3.2.3 Ram: The Leader of the Flock
Volume 3: Living Symbols—Chapter 2.3
Ram: The Leader of the Flock
Perhaps because all of the Torah sacrifices were ultimately fulfilled in the death of Yahshua the Messiah, rams aren’t specifically mentioned in the New Testament. But because the Instructions differentiate between sheep (or lambs) and rams, so shall we. The word used in the vast majority of cases to describe a ram is the Hebrew ’ayil, a male sheep, one with horns (which in themselves represent authority). The word is also used to figuratively denote the role a ram plays within its flock: a leader, ruler, one who governs. And this is the key to its Biblical symbology when comparing a ram to a male lamb—who are, after all, the same kind of animal. The ram is mature, aggressive, and protective. It is the fulfillment of the promise, the realization of the potential of the lamb.
The difference between the lamb and the ram is thus the key to the dichotomy between the “suffering servant” and the “reigning king” in Messianic prophesies. The same Messiah is in view, but each manifestation has a different role, a different function. This, of course, is the primary stumbling block of Judaism: they can’t seem to understand that these “two” Messianic profiles picture the same Person. Knowing that God is Eternal Spirit (which He is), they can’t (or won’t) countenance the idea that He chose to manifest Himself as a mortal human in order to walk among us and sacrifice Himself on our behalf. In terms germane to our present subject, they look at the little lamb and just can’t picture him as the leader of the flock. Just give him a few years, gentlemen. The next time you see that helpless, innocent little ball of fuzz, he’ll be ruling the flock with a the horns of his undisputed authority.
The equivalence of the sacrificial lamb with the leader of the flock was hinted in Yahweh’s provision of a substitute offering for the life of Isaac: “And Abraham lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, behind him was a ram, caught in a thicket by his horns. And Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called the name of that place, ‘Yahweh will provide.’” (Genesis 22:13-14) Theoretically, any clean animal would have sufficed. Actually, a lamb (read: innocence) would have been a closer parallel to young Isaac as a sacrifice, and Abraham had told his son that God would provide a seh, a generic “member of the flock” for His burnt offering. So why did Yahweh provide a ram? My guess is that it had something to do with its horns—or more specifically, what they represent: authority. The record says that the ram was “caught” by its horns. And in a way, that’s precisely what drove Yahshua to the cross. It’s not that our redemption wasn’t voluntary on His part, but His authority defined His position. Being Yahweh incarnate, Yahshua had the authority to do as He pleased: no one forced Him to offer Himself up in our stead. (When He prayed to the Father, “Not My will but Yours be done,” it was like the right hand asking its own body for permission to open a door. As He had said, “I and My Father are one.”) But because Yahweh’s nature is love, Yahshua could not abandon us to our fate without violating His own character. The Messiah was thus “caught” by His own authority, constrained by His own divine character, precisely as the prophetic dress rehearsal had indicated.
This same authority, this same leadership role, is played out in the Torah’s instructions for the ordination of Israel’s priests. Moses’ brother, Aaron, was assigned the role of being the High Priest, and all of his male progeny were designated priests. We read of their initial consecration rite in Exodus 29 (instructions that were carried out in Leviticus 8), amid a lengthy discourse defining the then-new tabernacle and its service. Yahweh instructed Moses, “Now this is what you shall do to them to consecrate them [i.e., Aaron and his sons], that they may serve Me as priests. Take one bull of the herd and two rams without blemish, and unleavened bread, unleavened cakes mixed with oil, and unleavened wafers smeared with oil. You shall make them of fine wheat flour. You shall put them in one basket and bring them in the basket, and bring the bull and the two rams.” (Exodus 29:1-3) This was a complicated, multi-faceted ritual, but for now, let us merely skip ahead to what He said to do with the two rams.
