Wednesday, April 03, 2013


This morning, continuing my slow trek through the book of Proverbs, I came upon a verse that's a little different, a little unusual.
You expect sayings about the wise man and the fool or the clever and the simple, the fate of the righteous and the fate of the wicked--and much of the time, that's exactly what you get. But every now and then there's a welcome break in the pattern when Proverbs throws you a curveball.

"Where there are no oxen, there is no grain;
    abundant crops come by the strength of the ox."
- Proverbs 14:4

First reaction: 'Oh cool, animals! Oxen'.

Second reaction: '... Okay, then. Moving on. I think I saw something about telling the truth in verse 5...'

Some proverbs are just hard to relate to, right? I don't raise any grain; I don't own any oxen. Sure, I guess if you lived in an agricultural society where you used oxen to cultivate the land, you need a strong ox. That makes sense.

Oh! There's something about wisdom in verse 6.

But the more I thought about this peculiar, seemingly useless (to me, at least) proverb, the more it struck me that our society has essentially rewritten this proverb. There's a new wisdom today. It goes something like this:
"Where there is grain, there are no oxen;
    abundant crops come by the strength of the [tractor/pesticide/fertilizer/genetically modified seed]."

Over the last century, as we discovered that we could industrialize and develop enormous plots of land quickly, we ditched the beasts of burden. We can engineer seeds that grow into larger, hardier crops! We don't need a team of oxen. The Bible's just a little... well, behind the times.

And yet it seems like some folks are rediscovering the wisdom of Proverbs.
In 2011 the New York Times reported that many small farmers in the US have (re)discovered the benefits of animals in recent years. As one farmer in the story pointed out, “Ox don’t need spare parts, and they don’t run on fossil fuels.” They run on grass, instead of diesel--and they leave free fertilizer behind them! And as heavy as these animals may be, they're nothing compared to tractors, aerating the soil where machinery would leave deep ruts. And those are only a few of the advantages.
Of course there are disadvantages: they're slower than other methods--impractical for the huge fields we've grown accustomed to--and more temperamental than tractors. Yet with more and more voices insisting that our more conventional, industrial farming practices today are ecologically unsustainable and won't suffice to feeding the world's growing population, you have to wonder how important the drawbacks really are.

"Where there are no oxen, there is no grain;
    abundant crops come by the strength of the ox."

Maybe Proverbs isn't behind the times at all. Maybe this is actually one of the most timely verses in the whole Bible.
Maybe sometimes modern readers with all of our modern wisdom are a little too quick to re-write the scriptures.

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