Paul Uses Typology to Reveal Warnings From Exodus

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By Allison Tobola Low, Catholic Stand, April 13, AD2018

One method of revelation in the Divine Pedagogy which has always fascinated me is typology. Through this method, God orchestrates the people, places, and events of the past to foreshadow future situations. God gives us deep truths if we can recognize the connections Paul teaches us through typology (Catechism of the Catholic Church128-129). He highlights the Old Testament event of the Exodus from Egypt and informs us this prefigurement is intended to instruct and exhort God’s people. This is not a recently discovered method of teaching but the Church has used this method since the very beginning. In the first letter to the Christians in Corinth, we see an example of St. Paul teaching through typology.

Paul and the Exodus from Egypt

As we read 1 Corinthians 10:1-12, we recognize its purpose: Paul tells us he is recalling the Exodus because these events are to be “warnings for us” [or as some translations say, “as an example for us”]. The Greek word used here is “typos,” where we get the English word “type” – as in typology, where the Old Testament types foreshadowed things to come. Paul exhorts all Christians to not repeat the sins of the Israelites because, as a result, many did not inherit the Promised Land and he does not want that outcome for us. Assuming we are familiar with the historical events, Paul emphasizes some specific lessons but only mentions the Old Testament references in brief. But by introducing this typology, Paul wants us to contemplate these events even more deeply.

Supernatural Food and Drink

In the first verses, Paul summarizes Exodus 1-14, the account of God’s interventions to free the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, including the miraculous parting of the Red Sea. They will then journey into the wilderness to the land of Canaan, the land filled with bountiful gifts that God had set apart for the descendants of Abraham. Leaving Egypt led by Moses and guided by a pillar of fire and a pillar of cloud (Exodus 13:17-22), all those who remained faithful and obedient, with God’s help, would inherit this Promised Land.

Paul then calls to mind the supernatural food and drink God had given the Israelites during the years spent in the wilderness. Throughout their journey of forty years (and then an additional forty years because of their sins), every single day except for Sabbath days, the Israelites would wake up in the mornings to find manna on the ground. It looked like a white wafer but, because the Israelites had never seen this substance before, they called it “manna” – in Hebrew, man hu – which means ‘what is it’ (Exodus 16:1-36). This miraculous food was given in abundance and nourished millions each day. As to the supernatural drink, Paul is specifically referring to the rock Moses struck which miraculously provided water to the Israelites in the wilderness (Exodus 17:1-7).

Warnings of their Rebellion

Considering these acts of divine assistance, Paul then warns of the rebellion of the Israelites. He first refers to an account where the Israelites were displeasing to God and were overthrown (1 Corinthians 10:5). This is a reference to Numbers 14:29-30 where, after forty years, the Israelites had reached the border of the Promised Land and, before entering, they sent in ten spies to explore the land of Canaan. Some of the spies returned with a frightening report regarding the inhabitants. This led many to despair and lose hope about a successful entry into the land. However, two of the spies, Joshua and Caleb, as well as Moses and Aaron, remained confident knowing God was with them. The majority were not convinced.

Despite having witnessed all God had done for them over the years, including freeing them from slavery and helping them survive, most of the Israelites murmured against God and wanted to return to Egypt. They did not trust God, lacked faith and had disobedient hearts. As a result, God does not permit them to enter the land of Canaan. They must roam in the wilderness another forty years and only then can they enter. Ultimately, Joshua and Caleb were the only Israelites who had been witnesses to God’s miracles in Egypt and at the Red Sea who were able to enter the Promised Land.

Paul then refers to an incident where the Israelites wanted to return to Egypt, which he tells us is an example of desiring evil (1 Corinthians 10:6). In the wilderness, they cried out about their misfortunes and lusted for the foods they once had in Egypt to the point of exclaiming, “…there is nothing at all but this manna to look at” (Numbers 11:6). Despite God’s acts of salvation for them, they yearn for the miserable life of slavery they once had because of its physical pleasures and even exhibit disdain for the miraculous food God had been providing them. God will respond by sending them quail to eat but, along with this, he also sent a plague from which many died (Numbers 11:1-35).

Next, Paul recalls the act of idolatry the Israelites committed not long after reaching Mt. Sinai (1 Corinthians 10:7). After entering a covenant with God, the people constructed and then worshiped a golden calf (Exodus 32:1-35). Though God had freed them physically from slavery, this was evidence they were still spiritually far from him. Though they had consecrated themselves to God and promised faithful obedience, they rebelled and scorned his divine interventions. Many were killed for having committed this grave sin.

Paul will then reference how a plague killed many of the Israelites who had sinned by engaging in immoral relationships with pagan women and who were persuaded to worship their pagan gods (1 Corinthians 10:8Numbers 25:1-18). Subsequently, Paul recalls a time when deadly serpents infested the Israelite camp (1 Corinthians 10:9). This happens because, although God had been helping them win victories over their enemies, the people became impatient, murmured against God and wanted to return to Egypt. The people complained, “Why have you brought us out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food” (Numbers 21:5). They minimize all the wondrous things God has done for them and scoff at the supernatural manna. Consequently, poisonous serpents are permitted to enter their camp killing many. When they repent, God instructs Moses to make a bronze serpent through which God will save those who had been bitten (Numbers 21:4-9).

