“Don’t be Stingy with Good Things (Deut 25,4)”

by John Wijngaards, LAWS FOR LIFE Series in the New Leader, 25 March 1973; in Telugu Bharata Mithram, 21 September 1975

“You may not muzzle an ox when it is treading out the corn.” (Deuteronomy 25, 4.)

As in India today, so in Palestine of past centuries, corn was threshed with the employment of bulls or oxen. The sheaves of corn were spread out on hard surface. In the middle a pole was erected and the bulls were made to walk round the pole on top of the corn so that with their hoofs they would press the grains from the hulls.

At times another method was used. The bulls would be made to draw a so-called threshing sledge, namely a heavy piece of wood studded with iron pins that would press the grains from the ears by its very weight. The meaning of the law is therefore quite clear. Such threshing bulls will often try to have a bite at the corn and munch it while doing their job. The farmer was not allowed to prevent this by muzzling the ox.

At first sight it may seem a little strange that a law like this would find its way into Scripture. Is kindness to bulls so important? It is true that also in some other laws respect for nature is prescribed, such as in the law on sparing a mother bird (Dt. 22, 6.7) or sparing fruit trees (Dt. 20, 19.20). But normally we find that respeocs for nature is only a secondary reason for the law. Usually a more fundamental principle is at stake. We may, therefore, rightly ask: why did the lawgiver insist on this prohibition of muzzling an ox among the many hundreds of similar precepts and counsels which he could give to a farmer?

Religious Superstition

The answer is provided by modern research, This points to the fact that leaving an ox unmuzzled during the threshing was a very ancient religious custom. In the oldest times it must have been related to the worship of the fertility god Baal, who was identified with the bull. As Baal was the god providing the crops and its abundance, no farmer would dare to muzzle his symbol the ox. In other words, in its origin it was a religious snperstition or a taboo.

As in so many instances, the custom was preserved by the Israelite priests and its religious meaning adapted to their faith in Yahweh as the only God. The farmer receives his harvest from God. Therefore he may not treat the crops as if they are his complete ownership. He has to designate a good portion of it for people in his locality (Dt. 14,28-29). He mus! allow hungry passers-by to eat something from the standing crop (Dt. 23, 24 25). He may not take the last sheaf or the last bunch ot grapes from his field (Dt. 24, 19·21) and may not stop the hungry bull from having his share (Dt. 25, 4).

Supporting Priests

Has the law any meaning for us today? Is its meaning restricted to the literal words of the law itself? St. Paul is helpful in showing us how to interpret laws of this nature. He applies the law to the Christian’s duty of supporting his priests. And he justifies this interpretation as follows: “We read in the law of Moses ‘Do not tie up the mouth of the ox when it treads out the grain’. Now, is God concerned about oxen? Or did he not really mean us when he said this? Of course this was written for us! The man who ploughs and the man who reaps should do their work in the hope of getting a share of the crop” (1 Cor. 9,9.10)

It is true that the Rabbis often followed rather farfetched interpretations of Scripture. And St. Paul is not sometimes afraid of adopting the same procedure himself when explaining some point of theological interest. Yet, it would seem that here St. Paul does more than simply follow Rabbinical ways of argumentation. He is speaking directly about the meaning of Scripture itself. And he says: ” Is God concerned about oxen? Did he not really mean us when He said this?” The answer is obvious. It shows how we should always read Scripture with an eye to what it is telling us in our particular circumstances of life.

The law means that we may not be stingy with regard to the good things which we receive from God. Our material property, our time, oue personal talents, our education and our status in life are the crops we are continuously harvesting. We may not prevent other people to benefit from these gifts. We should be liberal in allowing others to profit from the harvest we are gathering. To enjoy God’s gifts we should be ready to share them with others.