As we saw with the two goats used in the rites of the Day of Atonement, the two rams here signify two different things, two separate prophetic realities. The symbol couldn’t be accurately conveyed using only one animal. “Then you shall take one of the rams, and Aaron and his sons shall lay their hands on the head of the ram, and you shall kill the ram and shall take its blood and throw it against the sides of the altar. Then you shall cut the ram into pieces, and wash its entrails and its legs, and put them with its pieces and its head, and burn the whole ram on the altar. It is a burnt offering to Yahweh. It is a pleasing aroma, an offering by fire to Yahweh….” The first ram, in emulation of Yahshua’s total, unreserved, and entirely voluntary act of self-sacrifice for our atonement, was offered as a “burnt offering,” an olah. It was to be completely consumed upon the altar of judgment, its blood splashed onto the sides of the bronze-sheathed altar as a grim visual reminder that an innocent life had been taken. Note that the priests were to lay their hands on the ram’s head before it was slain, symbolizing the transference of sin from the priests to the sacrifice.
There are similarities, but also significant differences, in the case of the second ram: “You shall take the other ram, and Aaron and his sons shall lay their hands on the head of the ram.” This, as before, indicates a transfer of guilt. But some of the blood was handled differently: “And you shall kill the ram and take part of its blood and put it on the tip of the right ear of Aaron and on the tips of the right ears of his sons, and on the thumbs of their right hands and on the great toes of their right feet, and throw the rest of the blood against the sides of the altar.”Applying the ram’s blood onto the priests’ bodies signified that what the ram represented—the leadership of the flock—was being conferred upon the priests: daubing the blood on the earlobe, thumb, and great toe meant that what they heard (and spoke), what they did, and where they went were to henceforth be a reflection of the ram’s authority within the flock. In other words, the leaders were to act like leaders—guard their communication, their works, and their walk before God and man. “Then you shall take part of the blood that is on the altar, and of the anointing oil, and sprinkle it on Aaron and his garments, and on his sons and his sons’ garments with him. He and his garments shall be holy, and his sons and his sons’ garments with him….” (Exodus 29:15-21) The priests’ garments (a subject we’ll explore in a future chapter) were to be infused with the same significance: the priests were to take their assigned roles as the spiritual leaders of Israel very seriously.
The fat of the second ram (representing the best of the offering), along with a grain offering with oil, were presented as a wave offering before Yahweh, and burnt on the altar. Then Moses was told, “You shall take the breast of the ram of Aaron’s ordination and wave it for a wave offering before Yahweh, and it shall be your portion. And you shall consecrate the breast of the wave offering that is waved and the thigh of the priests’ portion that is contributed from the ram of ordination, from what was Aaron’s and his sons. It shall be for Aaron and his sons as a perpetual due from the people of Israel, for it is a contribution. It shall be a contribution from the people of Israel from their peace offerings, their contribution to Yahweh.” (Exodus 29: 26-28) The second ram was a selem, or peace offering, and as such, portions of it were to be used as food by the priests—and by Moses himself. Thus both rams were required to communicate the idea that although Christ’s body was to be totally consumed (like the olah) in the process of attaining our redemption, it is still available for our spiritual “nourishment,” bringing to mind such provocative statements as “Whoever feeds on My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For My flesh is true food, and My blood is true drink. Whoever feeds on My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him.” (John 6:54-56) The principle applies, of course, to any Torah sacrifice that was to be eaten—whether a lamb, bull, goat, or ram. The symbolic character of the sacrificed animal was always in view, correlated with the metaphorical nature of the intended recipient. In this case, the ram (the leader of the flock) was to be eaten by the priests (those who have the privilege of serving in the presence of God)—including the High Priest (our leader, Yahshua). The point, once again, is that we believers are instructed to lead people—by our words, works, and walk—into the presence of Yahweh.
Finally, Moses was reminded of the exclusive nature of the ordination process: these things were not for just anybody who might have wanted them, but only for the sons of Aaron. “You shall take the ram of ordination and boil its flesh in a holy place. And Aaron and his sons shall eat the flesh of the ram and the bread that is in the basket in the entrance of the tent of meeting. They shall eat those things with which atonement was made at their ordination and consecration, but an outsider shall not eat of them, because they are holy….” On the other hand, since “Aaron’s sons” represent all believers in Yahweh’s plan of redemption, they actually are available to anyone. But merely wanting heaven does not make it so. “Outsiders” are defined as those who choose another path—any other path—than the one Yahweh has ordained. And what is that path? It is identified here, expressed as the place in which the priests were to eat of the ram—at the “entrance to the tent of meeting.” It will transpire in our study (if you haven’t discovered this already) that every detail of the tabernacle’s design, construction, and service points directly and unequivocally to Yahshua of Nazareth—and what He achieved on Calvary.
