Cow Paths and Ruts of Righteousness
Brad Scott from Wildbranch Ministries made a Biblical discovery that he has titled Agri-Bio-Linguistics. He observes that God uses the concepts of agriculture and biology quite consistently throughout the Bible as metaphorical teaching tools. Comparisons and illustrations based on the activities and functions of both agriculture and biology can add another dimension to understanding the larger picture intended for a particular word. This method also adds a layer of stability and consistency to God's timeless truths in the Scriptures, considering that neither agriculture or biology has changed much since the beginning of time.
One example that Brad gives in his teaching is the next portion of Scripture that contains all three elements summed up in one verse.
. . . man (biology) shall not live by bread (agriculture) alone; but man lives by every word (language) that proceeds from the mouth of the Lord.
— Deuteronomy 8:3
The comparison of the natural biological man's need for sustenance being satisfied with bread, a product of agriculture, is made with our spiritual lives needing to be sustained by the truths of God's Word.
This method can be found in the Hebrew language with words that are spelled the same. Many times there is a relationship between the two. The one, frequently, illustrates the other, as opposed to the English language, where we have several words that are spelled the same but have entirely different meanings and are in no way related. For example, the term "bat" can be something you hit a baseball with, or it can be a nocturnal flying rodent. There is no relationship between these two words and their definitions.
How this works in Hebrew can be seen in the Hebrew words for "liver" and "glory." Both are spelled the same. The qualities of a liver can explain what glory is like, in that, it is the heaviest, and one of the most necessary, organs in the human body. We can, therefore, understand that glory comes with the attributes of something considered very weighty and significant. Weight in the ancient world was also associated with value.
To glorify God, therefore, would require us to ascribe weight, value, and consider Him our necessity.
Mr. Scott gives a specific example based on the following familiar portion of Scripture that I thought was profound.
He leads me in the paths (cycles, tracks, courses, or ruts—"magal" מַעְגָּל) of righteousness for His name’s sake.
— Psalm 23:3
He explains how life, according to the Bible, isn't linear but cyclical. Life, instead, follows specific patterns and paths in keeping with this word's definition.
The root word of "magal" מַעְגָּל meaning "path" (cycles, tracks, courses, or ruts) used in the twenty-third Psalm, is "agal" עֵ֫גֶל which means calf. Notice that the spelling of the two words is the same minus the first letter of "magal," which is a "mem."
"Mem" is many times used as a prefix. When "Mem" is used in this way, it adds the idea of "conceived from" in connection with the root word. Therefore, the concept of a path, in this case, will be conceived from the habits of a calf or cow. Biology, in the form of cow behaviors, will be used to deepen our understanding of this particular word translated "path."
The Cow Path Theory
You might ask, "what does a cow have to do with track cycle or rut?"
After a bit of research, I discovered that there is actually a theory called the "Cow Path Theory" It is used predominantly in the description of getting stuck in a loop of the familiar. "stuck in a rut" as one might say. This phrase was coined based on actual cow behavior.
According to a Texas farmer.
"Cows are creatures of habit and set in firm behavioral patterns. Where they walk, graze and sleep and is similar from year to year"
— (UPC) party
Cows will follow a familiar path that connects them with their most base needs which are food and water. Even if you try to get them to go a new and easier way they prefer the familiar.
Get Stuck in a Good Rut
We tend to think that ruts and patterns of behavior in a negative sense. But we can see from this description that God wants to lead us in cycles courses and ruts of righteousness. What if righteousness was our habit and the pattern of living that we grew so familiar with we did not want to go any other way?
A contrast in Scripture shows us the two types of ruts, both positive and negative. These are demonstrated in Proverbs chapter two. This portion of Scripture also shows us how to get into the paths and ruts of righteousness by seeking wisdom from God.
My son, if you
- receive my words, And
- treasure my commands within you, So that you
- incline your ear to wisdom, And
- apply your heart to understanding Yes, if you
- cry out for discernment, And
- lift up your voice for understanding, If you
- seek her as silver, And
- search for her as for hidden treasures;
Then you will understand the fear of the Lord, And find the knowledge of God For the Lord gives wisdom; From His mouth come knowledge and understanding; He stores up sound wisdom for the upright; He is a shield to those who walk uprightly; He guards the paths of justice, And preserves the way of His saints.Then you will understand righteousness and justice, Equity and every good path (ruts, cycles, and courses).
