Episode 46. December 11, 2016. Today I want to talk about yoke’s in general, you know, the kind that are used with oxen, and specifically about a yoke that was hanging from the ceiling of the blacksmith shop in Nauvoo when we visited back in August of 2000.
The word yoke appears 85 times in the scriptures, nearly 70% of which are in the Old Testament. The Old Testament use of the word is overwhelmingly negative, with phrases like “break his yoke from off thy neck” or “broken the bands of your yoke” or “made our yoke grievous” or “broken the yoke of his burden”. The other occurrences of the word are associated with describing a team of oxen or in some cases used in relation to sacrifice or offerings such as “an heifer which had not drawn in the yoke” or “milch kine (aka, milk cows) on which there hath come no yoke”.
After looking through all of these scriptures, it is easy to see by far and away that the most common and well known is the one in Matthew 11:28-30. It stands out as being distinctly different. In fact, it is as different from all of the other “yoke” scriptures as night is different from day. Here it is:
“Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light”.
So how is it that with all of these other scriptures using the term yoke as it relates to burdens and oppression, that this one uses the word in such a positive and uplifting, and uniquely different way. How can we reconcile this?
The word “yoke” is believed to have been derived from an Indo-European root shared by the Latin word jugum, the Greek word zugon, and by the Latin root jungere all of which mean to join or unite.
That makes sense to me. Yokes are used to harness cattle together to increase their capability to pull a heavier load. Even in the negative sense of the word, and this is especially true of the scriptures, it is used to describe a burden or responsibility (often an undesired responsibility) that is joined to a person or a group of people.
This same concept of joining or uniting can also be applied to the scripture in Matthew. In her book, “Too Much to Carry Alone”, Camille Fronk Olsen, chair of BYU’s department of ancient scriptures, writes the following:
“The Lord’s yoke perfectly equalizes our individual responsibilities and personal burdens and distributes the weight so that it is not only bearable but easy. His yoke is not harsh, sharp or debilitating but accommodating, encouraging and enabling.”
This statement can be further understood by a story told by Elder Spencer Osborn in the October November 1984 General Conference:
“Several months ago, Sister Osborn and I were traveling a narrow road in central Luzon in the Philippines, where I was serving as a full-time Regional Representative. We passed a farmer on his way to market. He was trotting along, carrying an enormous load of vegetables and produce hanging from both ends of a wooden yoke carried across his shoulders. I stopped the car to take his picture. After I snapped the camera, he lowered his burden in order to visit. I asked my friend if his load wasn’t really too heavy to carry a great distance. He replied, ‘No, it isn’t, because it’s balanced.’
‘Doesn’t that yoke hurt?’ I asked.
‘At first it did, but I carved and sanded it with a rough stone, and now it fits and is comfortable.’ I noticed, also, that he had a small cloth pad that spanned his neck—I suppose to cushion the shocks of a rough road.”
In this case, the yoke was actually a blessing to him. He had worked with it and sanded it until it fit the contours of his back, allowing him to carry great loads of fruits and vegetables to the market so he could support his family.
But even though the yoke fit the farmer well, allowing him to carry much more than he could otherwise carry, it was still a heavy load and at some point the distance he could travel would be reached and he would have to stop and rest before moving on.
And yet the scripture in Matthew says that the Lord’s yoke is easy and His burden is light. How can these concepts of “easy” and “light” even relate to the concept of a yoke?
Okay, now I want to tell you about the yoke we observed in Nauvoo. You can see a picture of that yoke on my blog at znukmot.wordpress.com.
The concept behind a yoke is pairing two roughly comparable oxen to pull a wagon or cart. In other words, both oxen need to be capable of pulling an equal amount of weight. But what happens if all there is are two oxen that are very different sizes? What happens then when you put them in a yoke built for a comparable set?
Imagine a big ox and a small ox pulling a heavy load. The small ox would take small steps, while the bigger ox would take larger steps. And the result? The Oxen would end up going around in a circle making a circumference based upon the different sizes of their steps.
The solution to this problem is actually quite easy. The fulcrum of most yokes where the bolt with the ring for the tie off strap is drilled is located exactly in the center of the wooden yoke. This means there is an equal distance from the bolt to the end of the yoke on each side. In order to compensate for one ox being bigger and stronger than the other ox, the fulcrum simply needs to be moved slightly one-way or the other. The greater the distance from the end to the bolt, the more weight that particular ox will carry and correspondingly, the less weight the other ox will need to pull. The result is a team that can work together, despite the differences in their size, their age, their strength or their capacity. This is what we learned from that yoke in Nauvoo which was built for two oxen of different sizes and capabilities.
Can you now visualize the how this might apply to the earlier scripture in Matthew? “Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and he shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light”.
It’s no wonder that his yoke is easy and his burden is light, he is pulling the majority of the load. We are privileged to be united with him, but still he is pulling the majority of the load. And interestingly enough, as we learn more about Him and try to emulate his humility and meekness, the portion of the load that He carries seems to increase rather than decrease. Further, the yoke is well worn, sanded and perfectly fits the contour of each of our individual backs giving us so much more capacity to deal with the vicissitudes of life. We are able to go further and do more because we are joined with the Son of God through covenant and experience.
In closing, I want to share a quote from then Elder Howard W. Hunter in the October 1990 General Conference address titled “Come Unto Me” that I think reinforces this concept: “Why face life’s burdens alone, Christ asks, or why face them with temporal support that will quickly falter? To the heavy laden it is Christ’s yoke, it is the power and peace of standing side by side with a God that will provide the support, balance, and the strength to meet our challenges and endure our tasks here in the hardpan field of mortality.”
To be yoked with the Son of the God, the Savior of the World, is one of the greatest blessings available to us. It is He who makes our burdens light and our journey manageable. May we all come unto Him, learn of Him and take His yoke upon us.