearing all throughout the Old Testament when there are various figures that are sent by God. Paul is not identifying Jesus with all messengers/angels in the Old Testament. To do so is to treat Paul’s reading of the Old Testament like a textbook where specific terms have technical meanings that are used the same way again and against. In a previous post when I mentioned this idea about Exodus 23.20-23 and 1 Corinthians 10.1-13 in brief, I suggested that there was an early heresy among early believers that reduced Jesus to an angel, which I take the letter to the Hebrews to be evidence of. Had the early Church made a connection between Jesus and the messenger in Exodus 23.20-23, those people influenced by a more Hellenistic way of reading might have interpreted the מַלְאָךְ (or ἄγγελος in the LXX) under the direct or indirect influence of Greek philosophy and saw it as a description of the figures nature rather than function. In that case, if Exodus 23.20-23 was an early passage used to connect Jesus to God, a Hellenistic influence might have made them think Jesus was angel, rather than Jesus was the one who God sent. Speculative as that is, what we an say with some confidence is that for Paul, he is identifying Jesus with God’s protective and redemptive purposes in Israel’s story. He is identifying Jesus acting in Israel’s narrative to help the Corinthians understand the role that Jesus should have among them, in addition to showing how God responses to those who disregards His messenger. He is not trying to do Old Testament ‘ontology,’ but rather elucidate the significance of the Old Testament narrative.
To conclude with a final thought, the conjunction of Paul’s understanding of Jesus as the wisdom of God and as the one who directed Israel highlights the nature of his high Christology. Paul does not simply identify Jesus with some figure connected to God in the Old Testament. Rather, it seems more plausible and simply to suggest that Paul identifies Jesus with God, and as a consequence, he then identifies Jesus with the messenger of the lord and with God’s wisdom. What this means, however, is that understanding Jesus in His role as Lord and the Son of God can not be reduced to what is known about those figures in the Old Testament, but that He is one who encompasses those literary references but is more than what those literary references originally referred to.
- Incidentally, the position of the messenger of the Lord corresponded to the position of the cloud that followed Israel. In a similar fashion, when Moses appears before God and comes to know God as YHWH before the burning bush, the burning bush is also joined together with a “messenger of the Lord” (Exodus 3.2).