— Proverbs 2:1-9
This portion of Proverbs clearly shows us, in highly repetitious language, how the good rut is made. (more on repetition later). The writer of Proverbs continues to show us the results of the ruts of wisdom and righteousness. It also shows the ruts of unrighteousness or darkness.
- the man who speaks perverse things,
- From those who leave the paths of uprightness To walk in the ways of darkness;
- Who rejoice in doing evil,
- And delight in the perversity of the wicked;
- Whose ways are crooked,
- And who are devious in their paths (ruts, cycles, and courses);
— Proverbs 2:10-15
Leading domestic calves in a good path involves teaching them to be led.
Teach me to do Your will, For You are my God; Your Spirit is good. Lead me in the land of uprightness.
— Psalm 143:10
I live in a rural area where gravel roads are often prone to deep ruts, especially after they soften from rain or snow. The more traffic going into a rut makes it even deeper.
This example illustrates what happens in our hearts and minds as it concerns habits and patterns good or bad in our thoughts and behaviors.
Driving through ruts isn't exactly a pleasant experience in a vehicle when the grooves seem to grab your tires and pull you into them. Still, the writer of Proverbs chapter two, used in the above section, assures us that once God's ways have cut their paths in our hearts, habitually, it will be pleasant to our souls and keep us in the right ways.
When wisdom enters your heart, And knowledge is pleasant to your soul, Discretion will . . .
- preserve you; Understanding will
- keep you, To
- deliver you from the way of evil,
— Proverbs 2:14
Video Explaining How Ruts Work In a Backwards Bike Riding Experience
Ruts of the Mind and Heart
Like the soft gravel, Our brains are quite soft and plastic. Neuropathways (ruts, trenches, and courses) form through the repetition of thought, experience, and behavior.
Sue Stebbins from Successivewaves.com gives us a complete explanation.
"The word “neuroplasticity” is used to describe the pliability of our neuropathways. Neuropathways are formed through practice and repetition. For instance, if you play the piano, the movements that your fingers make to create certain notes become faster and more fluid with practice. This is because the repetitious movements of practice are forming grooves or pathways in the brain. Think of these pathways as streams of running water. The longer the water flows in a certain pattern, the more worn that groove or pathway becomes. This eventually causes the water to naturally follow through the grooves it has created in the soil. When you repeat certain thoughts and actions enough, the brain comes to expect them and creates grooves to move them along more smoothly. This is also known as muscle memory."
The Expanded Bible gives us an excellent translation of a portion of Psalm 65 that supports the above description.
You send rain to the plowed fields; you fill the rows with water [level its ridges] You soften the ground with rain, and then you bless it with crops. You crown the year with your goodness, your tracks/ruts drip with plenty.
— Psalm 65:10-11
God wants us to turn our hearts from the ruts and cycles of sin and defeat and establish us in new grooves, patterns, and cycles of righteousness and victory.
. . . be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God
— Romans 12:2
Luke refers to this in chapter three of his gospel concerning the call to repent by John the Baptist. Repent means to turn around from an old path or way and go in a different direction. John the baptist illustrates and compares this concept with the changes of a landscape as he quotes a passage from the book of Isaiah. As you read the following passage, think in terms of the landscape of your mind being remodeled.
‘Prepare the way of the Lord; Make His paths straight Every valley shall be exalted And every mountain and hill brought low; The crooked places shall be made straight And the rough places smooth.
— Isaiah 40:4
Hebrew Word Pictograph—Mem
The pictograph for the Hebrew word "magal" meaning "path," "rut," or "cycle" is in agreement with these concepts and adds some more in-depth insights and details for us that illustrate the essential elements of God's leading us in "paths of righteousness."
The first letter of "magal" (path) is a "mem" and is represented by an image of water or ocean waves and can communicate the idea of depth. This icon is fitting with the idea that God wants to deeply ingrain our hearts and minds with patterns and habits of righteousness.
Deep calls unto deep at the noise of Your waterfalls; All Your waves and billows have gone over me.
— Psalm 42:7
Macrocosmically speaking, the natural world gives us an exhibit of this with the earth's most massive bodies of water. Oceans have paths in them that will illustrate what this looks like.
