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“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 10:17; 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.

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24 thoughts on “Do Not Muzzle the Ox: Does Paul Quote Moses Out of Context?”

  1. (1) never ignore the original OT context; (2) be slow to assume that the NT writers are quoting things out of context.

    Sound advice for sure. Thanks for your work here, Justin.

    1. David Ould says:

      seconded. That’s a principle I always seek to work by and it’s not failed yet, despite the fact that often we are too eager to assume the NT distorts OT meanings for it’s own purpose.

  2. Laura says:

    “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.”

    I had not seen this before but it’s what I had always thought. I link it in my mind to the law about gleaning: that when your workers pass through the fields, don’t send them through again to pick up what has fallen out of the sheafs. Leave that to the widows and orphans and strangers so they can have their daily bread. It’s partly about providing for those people, of course, but it seems to me that in both cases God’s people are being trained not to focus overmuch on getting every last crumb they think they are entitled to, but rather to be open-handed and liberal and generous with their wealth when they have it. And in that context, Paul was perfectly right to quote that verse.

  3. MarkO says:

    Justin, very enjoyable read.

    Learning about the relationship of the NT to the OT is fascinating. I keep finding more around each bend on this particular issue. I discovered this helpful analogy by Beale. It makes their relationship clearer to me.

    “I gave the analogy of picking an apple off a tree and making it part of a decorative table arrangement of fruit. The new context does not obliterate the apple’s original identity but it must now be viewed not merely in relation to its original context but in connection to its new context. Old Testament references gain ‘new significance’ but not ‘new meaning’ when placed in a new context. The original ‘meaning’ does not change but the ‘significance’ of that meaning changes.”
    (Greg Beale, Irish Biblical Studies, Vol. 21, Nov. 1999.)

    So, I’ve been thinking about implications of this:

    – on one extreme isn’t it possible in our interpretation to virtually divorce an OT text from it’s NT new significance?
    an example: where Hosea says “out of Egypt I have called my son” we might miss the ‘new significance’ of Jesus being the True and Ultimate Israel.

    – on the opposite extreme isn’t it possible to read too much of the NT into the OT virtually fusing an OT text with a NT text as though they had been written in the same column?
    an example: reading the Anti-Christ into Daniel 9

    1. David Ould says:

      hi Mark, I’m with you – totally fascinating. I completed my seminary thesis on the related topic of typology and one thing I’d add to the conversation is that we ned to have a grasp of how intentional we think the link was in the original text.

      For me, I think it’s there and clearly intended so I conclude one side observation like this:

      A brief examination of other examples of typology in the New Testament, in the exposition of the earliest Church Fathers and in a wider consideration of the work of the Spirit has opened up to us the possibility that use of typology in the Old Testament may be far more prevalent then we may initially have suspected. If it is, then we would expect that same Spirit to make us aware of His work and so much of the typology described in the first few centuries of Christendom is not as strange to us at it may first appear to be.

      If the principle holds then might it not hold in a wider sense? If there is a divinely intended meaning inherent in the text then that meaning was there originally and intended to be so. Those with the Spirit are far more likely to recognise that which the Spirit originally intended.
      In saying this I’m not encouraging some form of charistmatic excess, just joining the conversation as we consider what our controls on this fulfilment hermeneutic ought to be.

      1. MarkO says:

        I see what you are saying, but it is noteworthy that the example Justin works through is not really about typology. The “oxen” has been misinterpreted as typology, but if I get his conclusion he is saying that is some cases the relationship between OT and NT is not one of typology. In some cases it is purely axiomatic – in other words a very ancient principle (in Deut) restated as the same principle in the same ancient stream of teaching (St. Paul).

        I do enjoy typology too. :)

        1. David Ould says:

          Hi mark,

          Yes – agreed, it’s certainly not typology. I was seeking to apply a principle from that specific area into this related area of hermeneutics. I think the same question of (divine) authorial intent in the OT are at stake here.

          1. MarkO says:

            ah, got it. “authorial intent” – true that

        2. Matt says:

          I think there is a kind of type of interpretation between the OT and NT which corresponds to the new birth, or the resurrection. The OT was the “letter” which brought death, not the “spirit” who brings life, yet in my looking at the relationship between them: when the messiah was resurrected His story which we find in the gospels essentially gives a “new birth” to the once dead letter of the law. We find that it is now infused with meaning and purpose beyond “do this and live.” In other words, the OT plus the fulfillment found in Christ within His life and teachings allows us to see the original typology and meaning that was always there. The Law and the prophets are “resurrected” by the power of the Spirit and now glorify the Son in ways not possible before His revelation. I think many times those of us in reformed circles are nervous of typology because of excesses but there is no doubt they are placed there by God and not simply inventions of man. Bunyan has a whole book on typology of the temple. thanks for the post

  4. Will says:

    It’s interesting that people who lived in agrarian times (like Calvin and Luther) thought this passage was commanding the owner of the animal to have compassion. On the other hand modern, most-likely urban commentators think that God was talking about an economic transaction.

    People who see this from a compassion perspective I don’t think have a hard time knowing that God would expect them to make the connection that they should be compassionate for their animals and that they shouldn’t treat people (or pastors) worse than they’d treat an animal.

