Were Israel Baptised in the Spirit?
1 Corinthians 10, as is well-known, forms the climax to Paul’s three-chapter argument about idol food, and verses 1-13 see his concern for their spiritual wellbeing expressed in its strongest form. For Paul, participating in what he calls ‘the table of demons’ is tantamount to idolatry, and he therefore loads both his rhetorical and biblical barrels with the best ammunition available, and fires it directly at the Corinthians. The ammunition in question, in this text, is the example of the wandering Israelites, the parallels between his readers and whom should make them seriously reconsider their behaviour. Taken together, verses 1-12 are probably the fullest and most extended warning in the Pauline corpus.
In order to use the negative example of the Israelites to persuade the Corinthians of the danger they are in, which he will do in verses 5-10, Paul first needs to establish the solidarity of the Israelites and the Corinthians, such that the former can serve as a warning to the latter. This he sets about doing in verses 1-4. If the Exodus generation, by virtue of being Jewish, or pre-Messianic, had a fundamentally different experience of God, such that their judgment need have no bearing on the Corinthians, then the warning that Paul plans to bring will not be compelling. If, on the other hand, he can show not only that some Israelites experienced God in an analogous way to the Corinthian Christians, but that all of them did, then their destruction in the desert will have far more perceived relevance to his readers. His way of showing this, unusually for Paul, is based on the parallels between the wilderness generation’s initiatory and sacramental experiences, and those of the Corinthians—an approach which throws up more than its fair share of interpretive challenges, but which prepares the ground effectively for the warnings to follow. And in the middle of this list of parallels is the striking, unexpected and yet often largely ignored reference to Israel’s ‘baptism into Moses in the cloud’ (verse 2). It is my contention in this paper that in this phrase, Paul is describing Israel as having undergone something akin to a prototypical ‘baptism in the Spirit’, which the Corinthians should see as analogous to their own, much-vaunted, initiatory spiritual experiences.
Paul gives the first hint of where he is going with the surprising reference to hoi pateres hēmōn. In conversation with Gentile converts, speaking of Moses and the Israelites as ‘our fathers’ is without parallel in his letters, and clearly indicates his rhetorical purpose: the Corinthians, Gentiles though they are, stand alongside Paul in continuity with God’s covenant people from past generations. Though he elsewhere refers to Gentile Jesus-followers as ‘the circumcision’ (Rom 2:26; Php 3:3), ‘sons of Abraham’ (Gal 3:7), ‘Abraham’s seed’ (Gal 3:29), grafted into the Jewish tree (Rom 11:17-24), and probably true Jews (Rom 2:28-29) and ‘the Israel of God’ (Gal 6:16) as well, his purpose here is different. Whereas his aim in (say) Galatians is to emphasise Gentile participation in Israel’s blessings without recourse to circumcision, in this chapter it is the judgments that fell upon Israel which are uppermost in his mind. Being part of God’s covenant people has huge blessings, but it also carries a weight of accountability, and this is foundational for what follows.
The connection between the Israelites and the Corinthians is not simply one of common lineage, however. Our forefathers, Paul says, were all under the cloud of God’s presence—the unelaborated mention of ‘the cloud’ assumes the referent is well-known—and all passed through the sea; that is, implicitly, they all experienced God’s supernatural presence and deliverance, just as the Corinthians have. They also, he continues, had an initiation which is strikingly similar to that experienced by Christian believers: kai pantes eis ton Mōusēn ebaptisthēsan en tē nephelē kai tē thalassē. This remarkable clause introduces several ideas—baptism into Moses, the Red Sea as a type of Christian baptism, baptism in the cloud, and so on—which link the Israelites and the Corinthians together even more strongly.
The idea of being ‘baptised into Moses’ is unprecedented. Clearly this phrase cannot be explained simply by reference to a physical drenching, since the whole point of the Red Sea story is that the Israelites did not get wet, either in the sea or in the cloud. Nor does it indicate that, as is the case for Christian baptism, the Israelites were somehow spiritually united with Moses or that they subsequently belonged to him. It is possible, as B. J. Oropeza suggests, that the language is used because the Corinthians ‘may have placed their emphasis on the intrinsic power of a name’, in this case that of Moses, and that Paul is intending to challenge the associations between Moses and magic, to subvert the idea that baptism into Moses somehow protected the individual from spiritual harm. Most likely, however, ebaptisthēsan (which, as the more difficult textual reading, seems more likely to be original than ebaptisanto) refers here to identification with, and adherence to, the person in whose name one was baptised. Baptism eis ton Mōusēn is intended to parallel Paul’s use elsewhere of baptism eis Christon, in order to indicate the transfer of allegiance that takes place in both cases; as such, the Red Sea experience served as a sort of rite of passage for the Israelites, in which their old masters were quite literally left behind, and their commitment to, and alignment with, their new leader was clearly demonstrated. This, of course, is how Paul conceives of baptism ‘into Christ’.
