RPM, Volume 18, Number 19, May 1 to May 7, 2016

Is It For Oxen or Us?

An Exegesis of Deuteronomy 25:4

By Justin Huffman

"You shall not muzzle an ox when it is treading out the grain" (Deuteronomy 25:4).

It might come as a surprise to many that such a simple, seemingly clear statement could gender a great amount of controversy; but such is the case with Deuteronomy 25:4. This is almost entirely due to the fact that Paul quotes this passage twice in his letters (1 Corinthians 9:9 and 1 Timothy 5:18) in order to lift his argument above mere "human authority" and to ground it in "Scripture" and "the Law." The problem? Paul is not instructing the Corinthians or Timothy to make sure their oxen are well nourished, but rather using Deuteronomy 25:4 as proof that gospel ministers should be financially compensated by the church. Paul goes on to say, "Does he not certainly speak for our sake? It was written for our sake…" (v.10).

Is this law for oxen or for us? Paul's use of what may seem to be an unrelated Old Testament command in order to enforce New Testament obligations has stirred much debate about the nature of accurate, biblical exegesis. What does the command concerning oxen mean in its original context? Is if fair for Paul to commandeer a law concerning oxen in order to speak about the ministry? If so, how should we apply Paul's hermeneutical methods as we attempt to interpret and apply Scripture today?

It is the contention of this paper that Paul is actually employing literal, biblical exegesis and that there are indeed hermeneutical implications for us today. Is this law for oxen or for us? Paul's answer is: "Yes!" Without abusing the original meaning of the text, Paul wisely and skillfully draws New Testament lessons from this Old Testament law. And not only can we learn from Paul's direct application of this text, but we can also gain valuable insights for all Old Testament exegesis.

What Exactly Does This Law Prohibit?

Again, for a seemingly straightforward command this single verse has been surrounded by a degree of confusion. When asking the question of what the meaning of this law was to its original audience, there is some debate over what Moses is precisely forbidding in Deuteronomy 25:4.

Jan Verbruggen, for example, summarizes three common interpretations: 1) a proverbial view, which speculates that this law was never intended to be taken literally but was meant to be a proverb regarding human laborers and fair wages; 2) a humanitarian view, which sees the law as an expression of concern chiefly for the welfare of the animal; and 3) a help-the-weak view, which sees this law as a general expression of concern for the needy in society including even the animals. 1 Verbruggen goes on to present a fourth, "new reading": this law applies to a man renting an ox from his neighbor, and so "it is a law dealing with the economic responsibility of someone using someone else's property." 2

What exactly, then, does this law prohibit? Unfair wages? Abusing animals? Taking advantage of the helpless? Respect for the property of others? While it is probably a fair criticism from Verbruggen that "most scholars comment on the meaning of this verse with the NT references in mind," 3 it seems that Verbruggen has not adequately considered Paul's interpretation of this passage. Paul's application of this law to gospel ministers requires, at the very least, some concern for the oxen in the original law. This is reflected in the flow of Paul's own argument in 1 Corinthians 9.

Paul expresses concern for the soldier (laborer) to not be sent at his own expense (compensation), for the vinedresser (laborer) to be able to eat from the vineyard (compensation), for the shepherd (laborer) to be allowed to drink from the flock (compensation), and for the plowman and thresher (laborers) to labor in hope of sharing in the crop (compensation). In defense of this argument, Paul quotes Deuteronomy 25:4: the oxen (laborer) are not to be muzzled as it treads the grain (compensation). Any interpretation of the OT law that does not allow for at least some concern for the oxen would violate the parallels that Paul has so carefully set up in order to make his argument. Concern for a neighbor's property to be cared for, while including an economic element, does not follow the flow of Paul's argument in 1 Corinthians 9:3-10—a concern that the laborer be justly compensated. It is for this reason that, as Verbruggen himself admits, "the most common, traditional interpretation of this verse is the humanitarian notion that a man was not allowed to muzzle his ox while it was working, thus preventing the ox from eating." 4

