Word Study #181 — The Yoke: Bondage or Blessing?

For a word that appears in the New Testament only eight times, despite being used for two different Greek words, the idea of a yoke receives a surprising amount of attention – most of which centers around a syrupy, less-than-practical interpretation of Jesus’ gracious invitation in Mt.11:29-30. The word is found more commonly in the LXX, but in both cases, it is used in a much narrower sense than a classical understanding of either original term would suggest.

The words in the text are quite similar. Zeugos, (L/S: “a pair of anything; a team of animals; a carriage or chariot drawn by a “yoke” of beasts; or a married couple”), is used exclusively of animals – draft or sacrificial – in both the New Testament (Lk.2:24, 14:19) and the LXX (10x).

Its corresponding verb, zeugnumi (L/S: “to harness, saddle or bridle; to fasten securely; to join together – as in setting a broken bone; to join in wedlock; to join opposite banks of a body of water with a bridge; to pair or match gladiators; to join an issue at law”), does not appear at all in the New Testament, and of its seven uses in the LXX, six refer simply to hitching up a chariot or wagon, and one to an assassin wearing a sword.

Two words, each appearing twice, prefixed with “sun” (together), are related to zeugos:
suzeugnumi,
a passive verb, in Ezk.1:11 and 23, describes the joining together of the wings of the creatures in the prophet’s vision, and
suzeugnuo, the active form, is the choice in Jesus’ description of marriage,as “what God hath joined together” (Mt.19:6, Mk.10:9).

Differing by only a single letter, zugos (L/S: “the yoke of a plow or carriage; thwarts or benches joining opposite sides of a ship; the panels of a door; the beam of a balance [scales]; a pair of persons; a rank or line of soldiers; and metaphorically, the yoke of slavery”) appears in the New Testament as a reference to bondage or slavery three times (Ac.15:10, Gal.5:1, I Tim.6:1), and once to a balance [scale] (Rv.6:5), in addition to Jesus’ offer noted above in Mt.11. LXX uses are divided among references to bondage (12x), to deliverance from bondage – a “broken yoke”– (13x), to just or unjust balances [weights] (14x), and to rebellious refusal to serve (2x).
The related verb, zugoo (L/S: “to yoke or join together, to bring under a yoke, to subdue”) is completely absent from the New Testament, although the idea is present in its noun form in the Ac.15 reference, where the folks at the Jerusalem Conference are admonished NOT to inflict the bondage of the Jewish Law upon Gentile converts, and Paul’s similar urging of the brethren in Galatia NOT to return to the legalism from which Christ had set them free. The verb appears only twice in the LXX, in both instances referring to careful craftsmanship (I Ki.7:43 and Ezk.41:26).

Zugos is also found in two compound words, each used only a single time in the New Testament:
suzugos (the prefix is from the pronoun sun – “with” or “together”) may be Paul’s style of addressing a fellow-servant of the Lord, or may be a proper name. Scholars do not seem to be sure. The request that the addressee help to make peace in a disagreement between two faithful sisters could fit either understanding of Phil.4:3. Here, too, L/S offers much more (classical) variety: “to draw together in a yoke; a syzygy of two stars (where one rises as the other sets), joining or uniting, one’s comrade, wife, or brother; or a gladiator’s adversary!”
Heterozugeo (L/S: “to draw unequally, to be in an unequal partnership, a yoke of animals of diverse kind”) is found only in Paul’s warning (II Cor.6:14) against being “unequally yoked with the unfaithful”. This has usually been interpreted as referring to marriage – which may be correct – although it is also good advice in business or other relationships. Note that the apostle is not advocating avoidance of the uncommitted: that would preclude introducing them to the Kingdom. But sharing a “yoke” implies mutuality of some depth, and requires unity of purpose.
The noun form, heterozugos, appears once in the LXX (Lv.19:19), where it prohibits the cross-breeding of cattle. (I wonder to what extent that is still observed?)

Have you noticed, in all these references, that Jesus himself never spoke of a “yoke” in a context of bondage? Or even a “broken” one, as symbolic of deliverance?
Although the Old Covenant spoke repeatedly of a yoke as a synonym for slavery to a conqueror, and its “breaking” as a figure of deliverance from that bondage, the plain fact is, in a society that functions on animal-power, without a yoke, absolutely no work can be accomplished! A field is neither plowed, planted, nor harvested; a cart, wagon, or other conveyance does not move, without a yoke and team.

The beauty of Jesus’ invitation to take on his own yoke, in order that we share in the work of his Kingdom, is that he chooses, personally, to share the yoke with the willing disciple!
Please refer to the treatment of this subject in the study of “rest” #77.
A yoke enables two draft animals to work together, and share the load. Well-made and properly adjusted to the strength and ability of each animal, it enables the “novice” to learn from the well-trained and experienced lead animal, in order that both may become more productive!
What an incredible privilege, to work with the Lord of Glory on such a team!

Jesus has created an entirely new paradigm, transforming a symbol of bondage to oppressors into one of learning to function at his side in “the glorious liberty of the sons of God”!
And who could be a better, kinder, more highly skilled teacher than “the Firstborn” among those “many brethren”?
May we eagerly share his yoke, in thankfulness and joy!

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