Does God Care About Oxen?

Does God Care About Oxen?

Kindness to animals is used to illustrate a more specific principle in the early Church

A. Rahel Schafer

First Corinthians 9:8–10 is one of the more controversial of Paul’s Old Testament citations: “‘You shall not muzzle an ox while it treads out the grain’” (vs. 9, NKJV).1 Many scholars see this quotation as Old Testament civil law ripped from its context and applied allegorically, spiritually, fancifully, or even mystically. (Philo and Hellenistic Judaism often referred to the supposedly higher meaning of the text.) Even more radically, some follow A. P. Stanley in arguing that “the lesson which is regarded as subordinate is denied altogether.”2 In other words, Paul is accused of not only ignoring and misapplying the original context of the command, but also of audaciously declaring that it has nothing at all to do with the literal meaning of the words.


Broad New Testament Context

Scholars debate many issues in the book of 1 Corinthians, including Paul’s motivation for writing. In this longest of Paul’s Epistles, however, written to the largest city in Greece at that time, the apostle is almost certainly dealing with the difficulties of authority and leadership. Because Paul stayed longer in Corinth, he was better able to warn, admonish, and speak the truth forcefully to the opposing parties.

Openly immoral members of the Corinthian church were apparently demanding the prerogative to exercise their individual rights, in accordance with the then-current practices of prostitution and asceticism. The disunity of the church thus weighed heavily on Paul’s heart as he wrote 1 Corinthians. However, discussion about factions and other problems in the church also give a clearer glimpse of the struggles Paul faced in understanding how Christian freedom relates to societal tradition.

A concise structure of the book is as follows: In chapters 1–6, Paul is responding to oral reports about the church: divisions, incest, lawsuits, and immorality. (Chapter 4:1–21 is about attitudes toward the apostles.) In chapters 7–16, Paul addresses the issues raised in a letter from the Corinthians concerning marriage, food sacrificed to idols, worship, resurrection, and the collection for Jerusalem. Within this second section, 1 Corinthians 8–11 discusses food offered to idols. Those who wanted to eat food offered to idols asserted that their belief in monotheism allowed them to be free from irrelevant dietary restrictions. Some, however, were eating meat offered to idols in order to “flaunt their freedom,” a form of gluttony.3 Paul had to address the problem this freedom posed to those whose conscience was pricked by the eating of food offered to idols.

Within this bigger picture, some scholars consider the abrupt switch to apostolic authority in chapter 9 to be out of place within the discussion, or even part of a separate letter. Several recent works, however, have shown that chapter 9 is actually key to understanding some of the main reasons Paul wrote 1 Corinthians.

Among those who see 1 Corinthians 9 as part of Paul’s original discourse, three main views emerge. The majority of scholars see chapter 9 as Paul’s defense against those who opposed him in Corinth. In other words, in order for his comments on idols to have any effect, he had to establish his authority over and against those who were questioning him.

A second group views this supposed digression as the crucial part of a legitimate Greek ceremonial argumentation, serving to strengthen what is already believed. Although the argument for profitability in regard to food and sexuality is not yet complete, chapter 9 helps to prepare the Corinthians to judge wisely regarding idolatry (1 Cor. 10:14–22).

A third group finds that the issue is not Paul’s authority or whether or not he was allowed to accept financial support as an apostle, but that he refused to exercise his rights in order to set an example of giving up one’s rights for the sake of another. Personal sacrifice and commitment to the unity of the church are part of imitating the “model character of the apostle and his ways in Christ.”4 The freedom of the liberal Corinthians parallels the apostle’s freedom to accept support for his labors, but love often means giving up entitlements for the sake of others. Although Paul accepts the arguments of those who wished to eat food offered to idols, he asks them not to use their rights for the sake of those weak in faith. Paul recommends his apostleship as a positive example of self-renunciation.       

