When we lived in another state about 35 years ago I sometimes met a man walking with his dog. The dog didn’t look particularly remarkable, but it was obvious that the two enjoyed and took good care of each other.
We did talk some. Since I usually like to know what kind of dog it is, I asked. That dog seemed to be a mix with maybe some unknown lines — he especially looked like those unknown lines! However, he did have a certain kind of fame. In his earlier life he had been a racing dog. And he was intelligent. In fact, the dog’s owner informed me that that dog was more intelligent than some people he knew! After we look at a Bible verse today, we might conclude that man was telling the truth.
Our verse comes out of the large prophetic book written by Isaiah about 700 years before Christ. In fact it comes very near the beginning. Isaiah 1:3 says: “The ox knows his owner, And the donkey his master’s crib; But Israel doesn’t know, My people don’t consider” (World English Bible).
This verse is a great example of Hebrew poetry. Each clause has three accents. Clauses one and two say something similar about two different animals. Clauses three and four are exact parallels and with two different packages of words state the same reality. These are good examples of parallelism.
Isaiah, much like the other prophets of old, announced the sinfulness of the people who were his audience and called them back to the LORD; he didn’t waste any time or scroll-space getting started with his theme!
So he tells us about an ox or cow and a donkey. Just like that man who walked his dog, this ox knew his man or woman, whoever that owner was. The ox could distinguish between its owner and other people.
When I was a young boy growing up on the farm, I often went out to the pasture in the evening to bring several cows home. Once home at least one of them would be milked, and they would certainly be fed. I don’t remember ever having trouble bringing them home. They didn’t protest and ask that I take them to the neighbors to the north or to the east. They knew from past experience that in our corral and in our barn they would be served their feed. I never thought about them being really smart, but the deductions they had made certainly served them well. And me, too.
But then Isaiah says that the people Israel did not know or understand. “Know” is a general word for having the facts; they acted like they didn’t have the facts. “Consider” is a Hebrew word that has the sense of discerning. We reflect that meaning when we say that someone cannot tell the difference between right and wrong, can’t make the proper distinction. Interestingly, the animals mentioned in the verse could tell the difference through some repetitive experience. In their beastly minds they drew some useful conclusions.
But, we might ask, what is it that Israel did not know or understand? If we answer that from the verse itself, the near context, we would say that they did not know to Whom they belonged and Who fed them. Sadly, there are people who are famous, wealthy, and educated who do not know what Israel did not know. And others we could describe in contrary ways live without the same understanding.
If we move just slightly to the preceding verse, we discover that God was their Father, and against Him they had revolted. Just after that verse Isaiah wrote that the nation was sinful, had turned away from their holy LORD, and even despised Him. The prophet used creative language in describing their condition as someone who is badly wounded and ill to the core. And he went on from there.
We can usually find someone who will take a different position, but I hazard to think that Isaiah was not complimenting the nation of Israel when he compared them to that ox and donkey. He would agree that someone made in the image and likeness of God should know to Whom he or she belongs and Who it is that feeds them.
I’m not about to suggest that anyone reading this is like Israel in Isaiah’s day. But I do think it is worthwhile for each of us to ask ourselves the question. In the way presented here, is our intelligence better than that of an ox or a donkey?