The Inscrutable Question: Biblical Origin of the Metaphor, “Kicking against the Goads”; Its Use in 5th Century B.C. Greek Drama
Kicking the Goads:
In an attempt to resolve apparent inconsistencies in Scripture, some commentators resort from time to time to make certain speculations that unfortunately ignore obvious explanations.
We will demonstrate that the phrase “kicking against the goads” is a biblical metaphor for resistance to authority by subordinates, that it is far more ancient than 5th century b.c. Greece, and that it can be traced all the way back to Moses, Samuel, and Solomon.
First, we begin our research by going back to Moses’ commencement address to the second generation in:
Deuteronomy 4:10 - “Remember the day you stood before the Lord your God at Horeb, when the Lord said to me, ‘Assemble the people to Me, that I may let them hear My words so they may learn to fear Me all the days they live on the earth and that they may teach their children.’”
The word “teach” is the Hebrew verb lamad / lah-MAD /. In the qal stem it means “to learn.” In the piel stem, which is used here, it means to teach.
The word carries with it the idea of training as well as educating. The training aspect is found in the derivative word, malmad / mal-MAHD /, which is an oxgoad, an iron-tipped instrument attached to a long shaft used to goad the ox as it plows. It is defined in:
Wilson, William. Wilson’s Old Testament Word Studies. (McLean: Macdonald Publishing Co.), 195:
A goad, by which bullocks in the waggons or plough were disciplined or made accustomed to labor; a stout stick, with an iron point at one end.
A synonym of malmad appears in two other passages:
1 Samuel 13:21 - So all Israel went down to the Philistines, each to sharpen his plowshare, his mattocks, his axe, and his hoe.
v 22 - And the charge was two-thirds of a shekel for the plowshares, the mattocks, the forks, and the axes, and to fix the hoes.
Ecclesiastes 12:11 - The words of wise men are like goads, and masters of these collections are like well-driven nails; they are given by one Shepherd.
The Hebrew word translated “hoes” in 1 Samuel 13:21 and “goads” in Ecclesiastes 12:11 is the noun dorbona / dor BONE ah / and its definition emphasizes the concept of disciplining and training draught animals:
Wilson, Wilson’s Old Testament Word Studies, 195:
In ploughing they use goads eight feet long, and six inches about the thicker end: at the smaller end they are armed with a sharp prickle for driving the oxen; at the other end, with a little spade or paddle, strong and massy, for cleaning the plough.
Now let’s go back and take a look at a verse and a word we have already noted:
1 Samuel 2:29 - ‘Why do you [ Eli the high priest ] kick at My sacrifice and at My offering which I have commanded in My dwelling …?’
The word for “kick” is ba‘at / bah-AT /. We again go to Wilson’s for our definition:
To trample under foot; metaphorically, to kick, as an ox; figuratively, of obstinacy and rebellion against God.
Consequently, we can see that the writers of Scripture were aware of the tendency of draught animals to kick against the goad of the driver and they used it as a metaphor to describe rebellion against divine will.
A draught animal, left to his own inclinations, will drift and wander away from the furrow being ploughed. In order to keep him in the desired row, the farmer will apply the goad to his hindquarters. Whenever the animal would begin to stray, the farmer would nudge him back in line with a prick from the goad.
It was not uncommon for the ox to kick against the goad but such action usually proved not only futile but also harmful. The farmer would simply push the goad more deeply into the animal’s flesh until it complied.
This method of training a draught animal to pull a straight furrow by narrowing his options became the source of the Hebrew and later the Greek metaphor, “kicking against the goads.”
Isagogics of the Metaphor:
This metaphor was used by Greek classic dramatist Aeschylus in his play Prometheus Bound. It is the story of how Prometheus was disciplined by Zeus for stealing fire from the gods and giving it to man. In the play, Prometheus is taken by Hephaestus to a rock in a deep gorge and chained there for his crime. Subsequently, the god Oceanus came to counsel him. We pick up the narrative where Prometheus says to Oceanus:
Aeschylus. Prometheus Bound. In Great Books of the Western World, edited by Robert Maynard Hutchins, vol. 5, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes. (Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1952), 43:
Prometheus. How now? Who greets me? What! Are you too come to gaze upon my woes? Come you to be spectator of my evil lot and fellow sympathizer with my woes?
