There is significant scholarly debate regarding this passage.
In the Journal for Biblical Literature [135, no. 2 (2016)], Matthew Mitchell suggests the following interpretations for what "yoke" intended to convey:
- Jesus’s teaching (which presents the fullest understanding of the Torah).
- Jesus himself (as the embodiment of the Torah).
- The yoke of Christian grace (which liberates one from the burden of the Jewish law).
- Jesus’s unique interpretation of the Torah (Jesus’s yoke is a contrast not to the Torah itself but to certain religious authorities and their misuse of it: “an easy yoke and a light burden are oﬀered in exchange for the arbitrary demands of Pharisaic legalism and the uncertainties of proliferating case law”).
- The yoke of divine Wisdom (and Jesus as Wisdom personified).
- The yoke (normally a symbol of labor or servitude) of “rest” and ease, specifically the “rest of messianic redemption” as promised by the Sabbath.
Since first-century Israel is an agrarian culture - and those metaphors abound - surely there is some reference to animals being yoked together but it is not likely that "Jesus as an ox" is his primary reference.
It is more likely that Jesus is using the term "yoke" as the idea of taking upon yourself the burden of learning the Torah. The term "yoke" is also used in early Rabbinic writings to express willingly taking on the Torah. From Pirkei Avot 3:6 -
whoever takes upon himself the yoke of the Torah, they remove from him the yoke of government and the yoke of worldly concerns, and whoever breaks off from himself the yoke of the Torah, they place upon him the yoke of government and the yoke of worldly concerns
There is also reference to this phrase in an earlier source.
In the apocryphal writing of Ben-Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) - c.a. 200-180 BCE - we find two references to a disciple being yoked to "wisdom" that contain a significant number of similarities to the verses in Matthew.
Of course, not all scholars agree on how heavily to weigh the references from Ben-Sirach. The Dead Sea Scrolls confirmed that Ben-Sirach was originally written in Hebrew and it is likely a popular writing in Jesus' day.
Here are the two references. First Ben Sirach 51:23-28:
23 Draw near to me, you who lack education, and stay in my school. 24 Why are you still lacking in these things; why do you thirst for this? 25 I opened my mouth and said, “Acquire her for yourselves without money. 26 Place your neck under her yoke and let your soul receive instruction. It is found close at hand.” 27 See for yourselves that I have labored a little, and I have found much rest for myself. 28 Invest in your education with a great amount of silver, and with it you will acquire much gold.
Second, Ben Sirach 6:
23 Listen, my child, and welcome my opinion. Don’t reject my advice. 24 Put your feet into her shackles and your neck into her collar. 25 Bend your shoulder down and carry her, and don’t chafe at her bonds. 26 Come to her with your whole being, and keep to her ways with all your strength. 27 Track her down and seek her, and she will become known to you. When you get possession of her, don’t let her go. 28 In the end, you will find rest in her, and she will turn to you and make you happy. 29 Her shackles will be a strong shelter for you, and her collar will be a glorious robe. 30 She bears a gold ornament, and her bonds will be like blue embroidery. 31 You will wear her like a glorious robe, and you will put her on like a crown of joy.
It seems likely - if Ben Sirach is to inform an interpretation of Matt. 11:29 - that Jesus is speaking of the study of Torah and the rigors of being a disciple of his. In the end, though, your learning will be worth the effort and will bring you peace.