Dispensing then with Verbruggen's new reading, we are still left with several options: a proverbial view, a humanitarian view, or a help-the-weak view. It must be admitted, first and foremost, that this law was meant to be taken literally. This is clear from the immediate context itself, which has no element of "proverb" about it but is literal law—whether forty stripes for the guilty (the previous law), or levirate marriage (the following law). Even if the principle of not muzzling a working ox had risen to the level of a proverb, any proverb would be meaningless if the truism it expresses is not actually embraced and practiced by the society as a whole. For instance, "Never get involved in a land war in Asia" can only truly be described as proverbial if the society familiar with the phrase sees the wisdom in avoiding such. Similarly, "you shall not muzzle an ox when it is treading out the grain," only makes sense as a proverb if the society recognizes the wisdom of literally practicing agriculture in this way.

Having accepted that this law was meant to be taken literally by its original audience, we can move on to the deeper question of "meaning." What lessons, or principles, were the original readers meant to learn from this law? Why wasn't the ox to be muzzled? Regarding the question of meaning, it may not be necessary to choose between a humanitarian view or a help-the-weak view. Although no explicit explanation or justification is given in the wording of the law, it does seem to contain some self-evident implications. What would a muzzle keep an ox from doing while it is treading out the grain? Obviously, it would keep the ox from eating while working. Thus, there seems to be an evident humanitarian element to this law. When Paul in the NT asks the question, "Is it for the oxen that God is concerned?", what may at first glance seem to be a rhetorical denial of any concern for the animal itself is explained well by Walter Kaiser, quoting Arthur P. Stanley: "[1 Corinthians 9:9 is] one of the many instances where the lesson which is regarded as subordinate is denied altogether as in Hosea 6:6, 'I will have mercy and not sacrifice,' and Ezekiel 20:25, 'gave them statutes which were not good.'" 5 So, again, there is a humanitarian element to this law. But is this all that God meant for his people to learn from this law?

When considering the meaning of Moses' law, it is always helpful to keep in mind Jesus' treatment of the law in the Sermon on the Mount. While affirming the law's relevance and authority, Jesus also pointed out that no law was ever meant to be taken merely literally. From the law not to murder, God's people were expected to understand that they were not to hate their fellow humans (Matthew 5:21-22). From the law not to commit adultery, they were meant to learn heart-deep fidelity to their spouse that would even govern how they used their eyes and what they lingered on mentally (5:27-28).

Using this same principle in relation to Deuteronomy 5:24, it seems safe to say that God was not merely concerned for the care of oxen in Israelite society. John Calvin comments helpfully, "We must bear in mind that men are so instructed in equity, that they are bound to exercise it even towards the brute animals… 'A righteous man regardeth the life of his beast' (Proverbs 12:10). The sum is, that we should freely and voluntarily pay what is right." 6 There is more to the law concerning muzzling oxen than just oxen. Rather, God's people were meant to apprehend from this law a moral obligation to provide fair compensation to every laborer… including even the dumb ox. "It was the duties of moral beings to one another that God wished to impress on mankind." 7

This law prohibits withholding fair compensation from any laborer, using the ox as a least-of-all example of the helpless and weak who cannot defend themselves or insist upon fair treatment. As David Prior observes:

It is not only a matter of good rural common sense; the Lord of the harvest has laid down the law himself… [H]ard workers deserve to be rewarded for their labours. God did not add that particular piece to the Deuteronomic law merely to make sure that oxen were properly looked after. He was explaining a principle: it was written for our sake [1 Corinthians 9:10]. Both ploughman and thresher should expect to receive a share of the profits. 8

How Does Paul Apply This Law?

