Have you read 1 Corinthians 10 recently? I mean, really read it? Because there are some pretty odd things going on there.
In the passage Paul refers to several stories in ancient Israel’s history, stories we find in our Old Testament books of Exodus and Numbers. Most of us probably know these stories.
There’s the story of Israel’s exodus, being freed from slavery in Egypt. There’s the story of Israel crossing the Red Sea. There are the stories of Israel wandering in the wilderness, receiving manna from the skies and water from a rock. And there are the stories of Israel grumbling and complaining, rejecting God and worshiping other gods.
There are at least half a dozen different Old Testament stories about Israel that Paul alludes to here in 1 Corinthians 10. That’s not what’s odd. What’s odd are things like this:
- Paul says the Israelites were “baptized into Moses” when they went through the Red Sea under the pillar of cloud.
- Paul says that the manna that fell from the sky was not merely some kind of bread, but it was “spiritual food.”
- And the rock they got the water from? That rock, Paul says, was actually Jesus. Christ was a “spiritual rock” that “followed them” everywhere they went, and he provided “spiritual drink” for them, not merely H2O.
None of this is actually found in any of the stories in Exodus or Numbers. Rather, Paul is reading these things into the biblical stories.
In other words, Paul is using a pretty hefty dose of imagination in reading his Bible.
Paul is imagining Jesus always present in the background of the Bible—even those passages that don’t say anything about Jesus. And Paul is imagining the church as the intended audience of the Bible, even being in the biblical stories as if they were there—even though the stories were written for people long since gone.
What Paul does in this passage might seem really strange. In fact, I wouldn’t stretch the text of Scripture quite as far as Paul does, or in exactly the same ways (hey, he’s an apostle). But Paul’s example of using his imagination to read the Bible is still a helpful model for us today, in three particular ways.
First, when we read the Bible we should imagine Jesus as its fulfilment.
I don’t think we should try and see Jesus behind every rock or prophecy in the Old Testament. But we should imagine how Jesus relates to everything we read.
For example, try reading the biblical stories and imagining Jesus among those who were oppressed, who suffered and were killed—not among the strong conquerors. That is, in fact, the story of Jesus, that he identified with the weak and the suffering, not the powerful and successful. And if we use our imaginations in this way, suddenly new stories might pop out at us in fresh ways.
We might see Jesus in the life of Ruth, the Moabite woman trying to find her way in a patriarchal Israelite world. We might see Jesus in the life of Mephibosheth, the disabled grandson of King Saul, and in the way King David treated him with surprising mercy and compassion. We might see Jesus in the life of Jeremiah, the prophet who spoke truth to power and in so doing endured ostracism and imprisonment.
Here’s a second idea: When we read the Bible we should imagine ourselves in the story.
We should use our imaginations when we read the stories of the Bible, and put ourselves in the sandals of each character in the story, whether “good” or “bad,” big or small.
Jesus’ stories are particularly good for imagining ourselves in them as different characters. In fact, he invites us to do this imagining.
You know the story of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10: the Jew robbed on the way to Jericho, the priest and then the Levite passing him by, the despised Samaritan stopping to help him. As Luke tells the story, Jesus invites his hearers to use their imagination: “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who was robbed?”
Put yourself in each of their sandals, Jesus says. Imagine yourself in their place. Which one was the true neighbour?
And you can almost feel the struggle in his Jewish listeners, afraid to put themselves in the sandals of a Samaritan, then being forced to admit that their scorned enemy was in fact a loving neighbour.
This is what we need to do, if we really want God to speak directly to our hearts through the Bible. We need to imagine ourselves in the story, even when it challenges our preconceptions, even when it hurts our ego.
A third suggestion: When we read the Bible we should imagine how its message can be lived out in our lives.
Jesus doesn’t end the story of the Good Samaritan by simply getting the right identification of the hero from his audience. He ends the story with these words: “Now go and do likewise.”
Go and do likewise.
Not, “Go and repeat exactly the same thing.” Not, “Go and find someone who was robbed and beaten and then bind up their wounds and take them to a safe place to heal”—though, of course, that’s not a bad thing!
No, it’s “Go and do likewise (homoiōs), do similar kinds of things.” Follow this example of mercy shown to a neighbour, a stranger, a foreigner, an enemy, the “other.” But there may be a billion different ways this same neighbour-love can be shown. It depends on our context, the needs around us, where we are at in our own story. And so this requires some imagination.
1 Corinthians 10 gives us a window into how the Apostle Paul and the other early Christians read their Bibles—loaded with imagination. We’re invited to do the very same thing when we read our Bibles.
Where is Jesus in the biblical story? Is he right there, front and centre, like in the Gospels? Or is he in the background, where we can just see the contours of his character? Does the story prompt a question that Jesus answers, or pose a problem that Jesus solves? How does what we see in the story relate to the way Jesus lived his life, the things he taught?
Where do we fit in the biblical story? Are we one of the “good guys” or one of the “bad guys”? (Don’t presume to know the answer!) Are we up among the powerful and privileged in the story, or down among the weak and lowly? Are we one of the insiders, or one of the outsiders? What is God saying to us, whichever role we find ourselves in at this particular time?
How does the biblical story fulfilled in Jesus intersect with our life? What encouragement does it give us? How does it challenge the way we think, the way we live? How can we “go and do likewise” in following Jesus in the particular circumstances of our lives?
Where is Jesus? Where are we? And how do we then live? May God stir our imaginations to answer these questions as we read the Scriptures, both on our own and together as God’s people.