Others note that more than one of the above views could have been operating at the same time. Along these lines, arguments for one of these views that negate the other possibilities often create a false dichotomy between them. Indeed, Paul employs several rhetorical and logical strategies in 1 Corinthians 9, and appeals to both human and divine authorities.

However, the third view seems most coherent and convincing in terms of Paul’s flow of logic. The apostle appears to be setting himself up as an example in unselfishly giving up his rights for the sake of others and the gospel. One of his rhetorical strategies is to list three similar examples in the realities of everyday life (1 Cor. 9:7), and then to appeal to three authorities for even more persuasive corroboration: the Law of Moses (vs. 9), the temple service (vs. 13), and commands from the Lord (vs. 4). Thus, the Old Testament context of Paul’s quotation becomes crucial for the interpretation of his reasoning in 1 Corinthians 9. If Paul here uses Deuteronomy 25:4 out of context in applying it to human workers instead of oxen, the reader would no longer be able to follow or trust his logic and argumentation. In light of this, the original context of Deuteronomy 25:4 must be considered before returning to a closer examination of 1 Corinthians 9.


Old Testament Context

In spite of the lack of consensus concerning the date and authorship of Deuteronomy, many scholars do find a unity in the book itself as the book of the law, a series of sermons, or a treaty documenting the covenant between God and Israel. Most, however, still see Deuteronomy 25 (and indeed Deuteronomy 12–26) as a disparate collection of laws that have little connection to each other beyond their importance to the covenant. Others find that each law is related to the previous not by a common topic, but by a similar word or grammatical pattern, as if the compiler was reminded of each succeeding law in a somewhat haphazard pattern.

A few scholars have ventured to analyze the structure of the multitudinous stipulations. Christenson has proposed a very broad concentric and chiastic structure for Deuteronomy 12–26, considering that even more broadly, Deuteronomy 21:10–25:19 contains laws concerning “human affairs in relation to others.”5 C. Carmichael suggests that the arrangement of Deuteronomy reflects the order and structure of the Book of the Covenant in Exodus 21–23.6

In the Book of the Covenant, laws concerning social privileges are bookends around laws concerning the legal system and courtroom laws. Interestingly, Carmichael lists Exodus 23:10–12, which also highlights a concern for animals, in the second section of social privilege laws. This pattern is paralleled, but with more complexity, in Deuteronomy 12–26, where Deuteronomy 25:4 is considered a law about privileges (interpolated among laws of the courtroom). Christenson’s analysis also places Deuteronomy 25:4 within the laws of humanitarian concerns and social ethics (25:1-16), paralleling Deuteronomy 24:6-16 and separated by the summary law protecting the disadvantaged (24:17-22).

Others have tried to find structure in Deuteronomy 12–26 based on the Decalogue as an organizing principle, with “the individual laws thus appear[ing] as concretizations of the Decalogue.”7 Braulik sees Deuteronomy 25:4 as part of the commentary on the eighth commandment, dealing generally with matters of jurisprudence, especially regarding right actions in the face of judgment. McConnville argues that the commandment prohibiting a false witness entails fairness to all, even the dignity of animals.8 As Deuteronomy presents itself as Moses’ sermons or commentary on the Decalogue, this latter option seems more probable.

Thus, most commentators see Deuteronomy 25:4 within a section of surrounding laws concerning humane treatment of people, especially the poor and marginalized, who are allowed to eat what is left in the field at the end of harvest (Deut. 24:19–22). Some suggest that Deuteronomy 25:4 had already become a proverb by the time Deuteronomy was written, especially since every other verse in Deuteronomy 25 is about justice in human relationships. In this view, Deuteronomy 25:4 would function well as a proverb for justice in human working relationships.

