The Rock Was Christ

I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our ancestors were all under the cloud and all passed through the sea, and all of them were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. All ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink, for they drank from a spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was the Christ. (1 Cor 10:1-4)

“And the rock was Christ.” This is among my favorite verses from St. Paul. St. Paul was an amazing scripture scholar; trained by the famous Rabbi Gamaliel (Acts 22:3), Paul was a PhD of the ancient world. His writings are very erudite and, therefore, easy to misunderstand if one is not properly trained (2 Pt 3:15-16). On the other hand, if understood, they are a wealth of information. In this case, St. Paul is referring to two stories, from Exodus and from Numbers in the Old Testament Torah.

The first story is from Exodus 17. The Israelites have been wandering in the wilderness under Moses’ leadership for some time; they had passed through the Red Sea, but had not yet come to Mr. Sinai.

But there was no water for the people to drink, and so they quarreled with Moses and said, “Give us water to drink.” Moses replied to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you put the LORD to a test?” Here, then, in their thirst for water, the people grumbled against Moses, saying, “Why then did you bring us up out of Egypt? To have us die of thirst with our children and our livestock?” So Moses cried out to the LORD, “What shall I do with this people? A little more and they will stone me!” The LORD answered Moses: Go on ahead of the people, and take along with you some of the elders of Israel, holding in your hand, as you go, the staff with which you struck the Nile. I will be standing there in front of you on the rock in Horeb. Strike the rock, and the water will flow from it for the people to drink. Moses did this, in the sight of the elders of Israel. The place was named Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled there and tested the LORD, saying, “Is the LORD in our midst or not?” (Ex 17:3-7)

This was one of the many times the Israelites complained, but it was the most famous time and became synonymous with a lack of trust in God, despite God’s constant benevolence. Massah was so named because the word means place of test; Meribah means place of quarreling.

St. Paul tells us that the rock was Christ, that is, it was a type of Christ. The image of God as a rock is frequent in scripture, so that much is easy. But in this story, the rock (God) provided water in the wilderness. This is an Old Testament image of the sacraments, nourishing the Church (Israel) in the wilderness of this world; the image of the waters of Baptism is seemingly easy to understand, flowing from this Rock. A bit harder, though, is extending this image to all sacraments, especially the chief among the sacraments, the Eucharist.

Yet, the Fathers of the Church had no difficulty in making this extension. And in so doing, they identified a remarkable detail in a similar story in Numbers. First, they note that in Exodus, the rock was struck, as Jesus was struck in His Passion – I mean that Moses striking the rock was a type of Jesus’ passion and death. We receive grace through the passion and death of Jesus, as the Baptismal waters flow from the struck rock. Second, the Fathers noted that some ancient rabbis held to a legend that this rock followed the Israelites through the desert, constantly providing them with water. The above quote from St. Paul mentions this, implying St. Paul was one of those rabbis who believed such.

The third thing the Fathers noted is that this story of striking the rock occurred again, in Numbers 20. Many years after the Massah/Meribah incident, the Israelites complained again about a lack of water, so God repeated the miracle, but with a slight twist:

And the LORD said to Moses: Take the staff and assemble the community, you and Aaron your brother, and in their presence command the rock to yield its waters. Thereby you will bring forth water from the rock for them, and supply the community and their livestock with water. So Moses took the staff from its place before the LORD, as he was ordered. Then Moses and Aaron gathered the assembly in front of the rock, where he said to them, “Just listen, you rebels! Are we to produce water for you out of this rock?” Then, raising his hand, Moses struck the rock twice with his staff, and water came out in abundance, and the community and their livestock drank. But the LORD said to Moses and Aaron: Because you did not have confidence in me, to acknowledge my holiness before the Israelites, therefore you shall not lead this assembly into the land I have given them. These are the waters of Meribah, where the Israelites quarreled with the LORD, and through which he displayed his holiness. (Num 20:7-13)

It sounds like the same story, except the rock was struck twice this time. There is another difference, though: God did not tell Moses to strike the rock, as He did at Massah – here, He tells Moses to “command” the rock to yield its waters. Specifically, Moses was told to speak to the Rock; he was not told to strike it. The Fathers saw in this an image of the Eucharist – in fact, of all the sacraments. Jesus was struck and it was that original act that brought us sacramental grace. After that, the sacramental graces are applied only by speaking, by using the words given by Christ to apply His grace. Thus, Christ died once, a real death on a real cross in the flesh; but His death is then re-presented in every Mass using words, the words of the priest acting in His name. These stories of water from the rock were seen by the Fathers of the Church as images of the sacramental system to come.

What then was meant by Moses’ striking the rock – twice – instead of doing as He was told? I don't know. He was angry with his "rebels" and he asked them if "we" (Moses and Aaron) were to draw water from the rock? Not God. He trusted in himself and did not have confidence in God. As a punishment, God did not allow him to enter the Promised Land. Perhaps this images the inadequacy of the Mosaic covenant to lead souls to heaven; the two strikes image the two covenants: old and new. The rock yielded its waters after the second strike (the second, or new covenant), not because Moses struck it, but because God caused it - He still displayed His holiness, as the text says.

I find it interesting and meaningful that so frequently when the Old Testament is opened up for us by the New, that we find sacramental images. These sacraments are wonderful things, the rivers of grace flowing for us. Yet, it seems that few Catholics believe in these anymore, especially the Eucharist which they receive every week. I believe that a “Second Spring” is in the air, however, and that the new, young priests leaving the seminaries these days will stir things up and revive belief and reverence for the holy sacraments. All in good time.