Paul's Use of Deut 25:4 in 1 Cor 9

by Doug Ward


Writing to early Christian communities in Corinth, the apostle Paul argues that those who serve a congregation are entitled to financial support from that congregation (1 Cor 9). He backs up his argument with some examples from everyday life. "Who serves as a soldier at his own expense?", he asks. "Who plants a vineyard without eating any of its fruit? Or who tends a flock without getting some of the milk?" (v. 7)

 

Paul finds further corroboration in Deut 25:4, a verse from the Torah: "You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain" (1 Cor 9:9). Since Deut 25:4 is ostensibly about animals rather than people, questions have arisen about Paul's application of this verse to human ministers of the Gospel. To understand his reasoning, it will help to take a closer look at the meaning of Deut 25:4 in its scriptural context, and also to learn about the ways in which this verse was applied in Paul's day.

 

What is Deut 25:4 About?


First, what sort of situation is in view in Deut 25:4? A farmer might be (a) harvesting grain with his own ox; or (b) harvesting grain with a borrowed or rented ox. In scenario (a) it would not make economic sense for the farmer to muzzle his ox. The ox is a valuable investment, worth much more than the grain. If the ox is well fed, the farmer's investment would be protected, and the ox would be strong and able work most effectively. This farmer does not need to be told not to muzzle his ox.

 

On the other hand, the farmer in scenario (b) might be inclined to show less concern for the welfare of someone else's ox. This farmer might be tempted to maximize his grain harvest by minimizing the amount of grain consumed by his neighbor's ox. So the commandment may be directed toward this second scenario, instructing the farmer not to return the ox to its owner weak and hungry.

 

Our analysis suggests that Deut 25:4 is less about animal welfare than about the principle of giving proper compensation for services provided by another.1 The owner of the ox expects the ox to come back healthy and well fed. Similarly, one who ministers to a congregation can expect appropriate financial support.

 

This interpretation of Deut 25:4 is in accord with Paul's application in 1 Cor 9. It also fits well with the context of the verse in Deuteronomy 24-25. These chapters include a number of precepts related to justice and fair treatment of other human beings (24:10-22; 25:1-3; 13-16). Moreover, provisions in ancient legal codes involving farm animals (e.g., Exod 21:35-36) were primarily concerned with implementing economic fairness for their owners.2

 

Applying `Ox Laws' to Humans


In light of our discussion so far, let us consider Paul's reasoning in 1 Cor 9. After citing Deut 25:4 he asks, "Is it for oxen that God is concerned? Does he not certainly speak for our sake?" (vv. 9-10) Paul is saying that Deut 25:4 is primarily for humans, an assertion that is true in two senses. As we have seen, Deut 25:4 seems to be especially concerned with fair treatment of an ox's owner. In addition, all of the Torah is directed to humans. Animals certainly benefit when people follow God's instruction, but people benefit even more, growing closer to God in a relationship that continues beyond this life.

 

Next Paul asserts, "It was written for our sake, because the plowman should plow in hope and the thresher thresh in hope of sharing in the crop" (v. 10). Here Paul may be citing a Jewish legal ruling that was later recorded in the Mishnah (Bava Metzia 7.2).3 According to this ruling, a person who plows a field ("the plowman" in 1 Cor 9:10) and one who harvests a crop ("the thresher" in 1 Cor 9:10) are allowed to eat some of the grain. In the case of the plowman, the grain would be still attached to the plant; and in the case of the thresher, the grain would be no longer attached to the plant.

 

The rationale for this ruling combines scripture and logic. Permission for the plowman to pick some grain that is still attached to the plant comes from Deut 23:25, which says, "If you go into your neighbor's standing grain, you may pluck the ears with your hand." As we have seen, permission for an ox to eat grain that is no longer attached to the plant is given in Deut 25:4. The reasoning then proceeds as follows: Since an ox, which is not allowed to eat grain still attached to a plant, is permitted to eat grain that is no longer attached to a plant; then certainly a human, who is allowed to eat grain that is still attached, may also eat grain that is no longer attached.

 

We do not know when this ruling originated, but we do know that by Paul's day, Torah commandments about oxen were routinely applied to humans. For example, the Sadducees in the Second Temple period ruled that since the owner of an ox could be held liable for damages caused by that ox (Exod 21:29), the owner of a human slave likewise could be held liable for damages caused by the slave (m. Yad. 4:7). So it is likely that Paul knows the principle of applying "ox laws" to humans and refers to it in 1 Cor 9:10.

 

Paul goes on in 1 Cor 9:11 to make a ruling of his own: "If we have sown spiritual things among you, is it too much if we reap material things from you?" In this ruling Paul uses irrefutable reasoning. If laborers may eat some of a valuable crop ("spiritual things") that they plant, much more should they be able to have some of a less valuable crop ("material things") instead. Christian rabbinic scholar David Instone-Brewer classifies 1 Cor 9:11 as "the only example of new halakah" recorded in Paul's epistles.4

 

In Cor 9 Paul uses reasoning methods that he would have learned from his teacher Gamaliel. He also appeals to the teaching of Jesus (Luke 10:7) in support of his ruling (v. 14). In the end, though, he chooses not to take advantage of the right to financial support that he has established, opting instead for the greater treasure in heaven that he hopes to gain by giving away the Gospel free of charge (v. 18).


Footnotes:

1Kind treatment of animals is also a biblical principle, as we see, for example, in Gen 1:26-28 and Prov 12:10.

 

2On these points, see Jan L. Verbruggen, "Of Muzzles and Oxen: Deuteronomy 25:4 and 1 Corinthians 9:9," Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, Vol. 49, No. 4, 2006, pp. 699-711.

 

3See David Instone-Brewer's article, "1 Corinthians 9:9-11: A Literal Interpretation of `Do Not Muzzle the Ox' ", New Testament Studies, Vol. 38, 1992, pp. 554-565.

 

4Ibid., p. 564.

Issue 32

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