However, although Deuteronomy 25:4 is addressed to humans, not oxen, the law engenders compassion for animals in the owner. The only other place this word for “muzzle” occurs is Ezekiel 39:11, where it is a participle, best translated “to block” or “to obstruct.” This broader meaning could be paralleled in the rabbinic prohibitions regarding threshing oxen, which cover a wide variety of distractions or pain for the ox. Indeed, some rabbinic sources consider this passage to refer only to animals and their care. The Talmud suggests that Deuteronomy refers to all animals when compassion is commanded, and even if an animal eats food that is for the priests, muzzling would be inappropriate and cruel.9

The ox is working hard to thresh the grain, but if it is muzzled, it cannot eat on a regular basis, as cattle need to do. If the muzzle is removed, the ox may not work faster, and the owner will lose a bit of grain, but the animal will be much more satisfied. In addition, the act of threshing is part of a temporal clause, implying that the muzzle was never to be used during any part of the threshing process.

When considering the Hebrew word for “threshing,” several other Old Testament texts shed light on Deuteronomy 25:4. For instance, Jeremiah 50:11 mentions the ox getting fat while threshing, perhaps because it is not muzzled. Indeed, Christenson suggests that the alternative to muzzling the ox would be to administer a whip to encourage it to work. However, Hosea 10:11 speaks of a trained heifer that “loves to thresh,” which seems to suggest that the whip might not have been necessary. It hardly seems possible that the ox could truly eat enough grain to disadvantage the farmer, especially considering the biology of ruminants, where chewing the cud consumes large parts of the day.

Interestingly, this law is an anomaly in the ancient Near East, where laws about oxen do not mention any care for the ox itself, mostly discussing what must be done to repay the owner if the ox is lost or killed. Thus, any analysis of Deuteronomy 25:4 must take into consideration the basis for its injunction in the animal world.


Immediate New Testament Context

R. Hays reflects the comments of many scholars on 1 Corinthians 9:8–10 when he states that “there is no indication that Paul has wrestled seriously with the texts from which the citations are drawn.”10 However, he at least tries to justify Paul’s hermeneutic by calling it strategic and rhetorically intertextual, unlike others who find no connection between this command to oxen and Paul’s application to clergy. J. Smit argues that Paul “widens the scope” of Deuteronomy 25, and uses the method of “Qumran pesharim,” changing the application from the original text.11 Thielman finds that Paul says God was “not concerned about oxen,” and argues that the law is relevant for Christians only as it is reinterpreted in light of the eschatological Christ event, and superseded by Jesus’ authority. Conzelmann even contends that Paul uses an allegorical approach like that of Philo. Thus, it is important to examine the flow of Paul’s argument in the first part of 1 Corinthians 9 before attempting to mediate between these positions, and consider whether God cares for animals.


Exegetical and Rhetorical Analysis of 1 Corinthians 9

Paul presents four introductory questions: “Am I not an apostle? Am I not free? Have I not seen Jesus Christ our Lord? Are you not my work in the Lord?” (1 Cor. 9:1). Then, in verse 2, he expands on the last question in to remind the Corinthians that even if he is not an apostle to others, he is an apostle to them. Therefore, he has a defense for his examiners. He first mentions some specific apostolic rights through more questions: “Do we have no right to eat and drink? Do we have no right to take along a believing wife, as do also the other apostles? . . . Or is it only Barnabas and I who have no right to refrain from working?” (vss. 4-6).

Then he shifts to the common-sense basic rights of all laborers with further questions: “Who ever goes to war at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard and does not eat of its fruit? Or who tends a flock and does not drink of the milk of the flock?” In support of these above presuppositions, Paul appeals to the Pentateuch: “Do I say these things as a mere man? Or does not the law say the same also?” (vs. 8). Paul quotes the Law of Moses specifically: “‘You shall not muzzle an ox while it treads out the grain’” (vs. 9).

Paul has already used many figures in his argument, but only the ox has previous scriptural support. Indeed, examples and analogies are “only valid if they are understood literally in the first place.”12 Paul could have used a less controversial example, like that of the priests, but perhaps he wanted to help the Corinthians understand that they had been trying to “muzzle” Paul by calling into question his authority and trying to obligate him to them and their opinions.

