Question: Who exactly is the “destroyer” referenced in 1 Cor 10:10, when interpreted in light of the wording of Exo 11:4, 12:23, and 12:29 in the NKJV translation?
Answer: The incident referred to in 1 Corinthians 10:10 actually refers to an event that occurred in Numbers 16 when several Levites were challenging Moses’ authority as leader. The leaders of the rebellion, Korah, Dathan and Abiram, were standing at their tents and God told Moses He was going to destroy all the assembly who was supporting them. Moses asked Him to only deal with the leaders. God opened the earth and swallowed them and their families alive. Several of their followers who were offering incense on the altar were killed by fire. When the next day the assembly came again to Moses and accused him of killing these leaders, God began to kill them with a plague. Moses and Aaron offered a sacrifice on their behalf so that more did not die.
In Exodus 12 Moses told the Israelites that Yahweh would go “through the land to strike down the Egyptians” but that if they applied the blood of the lamb to their doorposts God would “not permit the destroyer to enter” their houses (verse 23). Though it does not say a “destroying angel” did this in Numbers, Paul is undoubtedly assuming the Jewish tradition that the same angelic activity that occurred in Exodus with the slaying of the firstborn of Egypt (see Psalm 78:49) was repeated in Korah’s rebellion. Whether the angel from God opened the earth, sent the fire that killed those offering illicit fire on the altar and sent the plague, or whether the angel was commissioned for just some of that action, we do not know.
It is possible that the destroying angel was the angel of Yahweh. The angel of Yahweh (this means, the messenger of Yahweh) is a separate person from God but at times is identified as Yahweh (compare Genesis 16:7-11 with Exodus 3:1-6). It seems best to understand this by positing that Jesus, the Son, is the angel of Yahweh. We can understand this because we know that Jesus, the Son, is both equal with God and yet a separate personality from God the Father. This helps make sense in this passage of Yahweh taking responsibility for opening the earth, sending the fire and the plague. Yahweh did, but it was Yahweh the Son, not Yahweh the Father.
We see this stand out in stark relief in Genesis 19:24 when the text says that in judgment of Sodom and Gomorrah, “Yahweh rained down burning sulfur on Sodom and Gomorrah from Yahweh out of the heavens” (when you see LORD in all caps this is the English representation of the divine name, Yahweh). The Son was bringing down judgment from the Father in heaven.
Interestingly, in 1 Corinthians 11 we read that some of the Corinthians were sick and some had died because they were violating another sacred symbol of God, the Lord’s supper, by their inappropriate behaviors. God still does not tolerate wanton abuse of His holy symbols and leaders. And that is the intent of Paul in this passage, also, to warn the Corinthians against offending God’s holy ordinances.