“You shall not muzzle an ox when it is treading out the grain” (Deut. 25:4).

This command, which appears only once in the Old Testament, would garner little attention except for the fact that the apostle Paul cites it not once but twice (1 Cor. 9:9; 1 Tim. 5:18), making apostolic application to his right to be supported financially as a minister of the gospel. And he does so in such a way that it makes it sound like he is bypassing what the command was originally about.

Moses (serving as the covenant mediator for Yahweh) seems compassionately concerned about the oxen getting enough to eat, getting their fair share when working hard.

Paul, on the other hand, seems to say that God isn’t primarily concerned about oxen. In 1 Corinthians 9:9-10 he asks rhetorically:

  • Is it for oxen that God is concerned? [The Greek wording implies an emphatic “No!”]
  • Does he [=Moses] not certainly speak for our sake?

This raises lots of questions, like:

  • Is Paul saying that Moses never meant this to be applied to literal oxen?
  • Is he merely referring to the ultimate intention of the passage?
  • Is he focusing on contemporary application rather than original meaning?
  • Is he quoting this verse out of context?

We can answer questions like this by going back to the text and asking some questions of our own.

Are There Issues with the Original Text and Grammar?

There are no disputed textual or grammatical issues at play in this Deuteronomy 25:4. A good literal translation would be: “do not muzzle an ox in its threshing.” (“Out/of the grain” is added in many English translations for clarification; Paul himself adds it to his quotation for the same reason.) Contra the NET Bible, there is no specification of the owner of the ox; in other words, there is no indication of possession (e.g., “your ox” or “his ox”). Whether the ox is owned or borrowed by the recipient of this command must be determined from context (both textually and historically) and logic. In my opinion, this is a more significant consideration than it appears at first glance.

What Did It Originally Mean?

The terseness of the command means that the motivation, the ground, and the application must all be inferred.

The surface issue is that of muzzling. If an ox wears a muzzle during the process of tramping the grain on the threshing floor, then it cannot eat the grain. Yahweh through Moses is saying that this is wrong. But the reason is not specified.

Virtually all interpreters have recognized the upshot: if an ox is without muzzle, then it can partake of the fruit of its own labor, and this is regarded as a good thing. But many interpreters stop at this point and fail to press in more deeply.

Who Is the Command Really For?

One question that commentators rarely ask or answer is this: Is it the owner of the ox, or it is someone who is renting or borrowing it? And what is the motivation behind the command? Is the primary issue Yahweh’s compassion and protection for animals (cf. Prov. 12:10; Jonah 4:11), or is there an element of human justice and protection at play (cf. Deut. 22:14)?

There are two basic options for the identity of the man to whom this command is directed: he is either (1) the owner of the ox, or (2) someone borrowing or renting the ox. Each option could then be subdivided based on the location of the threshing: the owner of the ox could be (1a) threshing his own grain, or (1b) threshing someone else’s grain; likewise, the borrower/renter could be (2a) threshing his own grain, or (2b) threshing someone else’s grain. Schematically we could represent the possible logical options as follows:

Owner of Ox Renter/Borrower of Ox
Own grain 1a 2a
Someone else’s grain 1b 2b

There is nothing in the Hebrew grammar to answer these questions for us. All four options are perfectly compatible with the terminology and structure of this short command.

The option of a man renting or borrowing an ox to thresh someone else’s grain, while possible, seems historically unlikely. It is more likely that an owner of the ox is threshing his own grain or someone else’s, or that a renter/borrower of the ox is threshing his own grain. We must reason our way through the situation, asking if one or more of these three remaining options makes more sense of the surrounding literary context, the cultural situation, and the divine motivation.

If the command is directed to the owner of the ox—whether threshing in his own field or in another’s—it is difficult to understand why the stipulation is required in the first place. Oxen were viewed as property, and there was a built-in motivation for maintaining one’s property to perform at a maximal level. It is difficult to see why the command would make it into the Mosaic law given the self-interest that would already ensure such actions. As Jan Verbruggen notes in his excellent article on this verse, “The economic value of the ox far outweighs the value of the threshed grain that an ox could eat while it is threshing. . . . Economically, it would not make sense if the owner of the ox muzzled his own ox while it is doing hard labor.”

By process of elimination, this leaves us with the situation of a man borrowing or renting an ox to thresh his own grain. In that event, his self-interest would entail preserving as much of his threshed grain as possible; on the other hand, he would have no intrinsic motivation to let the ox eat of his grain. If the animal ended up in a weakened state or unhealthy as a result, the situation does not result in any economic loss on his end. This, then, seems like the most plausible situation for requiring a command. The covenant stipulation works against the selfish motive for a man to take advantage of another man’s property. (To use a modern analogy, at the risk of anachronism, this is the reason that rental stores today have agreements about returning rented equipment in good working order; they know that when someone doesn’t own something there is an increased propensity for recklessness and lack of diligent care.)