Chrysostom offers another interesting hypothesis: Paul wanted to “prove his case beyond any shadow of doubt. If God cares about oxen, how much more will he care about the labor of teachers?”13 This “lesser to greater” argument is a rabbinical method, but contrary to what many assume, Jewish exegesis should not be equated automatically with misuse of the text, or taking it out of context.

Paul then asks the question: “Was God thinking only about oxen when he said this?” (vs. 9, NLT). Figures of speech are used to give force, life, or intensity to an argument. The rhetorical force of “only” often entails a question that is solely to elicit a resounding “No!” But here, in light of the dependence of Paul’s argument on the care for animals inherent in the Deuteronomic context, the phraseology could suggest a question that is more hesitant, rather than inviting an emphatically negative answer. When considering the context of Deuteronomy 25:4 in this way, G. M. Lee interprets it as a “cautious or deprecatory assertion”: “I expect God cares for oxen. Suppose, now, he says it in any case for us, too?”14

Along the same lines, the Greek word for “only” in verse 10 can be translated many different ways, but is usually rendered here as “altogether” (KJV, NKJV, NASB) or “entirely” (CEV). This seems to be another one of the main reasons that Paul is accused of taking Deuteronomy 25:4 out of context. If God does not care about oxen, but entirely about humans, then the literal meaning of the law becomes void. Some recent studies, however, have shown that in this context, “only” is better translated “certainly,” “undoubtedly,” or “assuredly.” In this way, Paul’s focus on humanity is maintained, in that humans are given the law, but humans are required by the law to care for oxen.

Thus, the foundational premise of animal care in Deuteronomy remains the basis for Paul’s argument concerning pay for laborers. Paul is arguing from the minor to the major, in that “on every account a provision made for the beasts . . . must hold good, a fortiori, for God’s proper servants.”15 In other words, all Scripture has an eschatological goal or purpose, and Scripture ultimately was written for those at the end of time, but this does not make other provisional interpretations irrelevant or invalid.

Paul then continues in verse 10 with a parallel-structured statement: “this was written for our sakes also, in order that:

● “he who plows should plow in hope”; and

● “he who threshes in hope should be partaker of his hope.”

That this was written “also/certainly” for us makes even more sense now (in contrast to “altogether”), because of these further examples that Paul draws out. If Deuteronomy 25:4 was not actually written for the oxen originally, then the plower could not plow in hope, and the human who threshed could not be a partaker of the hope.

The phrase “this is written, that” in verse 10 also plays an important role that many scholars do not analyze fully. Most argue that the next clause in 1 Corinthians 9:10b is a new quotation or that Paul continues to give the reason that Deuteronomy 25:4 was written for him. However, Smit argues thoroughly and convincingly based on grammatical, syntactical, and pragmatic evidence that Paul is explaining the quotation from the law.16 Especially to be noted is the lack of “it is written” (NIV) as in verse 9. The only other place in which this occurs in Paul’s letters is Romans 4:23, where it is a link between a quotation and its further explanation. The plower is also a link between the quotation and its application. Here in verse 10, Paul is basically rewriting Deuteronomy 25:4.

Thus, the agricultural metaphors of sowing and plowing, and the close relationship between the worker and the product of the worker’s labor are key connections between these two passages. Brewer goes even farther and categorizes Paul’s statements on this passage as legal rulings, evidenced by his words, “as it is written in the law of Moses.” Extensive evidence illustrates that the ox could be substituted for any laborer in ancient custom, and Brewer even contends that Paul’s interpretation of Deuteronomy 25:4 is literal. Whether humans (in Paul’s day) or animal (in Deuteronomy), recompense for labor was the only morally acceptable course of action.

