The value of women, oxen and cows

A few days ago I posted on The value of men, women and sheep. The issue I brought up there, the meaning and translation of Matthew 12:12, generated quite a lot of discussion on this blog and elsewhere. Suzanne, in a comment on one of Joel Hoffman’s posts, raised the issue of the rather similar passage in Luke 13:

Jesus Heals a Crippled Woman on the Sabbath

10 On a Sabbath Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues, 11 and a woman was there who had been crippled by a spirit for eighteen years. She was bent over and could not straighten up at all. 12 When Jesus saw her, he called her forward and said to her, “Woman, [a] you are set free from your infirmity.” 13 Then he put his hands on her, and immediately she straightened up and praised God.

14 Indignant because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, the synagogue leader said to the people, “There are six days for work. So come and be healed on those days, not on the Sabbath.”

15 The Lord answered him, “You hypocrites! Doesn’t each of you on the Sabbath untie your ox or donkey from the stall and lead it out to give it water? 16 Then should not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long years, be set free on the Sabbath day from what bound her?”

17 When he said this, all his opponents were humiliated, but the people were delighted with all the wonderful things he was doing.

  1. 12 The Greek for Woman does not denote any disrespect.

Luke 13:10-17 (TNIV)

Structurally this story is rather similar to Matthew 12:9-14, although here the healing takes place before the objection. Also the comparison of the value of a human being to that of an animal is only implicit in this story, but explicit in Matthew 12:12. However, the two passages cannot be considered parallel passages. That is because the Matthew passage has much closer parallels in Mark 3:1-6 and Luke 6:6-11 – although only Matthew makes the human-animal comparison explicit.

Interestingly in Luke’s account of the man with the withered hand he is initially introduced as anthropos, i.e. his gender is not specified, but later referred to as aner, confirming that he is male. This may be simply stylistic variation, but from memory it is not the only place where Luke has aner and other gospels have anthropos.

But Luke balances his story of a man being healed in the synagogue with the rather similar story of a crippled woman being healed in the same setting, which has no parallels in the other gospels. Clearly Jesus showed no gender discrimination in his healing, and Luke wants to make that clear.

I did find one interesting translation point in the story of the crippled woman. In TNIV, and most other translations (including NLT and CEV, but not The Message), she is implicitly compared with an ox or a donkey, and considered to be of much greater value.

Now the Greek words used for these two animals, bous and onos respectively, work like anthropos in that they do not specify the gender of the animal. All these words can be grammatically feminine (without changing the form of the noun) when referring to a specific female: onos is feminine in Matthew 21:2,7, but masculine in Luke 13:15; bous is also masculine here and, like anthropos, in every case in the New Testament where its gender is specified. However, again like anthropos, when used in generalisations onos and bous are masculine, but this should not be taken as specifying the gender of the animal.

Thus in Luke 13:15 the translation of onos as “donkey” is correct, as this word is gender generic in English. But the rendering of bous as “ox” is more questionable. First we need to clarify what is meant by “ox”. Here is the definition from

ox (ŏks) pronunciation

n., pl. ox·en (ŏksən).

  1. An adult castrated bull of the genus Bos, especially B. taurus, used chiefly as a draft animal.
  2. A bovine mammal.

[Middle English, from Old English oxa.]

Which definition did the TNIV translators have in mind? If the latter, then they are exegetically correct. But would it be normal language, among their target group of speakers of contemporary English, to refer to bulls and cows as oxen? I think not. The generic term in current use is “cattle” or “bovine”, or colloquially “cows” although as a country boy I find it strange, and a sign of city-dwellers’ ignorance, when male cattle are called cows.

I would suggest that the word “ox” is more or less obsolete in modern English. If it is used at all, it is used in the rather specific sense 1 I quoted above, of an adult castrated male bovine. This is probably how it is understood by most Bible readers today who have any real understanding of the word.

So, I would suggest that TNIV, while being carefully gender generic about humans, has failed to follow the same principle when referring to cattle. To be consistent, it should drop “ox” in this verse and 14:5 and find an alternative gender generic rendering.

“Ox” can remain in 14:19, 1 Corinthians 9:9 and 1 Timothy 5:18 as these verses are about draft animals which in the cultural context probably would have been castrated males. But the cultural context in 13:15 is quite different. Here we have a person, probably an ordinary villager, who keeps one bovine and one donkey in a shed or courtyard and has to untie them to lead them to water. This is still common practice in the Middle East. And the bovine would normally have been a cow, a female – such families would have had little use for an ox but a cow would have been an important source of nutrition.