Matthew Maury, nicknamed "Pathfinder of the seas," was considered the father of oceanography. He discovered "the paths of the seas" based upon this exact phrase found in Psalm chapter eight.
What is man that You are mindful of him. . . You have made him to have dominion over the works of Your hands. You have put all things under his feet . . . The birds of the air, And the fish of the sea that pass through the paths of the seas.
When he read this verse, he made it his mission to discover the paths in the ocean as described in the Bible. Scientists discovered that there are wind circuits along with cold and warm currents of water that affect how ships move across the sea. This revelation led to the use of these paths as natural highways for the shipping industry. These paths are still being used today.
Currents move in a specific direction in the ocean and also affect global weather patterns just like currents of sin or righteousness can pull us in particular directions and influence the events and atmospheres of our lives.
The wind causes surface currents to move in a spiral pattern, imaging the Holy Spirit, setting us in motions of cyclical patterns of righteousness.
. . . the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters
— Genesis 1:2
Ocean currents are known to powerfully pull whatever gets in their path the same way a rut on the road will. Shipping companies will use and follow these paths to cut on fuel costs or avoid them if they are contrary to the direction they wish to go.
"Mem," as it refers to this word, also visualizes something set in motion. Think of the regularity of tides or even the momentum of moving water that can set a tsunami in unstoppable motion. God wants to set in motion unstoppable waves and patterns of righteousness.
The following Scriptural example shows us how sin can form ruts in us that lead us to death. The writer of James uses conception and birthing as metaphors for the lesson.
. . . each one is tempted when he is drawn away by (the rut of) his own desires and enticed. Then, when desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, brings forth death.
— James 1:14-15
"Ayin" is the second letter of the Hebrew word "magal" and is a picture of an eye communicating the concepts of perception, knowing, and experiencing.
We see the first recorded departure from the rut of righteousness, to the trench of sin, recorded in Genesis involving seeing, knowing, and experiencing.
. . . when the woman saw (see) that the tree was good for food, that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree desirable to make one wise (know), she took of its fruit and ate (experienced).
— Genesis 3:6
Vision is valuable to the patterns and cycles of righteousness. The ability to see the goodness of God and His intentions is vital to the righteous path. It was for the joy set before Him that Jesus endured the cross (Heb 12)
Where there is no vision, the people cast off restraint.
— Proverbs 29:18
Seeing with spiritual eyes is truly the key to the goal of living in patterns of righteousness as we look unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith as our goal.
. . . let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.
— Hebrews 12:1-2
Running a race requires staying on the designated path with an eye on the prize.
The value of sight in living the spiritual life (path) is described In an article written by George Davis and Michael Clark titled "Spiritual Sight."
"The eye is the chief channel of information for man. Of all the five senses, sight is the most highly valued. Sight is the key to knowledge. What you cannot conceptualize, you cannot understand. Both in the natural life and in the spiritual life, seeing precedes knowledge."1
Knowledge precedes doing and living. If you can't see it, you won't know it, and you won't do it.
Jesus scolded His disciples for their inability to "see" the spiritual application of His warning to beware of the hypocritical path of ritualized self-perceived righteousness that puffed up the Pharisees. Bread puffed up from leaven illustrates how sin and pride puff up in appearance but doesn't add substance.
Jesus, being aware of it, said to them, “Why do you reason because you have no bread? Do you not yet.
- perceive nor
Is your heart still hardened?Having
- eyes, do you not
And having ears, do you not hear? And do you not remember?
— Mark 8:17-18
Experiencing, knowing, and seeing His goodness are essential elements in the process of being entrenched in His ways. The eye illustrates this concept.
"Gimel," the third letter of the Hebrew word for path, is a picture of a camel and carries the visual of journeying, walking, circling, or rolling, all characteristic behavior of a camel.
These described actions of a camel are where the concept of repetitiveness is displayed in our study of the word for "path." Camels are known for rolling in the sand as a way to cool off and relax. Interestingly, they have specific places that they frequent, showing us an established pattern.
Walking in and of itself, mechanically speaking, is a movement pattern using rotary (rolling or revolving) motion, Walking is about the way we live.
Blessed are the undefiled in the way, Who walk in the law of the Lord!