Mercifully, the question of modern application for Deuteronomy 25:4 is at least partially answered by Paul himself as he references this law in 1 Corinthians 9:9 and 1 Timothy 5:18. Paul quotes this OT law and argues from it that gospel laborers ought to receive material compensation for their strenuous spiritual labors. "When a church refuses to pay its minister a decent wage, it is in disobedience to the will of God… [A] beast of burden… deserves a share of the proceeds… What is fair for livestock is only fair for clergy. They, too, should be given enough to live." 9

While Paul's NT interpretation of this OT law is clear, it is his application of Deuteronomy 25:4—a law regarding oxen—to NT gospel ministers that has gendered much discussion and controversy. Critical, non-evangelical scholars have seen this as the sloppiest of exegesis on the part of Paul. As just one example, Emil Brunner writes:

This method of typological exegesis arouses deep misgiving. The aim of 'exposition' is to bring out what the text actually says, what the writer intended to say… When Paul expounds Deut. 25:4 by saying that these are not real 'oxen' but 'apostles', then we must have the courage to say: at this point Paul is wrong. It is oxen and only oxen, and not apostles, that are meant. This is arbitrary 'allegorizing', customary in the Rabbinical schools. Here we must not follow Paul. 10

As we have already shown, however, an accurate and careful exegesis of Deuteronomy 25:4 must yield the conclusion that, while the original audience for Moses' law clearly was meant to take the law literally, there is also plainly a larger principle they (and therefore we also) are meant to understand from the command not to muzzle oxen. 11 Paul is not allegorizing, nor using typology, when he takes the self-evident meaning of the law—that laborers, including even oxen, are to be fairly compensated—and applies that same principle, with Scriptural authority, to the fair compensation of gospel ministry. As Godet so well points out, the total context of Deuteronomy 24-25 (including laws to restore the poor man his garment, to pay laborers their wages on the same day, and to leave the corners of a field for the poor to glean) displays a general concern to nurture a heart of humane gentleness and fairness—to which end the law concerning oxen is merely one weapon in Moses' arsenal.

What Can We Learn From Paul's Hermeneutical Method?

Seeing then that Paul is exercising careful and literal exegesis of Deuteronomy 25:4 in order to draw out relevant NT implications, we can not only confidently apply this law to gospel ministers—as Paul explicitly does—but we can also learn some invaluable lessons from Paul's hermeneutical method.

First, Paul makes it clear that the OT law still has authority in the NT era. This has helpful implications particularly for those with a dispensational, or Lutheran, approach to the law. Whereas they might seek to stress the discontinuity between the Mosaic law and the NT era, Paul seems clearly to take the opposite approach. Paul sees principles from the law as still relevant and authoritative.

As many Bible students have pointed out, Paul quotes Deuteronomy 25:4 and Jesus in the same breath and refers to both as Scripture: For the Scripture says, "You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain," and, "The laborer deserves his wages" (1 Timothy 5:18). "The laborer deserves his wages" is an exact parallel of Jesus' teaching in Luke 10:7. William Hendriksen makes the same connection that many have noticed: "The two sayings are clearly co-ordinate. If the first is 'scripture,' so is the second. Thus a word spoken by Jesus is here placed on a par with a saying from the Old Testament canon." 12

This of course is a valid observation; however, it might be helpful also to consider the same connection in the reverse. Since the two sayings are "clearly co-ordinate", it is apparent that not only does Paul see Jesus' words as relevant and authoritative, but also sees the OT law as equally so. For those struggling to see the continuity between the OT law and the NT believer, Paul's placing OT law and Jesus' own words on the same par might be enlightening.

Second, Paul models a careful exegesis of the law that is not mystical, allegorical, or sentimental. He does not snatch Deuteronomy 25:4 out of its natural habitat or context, but rather takes its literal meaning and then shows its continued significance for NT believers. As Kaiser observes:

Paul grounds his argument in the authority derived from Scripture and the teaching of Jesus. His reading of the text was not done at the expense of the literal meaning. However, neither was he so taken with materials on animal husbandry and background studies that he had no message for the contemporary situation… Our concern, like the apostle's, must be with what God has communicated by means of the truth intentions of his human authors. 13