If this line of reasoning is correct, it cuts against the interpretive strategy taken by commentators like Raymond Brown: “Although all the other laws in this passage concern human rights, a commandment is suddenly introduced which protects animals from owners who are more concerned about working them hard than feeding them well.” This interpretation assumes (without argument, or without considering any other alternative) that it is the owner of the oxen who is receiving this command. Further, it assumes that the primary motivation is the protection of the animal. While not wanting to deny Yahweh’s compassion for animals as part of his created order and in accordance with his attributes, it is difficult to account for this interpretation in the context. It seems that Verbruggen is on more solid footing here: “If it was just a humanitarian law for the ox, the law is clearly at odds with its context. However, if it is a law dealing with the economic responsibility of someone using someone else’s property, the law fits nicely in the context.” In other words, Deuteronomy 25:4 in context is not fundamentally a law about how to treat animals humanely but rather a law about how to treat properly treat the property you are borrowing or renting from someone. Seen in this light, v. 4 fits the original context quite well. Otherwise the verse is an anomaly which seems to stand out.

So What’s Going on in the New Testament?

In 1 Timothy 5:17 Paul writes, “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching.” In v. 18 Paul grounds this teaching with two quotations: “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain” (Deut. 25:4) and “The laborer deserves his wages” (Luke 10:7; cf. Matt. 10:10). Paul’s point is that pastor-elders should not be taken for granted or taken advantage of, but rather should be adequately compensated for their gospel labors.

Paul’s citation of Deuteronomy 25:4 in 1 Corinthians 9:9 is more complicated and has generated more discussion. At the end of the day, the function and argument is the same. What was a general principle in 1 Timothy 5:18 now becomes a personal and specific instantiation of this idea. Here Paul is arguing that he and Barnabas have the right to receive adequate compensation for their ministry labors. The most striking feature for our purposes is that Paul seems to say that God is really not concerned about the oxen after all, which is in tension with the traditional interpretation that the primary purpose of Deuteronomy 25:4 is to protect the oxen (that is, the one doing the work).

Numerous interpretations have been put forth. For example, Fee argues that laws, by their very nature, “do not intend to touch all circumstances; hence they regularly function as paradigms for application in all sorts of human circumstances. . . . Paul does not speak to what the law originally meant. . . . He is concerned with what it means, that is, with its application to their present situation.”

More specifically, Ciampa and Rosner argue, “Paul’s statement need not (and should not) be taken as an absolute denial that the law was given for the sake of animals, but as a strong assertion that God is even more concerned about humans (and that he was particularly concerned to give guidance for the eschatological community of the church).”

Luther, in a typically humorous but insightful aside, says that this command can’t be for the oxen because “oxen can’t read!”

Calvin elaborates:

 [T]hough the Lord commands consideration for the oxen, He does so, not for the sake of the oxen, but rather out of regard for men, for whose benefit even the very oxen were created. Therefore that humane treatment of oxen ought to be an incentive, moving us to treat each other with consideration and fairness. . . . God is not concerned about oxen, to the extent that oxen were the only creatures in His mind when He made the law, for He was thinking of men, and wanted to make them accustomed to being considerate in behaviour, so that they might not cheat the workman of his wages. For the ox does not take the leading part in ploughing and threshing, but man, and it is by man’s efforts that the ox itself is set to work. Therefore, what he goes on to add, ‘he that plougheth ought to plough in hope’ etc., is an interpretation of the commandment, as though he said, that it is extended, in a general way, to cover any kind of reward for labour.

These interpretations are legitimate so far as they go, but they lack nuance by focusing only on the “compassion” aspect of original while ignoring the “economic justice” factors that likely provided the motivation and impetus for the command in the first place.

To review my argument: Moses gave the command to provide for the ox, but ultimately to protect an Israelite from being unjustly treated at the hand of one who borrows or rents his ox. The one benefiting from the labor of an ox should not take economic advantage of the owner of the ox.

Once this is seen, rich texture is added to Paul’s use of this verse. His point is not really that the Corinthians should have compassion or mercy for him and Barnabas, but that this is a matter of fundamental justice. The issue is not really kindness, but rights. When Paul says this is not really about the oxen, he is pointing to this wider and deeper reality at play in this verse as it was originally to be understood. Therefore the Corinthians should want to provide appropriate compensation as an expression of justice, even if Paul ultimately rejects the offer.

Help on the New Testament Citing the Old

If this minority interpretation—which is indebted to Verbruggen’s helpful work—is correct, then there are at least two implications for understanding how the New Testament cites the Old Testament: (1) never ignore the original OT context; (2) be slow to assume that the NT writers are quoting things out of context. And even if my view is wrong, these two principles still apply!

For help on these questions, one of the shortest and most accessible introductions is C. John Collins’ essay, “How the New Testament Quotes and Interprets the Old Testament,” found in the ESV Study Bible (pp. 2605-2607), which includes an extensive chart on all of the “Old Testament Passages Cited in the New Testament” (pp. 2608-2611). This is reprinted in Understanding Scripture, pp. 181-198.

The go-to reference book is the Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old, edited by Carson and Beale. This book probably belongs on every pastor’s shelf.

And undoubtedly the best how-to guide on this subject is now Beale’s new Handbook on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament: Exegesis and Interpretation.