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Paul makes an allegorical interpretation of Mosaic law of Deuteronomy 25:4:

1 Corinthians 9: 8-10 NIV

8 Do I say this merely on human authority? Doesn’t the Law say the same thing? 9 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? 10 Surely he says this for us, doesn’t he? Yes, this was written for us, because whoever plows and threshes should be able to do so in the hope of sharing in the harvest.

Deuteronomy 25:4 NIV

4 Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain.

Paul’s interpretation is far more profound than mere literal sense of the Mosaic Law at plain reading. Is this a hermeneutic principle that can be more widely applied to Mosaic law?

Specifically, can it be applied to Deuteronomy 22:6-7 ?

Deuteronomy 22:6-7 NIV

6 If you come across a bird’s nest beside the road, either in a tree or on the ground, and the mother is sitting on the young or on the eggs, do not take the mother with the young. 7 You may take the young, but be sure to let the mother go, so that it may go well with you and you may have a long life.

If 1 Corinthian 9:9 establishes a principle, what then might be the allegorical meaning of Deuteronomy 22:6-7? And, where there might be symbolism or allegory with meaning beyond the literal sense of the Law, could this have been the understanding by people of the time, rather the literal?


Footnote - see also the related question 'What hermeneutic is Paul employing in his approach to 1 Corinthians 9:8-10?' which differs because it doesn't address extension of the principle, nor specifics of Deuteronomy 22:6-7

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  • Search for "Midrash". Of course, it is naive to take them on just the plain literal and to ignore the wisdom. It's upto us on how to understand and draw wisdom and meaning out of it. It's a subjective approach not objective. You can allude and interpret it whatever way you want. That's how the Jews did. Learn hermeneutics by reading the Talmud.
    – Michael16
    Commented Oct 23, 2023 at 4:09
  • @Michael16 Thank you. Aware of Midrash, but that isn't canonical or Law. For Deut 25:4 Tannaim if anything applies it to food workers in tithe. The obvious problem here is a Law that, if your point is right, would be open to interpretation. As Paul did. How to know when and how to interpret? Ok for prophecy or poetic scripture, but Law by any definition has to be rock absolute. So would it offend the Law not to pay Paul in his circumstances and who judges that ? No, but it would to not muzzle an ox........maybe we begin to see the origin of some of the priestly issues of the time.
    – user59096
    Commented Oct 23, 2023 at 11:32
  • Law commands also has spiritual, broader meanings. There is no such thing as any law or text not needing personal discernment and proper interpretation. See my answer here, explaining the lesser and greater commands, like lying for a greater good, breaking sabbath. hermeneutics.stackexchange.com/questions/76584/…
    – Michael16
    Commented Oct 23, 2023 at 11:40
  • @Michael16 That's a slippery slope. Your point would mean righteousness has no absolute standard. But that opposes the very purpose of the Law. It would need better references to be convincing of that, for me. Ps 19:7 Rom 7:12 Ps 119:172 etc define the Law as perfect, holy, righteousness. There is the literal law, but the OP Q concerns status of overlaid interpretation, which I believe we can at least agree exist.
    – user59096
    Commented Oct 23, 2023 at 13:52
  • Righteousness has a standard, but it is also applied to each subjectively as well. There is no objective standard & interpretation for God's word or scripture. The scripture writers wrote& interpreted subjectively. see Matthew 7:1-2, 25:15
    – Michael16
    Commented Oct 23, 2023 at 13:57

2 Answers 2

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The answer to the OP is yes. Paul was doing what other rabbis did by quoting a commandment from the Torah and applying it more broadly. Regarding Dt. 22:6-7 one such opinion was given by Maimonides, who said that:

The reason for the commandment to release the mother bird when taking its nest and the prohibition against killing the dam with its young on one day is in order to admonish us against killing the young within the mother’s sight, for animals feel great distress under such circumstances. There is no difference between the distress of man and the distress of animals for their young, since the love of the mother and her tenderness to the children of her womb are not the result of reasoning or speech, but are produced by the faculty of mental images which exists among animals even as it is present in man.

Although he lived much later than Paul, Maimonides' interpretation follows an exegetical principle that was practiced by the rabbis in ancient times. I would not call either of these interpretations "allegorical" however. Rather are both examples of how a rabbinical teacher might apply a law more broadly than the literal text indicates. In both cases, these teachers interpreted a commandment about the ethical treatment of animals to apply to the treatment of human beings in a similar situation.

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  • I like this answer too, even though I'm not so sure that our example verses cannot be described as allegorical. You do however make a good point in your last two sentences. Loved the fact that you added the "Maimonides" statement. + 1. Commented Oct 24, 2023 at 15:46
  • what I was getting at about "allegorical" is that the original text has no hidden meaning. Rather Paul and Maimonides simply apply the rule to a broader or different context. Commented Oct 24, 2023 at 15:59
  • Maybe I'm not understanding the true meaning of the word. "Allegorical", constituting or containing allegory; symbolic; metaphorical; emblematic; parabolic; figurative; representative; etc...etc... The original text, on reflexion, made indeed have no hidden meaning, but then again .... Commented Oct 24, 2023 at 16:19
  • @Dan Fefferman one challenge to Maimondes' view that Law might be for benefit of animals, is that Paul writes in 1 Cor 9:9-10 '..Is it about oxen that God is concerned? Surely he says this for us, doesn’t he?' which is textbook allegory.
    – user59096
    Commented Oct 25, 2023 at 9:32
  • The point is not whether Maimonides was correct... it is whether Paul was following a rabbinical tradition by applying a specific law of the Torah in a different context. Commented Nov 7, 2023 at 19:45
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The Bible presents God's Law with iterative refinement:

Jesus defined "The Great Commandment":

Matthew 22:36–40:

Master, which is the great commandment in the law?

Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment.
And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.

On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

The "Ten Commandments" expands upon those two:

Exodus 20:3–17:

Love God:

1 Thou shalt have no other gods before me.

4 Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy.

Love Mankind:

5 Honour thy father and thy mother

10 Thou shalt not covet

The many specific laws given throughout the Torah expand God's law further by giving very specific cases, but by no means do they define every possible application. One must use these as examples, taking the underlying principle and applying it to other situations.

Paul explained how muzzling an ox is really part of love thy neighbour by first finding the principle behind the law.

(Other cultures used similar methods to teach morality, Æsop's Fables perhaps being the most familiar example. Keep his "The Goose That Laid The Golden Eggs" in mind while reading the rest of this answer.)


I don't claim Paul's wisdom, but one might say that the bird law represents both parts of the Great Commandment.

Suppose you are walking along a country road, it's near lunch time, and you see a bird's nest. If you eat the eggs and/or young and allow the mother to live, it will lay more eggs in the future.

But taking the mother, indirectly causing her offspring to die, not only disrespects God's creation ("the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is" is part of the Ten Commandments), it also destroys a potential food source for other travelers ("thou shalt not steal").

A modern example, though in the opposite way, would be clear-cutting forests. Cutting the larger trees without damaging the smaller ones will ensure the continued existence of the forest for the future. Clear-cutting everything can mean no more forest, and can result in floods, mud slides, etc.

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