Lastly, Paul references the revolt of the Levitical priest Korah and many men with him (1 Corinthians 10:9). After being in the wilderness for a time, these men rise up and protest the leadership of Moses and the Aaronic priesthood. They exclaim that all the Israelites are equally set apart in a covenant with God and they challenge the existence of hierarchical authority. They also deny their own special ministry among the Chosen People of God. Furthermore, they are angry because they left a bountiful land and had been promised an incredible inheritance yet this had not come to fruition. They accuse Moses of intending to bring them into the wilderness to kill them and to make himself their ruler. The consequence of this revolt against the leadership is that these rebellious priests and those who followed them are killed (Numbers 16:1-40).

This is a ‘Type’ for Us

Paul is recalling these events because he sees them as a typos – a foreshadowing – for our own Christian experiences. As the Israelites passed from slavery to freedom through the Red Sea, we pass from slavery to sin into freedom in Christ through the waters of baptism. Then, we begin our earthly pilgrimage as members of God’s covenant family and the goal for us is the promised land of heaven. Throughout this journey, Christ is our guide and God is always with us. We are to trust God’s divine plan and providence. God has given us divine nourishment sent down from heaven in the Eucharist – our supernatural food and drink. Through this nourishment, the divine life is infused into our souls and we are given a supernatural power that enables us to have faith, be obedient and to love God.

Our earthly pilgrimage will be like the Exodus out of Egypt in many other ways as well. Because our journey will also be arduous, Paul draws our attention to the many rebellious acts as a warning because many of the Israelites never entered the Promised Land because of their lack of faith and their disobedience. Paul exhorts us to take care to not fall away.

How often do we practice idolatry by putting other people, possessions or events before God? Do we miss Mass because we are tired or because we see other activities as more important? Are we neglecting our prayer life, not reading the Scriptures or failing to study the faith because we put these things – and as such God – as a lower priority? How often are we guided by our selfish desires rather than by a love for God? Are we completely surrendering our will to God’s?

Do we complain or have bitterness in our hearts towards God because of the struggles and sufferings we endure? Are we placing our full hope and trust in our heavenly Father? As the accounts of the Israelites remind us, God led them out of Egypt through incredible means yet they became forgetful. God had given them the miraculous manna yet they had disdain even for this. Do we acknowledge the many blessings God has given us in our lives and express our gratitude even amid hardships? God has also given us the miraculous Eucharist, available to us every day – do we take this for granted?

Through Baptism we have entered the new covenant with God. Each time we receive the Eucharist we are expressing our communion with Christ and his Church, and we are renewing our promise to remain faithful and obedient to God with the help of his grace. But being members of the covenant does not make us exempt from the possibility of falling away so Paul exhorts us to not be guided by wicked and rebellious hearts. We cannot live in whatever way we chose, practicing immorality, idolatry and not heeding God’s commandments. We must strive for holiness and live virtuously.

The Israelites crave their former life of slavery because of the physical pleasures they had enjoyed, suggesting contempt for what God was offering them. Are we guilty of this as well? The Israelites murmured against God, doubting his loving providence and a lack of confidence in God. If we allow ourselves to fall into despair, we are refusing to trust him. Do we realize he knows us better than we know ourselves and wants us to be eternally happy? If we listen to him, he is trying to lead us to the only place this is possible – heaven. If we live however we choose, disregarding God and his plan for our lives, the result will be spiritual death and complete unfulfillment.

Through the experience of the Israelites, God also reminds us that we too have a divinely appointed hierarchy – the Church. Though the men within her may sin, the Church is an instrument through which God speaks and provides us with his grace. Through her, God gives various commandments we are obligated to obey. The Church has been given the duties of guarding and promulgating the truths of God’s revelations and of guiding us. But if we revolt against the Church, we are revolting against God. If we refuse to heed her commandments because we find them too difficult or because we lack understanding, this is not only a rebellion against her but against God. If we distort her laws to our own liking, we are usurping her divine authority.

Christians, Heed the Warning

In this letter to the Corinthians, Paul wants us to recognize we have been born again in Christ through baptism and have received a high calling to strive for holiness. Heaven has been made possible for all of us who are in Christ. However, this journey through an earthly wilderness will not be easy. We will not be freed from temptations, struggles, and sufferings. We must be awake and alert. We must remain in God’s grace and repent if we fall away. We must never become presumptuous of God’s grace and mercy, yet we must also not fall into despair. Paul points out that the account of the Exodus is an example of typology – a figure for us – so we can discover deeper truths and become acutely aware of sin and its consequences. Our goal is heaven but entry into this promised land is not guaranteed. As Paul writes, “Now these things happened to them as a warning, but they were written down for our instruction…Therefore, let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Corinthians 10:11-12).

About the Author: 

Allison Tobola Low is a lifelong Catholic, passionate for sharing Christ and the Catholic faith with others. She works full time as a physician in Tyler, Texas, and also received a Master’s degree in Theology from the Augustine Institute in Denver, CO. Allison finds time to teach and share the Catholic faith every opportunity she can find, including being a catechist for Adult Faith Formation and RCIA at her local parish. Allison enjoys giving talks in parishes on a variety of faith-related topics and is also a regional leader for St. Paul Street Evangelization. Her website is where you can find short simple Catholic videos she creates (that are especially for children/young adults).