01/20/2012 11:12 am ET Updated Mar 21, 2012

What's St. Paul's Beef With Oxen? Animal Compassion in Light of 1 Corinthians 9:9-10

In 2008, HarperCollins published The Green Bible, an edition that raises awareness of environmental concerns and promotes good stewardship of the earth. Its most distinguishing trait is the use of green font for passages mentioning the environment, including animals. Look up Deuteronomy 25:4 in that edition and you see the words "You shall not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain" in green. However, look up Paul's citation of those same words in 1 Corinthians 9:9-10 and they are black. Why? Presumably, the editors' decision not to use green for Paul's words lies in the apostle's commentary on this Torah passage. These words about caring for laboring animals in Deuteronomy are, he insists, "entirely for our sake."

For readers interested in making connections between the Christian Bible and animal compassion, Paul's language here presents an obvious challenge. One theologian concludes that, "the severest blow dealt by the Bible to religiously grounded concern for animals [is this] almost flippant way that St Paul disposes of the literal meaning of that Deuteronomic text" (James Gaffney). My interest here is less a traditional exegesis of 1 Corinthians or Deuteronomy than a thought experiment, one approaching this Pauline passage guided by a decidedly modern concern. From an animal compassion point of view, the anthropocentric nature of the passage is dangerous because it appears to offer license to ignore animal ethics outright. At the same time, this is the most explicit New Testament statement touching on human responsibility to animals, owing to the citation of Deuteronomy 25:4. It is both an obstacle and an opportunity for animal theology. My question is whether or not there is a way to read 1 Corinthians 9:9-10 that does justice to Paul while minimizing bias against nonhuman species among his readers?

I begin with a somewhat clumsy analogy. It is fascinating to follow the great postcolonial theorist Edward W. Said as he grapples with Jane Austen's novel Mansfield Park, a writer and book he clearly cherishes. His challenge is that slavery and Empire provide the backdrop for the comfortable, wealthy setting of the story. In Culture and Imperialism, Said acknowledges he wrestles with "a paradox" when reading this Austen novel, one he says, "I have been impressed by but can in no way resolve. All the evidence says that even the most routine aspects of holding slaves on a West Indian sugar plantation were cruel stuff. And everything we know about Austen and her values is at odds with the cruelty of slavery." Readers of Paul concerned with animal compassion face a similar dilemma. Everything we know about the Apostle and his values appears to be at odds with cruelty and indifference, and yet he is silent about obligations to animals and applies Deuteronomy 25:4 to people. This may not be equivalent to commanding readers to muzzle hungry oxen or kick kittens but it still leaves us, like Said, with "a paradox" not easy to resolve.

At one point in Jane Austen's 1814 novel Mansfield Park, the young, morally upright Fanny Price speaks to her uncle Sir Thomas Bertram who owns an estate in Antigua, questioning him "about the slave trade." Following the question, Austen writes, "there was such a dead silence!" For Said, the moment is suggestive, indicating, "that one world could not be connected with the other since there simply is no common language for both," or said differently, there was no vocabulary available to the characters to confront the ethical problems attached to slaveholding plantations. To read works like Mansfield Park accurately, he adds, we need to read them "in the main as resisting or avoiding that other setting, which their formal inclusiveness, historical honesty, and prophetic suggestiveness cannot completely hide." The "dead silence" Austen refers to hints at her discomfort, and to some degree rejection of an economy relying on slave labour, a scourge lying beneath the surface of the wealthy English characters that populate her novels. Said's efforts to find resistance to slavery in Austen is loosely analogous to Christian animal compassion advocates wanting to find moral direction in St. Paul, even though the Apostle does not speak to the issues directly. Consider Said's conclusion:

It would be silly to expect Jane Austen to treat slavery with anything like the passion of an abolitionist or a newly liberated slave .... Yes, Austen belonged to a slave-owning society, but do we therefore jettison her novels as so many trivial exercises in aesthetic frumpery? Not at all ... if we take seriously our intellectual and interpretive vocation to make connections, to deal with as much of the evidence as possible, fully and actually, to read what is there or not there, above all, to see complementarity and interdependence instead of isolated, venerated, or formalized experience that excludes and forbids the hybridizing intrusions of human history.

We cannot jettison Paul in matters of Christian ethics anymore than postcolonial theorists can ignore one of the great novelists of the English language. Said's reading of Austen is elegant and forceful for its simplicity. All he does is highlight the potential of a pregnant pause in a conversation between two characters, that "dead silence," and there finds room to wrestle with the pressing moral questions that shape and inform his study of culture, history, literature, and politics.

Back to Paul. So what is the problem with 1 Corinthians 9:9-10? The main issue is that the apostle retreats from the original sense of an animal-friendly legislation. Many find Paul's reading of Deuteronomy at least unusual, if not problematic. Reception of biblical literature, quite apart from anything we might describe as an original or authorial intent, has consequences. The influence of Paul's citation and interpretation of the Deuteronomy regulation about oxen -- from 1 Timothy to the present -- invites, even encourages a diminishing of the little Scripture says about animals among Christian readers. Consider, to illustrate, the widely read 1975 publication Animal Liberation, in which philosopher Peter Singer argues that, "If a being suffers there can be no moral justification for refusing to take that suffering into consideration." He does not find much value in the Bible to support his argument, observing that while the Old Testament shows only "flickers of concern for their sufferings," the New Testament "is completely lacking in any injunction against cruelty to animals, or any recommendation to consider their interests." He mentions 1 Cor 9:9-10 in this context with obvious disdain:

Saint Paul insisted on reinterpreting the old Mosaic law that forbade muzzling the ox that trod out the corn: "Doth God care for oxen?" Paul asks scornfully. No, he answered, the law was intended 'altogether for our sakes.'