So in 13:15 I would actually suggest “cow”, as in The Message. I thought of “one of your cattle”, but that implies that the person has more than one whereas the text and the cultural context suggest the opposite. Thus “cow” is better. If anyone complains that “cow” is not gender generic, one can point them at this sense in the dictionary:

A domesticated bovine of either sex or any age.

But if a choice has to be made between a term with male connotations and one with female connotations, in this case of a comparison with a woman surely the more female word is preferable.

I hope no one thinks this is political correctness gone mad! My point is simply that translations need to be accurate. To use a gender specific term to translate a gender generic one, whether for humans or for animals, is inaccurate translation.

The ironic thing here is that in first century Palestine a cow, a female producing milk, was probably more valuable than an ox, a castrated male – at least to an ordinary village person. Jesus in his parable compares the woman to a cow, more valuable than an ox, or for that matter than the sheep of Matthew 12:12. Translators should not demean women by comparing them to something less than Jesus had in mind.

9 thoughts on “The value of women, oxen and cows

  1. This may be simply stylistic variation, but from memory it is not the only place where Luke has aner and other gospels have anthropos.

    The other possibility is that the text we have reflects different dialects.

    Frequently the debate about modern translations stems from differences in modern dialects, such as the different ways “man” and “men” are used. I think we have to expect that similar differences existed in antiquity, too.

    Oh, and by the way:

    …although as a country boy I find it strange, and a sign of city-dwellers’ ignorance, when male cattle are called cows.

    No offense taken. 🙂

    Joel in New York

  2. 1. “I would suggest that the word “ox” is more or less obsolete in modern English. If it is used at all, it is used in the rather specific sense of an adult castrated male bovine. This is probably how it is understood by most Bible readers today who have any real understanding of the word.”

    It’s true that the English language as spoken lacks a generic word for beeve. Ox is a carry-over from classical English, but although the word still exists in contemporary English, it’s range of meaning has shrunk. The most common English word for a castrated bovine is steer, although when one is butchered it can still be separated into oxtail and oxhide. Ox is still used only for draft animals, along with cognate words like oxwhip (very similar, actually, to a bullwhip) and oxcart.

    I won’t try to recommend how this should be fixed, but I do question your picture of a typical Middle Easterner with only one ox and one donkey.

    First of all, we see that both oxen and donkeys were used for farming:

    The oxen and donkeys that work the soil will eat fodder and mash, spread out with fork and shovel.” Isaiah 30:24 TNIV

    However, one of each would not due, for they couldn’t be yoked as a team:

    “Do not plow with an ox and a donkey yoked together.” Deuteronomy 22:10

    Moreover, the typical, non-narrative or hypothetical use of the singular in “donkey” or “ox” clearly seem, at least in the OT, to be synechdoche:

    “Whose ox have I taken? Whose donkey have I taken?” 1 Samuel 12:3 TNIV

    “Where there are no oxen, the manger is empty, but from the strength of an ox come abundant harvests.” Proverbs 14:4 TNIV

    “The lion will eat straw like the ox.” Isaiah 65:25 TNIV

    “Such families would have little use for an ox,” indeed! If they intended to have anything to eat, they needed to get out and plow their fields every spring. Thus I expect that the typical Israeli had one team of oxen at an absolute minimum; Elisha and Saul had more than one yoke each with which to plow, and Araunah was using a plurality of oxen just to thresh. True, donkeys were not nearly as valuable, for an ox was useful–actually crucial–for three things: plowing, threshing, and certain sacrifices. It could always be killed and eaten, and every time a cow had a calf, she produced milk for cheese (which required the rennet of a slaughtered calf). The unclean donkey was mostly used just for transportation, although it could help cultivate the fields once the ox teams had done the heavy work of breaking up the soil.

    2. “But if a choice has to be made between a term with male connotations and one with female connotations, in this case of a comparison with a woman surely the more female word is preferable. I hope no one thinks this is political correctness gone mad!”

    Actually, this is not a matter of PC as I see it. No one word is going to adequately replace beeve/s, but ox definitely has to give way at least in some contexts to something more contemporary, if we are going to have a Bible in contemporary English. The NIV revisers already indicated that showr as ox needed to be doubly translated, partially into the text and more fully into a footnote:

    “Just as the fat is removed from the ox [The Hebrew word can refer to either male or female.] sacrificed as a fellowship offering.” Leviticus 4:10 TNIV et al

    But I think I have demonstrated that you’re going a bit far in reading a lone hypothetical cow into Jesus’ comparison. If Jesus was using synechdoche, which I believe he was, then a male–not a female–would have stood for the whole herd. I trust you hadn’t thought through the theological implications of your suggestion, for eliminating that figure of speech goes right to the federal headship of Adam, both First and Last. In Adam we all sinned–not in Eve.