One final admonition: “And if any of the flesh for the ordination or of the bread remain until the morning, then you shall burn the remainder with fire. It shall not be eaten, because it is holy. Thus you shall do to Aaron and to his sons, according to all that I have commanded you.”” (Exodus 29:31-35) There is a time limit for partaking in the “ram of consecration.” It must be eaten when it’s available: there will come a time when God’s grace will go up in smoke, leaving the skeptics, the sleepers, and the victims with nothing to sustain them. Now is the day of salvation!
As we saw with the tabernacle covering of goats’ hair, there was also to be a layer made of rams’ skins: “And you shall make for the tent a covering of tanned rams’ skins.”(Exodus 26:14) This was the third of the four layers of the tabernacle covering (counting from the inside)—meaning that, as with the goat-hair layer, this stratum could not be seen when the tabernacle had been erected: it was visible neither from the inside nor the outside. The ESV translation calls these rams’ skins “tanned,” which might seem reasonable, except that the actual Hebrew word means nothing of the sort. It’s ’adam, rendered “dyed red” in most translations—an assessment that is supported by every Hebrew language resource I could lay my hands on. Baker and Carpenter’s entry is typical: “’adam: a verb meaning to be red, ruddy, dyed red. It is used to describe people (Esau, David, etc.). As for things, it describes ram skins that were dyed red and red wine. Metaphorically, this word describes sin as ‘red like crimson.’” I believe this latter instance is the crux of the imagery Yahweh wished to convey: “Come now, let us reason together, says Yahweh: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow. Though they are red [’adam] like crimson, they shall become [white] like wool.” (Isaiah 1:18) Further, when used as a noun, ’adam means a male human, any human being (one of our species), or even the whole human race—mankind.
So a picture is emerging. Bear in mind that the tabernacle or “tent of meeting” is a multi-level symbol explaining Yahweh’s plan for our redemption. The inner layer, the only one that can be seen from inside the tabernacle (making it the only one that counts, as far as our eternal disposition is concerned) is made of linen, which (as we will eventually discover) is symbolic of imputed righteousness. This layer makes it impossible to see the goat-hair layer (representing our sin) lying above it. Then, covering the inner goat-hair stratum is this one made of the skins of slain rams—who represent the leader of the flock (ultimately, the Messiah, to whom all authority has been given, according to Matthew 28:18). These rams’ skins have been dyed red, meaning that our “crimson colored” sins have been applied to him. And as if that weren’t enough, humanity itself (again, ’adam) has been imposed upon the ram. One might think all this would be obvious to the outside world. But it isn’t, for God has ordained one final layer, concealing the truth from those standing outside, unwilling to enter the sanctuary environs through the one door He has provided. We’ll discuss this final mysterious stratum later in this chapter.
As always, the Israelites weren’t asked to supply anything God hadn’t already given them. ’Most everything needed for the construction of the tabernacle had come out of Egypt with them. “Whoever is of a generous heart, let him bring Yahweh’s contribution: gold, silver, and bronze; blue and purple and scarlet yarns and fine twined linen; goats’ hair, tanned [literally, red dyed] rams’ skins, and goatskins; acacia wood [there’s a possible exception], oil for the light, spices for the anointing oil and for the fragrant incense, and onyx stones and stones for setting, for the ephod and for the breastpiece.” (Exodus 35:4-9) The point I’d like to make is that not only were the physical materials needed for the presentation of Yahweh’s symbols provided up front, but the eventual fulfillment of the symbols was provided by God as well. I’m speaking, of course of Yahshua of Nazareth. His appearance was no accident, no fluke. He didn’t “appoint Himself” the Messiah. Yahweh’s solution to our sin had been planned from eternity past, its timing and nature revealed (if we had been astute enough to see it) by the prophets. It’s another expression of grace: God provides everything we need for life and godliness. All we can do to help ourselves is receive it with thanksgiving and respond to it in praise.
