Commentary on 1 Corinthians 10:1-13
“No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful … ” (1 Corinthians 10:13a)
Language of “testing”: Paul and the modern reader
The usefulness of the language of “testing” in 1 Corinthians 10 can be contested in our modern world. For some, the idea that testing and suffering is common to the human condition and that God remains constant in spite of trouble is comforting. It eases feelings of isolation, marginality, conflict, loss, and unmerited attack. In turn, it inspires hope that life’s difficulties are temporary, giving way to new moments of revitalization, peace, and stability. Testing provides assurance that although the world is temporal and changeable, God remains immovable.
For others, the language of testing and suffering have divine merit and support is disturbing, even dangerous. For instance, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, a woman is assaulted or beaten every 9 seconds in the USA. In one year, nearly 10 million women and men are physically abused by intimate partners. Can we make peace with this kind of “testing” that impacts 10 million people in the US? Is this the kind of “testing” common to everyone?
The idea that Paul puts forward a so-called “biblical principal” of testing is not as easy to grasp as perhaps we first thought. What is the nature of “testing” for Paul in this passage? In 1 Corinthians, Paul is working with a very specific meaning of “testing” (or “temptation” as some translations render it). Paul’s discussion is not referencing the occurrence of random and unexpected life events. Rather, Paul is referring to challenges that strain one’s loyalty to God and her or his community.
Literary Context of 1 Corinthians 10
1 Corinthians 10:1-13 falls within the question-answer section of the Corinthian letter. Paul is in the midst of responding to questions and issues the Corinthians have posed to him in a previous correspondence (1 Corinthians 7:1). This particular Lenten passage falls within the section where Paul is discussing how the church should handle meat sacrificed to idols in particular (1 Corinthians 8:1-11:1). Interestingly, it falls right before Paul addresses particular issues disrupting the worship experience of the community (1 Corinthians 11:2-34).
More broadly, Paul is actually discussing communal fellowship and hospitality. Paul is discussing with the Church of Corinth what is most important when believers gather. What is the task of the believing community as one body? What are the do’s and don’ts of our fellowship with each other and God? The entire conversation highlights the difficulty of blending into one collective, people from diverse cultural backgrounds, varied social locations, and conflicting sentiments.
Paul’s interpretative approach
Our section serves as the second of two digressions in Paul’s response to the Corinthians. The first digression is when Paul defends his apostleship (1 Corinthians 9:1-27). In our passage, Paul turns to providing a midrashic reading of Jesus Christ as the spiritual rock (1 Corinthians 10:4). Midrash is interpretation (or reinterpretation actually) of fixed canonical texts. In Jewish rabbinic tradition, it takes on many forms, such as running commentary or allegorical interpretation.
In the opening verses of 1 Corinthians 10, Paul’s midrashic exercise takes on the form of typological interpretation. Here, Paul draws a correspondence between the earlier tradition of the Israelite’s Exodus story and Moses and the Corinthian’s present situation and their profession of faith (1 Corinthians 10:1-7).1
Throughout this passage, Paul describes the inherited tradition — the story of Exodus and Israel’s wandering in the wilderness — as examples of what not to do (1 Corinthians 10:6-7, 9, 10). Paul appeals to the Jewish ancestors’ experience as his pedagogical strategy (Exodus 13:21-22; 14:22). He rehearses past failures to instruct the Corinthians on what errors to avoid. The Corinthians should not repeat the blunders of the past.
The meaning of “Testing” in 1 Corinthians
Language of testing or temptation appears in verb and noun form (peirazo, peiramos) in several places in Corinthians (1 Corinthians 7:5; 10:9, 13). Paul is clear such challenges come from a source other than God. Testing is not what the believers seek out or chooses for themselves. It is also not something they rejoice in and celebrate. Rather, testing is a part of the everyday dealings of life. Testing requires preparation and clarity about its purpose in the life of the believing community.
For Paul, believers can collectively prepare to manage the challenges that will inevitably arise. In 1 Corinthians 7:5, while addressing marital relations, Paul says, “Do not deprive one another except perhaps by agreement for a set time, to devote yourselves to prayer, and then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.” Paul views testing as a collective challenge, put to a pair or in the case of 1 Corinthians 10, a community. As such, the community prepares, in advance, to respond faithfully when the gauntlet of temptation, testing, and challenge is thrown down. The assurance they have is that God provides as way out.
The image of exodus as an act of departing, frames the entire passage. Paul opens with images from Israel’s Exodus account, depicting their failure to remain faithful to God as a warning. He reminds his readers of the ways the Israelites tested God and were unfaithful to their Deliverer (cf. Exodus 16:4). One error they should not seek to repeat is to test Christ, as their forbearers tested God (1 Corinthians 10:9). Paul also ends with the image of exodus, depicting God as one who faithfully supplies a way out for the community as they face temptation and testing (1 Corinthians 10:13).
During the Lenten season let this passage be a reminder of our communal journey. Our season of penitence, fasting, and reflection will continue and Paul’s voice reminds us that we, as the gathered community, journey together in this faithful walk. We do not journey alone. Our faith is a communal faith.
We respond to life’s ups and downs, joys and sorrows, expected and unexpected happenings as a unified body that transcends time and location. Though we are diverse in settings, ethnicities, backgrounds, genders, and experiences, Paul reminds us that God is faithful to us as one body. In light of Paul’s words in 10:13a, we should be faithful to one another as God is faithful to us. We should be willing to walk with one another through these testing periods. It is how we embody that communal journeying in a way that produces health and wholeness for all and at the same time honors God and the ancestors of our corporate faith and respective communities. Let us journey through testing and journey to faithfulness.
1 James L. Bailey and Lyle D. Vander Broek. Literary Forms in the New Testament: A Handbook (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1992), 42-48.