I feel pulled in two directions when reading this. On the one hand, I welcome Singer's aggressive advocacy for animals and remain deeply appreciative of his contributions to the contemporary debates. At the same time, his caricature of the Bible is simplistic. Like many, he likely assumes Paul's citation of Deuteronomy is an arbitrary proof text though most commentators recognize in Paul's hermeneutics a more complex argument. I am also not convinced that the New Testament as a whole, including our troublesome passage, is silent on the matter. Yet Singer is hardly alone among ethicists concerned with animal wellbeing who struggle with Paul. Among astute readers of the Bible in this category, no less a critic than Albert Schweitzer is blunt in his assessment of Paul's use of Torah: "Of course Paul's exegesis is here at fault," he writes. "It is part of the greatness of the legislation of Deuteronomy, that in this and so many other ordinances it does imply that God concerns Himself about the animal creation."

Occasionally those drawing on biblical and Christian theological tradition in support of animal compassion causes appear angered, frustrated, or embarrassed by Paul's reference to oxen in 1 Corinthians 9:9-10. While many look to Romans 8 and Colossian 1 for a Pauline vocabulary of inclusion, one that permits a theological frame of reference in which animals have a part, Paul's remark about oxen is often conspicuous by its absence, particularly because it is one of a very few places where Paul mentions animals at all. For instance, Andrew Linzey's important book Animal Theology (1994) and Laura Hobgood-Oster's more recent The Friends We Keep: Unleashing Christianity's Compassion for Animals (2010) do not refer to the passage. Some who do comment on 1 Corinthians 9:9-10 keep their remarks short and/or mention it negatively. Stephen H. Webb, for one, finds that, "In Paul's anthropocentric and allegorizing hermeneutics, this humane law from Moses really applies to Christian missionaries who should be rewarded for their evangelism, not animals who should be fed when they work the fields. Paul does not even consider the alternative of a literal reading of the text" (On God and Dogs: A Christian Theology of Compassion for Animals).

But all is not lost, I propose. Said finds meaning in Jane Austen's "dead silence," and recommends we allow for "the hybridizing intrusions of human history." He suggests, in other words, that we encourage dialogue between old books and ideas, and the concerns and interests of later readers. Jane Austen was not an abolitionist, true, but Mansfield Park, subtly and simply - by means of a dramatic pause, "a dead silence" as she puts it - offers Said an opportunity to add Austen's voice to literary resistance to Empire. He does not misread Austen or deny her historical moment but deliberately and creatively shapes his engagement with her novel in the direction of opposition to colonialism and slavery. I suggest we have an equivalent to Jane Austen's "dead silence" in Paul's somewhat unexpected use of Deuteronomy 25:4.

What particularly intrigues me is the broader context of the law Paul cites. Animal compassion advocates bristle at the Apostle's words in part because he had non-animal illustrations available to support his argument elsewhere in Torah, and even in the immediate context of Deuteronomy 25:4. At least since Chrysostom in the fourth century (ca. 349-407), readers recognized Paul's appeal to a Torah regulation about oxen was an odd choice. To make the point that laborers deserve pay, Chrysostom observes the example of the priests who had access to various offerings was available to Paul (e.g., Leviticus 2:3, 10; 7:31-34; 10:12-13). Calvin saw in Deuteronomy 24:14-15 an illustration well suited to Paul's purposes, with its warning against depriving poor and needy laborers of their daily wages. But while Paul's choice of the oxen passage is unusual, it is simultaneously compelling. The very fact that he selects the oxen regulation over others concerned with humans links care giving to laboring animals, regardless of the Apostle's application in 1 Corinthians. This Deuteronomy text sits in the midst of several references to the necessity of protecting the wellbeing and dignity of defenseless people, including divorced women (Deuteronomy 24:1-4); poor or needy laborers (24:14-15); aliens in the land, orphans, and widows (24:17-21; 25:5-10). The single mention of animals in this long section about compassion for the defenseless is conspicuous, and Paul's short citation brings to the reader's mind the whole extended call for generosity and hospitality. Deuteronomy does not limit this expectation of care to humans alone. Animals, like widows, laborers, and the poor, fit within a broader community of those worthy of special protections.

Other writings approximately contemporary with Paul also appeal to Deuteronomy 25:4 in contexts concerned with the wellbeing of helpless people. Josephus writes of provisions for the poor and those travelling in the land, citing the injunction against muzzling oxen in support (Antiquities 4.8.231-34). Agricultural regulations in Mishnah also allude to the oxen verse in comments about "poor Israelites" and "poor priests" who glean in the fields (Terumot 9:2-3). This is a beautiful image. This slippage between a Torah mandate concerning animals and the care of vulnerable people in Paul, Josephus, and Mishnah is an equivalent to Jane Austen's "dead silence." Paul slides comfortably from oxen to people, from one species to another. This functions like a bridge linking an old letter with a modern ethical concern. Dare we credit Paul with a "prophetic suggestiveness" in 1 Corinthians 9:9-10, which is the term Said uses in his description of Jane Austen? Allowing this, Paul's great insight in these verses is that God is not concerned with oxen only in Deuteronomy 25:4, anymore than other laws demanding generosity, hospitality, protection, and compassion are about human beings only. The ethical vision of Deuteronomy and Paul is an encompassing one, extending to all living things. It may be we cannot embrace Paul directly in our efforts to address contemporary ethical concerns about the plight of animals anymore than Edward Said could call Jane Austen an abolitionist, but the tendency to ignore or minimize 1 Corinthians 9:9-10 is to miss an opportunity to read a brief, subtle word about animal compassion in the New Testament.