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God has No Concern for Oxen! Right? (1 Cor 9:9)
One of the dangers of simply translating word-for-word is that sometimes the translation is not only awkward English but actually wrong, depending on your interpretation. In this verse, the often untranslated μή is the culprit.
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Paul is making the point that Christian workers should be paid. He cites the law about oxen eating the grain while they are on the threshing floor (Deut 25:4) and then applies it to his day. “Is it for oxen that God is concerned?” (μὴ τῶν βοῶν μέλει τῷ θεῷ). There are several challenges to this sentence.
First of all, if you check BDAG on μέλει it says, “w[ith] dat[ive] of pers[on].” This means that the person to whom this is a concern will be in the dative, hence τῷ θεῷ.
Secondly, the μή indicates that the expected answer to the question is “No.” The expected answer to a Greek question rarely makes it into English, such as in the NRSV. “Is it for oxen that God is concerned?” (also NIV, ESV). Others try to indicate that the expected answer is “No.” “God is not concerned about oxen, is He?” (NASB, NET).
But what is the problem with the latter translation? It isn’t true. God is concerned about oxen; otherwise, Deuteronomy would not have the law saying oxen should be able to eat while working. Maybe this is why the μή is untranslated in the NRSV.
The problem here is πάντως in the next verse. “Or does he not speak entirely (πάντως) for our sake?” (NRSV). This is why Paul uses μή in our verse. He wants to emphatically say that God is not concerned with oxen; he is concerned about Christian workers.”
You can see some of the translations trying to soften this problem. “Is God really concerned about oxen? Isn’t he really saying it for our sake?” (CBS). “Was God thinking only about oxen when he said this? Wasn’t he actually speaking to us?” (NLT, italics in both added).
BDAG’s second definition of πάντως is absolute. “pert. to thoroughness in extent, totally, altogether.” But the first definition of πάντως is a little weaker, “pert[aining] to strong assumption, by all means, certainly, probably, doubtless.” The fourth is even weaker. “expression of lowest possible estimate on a scale of extent, at least.” So there is some evidence that πάντως does not necessarily indicate something that is “entirely” for us, but perhaps “primarily” for us.
Probably the easiest solution is to expect the readers to have an appreciation for overstatement. Paul wants to stress the need for Christian workers to be paid, and so he says it emphatically, expecting the readers to understand that God does have concern for oxen, even if the primary thrust of this law prophetically was looking forward to the church.
Now, if only we would obey this law and pay our pastors a living wage instead of insisting they be the poorest person in the church (note my only slight sarcasm). The Jewish people have this right. You couldn’t have a synagogue unless there were ten people, and since they all tithed the rabbi was guaranteed a medium salary.