Indeed, in verses 11–16, Paul continues to emphasize his rights for recompense, but then proceeds to emphasize how he has not used them. A paraphrase and further analysis of the passage indicates parallels between rights (vss. 11, 12a, 13, 14) and renunciation (vss. 12b, 15, 16) in Paul’s application of these examples to his own situation:

A—rights: we sow spiritual things and should be able to reap material ones; as others partake of this right, we should even more (vss. 11, 12a)

   B—renunciation: however, we have not used this right, but endure all things lest we hinder the gospel of Christ (vs. 12b)

A’—rights: those who minister the holy things eat of the things of the temple, and those who serve at the altar partake of the offerings of the altar; thus, those who preach the gospel should live from the gospel (vss. 13, 14)

   B’—renunciation: but I have used none of these things, nor have I written these things that it should be done so to me; for it would be better for me to die! No one can make my boasting void, for if I preach the gospel, I have nothing to boast of (vss. 15, 16)

The overall structure in this passage connects the dots between Paul’s rights, his refusal to take advantage of them for the sake of the gospel, and his subsequent service to all in the name of Christ.

A—the law allows remuneration (vss. 8–10)

   B—but Paul avoids it for the sake of the gospel (vss. 11–18)

      C—though he is free, he becomes a servant to all (vs. 19)

A’—Paul labors to reach all human beings, even those under the law (vss. 20, 21)

   B’—and he becomes like them as much as possible for the sake of the gospel (vss. 22, 23)

      C’—he even puts his body under subjection so he is not disqualified in preaching (vss. 24–27)

Paul has a right to be paid, like the ox (A), for his labor to all human beings (A’). However, the apostle chooses not to be remunerated for the sake of the gospel (B) and attempts to fit in with others to reach them (B’), even serving them, though a free man (C), and enduring bodily discomfort for the sake of the gospel (C’).

Because he is an apostle, Paul has a right to be sustained by those for whom he labors, just as do the threshing ox, the vine keeper, and the plower. But he has chosen not to take advantage of that right so he may win more to Christ, present the gospel without charge, and not abuse his authority in the gospel. He would rather become a servant to all. Indeed, in his preaching “his reward is to render the gospel free of charge.”17 His argument depends on a continued application of the law to make an even greater contrast between what he deserves as a laborer and what he renounces for the sake of the gospel. In the end, it is not so much about care for oxen, for that is assumed in Paul’s logical argument. It is instead that Paul (the ox—or laborer) chooses to forego his right to be “unmuzzled,” to reach more people with the gospel.


God’s Care for Animals

Paul’s interpretive use of the Old Testament in this passage can best be classified as analogical. This kind of usage makes a comparison between two things for the purpose of clarification. When the Old Testament context is understood correctly, even its proverbs and legal codes can be applied to current situations by the New Testament church and modern believers. Biblical commands, no matter the original time period or culture to which they were addressed, usually carry a universal and timeless principle. Analogy from human life is “supported further by parallel analogies or examples from scripture.”18

However, Paul also uses the authority of the Old Testament as part of his argument, so it is more than a simple argument from analogy. The context for Deuteronomy 25:4 includes a concern for all laborers, so, when considering the scope of the law, Paul draws out its significance for the present situation, determining that the principle could be applied to Christian ministers with validity. Paul thus reasons from the lesser to the greater: because God is concerned for animals, He is therefore all the more concerned for humans.

When consideration is given to the larger context of Deuteronomy 24 and 25, it becomes apparent that Paul does not abandon the literal meaning or take any liberties with the law, but perceives the goal of engendering a sense of moral duty and gratefulness in all. The universal principles found in Deuteronomy 25:4 are that of fairness and generosity, and Paul understands that Moses was ultimately writing for humanity’s sake as much as for the animals’, especially because humans are to act for the sake of the oxen. Indeed, the person who shows mercy has the higher benefit than the receiver of mercy, even when this kindness is an inconvenience. In this way, the law is for the sake of animals (receivers of compassion) and humans (givers of compassion), so that Paul’s application actually is more faithful to the context of Deuteronomy 25:4 than are many who accuse him of misapplying it.