This baptism into Moses, Paul says, was both en tē nephelē kai tē thalassē, and although it is the latter that attracts the most scholarly attention, the former is equally significant. What does it mean to be baptised ‘in the cloud’? The interpretive spectrum is broad. Gordon Fee believes that ‘Paul himself did not “mean” anything by it at all.’ Hans Conzelmann claims that ‘to this the Spirit in baptism corresponds’, although as often in Conzelmann’s writing, the exact meaning of this phrase is unclear (that is, whether he means the Spirit is the agent or the medium of the baptism). Anthony Thiselton says that the twofold reference to cloud and sea is simply intended to underscore the redemptive significance of the event. Anthony Hanson thought it was the pre-existent Christ; Meredith Kline believed it was fire, as one of ‘the two elemental ordeal powers’; and Richard Davidson argued it meant several of these. Most interpreters, perhaps surprisingly, barely mention the reference: commentators who either skip over it altogether or make nothing of it include most of the heavyweights, including Morris, Barrett, Witherington, Blomberg, Garland, Fitzmyer and Ciampa and Rosner. Only Tom Wright addresses the issue with his characteristic confidence—‘No early Christian would have had much trouble decoding what Paul was saying ... the cloud and the sea for the children of Israel are like the spirit and the baptism-water for Christians’—although some may be sceptical whenever they hear Tom Wright say that ‘all early Christians knew Paul meant X.’
Of the suggestions available, two may be dismissed immediately. The idea that the pre-existent Christ is in view here has rightly been rejected, on the basis that it overlooks the important point that the cloud is one of the elements in which the Israelites are ‘baptised’ into Moses, rather than the one into whom they are ‘baptised’. Similarly, seeing the cloud as a fiery judgment ordeal involves a straining of the symbolism, and interprets the cloud as a means of judgment when, in the Exodus story, it is primarily a symbol of the divine presence. The view that it serves as a pattern for baptism in the Spirit, however, has much more to commend it.
The association between the Spirit and the cloud of the divine presence emerges on occasion in the wilderness stories themselves (as in Numbers 11:16-17), but comes through most clearly in Isaiah 63:7-14. Paul uses and alludes to Isaianic material repeatedly in 1 Corinthians, particularly with reference to the Holy Spirit (Isa 28:11-12 in 1 Cor 14:21; Isa 29:14 in 1 Cor 1:19; Isa 40:13 in 1 Cor 2:16), so Isaiah was clearly formative in his pneumatology, perhaps because of the connections it presented between the eschatological Spirit and the new exodus. The association—verging on an equation—between the Spirit and the cloud in the Septuagint of 63:7-14 is therefore very significant:
... αὐτοὶ δὲ ἠπείθησαν καὶ παρώξυναν τὸ πνεῦμα τὸ ἅγιον αὐτοῦ ... καὶ ἐμνήσθη ἡμερῶν αἰωνίων ὁ ἀναβιβάσας ἐκ τῆς γῆς τὸν ποιμένα τῶν προβάτων ποῦ ἐστιν ὁ θεὶς ἐν αὐτοῖς τὸ πνεῦμα τὸ ἅγιον ὁ ἀγαγὼν τῇ δεξιᾷ Μωυσῆν ... ἤγαγεν αὐτοὺς διὰ τῆς ἀβύσσου ... κατέβη πνεῦμα παρὰ κυρίου καὶ ὡδήγησεν αὐτούς ...
The prophet here clearly imagines the Spirit as the one who was provoked by Israel’s disobedience, the one who was put in them, and the one who led them through the Red Sea and on their wilderness journey. All of these, clearly, apply to the cloud in the Exodus story. Given Paul’s use of Isaiah elsewhere in the letter, it would not be surprising to find him speaking of the cloud in Exodus as if it referred to the divine Spirit; in many ways, it would be surprising if we did not. Furthermore, if we understand the cloud in Exodus and the glory cloud which filled the temple in 2 Chronicles as representing the same reality, then Paul’s earlier reference to the church as the ‘temple of the Holy Spirit’ (3:16) is a further point in favour of this reading. The cloud, in both Isaiah’s reading of the Exodus story and in Paul’s, represents the divine Spirit.
