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In Matthew 11:29, Jesus says

Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. (ESV)

One interpretation I've heard is that Jesus is identifying himself as an older, well-trained ox who we are to be yoked with so we can learn from him. This is in fact a technique used today, according to this modern guide.

Yoking an untrained animal with a trained ox can be a very successful technique... as over time the young animal learns what it should do in the yoke by following the trained ox.

Purportedly, this was common practice in Jesus' day, but I can't find anyone who actually cites a historical source for this being the case. Does such a source exist, or are people just extrapolating backwards?

The alternative interpretation, which seems about as popular, is that Jesus is the farmer. This would seem to be more in line with other similar verses. For example, Solomon's yoke is described in 1 Kings 12:4

Your father made our yoke heavy. Now therefore lighten the hard service of your father and his heavy yoke on us, and we will serve you. (ESV)

And, the Pharisees' figurative yoke, which many believe Jesus is trying to contrast, seems to be described in Matthew 23:4 as being Farmer-to-ox, not ox-to-ox.

They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger.

So, does Jesus mean that he will be yoked with us, or that he is the farmer guiding us? What is the evidence either way?

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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:

  1. Jesus’s teaching (which presents the fullest understanding of the Torah).
  2. Jesus himself (as the embodiment of the Torah).
  3. The yoke of Christian grace (which liberates one from the burden of the Jewish law).
  4. 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”).
  5. The yoke of divine Wisdom (and Jesus as Wisdom personified).
  6. 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.

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  • Thank you very much for the detailed answer. So, your conclusion would be that if Jesus is making an agrarian reference, He is most likely referring to a farmer-ox relationship, with the yoke being His teaching about the Torah? Dec 8 '20 at 22:22
  • No. I don’t think Jesus is using the word yoke in an agrarian sense. Jesus is saying “take my method of Torah study upon you.” I think he is using it in a Rabbinic sense. A Rabbis yoke is how you interpret Torah. Some rabbis are complicated and demanding. Jesus didn’t have a demanding interpretation of Torah.
    – S. Broberg
    Dec 8 '20 at 22:31
  • I agree. It does seem like a stretch to assume Jesus is referring to himself as an ox, when only one yoking is mentioned in the text, that of the disciple. Nov 21 at 2:07
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Who is Jesus in Matthew 11:29?

"Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls."

In [Matthew 11:29] Jesus alludes to himself as an Ox (Shor, שֽׁוֹר) - but does Jesus allude to His disciples as an untrained Ox or donkey? - If Jesus had referenced [Deuteronomy 22:10] then the analogy of His disciples being a donkey by the guidance of an Ox would be forbidden [Deuteronomy 22:9].

Deuteronomy 22:10 [MT]

"You shall not plow with an ox and a donkey together." (לֹא־תַֽחֲר֥שׁ בְּשֽׁוֹר־וּבַֽחֲמֹ֖ר יַחְדָּֽו)

Deuteronomy 22:9 [MT]

"You shall not sow your vineyard [together with] a mixed variety of species, lest the increase, even the seed that you sow and the yield of the vineyard [both] become forbidden." (לֹֽא־תִזְרַ֥ע כַּרְמְךָ֖ כִּלְאָ֑יִם פֶּן־תִּקְדַּ֗שׁ הַֽמְלֵאָ֤ה הַזֶּ֨רַע֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר תִּזְרָ֔ע וּתְבוּאַ֖ת הַכָּֽרֶם)

In order to fulfill the Torah, Jesus must be referring to His disciples as untrained / unyoked oxen.

  • Jesus could not be alluding to the sacrificial red Cow (Parah, פָרָ֨ה ) [Numbers 19:2] since it was never yoked.

Perhaps Jesus in [Matthew 11:29] makes an allusion to Himself & His disciples as Two Cows (Parot, פָּרוֹת֙) who deliver a 'Guilt Offering' in reference [1 Samuel 2:7-8] where 2 cows are yoked together to carry & be lead by the cart containing God's Word in the Ark of the Covenant.

1 Samuel 6:7-8 [MT]

"7 And now take (wood) and make one new cart, and (take) two cows, upon which no yoke has come, and you shall hitch the cows to the cart, and return their young home from behind them." (וְעַתָּ֗ה קְח֨וּ וַעֲשֹ֜וּ עֲגָלָ֚ה חֲדָשָׁה֙ אֶחָ֔ת וּשְׁתֵּ֚י פָרוֹת֙ עָל֔וֹת אֲשֶׁ֛ר לֹא־עָלָ֥ה עֲלֵיהֶ֖ם עֹ֑ל וַאֲסַרְתֶּ֚ם אֶת־הַפָּרוֹת֙ בָּעֲגָלָ֔ה וַהֲשֵׁיבֹתֶ֧ם בְּנֵיהֶ֛ם מֵאַחֲרֵיהֶ֖ם הַבָּֽיְתָה )

"8 And you shall take the Ark of YHVH, and you shall place it on the cart, and the golden objects which you have sent back to Him as a guilt-offering, you shall place in the box at its side, and you shall send it away, and it will go." (וּלְקַחְתֶּ֞ם אֶת־אֲר֣וֹן יְהֹוָ֗ה וּנְתַתֶּ֚ם אֹתוֹ֙ אֶל־הָ֣עֲגָלָ֔ה וְאֵ֣ת| כְּלֵ֣י הַזָּהָ֗ב אֲשֶׁ֨ר הֲשֵׁבֹתֶ֥ם לוֹ֙ אָשָׁ֔ם תָּשִֹ֥ימוּ בָאַרְגַּ֖ז מִצִּדּ֑וֹ וְשִׁלַּחְתֶּ֥ם אֹת֖וֹ וְהָלָֽךְ)

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    Can you substantiate that 'Jesus alludes to himself as an ox' ? I do not see that in the text.
    – Nigel J
    Sep 22 '20 at 15:55
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    @Nigel J - Thanks for helping improve the connection of Matthew 11:29 to Deuteronomy 22:9-10. I will update the answer shortly to substantiate the metaphor of Jesus as an Ox. Sep 22 '20 at 16:02
  • Yes, the yoke is clearly a yoke of filial service, not of legal bondage. And therefore, relationships are in view not inappropriate conjoinings (re:ox and donkey).
    – Nigel J
    Sep 22 '20 at 16:25
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    Thank you very much for your answer. The possible connection to 1 Samuel is very interesting (although, I believe that is chapter 6, not 2). I would be interested if you have any other arguments that Jesus is referring to himself as an ox. Dec 8 '20 at 22:28
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As we cannot readily determine whether Jesus is referring to himself as the co-joined ox or the farmer controlling the yoke and thereby the oxen, in either case it remains clear that Jesus is 'taking the lead' and the invitee who heeds the Lord's summons will learn and be led. Furthermore, the 'yoke is easy' because it is expertly fitted and non-abrasive and because, if Jesus is pictured as the co-joined ox, he will take the great burden upon himself.

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Who is Jesus in Matthew 11:29?

In Matthew 11:29, Jesus says

Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. (ESV)

Jesus' invitation to serve God.

"Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me "Jesus in this invitation most likely meant: "Get under the yoke with me, and together we will work to preach the good news of God to all the nations." It is a privilege to share work with Jesus that God has asked him to do.

Matthew 28:18-20 NASB

18 And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Me. 19 [a]Go, therefore, and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to follow all that I commanded you; and behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

The apostle Paul urged: “Preach the word, whether it is convenient or not:

2 Timothy 4:2 NASB

Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; correct, rebuke, and exhort, with great patience and instruction.

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