Word for Today - ‘Ol (Yoke)

Brian Clatworthy, Newton Abbot, Devon, England [SEE PROFILE BELOW]

Category: A Word for Today

Precious Seed

Oklah (Food, fuel, meat)
‘Ol (Yoke)
Olah (Ascent, burnt offering)
The use of a yoke or harness in modern-day farming, especially in the West, would be regarded as a somewhat backward step, almost anachronistic, yet even today in many Third World agrarian economies, the use of animals, especially oxen yoked together to pull loads, is still a common sight. 
In the Old Testament the Hebrew word for yoke, ‘Ol, occurs over fifty times. It usually refers to a wooden bar or harness to couple animals together so that they could pull heavy loads in tandem. Typically, the harness was fitted onto the animal’s neck to bind them together so that their combined strength would make the task much easier, as for example, in 1 Kings chapter 19 verse 19 where Elisha demonstrated his unique strength and ploughing ability with twelve yoke of oxen. In Numbers chapter 19 verse 2, reference is made to the red heifer, on which no yoke had been laid, i.e., it must not have done any work in its lifetime so that it would be wholly dedicated to the Lord. A similar prohibition was applied in Deuteronomy chapter 21 verse 3 to the heifer whose neck was broken to make atonement for an unsolved murder. In this instance the prohibition included the requirement that ‘the heifer should never have worked’. ‘The heifer’s immaturity and physically intact state symbolize the human victim’s innocence’. 1 Overall, the various references to yoke in the Old Testament are both literal and metaphorical, and emphasize the twin concepts of subjection, or, on occasions, bondage to the will of others and service to others. For example, it is used metaphorically in part of the blessing bestowed upon Esau in Genesis chapter 27 verse 40, where Isaac pronounces that eventually Esau would tear off Jacob’s yoke from his neck. 
Rehoboam refused to lighten the heavy yoke that Solomon had placed on Israel, 1 Kgs. 12. 4, and ultimately his intransigence led to the division of the kingdom, v. 16. In Jeremiah chapter 27 verse 2, Jeremiah was instructed by God to ‘make yourself straps and yoke-bars, and put them on your neck’, ESV. This signified that it was God’s will for Judah to serve and be in submission to the rule of Nebuchadnezzar. Jeremiah made it clear, however, that this particular yoke was self-inflicted because of Judah’s sins, Jer. 14. 2. Conversely, in Leviticus chapter 26 verse 13 God told Israel that He had broken the bars of their Egyptian yoke and that they would be slaves no longer, cp. Hos. 11. 4. This presupposed, of course, that they would then belong to God and serve Him alone, Lev. 25. 42, 55. 
A third and familiar aspect is also developed in the Old Testament, and that relates to not being unequally yoked. This was a literal prohibition in respect of animals such as the ox and the ass, as in Deuteronomy chapter 22 verse 10, which is part of the wider provisions for forbidden combinations developed in Leviticus chapter 19 verse 19 et seq. 
In the Septuagint (LXX) the Hebrew word ‘Ol for yoke is translated by the Greek word zygos, and this noun and the rare verb heterozugos occur together seven times in the Greek New Testament. In each occurrence its use is metaphorical, not literal. Whilst the Pharisees sought to ‘yoke’ the people to the Mosaic law, making their lives burdensome, Christ encouraged His followers to take on His yoke, which He described as easy to bear with a light burden, Matt. 11. 29, 30. Christ’s commandments must, however, be complied with, and they are considerably easier to keep. The institution of slavery is equated to ‘being under a yoke’, in 1 Timothy chapter 6 verse 1 ESV, and whilst the Bible does not condemn slavery per se, nonetheless the effect of the Mosaic law and Christianity continues to make significant sociological change in this context, e.g. Philemon 21. The New Testament again takes up the theme of not being unequally yoked when the Apostle Paul forbids the Corinthians from having any relationship with unbelievers, 2 Cor. 6. 14, which is a salutary warning to us today, especially to those younger believers who are contemplating marriage.  2 But we should all be conscious of this prohibition in all areas of our lives, otherwise we may well find ourselves easily compromised in relation to our faith. 
Perhaps Paul has in mind here not only the inherent danger of close alliance or union with unbelievers, but the inevitability of enslavement to that which is contrary to the mind of God. ‘What portion does a believer share with an unbeliever?’, 2 Cor. 6. 15 ESV.

For further reading/study

  • Yoke in Leland Ryken, et al. (eds.), Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, pg. 975.


  • ‘Ol, in Dictionary of Old Testament Theology & Exegesis, Vol. 3, pp. 400-402.

 1 Bernard M. Levinson, Deuteronomy, Introduction and Annotations, (JSB), pg. 413.
 2 Whilst this is a yoke to be avoided, God does encourage the young to take up the yoke of self-discipline in their lives, so that they might know future blessing, Lam. 3. 25-27.

AUTHOR PROFILE: He is an elder and active member of a pioneer assembly work in Newton Abbott. For many years he has been welcomed as a ministering brother in the south of England and has written a number of articles for the magazine. He is married and has two children.

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