Oceanus. Prometheus, all too plainly I behold: and for the best would counsel you: Learn to know your heart, and, as the times, so let your manners change, for by the law of change a new God rules. But, if these bitter, savage, sharp-set words you vent, it may be, though he sit throned far off and high above you, Zeus will hear; and then your present multitude of ills will seem the mild correction of a babe. Rather, O you much chastened one, refrain your anger, and from suffering seek release. Stale, peradventure, seem these words of mine: Nevertheless, of a too haughty tongue such punishment, Prometheus, is the wage. But you, not yet brought low by suffering, to what you have of ill would add far worse. Therefore, while you have me for schoolmaster, you shall not kick against the goads.
The message from Oceanus to Prometheus is that you can’t fight against the gods. Once their discipline is imposed it becomes useless and even harmful to fight against them just as it is often useless for a draught animal to kick against the goading of the farmer.
There were three dramatists who were considered the first of the original Greek classic playwrights. The other two were Sophocles and Euripides.
Euripides also used this metaphor in his play The Bacchantes. The two characters we will quote are Dionysus and Pentheus. Pentheus doesn’t believe Dionysus is one of the gods and Dionysus is upset about it.
In order to set this up we need a little background information and we consult:
Grant, Michael and John Hazel. God and Mortals in Classical Mythology. (New York: Dorset Press, 1979), 118-19:
Dionysus or Bacchus was the god of wine and of ecstatic liberation … also known as Bromius. Those who refused to accept his divinity often persecuted Dionysus.
At Thebes … Dionysus had to deal with his cousin Pentheus who … refused to accept Dionysus’ divinity. This struggle is the theme of Euripides’ play The Bacchantes. Dionysus came to Thebes in the form of a handsome young man. Through his powers he infected the women of the city and made them take to the slopes of Mount Cithaeron / Sah-THE-ran / in Bacchic frenzy.
A messenger informs Pentheus of the goings on at the sacred mountain, which includes stories of supernatural power imposed by these demon-possessed women against the wild animals of the area. Pentheus assumes these women to be a threat to Thebes and orders a military mobilization. The resultant dialogue with Dionysus is pertinent to our study.
Euripides. The Bacchantes,op.cit., 346:
Pentheus: Order a muster of all my men-at-arms, of those that mount fleet steeds, of all who brandish light bucklers, of archers too that make the bowstring twang; for I will march against the Bacchanals. By heaven! this passes all, if we are to be thus treated by women.
Dionysus. Still obdurate, O Pentheus, after hearing my words! In spite of all the evil treatment I am enduring from you, still I warn you of the sin of bearing arms against a god, and bid you cease; for Bromius (one of Dionysus’ aliases) will not endure you driving his votaries from the mountains where they revel.
Pentheus. A truce to your preaching to me! you have escaped my bonds, preserve your liberty; else will I renew your punishment.
Dionysus. I would rather do him (Bromius) sacrifice than in a fury kick against the goads; you a mortal, he a god.
In these two examples we see the historical development of what was to become a famous Greek metaphor describing the futility of challenging the will of the gods.
The effort of doing so was compared to the futility of a draught animal kicking against the goads of his driver thus causing, in addition to failure, increased pain.
Many biblical commentators assume that the origin of this metaphor was in the plays of fifth-century b.c. Greek dramatists Aeschylus and Euripides.
But we have seen from several passages of Old Testament Scripture that writers such as Moses, Samuel, and Solomon used the concept to illustrate rebellion against the God of Israel.
Nevertheless, the Greek word used by these two dramatists is the noun kšntron / kentron /:
Liddell, Henry George and Robert Scott. A Greek-English Lexicon. 9th ed. (Chicago: Oxford University Press, 1940), 939:
Any sharp point; the point of a weapon; to prick, stab, puncture, or punish; the sting of bees or scorpions, the spur of a cock, the quill of the porcupine; an ox-goad; horse-goad; a symbol of sovereignty; goad, spur, incentive.
The figurative or metaphorical uses of the word can take two directions: pain or torment or inspiration and incentive.
When the goad brings pain it means that the individual has deviated from the desired path and corrective action is sought.
Arrogant reaction results in kicking against the goads in order to continue the alternate course in opposition to divine will.
Thus, those who possess a goad have the power to impose pain on their subjects. They also either posses the intrinsic authority to do this or have been delegated it by a higher power and authority.
Kittel, Gerhard (ed.). Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. Translated by Geoffrey W. Bromiley. Vol. 3. (Grand Rapids: W. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1965), 664:
kšntron / kentron /: The proverbial saying “kick against the goads” (is) an expression of futile and detrimental resistance to a stronger power, whether it be that of a god, of destiny, or of man.
With this isagogical background into the development of this term in Greek culture, we now turn to its use by our Lord in Scripture.