What 1 Corinthians 10:2 means

For I want you to know, brothers, that our fathers 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. Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness (I Cor 10:1-5).

Moses Crossing the Red SeaSomeone asked me what exactly the words above mean, particularly the strange words, “all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea.” Although what I wanted to drive at in the previous post is the importance of going back to the original Hebrew or Greek text when studying the Scriptures, and not the meaning of 1 Corinthians 10:2, I would like to explain briefly how I proceeded to examine these verses. As well, two brief corollaries to this study form one of the arguments for the proper mode of baptism – immersion, pouring, or sprinkling – as well as who are to be baptized.

To answer this question, I first looked at the Greek texts translated as “baptize in/into/with.” The Greek phrase used in several texts is baptizo eis, which is usually translated as “baptize into” someone
(Matt 3:11; Rom 6:3; I Cor 10:2; I Cor 12:13; Gal 3:27). Another Greek formula used is baptizo eis to onoma, which is usually translated as “baptize in the name of” someone (Matt 28:19; Acts 8:16; Acts 19:5; I Cor 1:13; I Cor 1:15).

Other similar formulas used are: baptizo en, which is usually translated “baptize in” or “baptize with” someone or something (Acts 1:5; Acts 10:48; Acts 11:16); and baptizo epi, “baptize in” the name of someone (Acts 2:38).

The text says that the Israelites were baptized “in (en) the cloud and in (en) the sea.” The Greek preposition en can refer to sphere or to instrument or agent, as in Matthew 12:28 (“But if I cast out demons by (en) the Spirit of God… “); 1 Corinthians 12:13 (“For by (en) one Spirit we were all baptized into one body…”); and Mark 1:8 (“I indeed baptized you with [en] water, but He will baptize you with [en] the Holy Spirit.”). Therefore, 1 Corinthians 10:2 could be translated using the cloud and the sea as agents of baptism into Moses:

all were baptized into Moses by the cloud and by the sea

As well, in the text, Paul explicitly alludes to the exodus motif of Israel crossing the Red Sea. When Israel crossed the sea, they walked on dry ground, hemmed in from both sides by walls of sea water
(Exo 14:16, 22; Exo 15:19; Psa 66:6; Heb 11:29). They were baptized by the sea. In Psalm 77:16-20, the psalmist praises God for “[leading] your people like a flock by the hand of Moses and Aaron.” As Israel crossed the sea, rain poured out from the Spirit-cloud (Exo 14:24) during a great storm (Psalm 77:16-18). They were baptized by the cloud.

Paul, therefore, is saying that as Israel crossed the sea, they were united into Moses, who had authority over them from God and who led them in their escape from Egypt and in the crossing of the sea. Continuing with his commentary on the Exodus narrative, Paul points out that Israel partook of the one spiritual food and drink which God gave them through their “baptism” into Moses. Paul then points forward in redemptive history from Moses the type (tupos, 1 Cor 10:6, 11) to Christ the antitype. Israel’s manna from heaven is a type of Christ, the spiritual bread from heaven, and “if anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever” (John 6:51). Israel’s water in the dry desert came from a rock, a type of Christ, who had to be struck to give us “a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (Exo 17:6; John 4:14). As Israel was united (“baptized”) into Moses by the cloud and by the sea, so the believer’s union with Christ is signified in baptism by water.

But Paul goes further in his typology. Not only is Israel baptized into Moses in her redemption, she is also united to him in her wilderness pilgrimage towards the Promised Land. What happened to the Israelites in the desert? Many of them perished there because of idolatry and unbelief. So Paul warns those in the Corinthian church that “these things took place as examples (tupoi) for us, that we might not desire evil as they did” (1 Cor 10:6; see also 1 Cor 10:11). They too would be “overthrown” if they lived in rebellion against God (1 Cor 10:5-13). He is warning the Corinthian saints that just as the Jews’ “baptism” into Moses did not guarantee their entrance into the Promised Land, so their baptism into Christ did not guarantee their entrance into the Kingdom of God (1 Cor 10:12).

