Thursday, May 10, 2012

I Corinthians 9:8-11 and Judaism

For my write-up today on Joseph Telushkin's A Code of Jewish Ethics, Volume 2: Love Your Neighbor As Yourself, I will use as my fulcrum what the apostle Paul says in I Corinthians 9:8-11 (in the KJV):

"Say I these things as a man? or saith not the law the same also?  For it is written in the law of Moses, thou shalt not muzzle the mouth of the ox that treadeth out the corn. Doth God take care for oxen?  Or saith he it altogether for our sakes? For our sakes, no doubt, this is written: that he that ploweth should plow in hope; and that he that thresheth in hope should be partaker of his hope.  If we have sown unto you spiritual things, is it a great thing if we shall reap your carnal things?"

Paul is saying that the law in the Torah about not muzzling the mouth of the ox who treads out the corn is teaching the principle that workers deserve to be paid and does not really relate to oxen, whom God does not "take care for."  Paul is arguing in I Corinthians 9 that he as a minister deserves to be supported by the Corinthian church, but he has graciously elected not to make use of that right, and so the Corinthian church should give him a break.

I have heard sermons that have taken a swipe at Judaism on the basis of I Corinthians 9:8-11.  These preachers' idea is that Christianity sees a deeper spiritual or ethical meaning in the Torah, whereas Judaism sticks with the literal interpretation.  One preacher I heard speculated that a Pharisee would probably be meticulous in insuring that his ox was not muzzled while it was treading out the grain, and yet the Pharisee would turn right around and defraud his workers.  According to this preacher, the Pharisee was obeying the literal level of the law, while violating the law's deeper meaning.

I seriously doubt that Pharisaic or rabbinic Judaism supported defrauding workers, whether or not it believed that the law in the Torah about not muzzling the ox had deeper meaning.  After all, the surface meaning of Leviticus 19:13 is that the Israelites should not defraud their neighbors and should pay wages promptly.  But did Judaism ever see deeper meaning in laws that related to the treatment of animals?  Yes.  Maimonides said that the law in Deuteronomy 25:4 about not muzzling the ox applies to other working animals as well.  Maimonides also stated that the law in Deuteronomy 22:6-7 forbidding the taking away of baby birds or eggs in the presence of the mother bird has implications for how we treat humans: "If the law provides that such grief not be caused to cattle or birds, how much more careful must we be not to cause grief to our fellow man" (The Guide for the Perplexed 3:48). 
Maimonides was not always consistent on the principle, for Telushkin notes that Maimonides was anti-Gentile, to the point that Maimonides ruled that a Jew is not obligated to save a Gentile idolater whose life is endangered ("Laws of Murder" 4:11).  But Telushkin asserts that anti-Gentile laws are not mandatory for Jews today, for we should remember the anti-Judaism among Gentiles in Maimonides' environment, and how that contrasts with the tolerance towards Jews in the United States.  Telushkin refers to the thirteenth century French rabbi, Menachem Meiri as one who "issued a legal ruling intended to alter the status of non-Jews in Jewish law permanently" (page 279), and to alter it in a more tolerant direction.

I'd now like to turn to the apostle Paul's question: "Doth God take care for oxen?"  Judaism would answer in the affirmative, for Psalm 145:9 affirms that God's mercy is on all his works.  According to Telushkin, how we treat animals is a good indicator of our character, especially when animals are weaker than we are and lack the ability to thank us for our kindness.  I much prefer that attitude to that of Paul.


  1. A very strange thing for Paul to say. Especially as, just a few chapters before the 'ox' bit, that Paul should also have brought to mind, are: Deut 22:6-7 God's care for birds, and Deut 20:19-20 God's care even for fruit trees.

  2. I wouldn't be too quick to trash Paul. Other translations and even Bullingers comments in his KJV reveal what Paul is really saying----"Is God's concern here ONLY oxen"?

    Sure God is the great caregiver of all living things, and I'm sure Paul recognized that!

  3. I don't see the word "only" in the Greek, but I think what Bullinger and those other translations would probably tell me is that I shouldn't be so hyper-literal! :D

    As I think more about it, I think a case can be made that Paul thought God was concerned about all things, since Paul in Romans 8 does talk about the redemption of all creation.


Search This Blog