This provision from Yahweh is one of the themes stressed in a type of offering called the asham—a trespass or guilt offering. Basically, it seems to be quite similar in some respects to the chata’t, or sin offering, but instead of addressing lapses in behavior, the asham deals with lapses in holiness—our relationship with Yahweh, rather than to our fellow men. However, the exact offenses for which an asham would have been offered are left maddeningly unspecific. That being said, under certain conditions, the proper sacrifice would have been a ram: “If anyone commits a breach of faith and sins unintentionally in any of the holy things of Yahweh, he shall bring to Yahweh as his compensation a ram without blemish out of the flock, valued in silver shekels, according to the shekel of the sanctuary, for a guilt offering. He shall also make restitution for what he has done amiss in the holy thing and shall add a fifth to it and give it to the priest. And the priest shall make atonement for him with the ram of the guilt offering, and he shall be forgiven. If anyone sins, doing any of the things that by Yahweh’s commandments ought not to be done, though he did not know it, then realizes his guilt, he shall bear his iniquity.” The word translated “anyone” here (or “a person” in some translations) is nephesh—one’s soul, his life, his inner being, the seat of his desires, emotions, and passions. “He shall bring to the priest a ram without blemish out of the flock, or its equivalent for a guilt offering, and the priest shall make atonement for him for the mistake that he made unintentionally, and he shall be forgiven. It is a guilt offering; he has indeed incurred guilt before Yahweh.” (Leviticus 5:15-19)
My first impression is, “We’re gonna need a whole lot more rams.” And that would be true if mature male sheep were actually intended to be efficacious in atoning for our sins. But if they’re meant to be metaphorical of a greater reality (as seems pretty obvious to me), then Yahweh is through these instructions indicating that one Ram will be sufficient to atone for all of our trespasses, for all time. One sacrificial act will cover every mistake we’ve ever made, if (1) the “Ram” being offered is perfect, innocent, and worthy, and (2) if we are willing to allow His blood to stand in for our own. Symbolically, in order to be a “ram,” this Sacrifice must be the leader of a flock—with authority over the sheep. That, in turn, logically requires that He be of the “same kind” as the sheep He is leading. This blows holes in the Jewish theory that since God is incorporeal, He cannot have manifested Himself in human form, hence Yahshua (or any other Messianic candidate) “could not be God.” And further, to be a worthy sacrifice, He must not be in need of forgiveness Himself, i.e., someone who “sins, doing any of the things that by Yahweh’s commandments ought not to be done, though he did not know it.” That’s a tall—some would say, impossible—order. But it is my contention that Yahshua of Nazareth proved Himself to be a worthy asham at every turn.
One odd-sounding scenario is offered, but we need to pay attention to the symbols if we hope to sort out the real lesson God meant for us to learn: “If a man lies sexually with a woman who is a slave, assigned to another man and not yet ransomed or given her freedom, a distinction shall be made. They shall not be put to death, because she was not free; but he shall bring his compensation to Yahweh, to the entrance of the tent of meeting, a ram for a guilt offering. And the priest shall make atonement for him with the ram of the guilt offering before Yahweh for his sin that he has committed, and he shall be forgiven for the sin that he has committed.” (Leviticus 19:20-22) Normally, a man and woman who had sex outside of marriage were both to be put to death, for adultery is a picture of idolatry—rendering to false gods that which is reserved for Yahweh alone. The fact that Yahweh made an exceptions to His own principle (in this case, death for extra-marital sex) proves that it isn’t so much the sex itself He objects to, but rather the symbolic meaning He has assigned to it: intimate, loving fellowship leading to a permanent, fruitful relationship. (Just because it’s “only” a symbol, however, it doesn’t follow that adultery is actually okay. If God went out of His way to prohibit something, it’s a really bad idea.)
Why did Yahweh make a distinction in this case? It’s because the woman was not free to refuse the man’s improper advances. So the symbols shift. At its core, this is a picture of religious practice, whether Christianity, Judaism, or otherwise. The slave woman is a person who has been “assigned” to Yahweh (because He has paid for her freedom—redeemed her), though she is still being held in bondage under some manmade system of religious obligation. In other words, she is a victim, powerless to change her circumstances or choose her own spiritual destiny. But the precept isn’t really about the woman (who, being helpless, isn’t culpable); it’s about the man, and what he must do to obtain forgiveness.
