What Does a Bull Symbolize in the Bible?

Throughout the Bible, bulls and oxen are mentioned over 500 times. These powerful animals were essential for agriculture and food in ancient Israelite society. Beyond their practical uses, bulls and oxen took on symbolic meaning in biblical texts and prophecy. For Evangelical and Charismatic Christians seeking a deeper understanding of Scripture, examining the symbolism of bulls in the Bible can enrich spiritual study and reflection.

Key Takeaways:

  • Bulls symbolized strength, fertility, and provision for Israel’s agricultural society.
  • The golden calves set up by Israel’s kings were sinful idolatry against God.
  • Sacrificing bulls and oxen represented atonement for sins under the Mosaic covenant.
  • The bronze bulls of Solomon’s temple and tabernacle underscored God’s power and glory.
  • Metaphorical references to bulls and oxen emphasized obedience, patience, and service.
  • Prophetic visions transformed bull imagery into symbols of spiritual warfare and judgment.
  • Jesus is the fulfillment of the Bull sacrifices, the new covenant that supersedes animal offerings.
What Does a Bull Symbolize in the Bible?

A Staple of Ancient Agricultural Life

Throughout the ancient Near East and Mediterranean regions, domesticated cattle were essential to daily life. As a beast of burden, the ox pulled plows and transported goods. Bulls served reproductive purposes, while cows gave milk and bulls could be butchered for meat. Cattle dung provided fuel for fires. For nomadic peoples and settled agriculturists alike, cattle were a valuable commodity and resource.

The Bible reflects how intrinsic cattle, especially bulls and oxen, were to ancient Israelite society. Over 500 references to bulls and oxen appear, far exceeding mentions of any other animal. Biblical words translated as bull or ox include שׁוֹר shor, בָּקָר baqar, אֶגְלָה eglah, פַּר par, and more. The central role of bulls in Israelite livestock agriculture courses through the biblical texts.

Several Hebrew words for bull convey the strength and fertility associated with these beasts. Par, often referring specifically to bull calves, derives from the verb פָּרָה (parah) meaning to be fruitful. Shor derives from שׁוּר (shur), to turn, travel, or rove. The bull’s ability to plow fields and fertilize cows underscored its value in ancient societies. As a premier example of livestock, the bull epitomized wealth, sturdiness, and agricultural bounty.

The Sin of the Golden Calves

Given the cultural importance of bulls, it becomes clearer why idolatrous statues in the form of bulls, calves, or oxen arose across Near East religions. The fertility cults of Canaan worshipped bull deities like Baal. For the ancient mindset, worshipping an image containing the strength of a bull transferred those attributes to the idol.

But Scripture expressly forbids any figurative representation of God, let alone images having connections to pagan fertility rites. The second commandment prohibits making idols and bowing down to worship them (Exodus 20:4-6). Yet Aaron and Jeroboam I infamously violated this command by setting up golden calves for Israel to worship instead of the LORD:

And he received the gold from their hand, and he fashioned it with an engraving tool, and made a molded calf. Then they said, “This is your god, O Israel, that brought you out of the land of Egypt!” (Exodus 32:4 NKJV)

Then the king took counsel and made two calves of gold, and said to the people, “It is too much for you to go up to Jerusalem. Here are your gods, O Israel, which brought you up from the land of Egypt!” (1 Kings 12:28 NKJV)

These iconic sins in Israel’s history forever associated the calf and bull image with idolatry. While the people intended to worship Yahweh through these idols, Scripture condemns their actions as adultery and prostitution (Exodus 32:1-8, 1 Kings 12:25-33). Using manmade images to represent the LORD insulted and defiled God’s glory. The metallic bulls became synonymous with Israel’s disobedience and covenant breaking.

Atonement Offerings

To teach Israel the cost of sin before a holy God, the Mosaic covenant instituted animal sacrifices for atonement. Bulls and oxen were among the acceptable sacrificial animals. Leviticus outlines five major categories of offerings:

  • Burnt Offering – A bull without blemish sacrificed and burnt whole on the altar (Leviticus 1:3-9). This atoned for sin broadly and expressed total dedication to God.
  • Grain Offering – Fine flour mixed with oil and frankincense, with no leaven or honey (Leviticus 2:1-3). Accompanied burnt and fellowship offerings.
  • Fellowship Offering – A bull or other animal, with the fat burned on the altar and the meat eaten in communion (Leviticus 3:1-5). Expressed fellowship between God, priest, and worshipper.
  • Sin Offering – A bull offered in restitution for specific unintentional sins (Leviticus 4:1-21). Brought atonement and cleansing from sin.
  • Guilt Offering – A ram sacrificed in compensation for intentional sin and trespass against God (Leviticus 5:14-26, 7:1-7). Included restitution payment plus one-fifth fine.

