What Does “Play” Mean in 1 Corinthians 10:7?

February 19, 2022

In a NT epistle, the Spirit confronts us as Christians with an authoritative prohibition that we must not be idolaters.

1 Corinthians 10:7 Neither be ye idolaters, as were some of them; as it is written, The people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to play.

Notice that in this verse, He specifies that such unholy worship includes playing that is idolatrous.

Knowing correctly, therefore, what that idolatrous playing in worship is and rejecting it completely is mandatory for all believers–it is not something that is optional for any of us.

In a recent online conversation, someone commented that the meaning of “play” in 1 Corinthians 10:7 should be understood to refer to immorality because of what the next verse says:

1 Corinthians 10:8 Neither let us commit fornication, as some of them committed, and fell in one day three and twenty thousand.

Because, however, 1 Corinthians 10:7 cites Exodus 32:6 but 10:8 refers to Numbers 25, we know that the Spirit has directed us to two different accounts to understand what He wants us to know about those directives. Because He has done so, we need to compare Exodus 32 and Numbers 25 to understand properly what God wants us to know about the two negative directives that He has given us in 1 Corinthians 10:7 and 8.

A Comparison of Exodus 32 and Numbers 25

The following table presents an analysis of Exodus 32 compared with Numbers 25 concerning key aspects of both accounts of idolatry:

Exodus 32 Numbers 25
Idol(s) Explicit Implicit
Altar Explicit Implicit
Bowing down Implicit Explicit
Sacrifices Explicit Explicit
Eating Explicit Explicit
Drinking Explicit Implicit
Singing Explicit Not mentioned
Dancing Explicit Not mentioned
Instrumental music Implicit Not mentioned
Immorality Not mentioned Explicit
Divine judgment Explicit Explicit

Looking closely at the differences between the two accounts, we see clearly that the Spirit has focused His attention on differing activities in the two accounts. In Exodus 32, He explicitly speaks about the people’s singing and dancing, but He does not say anything about such activities in Numbers 25.

By contrast, He speaks explicitly about fornication in Numbers 25 but not in Exodus 32.

This comparison instructs that we should not take the word “play” in 1 Corinthians 10:7 to mean that the people were fornicating. Rather, the word “play” refers to the people’s singing and dancing in their idolatrous worship.

Additional Biblical Support for This Interpretation

In a previous post, I have provided some additional biblical considerations that support this interpretation:

Undeniably, Exodus 32:17-18 is divine revelation that has been given by inspiration of the Spirit:

Exodus 32:17 And when Joshua heard the noise of the people as they shouted, he said unto Moses, There is a noise of war in the camp. 18 And he said, It is not the voice of them that shout for mastery, neither is it the voice of them that cry for being overcome: but the noise of them that sing do I hear.

Because verse 18 mentions singing explicitly, these verses are undeniably divine revelation about music. The only question that remains is whether these verses are divine revelation about worship music.

Exodus 32:5 shows that what took place in the Golden Calf Incident (GCI) took place on an occasion that was supposed to have been a feast to the Lord, which would have been a divinely ordained occasion of corporate worship (cf. John 12:20). In addition, apostolic citation of Exodus 32:6 in 1 Corinthians 10:7 decisively shows that the GCI was an occasion of worship because it says that they were idolaters on that occasion:

1 Corinthians 10:7 Neither be ye idolaters, as were some of them; as it is written, The people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to play.

1 Corinthians 10:7 μηδὲ εἰδωλολάτραι γίνεσθε, καθώς τινες αὐτῶν· ὡς γέγραπται, Ἐκάθισεν ὁ λαὸς φαγεῖν καὶ πιεῖν, καὶ ἀνέστησαν παίζειν.

Furthermore, Paul specifies that their idolatrous worship extended to their eating and drinking what had been offered to the idol and to their subsequent playing. The Greek verb παίζειν that is rendered “to play” in this statement is used in the LXX to signify singing and playing of musical instruments:

1 Chr. 13:8 And David and all Israel played before God with all their might, and with singing, and with harps, and with psalteries, and with timbrels, and with cymbals, and with trumpets.

1 Chr. 13:8 καὶ Δαυιδ καὶ πᾶς Ισραηλ παίζοντες ἐναντίον τοῦ θεοῦ ἐν πάσῃ δυνάμει καὶ ἐν ψαλτῳδοῖς καὶ ἐν κινύραις καὶ ἐν νάβλαις ἐν τυμπάνοις καὶ ἐν κυμβάλοις καὶ ἐν σάλπιγξιν

This biblical data justifies holding that the idolatrous worship in the GCI included their singing.

Conclusion

A careful comparison of the accounts of idolatry in Exodus 32 and Numbers 25 teaches us that the Spirit intends for us to understand the verb “play” in 1 Corinthians 10:7 as referring to the people’s idolatrous singing and dancing in the Golden Calf Incident. We must accept that God has forbidden us from engaging in any such idolatrous playing!

Copyright © 2011-2022 by Rajesh Gandhi. All rights reserved.

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Copyright © 2011-2022 by Rajesh Gandhi. All rights reserved.