The man who had sex with her has taken advantage of her vulnerability, whether he meant to or not. He symbolizes, I believe, the purveyor of religious dogma, whether a Christian cleric, a Jewish rabbi, a Muslim imam, a Buddhist monk—or anyone guilty of holding someone in bondage to religious tradition (as opposed to promoting the freedom to select one’s own path—which will, if the slave chooses, lead to a relationship with Yahweh). The issue here isn’t so much whether the man is right or wrong in his doctrine or behavior—it’s that he is unwilling to let the slave-woman follow her own heart and make her own decisions. Because the woman wasn’t free when he found her, he isn’t exactly guilty of enslaving her; but he is guilty of something. So rather than being stoned, the man can receive forgiveness through the asham, the trespass offering, if (and when) he realizes his error and repents from it.
That’s a really big “if,” however. For the man to attain forgiveness, he must (1) compensate for the evil he had done before Yahweh—do what he can to undo his sin; (2) come to the “entrance of the tent of meeting,” in other words, receive what the tabernacle was designed to symbolize—Yahweh’s plan for our redemption through Yahshua, not some manmade religious construct; and (3) present to the Priest (ultimately, Christ) a ram for a guilt offering—that is, regard as sufficient the sacrifice of the Ram that God has already provided: the perfect, innocent, and worthy “leader of the flock,” Yahshua.
There is admittedly a steeper “learning curve” here for a Islamic imam than there might be for, say, a Roman Catholic priest (who at least claims to honor Yahweh’s word). But for both, the lesson is the same: do not hold people in religious bondage, for this is idolatry. Even though folks were already enslaved when you found them, you are still guilty before God if you reinforce their chains. Yes, we’re all sinners. But bear in mind that the only people Yahshua took to task for their behavior were religious people—people who were pretty good at keeping the Torah (at least outwardly), people who had appointed themselves arbiters of public morality and conduct.
By the way, it should be self-evident (but I’ll say it anyway): this precept has absolutely nothing to do with sex or gender roles. The function of the “slave-woman” victim could be (and often is) played by men, and women can (in theory, anyway) be guilty of keeping men enslaved through religious oppression. And lest I leave the wrong impression, it’s not religion per se I’m objecting to. At its best, religion is nothing more than “habits on steroids,” a useful tool for avoiding the necessity of reinventing the cultural wheel every time you turn around. But the minute religion becomes the point, the minute it takes on a life of its own and begins replacing someone’s simple relationship with God—or worse, becomes a cage in which to confine unruly sheeple—then the purveyors of such a thing need to realize they’ve been abusing somebody else’s slave; repent, and rely upon the Ram of God as a guilt offering. It’s the only way to attain forgiveness.
Rams are specified as burnt offerings (olah) all throughout the instructions for the scheduled convocations to be celebrated by Israel. Although they’re not mentioned for the daily and weekly (Sabbath) offerings, Numbers 28-29 lists rams among the animals to be sacrificed on virtually every other special occasion throughout the year: the monthly (or new moon) celebration, the Feast of Unleavened Bread, the Feast of Weeks, the Feast of Trumpets, the Day of Atonement, and the Feast of Tabernacles.
That last one is an interesting case. The Feast of Tabernacles (or “booths,” described in Leviticus 23:33-44) is an eight-day convocation in which both the first day and the last are designated as days of Sabbath rest. Its most unique feature is that the people were instructed to dwell in booths or temporary shelters for the whole week-long celebration. As with Passover and Pentecost, this was a time when all of Israel was to gather “in the place Yahweh chose to make His name abide,” which was defined as Jerusalem from the time of David onward. Considering where it is in the annual cycle of holy convocations (the last one of the seven), and factoring in the “booth” metaphor, it’s fairly obvious what this celebration was intended to symbolize: the oft-prophesied Millennial reign of Yahweh, manifested as the glorified Yahshua, the God-King, over the whole earth. The “booth” metaphor indicates that this is when Yahweh intends to personally “camp out” among men, reigning in righteousness and justice among His people for a thousand years.