    1. Scott says:


      Your point is interesting to consider. Why would the non-agrarians like us be better advantaged to understand the agrarian law? However, doesn’t Paul point to the fact that God wasn’t making this law for the sake of oxen? In other words, although God surely favors compassion for his creation, that was not the ground of the OT law. It seems that Paul is both teaching us how to understand the original command and how it is relevant to his NT context.

  5. David C says:

    Thanks for your work on this text, Justin. I’m curious how you then place this in its overall context, since 1 Cor 9 is an illustration of someone not exercising their rights, building off of the “food sacrificed to idols” passage in 1 Cor 8 … how does it impact the wider contextual argument.

  6. John says:

    I think the conclusion that this is not referring to the owner of the ox is shaky. I can think of any number of reasons for an owner to muzzle his own ox. For example, the ox may be treading out barley, which trades at a higher rate than, say, wheat. The owner has an economic incentive to muzzle the ox, and feed him the cheaper grain later. Scheduled meal times, as opposed to unstructured grazing, also improves throughput efficiencies. And anyone who has ever owned a bovine knows that if it can eat it will – not the most conducive to grain treading, I imagine. So, I’m not sure this conclusion has warranted support.

    1. Justin Taylor says:

      I think these are fair points, John. But the traditional interpretation still suffers from seemingly to be completely disassociated from the flow of the original stipulations. This interpretation has the virtue of making sense of the context of human justice in relationships of various kinds.

  7. Kyle says:

    In the OT then, there are 3 referants. The oxen, the owner of the oxen and the borrower of the oxen. In the NT, I only see 2. Paul as the oxen and the church as the borrower. If in the OT the command is primarily for the benefit of the owner, I don’t see how Paul’s use is parallel. He, the ox, is the only one receiving benefit. Unless the owner is the church writ large and the borrower is the local church? So that by not paying Paul we are not being just toward the rest of the church? Interestong

    1. MarkO says:

      What if we think of God as the “owner/lender” for He gives ministers and servants to the Church? It would then be fitting (and just) for the Church to care for the “oxen” they borrow from God’s stable. By “paying Paul” in this framework we are being just toward God.

      1. Kyle says:

        Yes, I thought of that as well after my initial post. Either way (or neither way?) the discussion is very interesting and makes me see the benefit of really long hard dwelling on the Word. In the past I probably would have just argued something along the lines that because the authors were inspired, even an out of context quote is acceptable for making a valid point. It’s much better to wrestle with the texts, even if the conclusions are not totally bullet proof.

  8. brooks waldron says:

    Dr. A.B. Caneday also wrote on this topic for an ETS paper. It was very helpful!

  9. David Reimer says:

    This is a fine essay in its own right, JT! Thanks for it. I’m not sure that the charge against Paul (should one wish to level one) would be so much “out-of-context” as “tendentious” exegesis or some such — but that’s a nit hardly worth picking!

    If you (or readers) are interested in older works pertinent for a study of the “OT in the NT”, I’ve listed a couple important ones on my BibleRefShelf site:

    As ever, FWIW!

  10. John Metz says:

    I also think that the use of economic value in interpreting that the ox must be a rented ox is a little shaky. It assumes that men mostly act in their own economic interests when many times that is not the case. Perhaps many ox owners would muzzle their own ox out of ignorance of just plain meanness. These kinds of things are not unknown.

    Regardless, according to Paul, the ox was not primarily in view but the workmen of God. While the discourse above is very interesting, it does not answer some of the questions raised by Paul’s use of this command i 1 Corinthians. For instance, how did Paul know that this relatively obscure verse (oh! I hate that term!) had anything to do with him when the text was not strictly indicative of his interpretation? How did Paul have the boldness to say what he did about the verse? Would we be discussing it if Paul had not under the inspiration of the Spirit say what he did about not muzzling the ox? Just some thoughts about the post.

  11. John Metz says:

    I apologize for poor proofing of my post above. Yuck!

  12. Justin, great post! I’m all about studying the text in this manner.

    I think the question of motive is indeed key in the understanding of this passage. In contrast to vv 9-10, Paul told the Corinthians in v 18 that he willingly gave up his right so that he could obtain a reward, and that the reward was to present the gospel free of charge. Who would consider that a good reward? So economics have nothing to do with it. The larger issue is submitting to the needs of others in the service of the Lord. This lends itself to the even larger context where Paul is persuading the Corinthians that humility is a necessary discipline of their faith as he answers the rivalries they have been experiencing in the church there.

    One other observation: Even if one cared for the beast above the burden enough to make less-than-ideal economic decisions, it is in the name of Jehovah Jireh who provides all things.

  13. Peter Krol says:

    Excellent, careful consideration of an important topic: the New Testament use of the Old Testament. Thanks for your good work, Justin.

    In our day of sound bytes, it’s easy to forget that all quotes have a context. When a New Testament author quotes an Old Testament text, it generally seems like he’s bringing the entire passage (in its context) to bear. He’s concerned with more than the words within the “quotation marks.”

    Your analysis of this one case makes a good argument for the principles. Thanks again.

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Justin Taylor, PhD

Justin Taylor is executive vice president of book publishing and book publisher for Crossway and blogs at Between Two Worlds. You can follow him on Twitter.

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