There is no warrant in Paul's use of Deuteronomy 25:4, as many have suggested, for looking to "hidden meaning" or "pastoral meaning" that is not communicated in the literal, grammatical-historical meaning of the text. Calvin calls such allegorical, mystical teaching "hair-brained" and warns that it is utterly subjective: "they turn dogs into men, trees into angels, and turn all scripture into a laughing-stock." 14 As Kaiser goes on to say, such loose exegesis of OT passages is "unwarranted and ultimately devoid of the authority it seeks." 15

Third, Paul's handling of Deuteronomy 25:4 helps the gospel-centered Bible student point to Jesus Christ accurately and wisely from the OT law. Not only does Paul hold up OT law and Jesus' teaching as equally inspired Scripture, as we've already observed, but it is also worth noting how Paul concludes his argument in 1 Corinthians 9. After pressing home his own apostleship, and then making a careful argument for the support of gospel ministry, Paul reveals in verse 12 that all of this is to one end: to remove every hindrance to the good news: "If others share this rightful claim on you, do not we even more? Nevertheless, we have not made use of this right, but we endure anything rather than put an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ."

Paul has used the law in order to assert his right to financial support, and yet in the very next breath he has surrendered that right. Why? Because Paul's objective is much bigger and over-arching than just this one issue. As important as the support of the ministry is—and Paul just spent 14 verses proving that it is—personal economic issues are not the ultimate goal. The gospel is! And so Paul says, having just gone to great pains to prove his right to financial support, he is happy to forego financial support if that means he will be more effective in gospel ministry.

While Paul takes the OT law seriously and literally, and while he draws from the law's meaning a relevant point of NT significance—Paul's own argument, including his use of the law, is toward the goal of displaying the gospel. Any use of the law which subverts the gospel, or unnecessarily causes others to stumble at the gospel, is contrary to Paul's hermeneutical method. The whole Bible serves the purpose of communicating the gospel, including the OT law.


We have attempted in this paper to provide an accurate and careful exegesis of Deuteronomy 25:4, as well as to learn from Paul's use of this OT law. In doing so, we discover that, while the law concerning the muzzling of oxen was to be taken literally by its original readers, there is also an appropriate NT significance to be drawn from the passage.

Thus, the answer to the question, "It is for oxen or for us?" is an emphatic "Yes" to both. The law protected oxen by reflecting the principle that a laborer is due fair compensation; and this principle is still relevant to NT believers. And, Paul reminds us by his example, good biblical exegesis will always be used in order to communicate the gospel of Jesus Christ.


  1. Verbruggen, Jan. 2006. "Of muzzles and oxen: Deuteronomy 25:4 and 1 Corinthians 9:9." Journal Of The Evangelical Theological Society 49, no. 4: 699-700. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed January 27, 2015).
  2. Verbruggen, 711.
  3. Verbruggen, 699.
  4. Verbruggen, 700.
  5. Kaiser, Walter C, Jr. 1978. "Current crisis in exegesis and the apostolic use of Deuteronomy 25:4 in 1 Corinthians 9:8-10." Journal Of The Evangelical Theological Society 21, no. 1: 14. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed January 27, 2015).
  6. John Calvin, The Four Last Books of Moses (CC, Vol. 3; Grand Rapids: Baker 2003) 115.
  7. Frédéric Godet, Commentary on the First Epistle of St. Paul to the Corinthians (tr. A. Cusin; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1957), 2.11.
  8. David Pior, The Message of 1 Corinthians (BST; Liecester: Inter-Varsity, 1985) 154.
  9. Philip Graham Ryken, 1 Timothy (REC; Philipsburg: P&R, 2007) 224.
  10. Brunner, Emil. The Christian Doctrine of Creation and Redemption. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1952: 210-211.
  11. For more on this issue, Kaiser does a wonderful job of both summarizing Godet's argument for a literal and moral interpretation of Deuteronomy 25:4 and also adding his own.
  12. William Hendriksen, 1 Timothy (NTC; Grand Rapids: Baker, 2002) 181.
  13. Kaiser, 14.
  14. John Calvin, Commentary on the Epistles of Paul to the Corinthians (CC, Vol. 20; Grand Rapids: Baker 2003) 294.
  15. Kaiser, 14.
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