— Psalm 119:1
Relative to children, repetition is essential in training them according to the ways of a household. It can be frustrating attempting to get a little one to get into the family's ruts, habits, and patterns of living. But sticking with it and understanding that the repetition of doing something over and over again until it becomes apart of their pattern, course, and cycle, is all a necessary process in learning and forming good and right habits. And so it is with us all. I get frustrated with myself at times, as well, in how many times it takes me to learn specific lessons. But this revelation shows me that God is continually leading me in ruts of righteousness through repetition of trying over and over again as I diligently seek Him.
Uphold my steps in Your paths (ruts, cycles, and courses) That my footsteps may not slip.
— Psalm 17:5
Gimel, the third letter of the Hebrew Aleph-Bet, is also representative of the Holy Spirit. This letter's position may indicate to us that the journey of walking and living in ruts of righteousness is a work of the Holy Spirit. Walking this way is in cooperation and in concert with our receiving His Words, treasuring His commands, inclining our ears, applying our hearts, crying out for discernment lifting up our voice for understanding, seeking, and searching according to the preacher in Proverbs 2:6-9.
Teach me to do Your will, For You are my God; Your Spirit is good.
Lead me in the land of uprightness.
— Psalm 143:10
"Lamed," the final letter of this study, is illustrated by a shepherd staff or ox goad depicting the idea of leading, instruction, and teaching.
Psalm 23:1 depicts the Lord as our "Shepherd" who satisfies and leads us beside still waters and into paths (ruts, cycles, and patterns) of righteousness.
The ruts of sin and self-led lives are never satisfying or calm. They are, instead, insatiable and tumultuous, as described by Peter when he addressed false teachers whose sin was the foundation of their lives on the path of personal profit rather than the glory and love of God.
. . . they cannot cease from sin . . . They have a heart trained in covetous practices, and are accursed children.They have forsaken the right way and gone astray, following the way of Balaam the son of Beor, who loved the wages of unrighteousness.
— II Peter 2:14
Correction and discipline are included in this concept of the letter "lamed," pictured by the shepherd staff. These are essential elements that help to form the grooves of righteousness that keep us in the right paths.
Harsh discipline is for him who forsakes the way, And he who hates correction will die.
— Proverbs 15:10.
What Happens When We Get Off Track
One Sunday after church, my husband and I noticed there was a Saddle Club competition at our local fairgrounds. We decided to stop in and watch for a while.
One of the challenges was; the horse, under the direction of its rider, had to weave through six poles and back. The idea was to keep a serpentine pattern without knocking over the poles and to do it in the shortest amount of time possible.
I noticed a couple of times that on the way back, the horse would lose the pattern. If that happened, the rider would back the horse up to the point of the mistake and make it complete the pattern correctly.
This type of correction is a great life lesson for us all in keeping God's patterns. When we lose the pattern, we many times are tempted just to keep going and forget about it, but if we want to develop those good habits, we need to go back to the point of our misstep and do it over again correctly.
This example reminds me of how we do things in our family sometimes, with both children and adult, We might ask for a do-over if we acted or reacted poorly in a given situation.
It has been displayed in Psalm 23:3 that God's leading us in paths (ruts, courses, patterns, and cycles) of righteousness for His name's sake is a positive and rewarding path. A cow's behavior illustrates following a familiar way that leads to what it understands to be positive rewards. "Positive" seems like such an inadequate word to describe the incredible reward we receive for submitting to the Lord's directives in following and being familiar with His ways and paths.
The Hebrew Word pictographs, taken together, illustrated for us that God wishes to re-landscape our lives by creating new paths, patterns, and habits that draw us into waves and cycles of His goodness and victory through vision (goals), repetition, and discipline.
Blessed is the man Who walks not in the counsel of the ungodly, Nor stands in the path of sinners, Nor sits in the seat of the scornful But his delight is in the law of the Lord, And in His law he meditates day and night. He shall be like a tree Planted by the rivers of water, That brings forth its fruit in its season, Whose leaf also shall not wither; And whatever he does shall prosper.
— Psalm 1:1-3
A final quote from the movie "The End of the Spear":
“We acted badly, badly until they brought us God’s carvings. Now we walk His trail.”
— Mincaye, a Waodani tribal elder whose tribe, before knowing Christ, speared and killed the missionaries who came to save them through the preaching of the Gospel.
Credits and Sources
© 2013 Tamarajo