Every day, it seems, I find myself looking up words and their etymologies, trying to get at the root of what something I've just read means. Sometimes it's a word in the Bible, and I end up wading my way through ancient languages I've never studied, searching for clues. Other times it's just words from daily life that suddenly pertain to some matter I'm struggling with or considering. Often the word has changed over the centuries; I find such words particularly fascinating—particularly when, as is often the case, the word's current meaning is at odds with what it once meant. Some of these word studies find their way into my writing projects. My goal is to post new words weekly, sometimes brand new material and sometimes excerpts from my books.

31 May 2010


The yoke is a powerful image in scripture, used almost always in the same way as it is most commonly used in contemporary English: metaphorically, namely, in reference to domination and subjugation. The Old Testament writers bewail the yoke of oppression and the yoke of slavery, and the Lord these prophets write of frequently threatens the yokes of slavery and oppression as punishment for disobedience and just as frequently promises to break the yokes of those who obey. The Law warns against unequal yoking, and later the Apostle Paul echoes this warning. There should be no pairing of an ox with a donkey—presumably because the variance in their strength and shoulder heights would make the sharing of work more difficult—and likewise no pairing of believers with unbelievers, who are, according to Paul, as antithetical to one another as light and darkness, virtue and sin, God and idols. In the biblical perspective, the yoke is the metaphorical antonym of freedom. So, while Paul counsels “All who are under the yoke of slavery”—that is, actual slaves—to accept their lot and “consider their masters worthy of full respect” (1 Timothy 6:1), he elsewhere declares, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1), by which he means our slavish devotion to evil.

Scriptural yokes are intriguing in any discussion of God’s work since the real world purpose of a yoke in the farming culture of biblical times was to make it possible for two or more draft animals to join their efforts on the same task, thus rendering the work easier for each of them than it would be if one were doing the work alone. In other words, yokes benefit both farmer and farm animal by spreading, or equalizing, work, rendering it possible to get more done while reducing the toil and stress of those yoked. This understanding of the word yoke is seen in cultures today where water is still carried, balanced from a yoke in two manageable buckets rather than lurched along in one unwieldy one. Yokes make work easier, and yet, semantically, they suggest anything but ease. The yoke has thus evolved from biblical times onward from a means of sharing labor with another and lightening one’s load to become the quintessential symbol of enforced labor—and, by extension, of resistance to enforced labor. No one wants to wear a yoke.

All of which serves as a paradoxical back story to Jesus’ invitation, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” The One God Sent is not our taskmaster or subjugator, and the yoke he speaks of is not the yoke of oppression or slavery or even toil. Indeed, we are invited to take this yoke upon ourselves not for work at all, but for rest from work.

The yoke of the One God Sent—metaphorically, the work of God—is thus unlike anything we might normally think of as "work." It is not a burden. It does not make us weary. It does not enslave or oppress. Rather, it is the antidote to stress and toil: a source of relaxation and pleasure. What God wants of us in the way of work is more akin to what we think of when we hang up the “Gone Fishin’” sign on the door: something fun, an escape from the unpleasantness of our jobs, rest.

~excerpted from my current writing project, tentatively titled Easy Burdens: Doing the Stress-Free, Guilt-Free Work of God