After leaving Egypt the Israelites stirred up trouble . . . again. Exodus 17 records this: “the people quarreled with Moses and said, ‘Give us water to drink’” (Exod 17:2). Again, “the people thirsted there for water, and the people grumbled against Moses and said, ‘Why did you bring us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our livestock with thirst’” (17:3)? The people complained . . . again. They deserved judgment, but God granted them grace and gave them water from a rock. In 1 Corinthians 10, Paul picks up on this and writes, “they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ” (1 Cor 10:4). The Rock was Christ, Paul tells us. But how did this rock and episode of the rock prefigure Christ? We can answer by careful exegesis of the Exodus passage.
Exodus 17:5–6 says, “Pass on before the people, taking with you some of the elders of Israel, and take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. Behold, I will stand before you there on the rock at Horeb, and you shall strike the rock, and water shall come out of it, and the people will drink.” Here, Moses is called to take the people and divide them. And then he is to take his staff—a staff of judgment (as indicated that it is the one that struck the Nile in the plagues), and he is to strike the rock. And so, Moses acts as a judge that will perform judgment for the people’s actions. But instead of striking them down, he is informed to strike the rock instead.
What’s telling here is that God says “I will stand before you there on the rock.” And so, it seems to say that when Moses strikes the rock with the staff of judgment, God in some sense bears the punishment on behalf of the people. This may clearly therefore point towards the substitutionary death of Jesus for his people. Isaiah 53:4 says, “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted.” In this way, Jesus bore our sins as he was crushed on our behalf (1 Pet 2:24). And so, the people were saved from judgment by the rock being stricken in their place. And as the rock was struck on their behalf, the people were blessed by the gift of water from the rock. Similarly, since Jesus was stricken in our place, we get the blessing: “upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed” (Isa 54:5). The Israelites received water from the rock, and those who are in Christ now receive life in Christ because he was stricken for us.