In our eagerness to apply biblical laws to our current situations, we must not forget that the applications lose their power when the original law is no longer valid. Deuteronomy 25:4 can now be viewed as a call to support Christian ministers. The primary theological use of Deuteronomy 25:4 by Paul is ecclesiological, especially for the support of pastors. Christian leaders have a right to be assisted in their ministries. This is especially important because the church really is an “independent community” with different governments, social groups, rituals, and rules. Pastors rarely receive support from non-Christians, so church members may need to sacrifice to assure their leaders’ financial survival.

Deuteronomy 25:4 does not mean that humans may disregard the compassionate treatment of God’s creatures. God is not talking about animals just to show that He cares about humans. Both aspects must be kept in balance, as “the wholeness of the covenant community extends even to its livestock.”19 The true meaning of leadership is a Christlike stance toward others. Scripture and analogy come together to inspire us to greater service toward all God’s creatures, even when that may mean giving up what we deserve.


A. Rahel Schafer is a Ph.D. candidate and an Assistant Professor in the Department of Religion and Biblical Languages at Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.



1. Unless otherwise specified, all Bible texts in this article are quoted from the New King James Version.


2. A. P. Stanley, The Epistles of St. Paul to the Corinthians (London: John Murray, 1876), p. 142.


3. G. Bray, ed., 1–2 Corinthians (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: New Testament; Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1999), p. 2.


4. W. Wuellner, “Greek Rhetoric and Pauline Argumentation,” in Early Christian Literature and the Classical Intellectual Tradition (Festschrift for R.M. Grant; Théologie Historique 53; W. R. Schoedel, ed. (Paris: Beauchesne, 1979), p. 187.


5. D. L. Christenson, Deuteronomy 21:10–34:12 (Nashville, Tenn.: Thomas Nelson, 2002), p. 464.


6. C. Carmichael, The Laws of Deuteronomy (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1974).


7. G. Braulik, “The Sequence of Laws in Deuteronomy 12–26 and in the Decalogue,” in D. L. Christensen, ed., A Song of Power and the Power of Song: Essays on the Book of Deuteronomy (Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 1993), p. 334.


8. J. G. McConnville, Deuteronomy (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2002), p. 367.


9. See, for example, b. B. Qam. 54.


10. C. K. Barrett, First Epistle to the Corinthians (New York: Continuum Press, 2004), p. 205. Stanley considers the possibility that Paul many have been quoting Deuteronomy 25:4 almost as R. B. Hays, Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1989), page 175.


11. J. F. M. Smit, “‘You Shall Not Muzzle a Threshing Ox’: Paul’s Use of the Law of Moses in 1 Cor. 9:8–12,” Estudios Bíblicos, vol. 2, p. 262.


12. A. T. Hanson, Studies in Paul’s Technique and Theology (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1974), p. 162.


13. Homilies on the Epistles of Paul to the Corinthians 21.5 (NPNF 1-12:121).


14. G. M. Lee, “Studies in Texts: 1 Cor. 9:9-10,” Theology, vol. 71, p. 123.


15. G. G. Findlay, “St. Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians,” in W. R. Nicoll, ed., The Expositor’s Greek Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1961), vol. 2, p. 848.


16. J. F. M. Smit, “About the Idol Offerings:” Rhetoric, Social Context, and Theology of Paul’s Discourse in First Corinthians 8:1–11:1, in Contributions to Biblical Exegesis and Theology (Leuven: Peeters, 2000), pp. 99–120.


17. D. Newton, Deity and Diet: The Dilemma of Sacrificial Food at Corinth (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic, 1998), p. 322.


18. A. Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians: A Commentary on the Greek Text (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2000), p. 685.


19. McConnville, Deuteronomy, op cit., p. 369.