So where do the rams come into play? In Numbers 29:12-37, we learn that two rams are to be offered up as burnt offerings every day for seven days, and then the number is reduced to one ram on the eighth. Why did God arrange it like this? Many—even most—people who recognize the principle of a coming Millennial age assume that society will be somewhat homogenous. Christians (especially those espousing the doctrine of replacement theology) tend to think that Israel (if it exists at all) will become part of the Church under the reign of Christ. And Jews (even Messianics, those who recognize the deity of Yahshua) usually assume that Israel will absorb the Church—that we’ll all become “spiritual Israel” on some level—sort of like the “mixed multitude” of Israelites and faithful Egyptians at the time of the exodus. Notwithstanding the fact that there is only one path to salvation—the redeeming sacrifice of Yahshua the Messiah—for everyone, whether Jew or gentile, whether in foresight or hindsight, scripture makes it quite clear that during the Millennial Kingdom of Christ, there will be a clear distinction between Israel and the “nations.” The Messiah will rule from Jerusalem as the “King of the Jews,” but His dominion will extend over the entire globe. Speaking of (or to) His Messiah, Yahweh explains the difference: “I am Yahweh; I have called You in righteousness. I will take You by the hand and keep You. I will give You as a covenant for the people [Israel], a light for the nations.” (Isaiah 42:6) This functional distinction between Israel and the nations has existed since the call of Abram, and will continue until the last mortal human has received the immortal, spiritual, eternal body God has prepared for him.
This fact is illustrated in the instructions for the sacrifices of rams during the Feast of Tabernacles. For the first seven days of the Feast (symbolizing the complete thousand-year reign of Yahshua on earth) both Jewish and gentile mortals will inhabit the planet side by side. Two rams per day are specified because Israel will still be distinct from the nations at this point. Christ is indeed “the leader of the flock,” but there will be two flocks throughout the kingdom age—hence two rams. The eighth day, however, represents the beginning of the immortal state—“heaven,” if you will—in which everyone who walked with Yahshua during the kingdom age will have received their permanent spiritual identity. And at this point, God’s purpose for Israel (i.e., to introduce Yahweh to the world) will have been fulfilled. There will therefore be no more need for separation between Israel and the nations—hence, only one ram is to be offered on the eighth day. As Yahshua said, “I have other sheep that are not of this fold [Israel]. I must bring them also, and they [the gentiles] will listen to my voice. So [in the end] there will be one flock, one shepherd.”(John 10:16) Either that, or Moses was just making this stuff up as he went along, and it’s all a big, pointless coincidence. I think you know where I stand on that issue.
Anyway, God made it abundantly clear that literal rams (or sheep, goats, bulls, or any other sacrificial commodity) were never the point of the Torah’s rituals. All of it was designed to turn our eyes toward the Messiah—and in the case of rams, specifically toward His authority and ability as the leader of the flock. Without this symbolic reality, the Torah’s sacrifices—or anything else we might do to try to appease God—are meaningless. As Micah said, “Will Yahweh be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does Yahweh require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:7-8) We may whine, “If God merely wanted us to be just and kind and humble, why didn’t He just say so? Why ask us to jump through all these Levitical hoops, if that’s not what He really wanted?” The point, I think, is that justice, kindness, and humility are not part of our fallen nature: we can’t conjure up these qualities in our own strength. The “Levitical hoops” are there to inform us how Yahweh is making it possible for us to be “transformed by the renewal of our minds” into people who can stand before Him as He intended, innocent and righteous.
Isaiah says the same thing: “What to Me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says Yahweh; I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of well-fed beasts…. Bring no more vain offerings. Incense is an abomination to me. New moon and Sabbath and the calling of convocations—I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly. Your new moons and your appointed feasts My soul hates; they have become a burden to Me; I am weary of bearing them…. Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean. Remove the evil of your deeds from before My eyes. Cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.” (Isaiah 1:11-17) Going through the motions of keeping God’s Law without experiencing the transformation the Law was designed to reveal is as pointless as playing soccer without a ball: no matter how hard you work at it, there’s no way to score.
It may seem (to some) like I’ve jumped to an unwarranted conclusion in assigning the symbolic meaning “leader of the flock” to rams in scripture. But the ordinary Hebrew word for “ram” (’ayil) is often translated as “leader, ruler, i.e., one who governs as a figurative extension of a ram as a leader of the flock.” (Dictionary of Biblical Languages) In fact, the same word came to be figuratively used to denote a large tree—an oak or terebinth (the emphasis on its size and strength)—and a projecting wall, column, or post (the idea being that it is an essential support structure). The point is that we are supposed to be able to rely upon the ’ayil: The “ram” is there for us, steady, strong, and worthy to be followed. It is thus used symbolically of human leaders—those who have a responsibility before God to “be there” for their people. Although the only ’ayil worthy of the name in this respect would prove to be our Messiah, every would-be leader of men is required and expected to display the ram’s qualities.