Bulls and oxen qualified for the burnt, fellowship, and sin offerings. By sacrificing valuable livestock assets, Israelites graphically acknowledged their sins had earned death and separation from the holy God.

On the Day of Atonement, Israel’s highest holy day, the priest offered a bull as a sin offering for himself and his household (Leviticus 16:6, 11-14). Then two male goats were chosen; one was sacrificed to atone for the people’s sins, while the scapegoat (meaning “escape goat”) was released into the wilderness, symbolically carrying those sins away. Bulls and goats served as substitutionary atonement to demonstrate the gravity of sin before God.

Signs of God’s Presence and Glory

Not all mentions of bulls and oxen in Scripture concern idolatry and sacrifice for sin. Positive symbolic meanings emerge in descriptions of the tabernacle and temple, where images of bulls testified to God’s majesty and glory.

When crafting the tabernacle under Moses, the artisan Bezalel constructed a portable bronze altar overlaid with brass bulls:

He made the altar of burnt offering of acacia wood; five cubits was its length and five cubits its width—it was square—and its height was three cubits. He made its horns on its four corners; the horns were of one piece with it. And he overlaid it with bronze. He made all the utensils for the altar: the pans, the shovels, the basins, the forks, and the firepans; all its utensils he made of bronze. (Exodus 38:1-3 NKJV)

The horns of the altar symbolized the power and protection of the blood sacrifices made there. Bull horns likewise signify strength and victory throughout Scripture (Psalm 92:10, Luke 1:69).

When Solomon constructed the first temple in Jerusalem centuries later, he integrated bronze bulls and lions into the temple furnishings:

And King Solomon sent and brought Hiram from Tyre. He was the son of a widow from the tribe of Naphtali, and his father was a man of Tyre, a bronze worker; he was filled with wisdom and understanding and skill in working with all kinds of bronze work. So he came to King Solomon and did all his work… He cast two pillars of bronze. Eighteen cubits was the height of one pillar, and a line of twelve cubits measured the circumference of both. (1 Kings 7:13-15, 15 NKJV)

And he made the Sea of cast bronze, ten cubits from one brim to the other; it was completely round. Its height was five cubits, and a line of thirty cubits measured its circumference. Below its brim were ornamental buds encircling it all around, ten to a cubit, all the way around the Sea. The ornamental buds were cast in two rows when it was cast… It stood on twelve oxen: three looking toward the north, three looking toward the west, three looking toward the south, and three looking toward the east; the Sea was set upon them, and all their back parts pointed inward. (1 Kings 7:23-25, 25 NKJV)

These detailed descriptions communicate how the temple implement design integrated bull and oxen imagery as symbols of Yahweh’s divine presence. The skillful bronze work of these statues testified to the majesty, creativity, and glory of Israel’s God. The images vividly present in the temple reminded worshippers of God’s strength and sovereignty.

Metaphors for Obedience and Service

Beyond their roles in literal agricultural work and religious ritual, bulls and oxen supplied useful metaphors for spiritual virtues. Their strength and stamina inspired comparisons to steadfast service to God.

Moses envisioned the blessings awaiting faithful obedience to the covenant:

“Therefore you shall keep the commandments of the Lord your God, to walk in His ways and to fear Him. For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land… a land in which you will eat bread without scarcity, in which you will lack nothing… When you have eaten and are full, then you shall bless the Lord your God for the good land which He has given you.” (Deuteronomy 8:1, 7-8, 10 NKJV)

The prosperity described here echoes the hardworking bull tilling the blessed land:

“Blessed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl…Blessed shall you be when you come in, and blessed shall you be when you go out.” (Deuteronomy 28:5-6 NKJV)

In contrast, disobedience curses the labor:

“Cursed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl.” (Deuteronomy 28:17 NKJV)

This curse indicates scarcity and lack, like a bull without strength to plow the fields.

The stubbornness of oxen also supplied a metaphor for ignorance and rebellion against God. Recalling Israel’s idolatry with the golden calves, Hosea lamented:

“For Israel is stubborn, like a stubborn calf.” (Hosea 4:16 NKJV)

Yet God displayed patience and sustained mercy:

“I will correct you in justice, and will not let you go altogether unpunished.” (Jeremiah 46:28 NKJV)

Likewise, the apostle Paul pleaded with the Corinthians using the metaphor of an ox obediently plowing when prodded:

“For it is written in the law of Moses, ‘You shall not muzzle an ox while it treads out the grain.’ Is it oxen God is concerned about? Or does He say it altogether for our sakes? For our sakes, no doubt, this is written, that he who plows should plow in hope, and he who threshes in hope should be partaker of his hope.” (1 Corinthians 9:9-10 NKJV)

Here, the faithful persistence of the ox under its burden encourages persevering service in ministry, all while trusting God to provide.