First Digression: Who were immersed?

Noah's ArkMost Christians have the mistaken notion that baptizo means immersion. But this is far from the evidence in Scriptures and in ancient Greek literature. Granted that in ancient Greek literature, baptizo most frequently refers to immersion in a liquid, baptizo is an “amodal” word, that is, it does not tell us anything about the mode of baptism. Baptizo does not indicate in any way as to how this “immersion” occurs, whether by dipping, pouring, dropping, sinking permanently into a liquid, or any other way. 1

In fact, baptizo sometimes refers to a process not related to the common concept of baptism. In Mark 10:39, Jesus tells his disciples, “with the baptism with which I am to be baptized, you will be baptized,” but he was really speaking to them about his death, not about baptism.

In Mark 7:4 and Luke 11:38, the Pharisees criticized the disciples for eating without washing their hands, because “they do not eat unless they wash (baptisontai). And there are many other traditions that they observe, such as the washing (baptismous) of cups and pots and copper vessels and dining couches.” Dining couches? Yes, the Jews “baptized” dining couches! Did they thus “immerse” their dining couches?

In 1 Corinthians 12:13, Paul again makes a remarkable connection between “baptism into Moses” and the Christian’s baptism into Christ and into Christ’s body by the one Spirit:

baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea
(1 Cor 10:2)
[in one Spirit] baptized into one body
(1 Cor 12:13)
all drank the same spiritual drink
(1 Cor 10:4)
all were made to drink of one Spirit
(1 Cor 12:13)

Throughout this text, Paul develops the type-antitype (promise-fulfillment) relationship between the Old Testament chosen people’s rescue from Egypt, “the house of slavery,” to the New Testament church’s redemption from slavery to sin (Rom 6:17-18).

Another striking similarity to Paul’s “baptism into Moses” is Peter’s reference to the great flood of Noah’s day as a “baptism” in 1 Peter 3:19-21:

… when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water. Baptism, which corresponds (antitupon) to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Peter says that the family of Noah’s ordeal during the flood was a tupos of New Testament baptisma, the antitupos. However, “baptism… now saves you” does not mean that baptism itself effects salvation, but it signifies and visualizes a spiritual reality: a good conscience washed because of forgiveness of sins through the death and resurrection of Christ.

These two Old Testament “baptisms” are but a couple of illustrations of baptism by sprinkling or pouring, not immersion. 2 The Israelites were rained on or sprinkled during their Red Sea crossing, while the Egyptians were “immersed” in the sea. Noah and his family were rained on during the days of the great flood, while the rest of the unbelieving world perished by “immersion” in the flood.

Second Digression: Who were baptized?

If, then, the Israelites were baptized into Moses by the cloud and by the sea, we have in our text not only a clear example of baptism by pouring or sprinkling, but also an explicit example of infant baptism. But the question will be asked, Where in the text does it say that there were little children who crossed the sea with their parents? All will agree, of course, that this is a ridiculous question since there were tens of thousands of Israelite families who crossed the sea from Egypt.

And yet, the inconsistency of arguing against this deafening “silence” is also applied to New Testament household baptisms. It is argued that baptism of little children is nowhere told or commanded in the New Testament, although there were five household baptisms reported, and possibly hundreds if not thousands just on the first Pentecost Sunday. How is that possible? Peter’s exhortation to the people on that redemptive-historical day was, “For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself” (Acts 2:38-39, emphasis added).

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Notes:

  1. Grover Gunn, “The Mode of Baptism.”
  2. Hebrews 9:9-10 also speaks of “various baptisms (baptismois)” by sprinkling (rhantizo) in the Old Testament (Heb 9:13, 19, 21; see also Isa 44:3; Eze 36:25). In each of these cases, an instrument was dipped in blood or water, then this instrument was used to sprinkle persons or things to be baptized. Throughout the Old Testament, God’s people were cleansed by being sprinkled with water (or sometimes with blood). Pouring or sprinkling was a sign of salvation.

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