    3. The NIV revisers also doubly translated GUNAI here. Why not just start out with the term usually used by contemporary English speakers to respectfully address a woman: Ma’am? Miss could, I suppose, be used instead for a girl, maid, or virgin, although that could be a bit pedantic.

  3. Kevin, aner, specifically to andri “to the man”, appears in Luke 6:8. In verse 6 the word is anthropos.

    Daniel, thanks for clarifying the meaning of “steer” as well as “ox”. I suppose an ox is a particular kind of steer used for drawing carts, ploughs etc – if anyone still uses them as such.

    But I think you differ from me largely in assuming that “the typical Israeli” was an arable farmer who “had one team of oxen at an absolute minimum” to plough his fields. Of course some were farmers, and they probably would have had teams of oxen, or maybe they would share them between them. But I am thinking more of those, probably the majority, engaged in other kinds of agriculture: keeping sheep, tending vines and olives, fishing etc etc; also all the artisans, traders and shopkeepers, religious professionals etc. It is people like this who, if not very poor, were likely to keep in their courtyards a donkey as a beast of burden and a cow for milk and cheese – as indeed they still did until cars started to replace donkeys.

    Indeed the NIV updaters need also to reconsider their use of “ox” in the Old Testament. I haven’t looked into this myself.

    But, Daniel, I utterly reject the theology behind your point 2, for which I see absolutely no biblical basis. We are saved by the blood of the last anthropos, Jesus, who is contrasted with the first anthropos, Adam. What is important here is their humanity, not their gender. Your teaching seems to imply the unbelievably degrading idea that a male ox is more like Christ than a woman is.

  4. Peter,

    How is the gender issue going to filter down into our church services and the issues of gender in leadership? Is the new translation of the NIV going to accomodate re workings of Paul’s advice to woman about their conduct, order behaviour and what she is allowed to do and say in her life? This is the only place where I am hearing this kind of stuff. I don’t hear this kind of thing in my church.

  5. Gail, I can’t speak for how any individual church responds. But I expect the new NIV to be rather similar to TNIV in these areas. The differences are subtle but significant. For example, NIV has a main section heading after Ephesians 5:21, but in TNIV the heading is before this verse, thus making it clear that “Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands …” in the next verse is just one example of “Submit to one another …”. Also TNIV has included that word “own”, which is in the Greek but not reflected in NIV, thus suggesting that this teaching is aimed not at independent women but at those with eyes for other men.

  6. Peter,

    To begin with, what does the root word of ‘submit’ mean in the new translation? I feel that the present meaning has often been used to subjegate woman. Is there not a word which better amplifies the true nature of a good balanced relationship between husband and wife? For instance, we know that it does not give my husband the right to stop loving me if I stop submitting to him. It is too black and white a reading of the matter! P.S. Just to point out I think you have written down the incorrect reference for the NIV. It is Ephesians 5:21 and not 4: 21. Also, and I hope I haven’t misunderstood you but you say that ‘own husband’ must invariably refer to the wives who have a wandering eye for other men. Not to say some don’t but there are other reasons in a wife’s life she has to submit to a man other than her own husband. My reading of ‘own husbands’ is that if wives are given permission to submit to their own husbands then other men in the church must respect my wish to do so. I am protected against other husbands who wrongly assert their authority over me. This may include male leaders from other churches. Except that we are then supposed to submit to each other also. Perhaps I am digressing here but I think this shows that there is as much work to be done on how we read the bible as there is in its translation. Your reading of ‘own husband’ may convict a wife of her sin but could also translate as a lack support for the woman and her husband in their need to make decisions between themselves without having to invite the world and his donkey in on it.

  7. Gail, thanks for your comment, and for pointing out the typo in the reference which I have now corrected.

    I can’t speak on exactly what any particular translation team meant by “submit”. I understand that the word has a range of meanings. To explain the exact nuances in a particular context is more the job for an exegete and expositor than for a translator. Perhaps I should post about the meaning of this word, but this comment thread is not the place to go into details.

    As for “own husband”, I’m not sure if “own” should be stressed here or not. Presumably the CBT thought it significant enough to make the change to the NIV text. There will of course be times where women have to submit to men (or women) other than their husbands, but this verse does seem to clarify that their relationship with their husbands is primary. And I would be quick to clarify that I would apply exactly the same principle to determining who a husband should submit to and honour – his own wife before anyone else, except God. It would be wrong of me to put the needs of any other man or woman, including pastors and employers, before those of my wife to be.

  8. Pingback: Gentle Wisdom» Blog Archive » Anthropos, gender and markedness, part 1

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