Thus we hear the Song of Moses as He praises Yahweh for delivering the Israelites from Pharaoh’s hand. He observes that Yahweh’s defeat of the Egyptian armies at the Red S#160;ea has struck the “fear of God” into the hearts of the peoples the Israelites would soon encounter: “Now are the chiefs of Edom dismayed. Trembling seizes the leaders [’ayil] of Moab; all the inhabitants of Canaan have melted away. Terror and dread fall upon them; because of the greatness of Your arm, they are still as a stone, till your people, O Yahweh, pass by, till the people pass by whom You have purchased. (Exodus 15:15-16) Within a short time, the Israelites would blow their big chance to waltz into Canaan virtually unopposed—their sole “weapon” being Yahweh’s awesome reputation. If all twelve of the spies had understood this (instead of only Joshua and Caleb)—if they had comprehended that the “leaders of the flocks” of all their enemies were cowering in terror at their approach—well, let’s just say the Pentateuch would have ended up being somewhat shorter. Once the opportunity had passed, however, it was gone forever. By the time the Israelite hordes finally did enter Canaan, a new generation of pagans had arisen that was no longer appropriately terrified of Yahweh’s awesome capabilities.
A “leader” in this respect needn’t be the top guy in the government, for ’ayil is used to described valiant warriors of lesser rank as well. Explaining the parable of the two eagles, Yahweh told Ezekiel to “Say now to the rebellious house: ‘Do you not know what these things mean?’ Tell them, ‘Indeed the king of Babylon went to Jerusalem and took its king and princes, and led them with him to Babylon. And he took the king’s offspring, made a covenant with him, and put him under oath. He also took away the mighty [’ayil] of the land, that the kingdom might be brought low and not lift itself up, but that by keeping his covenant it might stand.” (Ezekiel 17:12-14) Did you ever look at the government under which you live, whether national or local, and wonder how such weak, ineffectual, self-centered morons could have risen to high office? Now you know why: God has taken away the “mighty ones”—the ’ayil—of the land in order that we might be abased, humbled, and forced to consider where we might have gone wrong.
Occasionally we see the ‘ayil, the ram of leadership, in the role of conqueror—the tool of God’s judgment. Assyria had been raised up to deal with the apostasy of Israel’s northern kingdom. But in view of Assyria’s subsequent brutal arrogance, Yahweh vowed to bring it to its knees: “Therefore thus says the Sovereign Yahweh: Because it [Assyria] towered high and set its top among the clouds, and its heart was proud of its height, I will give it into the hand of a mighty one [’ayil] of the nations. He shall surely deal with it as its wickedness deserves. I have cast it out.” (Ezekiel 31:10-11) This “mighty one” would turn out to be Babylon, who would in turn be cast out for its overly harsh treatment of Israel’s southern kingdom, Judah. We tend to see the cyclical rise and fall of nations as the natural course of events, but Yahweh is always behind the scenes, building up or tearing down nations in order to bring about His own purposes—even if His means and motives remain opaque to us centuries after the fact.
If you’ll recall, one of the Hebrew words translated “goat” (specifically a male) was ’attuwd, which like ’ayil-rams, denoted a “chief one” of the species, a leader among the flock. ’Attuwd is derived from ’athad, a verb meaning “to be ready or to prepare,” whereas ’ayil (the ram) is based on a word meaning “prominence.” The nuances are important, because God has informed us, “As for you, My flock, thus says the Sovereign Yahweh: Behold, I judge between sheep and sheep, between rams [‘ayil] and male goats [‘attuwd].” (Ezekiel 34:17) Merely being a leader is not an occasion for pride, for God has placed you in position, given you the tools for the job, etc. (Nor is being a follower—one of the sheep—cause for shame; it only means you haven’t been equipped for the task of leadership.) No, Yahweh is declaring that He will evaluate our performance before Him based on whatever He has given us to work with. Whether we find ourselves a lamb or a ram, a kid or a prepared and able leader of the flock, we are to fulfill our assigned roles responsibly before our God, our Shepherd.
(First published 2014)