Apocalyptic Judgment and Deliverance

In the prophetic and apocalyptic writings, bulls emerge in striking symbolic visions that inspire awe of God’s power to save or destroy.

The psalmist describes God as riding the heavens to help like a mighty bull:

“For He rode upon a cherub, and flew; and He was seen upon the wings of the wind.” (Psalm 18:10 NKJV)

“Sing praises to the Lord, O you His saints, and give thanks at the remembrance of His holy name. For His anger is but for a moment, His favor is for life; weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning.” (Psalm 30:4-5 NKJV)

This triumphant bull delivers the faithful and destroys the wicked.

Ezekiel’s visions expand apocalyptic bull imagery as representatives of angelic beings and the judgement of God:

As for the likeness of their faces, each had the face of a man; each of the four had the face of a lion on the right side, each of the four had the face of an ox on the left side, and each of the four had the face of an eagle. (Ezekiel 1:10 NKJV)

And this was their appearance: they had the likeness of a man. Each one had four faces, and each one had four wings. The legs of each living creature were straight, and the soles of their feet were like the soles of calves’ feet. They sparkled like the color of burnished bronze. (Ezekiel 1:5-7 NKJV)

The fantastic bull-like angels enact God’s word, emitting judgement like lightning:

Then I looked, and behold, a whirlwind was coming out of the north, a great cloud with raging fire engulfing itself; and brightness was all around it and radiating out of its midst like the color of amber, out of the midst of the fire. Also from within it came the likeness of four living creatures. And this was their appearance: they had the likeness of a man. Each one had four faces, and each one had four wings. (Ezekiel 1:4-6 NKJV)

Through these symbolic visions, the prophets call God’s people to repentance before imminent divine judgement and purification. The apocalyptic bulls represent both warning and hope of deliverance for the faithful.

Fulfilled in Christ

For Christians, all the complex symbolism of bulls in biblical prophecy comes into focus and fulfillment in Jesus Christ. As the final, perfect sacrifice to atone for human sin once for all, Jesus’ substitutionary death supplants the repetitive animal sacrifice system (Hebrews 10:1-18). No longer must bulls and goats shed blood day after day to temporarily cover sins. Christ’s blood eternally reconciles repentant believers to God.

Not only is Christ’s sacrifice superior to past ones; he transcends the weakness of every earthly priest, prophet and king. As the divine Son in human flesh, Jesus exceeds the sinful human nature of all previous leaders. He alone qualifies to mediate the new covenant between God and humanity through his sinless life, sacrificial death, and victory over death in resurrection (Hebrews 4:14-16, 7:26-28).

By participating in Christ’s sacrifice and resurrection through faith, Christians gain assurance of eternal salvation in God’s presence. Mere animal sacrifices could never fully bridge the gulf of sin separating humanity from the holy Creator. Only God incarnate in Christ could atone for sin and defeat death itself. All the intricacies of Old Testament law and ritual anticipate and prefigure God’s redemptive plan through Jesus. He fulfills what the temple sacrifices and relics like bronze bulls could only faintly represent under the old covenant.

In Christ, the visions of apocalyptic bulls executing divine judgement are tempered by God’s mercy. Believers need not fear the threatening side of biblical bull imagery but trust in their Savior’s goodness. For Jesus sacrificed himself to spare his followers the calamity of final judgment for sin. Just as the sacrificial bulls bore the sins of Israel, now the Lamb of God bears the sins of the world (John 1:29). His blood protects those covered by it from the wrath reflected in the startling visionary bulls of Scripture.

For Christians, bull imagery provides a rich dimension of biblical study culminating in Christ. As the fulfillment of prophecy, he unlocks the mysterious symbolism. Meditating on how every mentioning of bulls ultimately connects to Jesus and God’s redemptive plan yields rewarding revelation. Like the apostle Paul wrote:

“For whatever things were written before were written for our learning, that we through the patience and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope.” (Romans 15:4 NKJV)

May this survey of bull symbolism in the Bible provide edification for the people of God today. Let these glimpses of sacrificial bulls offer insight into both the severity of sin and the goodness of the Savior.

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