The innovation in verse 2, then, is to speak of this as being a sort of ‘baptism’ in the cloud (=Spirit). Yet even here, sources for the idea are not hard to find. Clouds, along with the sea, are one of the two sources of water on earth—way back in Genesis 1 we have the simple division of the waters above and the waters below—and are therefore appropriate objects for a metaphor about drenching or immersing. The prophets spoke of the eschatological Spirit as water being poured out from on high upon the thirsty ground, to bring life to the desert. Not only that, but since the cloud demonstrated to Israel that God was in her midst, and was the means by which she remained together, the presence of the cloud was, in many ways, that which made Israel God’s people in the first place. When this text is compared with 12:13, in which being ‘baptised in the Spirit’ is an initiatory experience that unites all people in the church—the case for ‘in’ rather than ‘by’ is made convincingly by James Dunn, Gordon Fee, Don Carson and others—the case for seeing Israel’s experience as prototypical of Spirit-baptism is further strengthened.
As such, it is reasonably clear that Paul saw the ‘cloud’ in the Exodus story as embodying the divine Spirit, and that the experience of the divine Spirit was, in Paul’s terms, linked to both drenching and initiation. When combined together, these two ideas would make the language of a ‘baptism in the cloud’, seen as a pattern of the Corinthians’ baptism in (or by) the Spirit, appear natural.
It is also important to note what happens to the passage if this interpretation is not adopted. In his appropriation of the wilderness story, Paul is matching four key boundary-marking elements of Israel’s experience—the cloud, the sea, manna from heaven and water from the rock—with four key boundary-marking elements of the Corinthian Christians, with the explicit intention of showing that the boundary-marking elements do not protect you from falling. The spiritual food and spiritual drink are usually, quite rightly, taken to refer to the Lord’s Supper. Water baptism into Christ is clearly paralleled with Israel’s Red Sea ‘baptism’ into Moses. But if the ‘baptism in the cloud’ is either ignored, as it is by many interpreters, or interpreted in a contextually implausible way (whether as representing the pre-existent Christ, fire, or something else), then verses 1-4 are left with a puzzling asymmetry, in which four of Israel’s boundary-markers are mentioned, but only three have significance in Paul’s argument. This, prima facie, is unlikely.
Not only that, but from what we can tell, the Corinthians were if anything more likely to believe they would be kept safe by their experience of the Spirit than by their experience of the sacraments. The correctives Paul issues concerning baptism and the Lord’s Supper—most of which relate in some way to the issue of division in their midst, rather than to an excessive emphasis on sacramental power or protection—are substantially outnumbered by the frequent references to their misunderstanding of spirituality and the gifts of the Spirit, which together comprise most of chapters 2, 12 and 14, and which focus repeatedly on the Corinthians’ implicit assumption that the mere possession of the divine Spirit justified all sorts of unhelpful behaviour. Surely, if the Corinthians were at risk of believing any experience insulated them from harm as a result of ungodliness, it would be their experience of the Holy Spirit?
As such, far from being an incidental or even meaningless detail, Paul’s reference to being ‘baptised into Moses in the cloud’ reinforces his polemic against the Corinthians’ self-understanding as a ‘spiritual’ people, and substantially bolsters his argument. Within this letter, pneumatikos is a rhetorically loaded word, one that serves to lower the Corinthians’ self-perception while redefining true ‘spirituality’ (as in chapters 2, 12-14 and 15 particularly). In 10:1-5, Paul’s references to ‘spiritual food’ and ‘spiritual drink’ do not merely explain that the Israelites experienced supernatural provision, but show that any spirituality the Corinthians believe they possess, the Israelites possessed as well, since Israel, like the Corinthian church, was pneumatikos. Likewise also the notorious ‘wandering Rock’ motif, which both emphasises once more the solidarity between Israel and the Corinthians, in that both had Christ in their midst, and highlights Israel’s failure to discern that Christ was the source and purpose of their spiritual drink, and the consequences which followed. Spiritual phenomena in themselves, whether miraculous food and water, spiritual gifts or the Lord’s Supper, do not imply immunity from temptation, idolatry or judgment; what makes someone truly pneumatikos is their discernment of God’s activity amongst them through Christ (compare the acid test in 12:3).
The supernatural food and water which accompanied Israel stemmed from the fact that God was amongst them in the cloud, and the fact that they had been initiated into Moses by means of a ‘baptism’ in both the cloud (representing the divine Spirit) and the sea (representing the baptismal waters). In the same way, Paul argues, neither the gift of the Holy Spirit, nor the gifts of the Holy Spirit, will save the Corinthians from being judged if they continue in idolatry, any more than they saved Israel.