“You shall not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain” (Deut 25:4 NRSV).
This Deuteronomic law was designed to help Israel acknowledge that life, even animal life, was precious to God and should be treated with respect. This law was designed to help Israelite farmers in their treatment of draft animals used in agricultural work. The use of oxen was indispensable when the time came to harvest the crop: “Where there are no oxen, there is no grain; abundant crops come by the strength of the ox” (Prov 14:4).
In his commentary of Deuteronomy, Driver (p. 280) alludes to the way oxen were used to thresh the grain: “The ears of corn are spread out upon the threshing floor, the oxen, yoked together in pairs, are led by a rope, or made to move round a pivot in the centre, and their hoofs passing over the ears, separate the grain from the husk.”
Oxen were allowed to eat from the grain while treading on the stalks or pulling a threshing sledge over the harvested grain. Thus, to muzzle an ox while it is laboring in the harvesting of the grain would be considered a cruelty to the animal.
In 1 Corinthians 9:9 Paul uses the Deuteronomic law against muzzling an ox in order to present his argument that churches should provide for the financial needs of church leaders:
“For it is written in the law of Moses, ‘You shall not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain.’ Is it for oxen that God is concerned? Or does he not speak entirely for our sake? It was indeed written for our sake, for whoever plows should plow in hope and whoever threshes should thresh in hope of a share in the crop. If we have sown spiritual good among you, is it too much if we reap your material benefits?” (1 Cor 9:9-11).
In order to support his argument, scholars claim that Paul used a rabbinical method of interpreting biblical text known as qal wahomer, that is, an argument that goes from the lesser to the greater. This rabbinic method of interpreting biblical texts argues that whatever applies in a less important situation also applies in a more important situation.
In Matthew 12:1-8 Jesus used a qal wahomer in his discussion with the Pharisees concerning the issue of doing good on the Sabbath. Jesus said to the Pharisees: “I tell you, something greater than the temple is here” (Matt 12:6).
Paul’s argument was that if draft animals could share from the results of their labors, then those who work promoting the cause of Christ should also share from the results of their work.
But Paul is not using a qal wahomer. Paul is allegorizing the text in order to bring canonical authority to his teaching. Paul used allegory here in 1 Corinthians 9:9, in 1 Corinthians 10:4 where he identifies the rock that provided water for the Israelites in the wilderness with Christ, and in Galatians 4:21-31 in which Paul is clear in what he is about to teach: “Now this is an allegory” (Gal 4:24 NRS). The allegory is about Sarah and Hagar, who represent two covenants. Hagar represents Mount Sinai and Sarah represents the heavenly Jerusalem.
Although scholars disagree on Paul’s use of Deuteronomy in 1 Corinthians 9:9, a simple reading of the text seems to point to the fact that Paul is saying that in the law found in Deuteronomy 25:4 God’s primary concern is with the financial well-being of the apostles. Paul seems to be emphatic in his argument: “Is it for oxen that God is concerned? . . . It was indeed written for our sake.” What Paul is using here is not a qal wahomer, but he is allegorizing the text in order to claim that the church should be concerned with the financial well-being of the apostles.
In discussing Paul’s use of allegory to affirm the church’s need to support the apostles financially, Emil Brunner, in his essay, “The Typological Exposition of the Old Testament,” wrote: “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. This is the unchanging rule for all exposition which is concerned with truth. Any method of exposition which ignores this rule leads to arbitrary interpretation” (p. 210).
As for Paul’s use of allegory, Brunner wrote:
“Their [the early church fathers] uncritical method of exposition cannot be our example or our norm any more than their view of the world. To some extent they were not afraid of the wildest methods of allegorical exposition because they knew as little about a critical method as about a scientific view of the world. 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” (p. 211).
As Christians, we proclaim that the Old Testament witnesses to Christ and points to him as the coming son of David who came to proclaim the good news of salvation for the whole world. But as Christians who value the historical claims of the Old Testament, we must reject any method of interpretation that removes the historical sense of the text.
And this is the danger ministers face when preaching from the Old Testament. They face the danger of not proclaiming what the text says in order to proclaim what they think the text says. As Brunner wrote, “typology is misrepresented as ‘exposition’” (p. 212).
Brunner wrote what happens when the minister uses typology to preach from the Old Testament:
The effect on the members of the Church is disastrous; they have no clue to the interpretation of the Bible. They will say: “We cannot explain the Bible like our Minister, he … is so clever, and so ingenious-he can ‘find Christ’ in every part of the Bible!” This means that such people will probably do one thing or the other: either they will give up their own private Bible reading altogether: or they will try to imitate their Minister; then they will indeed fall into a pit, and indulge in flights of the wildest allegory! They too will see a reference to the ‘Blood’ of Christ every time anything ‘red’ is mentioned, and they will feel highly edified! But they will have lost one blessing: they will have ceased to read the Old Testament; for they will be reading into the Old Testament either the views of their Minister, or their own fantasies (pp. 212-13).
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
Brunner, Emil. The Christian Doctrine of Creation and Redemption. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1952.
S. R. Driver. Deuteronomy. The International Critical Commentary. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1895.