Translations seem split on whether Paul is considering (rhetorically) whether the commandment in Mosaic Law concerns the topic of oxen or is for the sake of oxen:

For it is written in the Law of Moses: "Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain." Is it about oxen that God is concerned? (NIV)

... Is it for oxen that God is concerned? (ESV)

... Is it for oxen that God is concerned? (NRSV)

The Greek is:

μὴ τῶν βοῶν μέλει τῷ θεῷ

I would think that τῶν βοῶν should be translated as "about oxen" or "concerning the topic of oxen" because we would expect a dative if Paul meant "for the sake of oxen" (i.e. the NIV is the more accurate translation of those above).

Is this correct?

Disclaimer: my Greek knowledge of Greek is no better than one college semester, but I wish to learn more.

2 Answers 2


The verb usually takes an object in the genitive indicating for whom the “subject” of the verb is concerned or has care.1 (I say “subject” because the verb μέλει is actually used impersonally, and the subject when translated into English is actually declined in the dative case in the Greek text.)

For example, in John 10:13, it is written,

John 10:13 syntax

1 Cor. 9:9 lacks the preposition περὶ although it still has a noun declined in the genitive case (i.e., τῶν βοῶν). The same syntax appears in Acts 18:17 (also written by Luke), which relates how “Gallion cared about none of those things.” Outside the Bible, it is common for Greek authors to omit the preposition περί.

According to LSJ,2

  1. 3[rd person] s[in]g[ular] is freq[uently] used impers[onally] with the object in [the] gen[itive], and [the] pers[on] in [the] dat[ive], ᾧ μέλει μάχας to whom there is care for the battle, who careth for it, A.Ch.946 (lyr.), cf. Ag.974; “ἐμοὶ δ᾽ ἔλασσον Ζηνὸς ἢ μηδὲν μέλει” [“But I care less about Zeus than nothing”] Id.Pr.938; “θεοῖσιν εἰ δίκης μέλει” [“if the gods care about justice”] S.Ph. 1036; “Ζηνὶ τῶν σῶν μέλει πόνων” [“Zeus cares about your troubles”] E.Heracl.717; “πάνυ μοι τυγχάνει μεμεληκὸς τοῦ ᾁσματος” Pl.Prt.339b; also “μέλει μοι περί τινος” A.Ch.780, Ar.Lys.502, Pl.Alc.2.150d; “μεμέληκέ μοι περὶ αὐτῶν” [“I cared about these matters”] Id.Cra.428b: less freq. with “ὑπέρ, εἴπερ ὑπὲρ τοῦ κοινῇ βελτίστου δεῖ μέλειν ὑμῖν” D. 21.37.

Thus, there is ample support for the meaning of a clause which excludes περί being equivalent to a clause that includes it.

You wrote,

because we would expect a dative if Paul meant "for the sake of oxen"

Rather, for such a meaning, the Greek would indeed have the genitive τῶν βοῶν, with or without the preposition περί, as explained by LSJ and demonstrated by the other scriptures in the NT. (According to LSJ, it could also have the preposition ὑπέρ, but that is less frequent in extra-biblical Greek and does not seem to be attested at all in the Greek NT.)

In short, the simple meaning of 1 Cor. 9:9 is, “Does God not care about oxen?” It could also be understood as, “Is God not concerned about oxen?” The answer to the rhetorical question is “no (he does not)”—as indicated by the following verse which has «ἢ δι᾽ ἡμᾶς πάντως λέγει δι᾽ ἡμᾶς»—“Or does He say it absolutely on our account? On our account...”

As Philo wrote concerning a different law in the Law of Moses, but one still concerning animals, “for the law was not established for the sake of irrational animals, but for that of those who have intellect and reason.”3 Here, too, the apostle Paul sets aside the literal meaning for the sake of the allegorical to express a higher purpose.


1 cf. Matt. 22:16 // Mark 12:14; John 12:6; 1 Pet. 5:7
2 LSJ, p. 1100, μέλω
3 Philo, The Special Laws, I, §260: «οὐ γὰρ ὑπὲρ ἀλόγων ὁ νόμος, ἀλλʼ ὑπὲρ τῶν νοῦν καὶ λόγον ἐχόντων»


Liddell, Henry George; Scott, Robert; et al. A Greek-English Lexicon. 9th ed with revised supplement. Oxford: Clarendon, 1996.

Philo of Alexandria. The Works of Philo: Complete and Unabridged. Trans. Yonge, Charles Duke. Peabody: Hendrickson, 1995.

Philo of Alexandria. The Works of Philo: Greek Text with Morphology. Ed. Borgen, Peder; Fuglseth, Kåre; Skarsten, Roald. Bellingham: Faithlife, 2005.


I would see the verb μέλει melei (from μέλω) to be the answer to your question. The verb Strong 3199 is suggested by Thayer to be a matter of :

that about which [one] is solicitous

And Strong gives the meaning :

to care, be concerned.

See the same link for both references.

So the verb itself conveys the meaning of 'be concerned or be solicitous for'. And Paul is saying 'is God so inclined regarding oxen ?'.

The verb itself indicates that oxen welfare, not the mere topic of oxen is Paul's question.

Evidently, Paul thinks not and evidently Paul therefore, logically, sees that God's inclusion of oxen in the law is to teach us something about caring for those who labour (spiritually) to give us (spiritual) food.

I agree with the OP comments regarding the dative. I would personally expect a dative expression if the concept was 'in the sphere of' or 'in the realm of' (much as Paul uses καρδια in the dative in Romans 10:10 καρδια γαρ πιστευεται εις δικαιοσυνην - 'at heart is believing unto righteousness' locating the believing in the realm or sphere of the heart).

But in the absence of the dative and with consideration of the meaning of the verb I think there is no doubt that non-welfare is being expressed rather than non-topic.

  • 1
    It never ceases to amaze me to see a -1 without comment. Thank you, Nigel J for a researched and well-reasoned reply. +1
    – Dieter
    Commented Jan 5, 2019 at 21:31
  • @Dieter Your encouragement appreciated. Thank you.
    – Nigel J
    Commented Jan 6, 2019 at 2:06

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