3.2.4 Bull: The Endeavors of Man
Volume 3: Living Symbols—Chapter 2.4
Bull: The Endeavors of Man
Considering the overwhelming ubiquity of bulls in pagan worship, it’s tempting to equate them with “idolatry” and call it a day. But upon reflection, I believe that’s only part of it, an oversimplification or caricature of the intended Biblical symbol. A bull’s intrinsic nature—his strength, massive bulk, aggressive personality, and fecundity—make him an obvious metaphor for man’s lust for power, for making his own way in the world, for doing things his way.
Every ancient pagan civilization had a bull in its pantheon. Depending on the local culture, it was usually associated with the sun. The source of virtually every pagan “god” was Nimrod’s original Babylonian mystery religion, built around the prototypical counterfeit trinity: Nimrod as the father, his wife Semiramis as spirit-mother, and the slain and risen son, Tammuz. The bull is a permutation of Nimrod’s persona—the “god of confusion”—showing up as the Babylonian Marduk (a.k.a. Merodach), Bel, and Nebo, Canaan’s Ba’al, Moloch, and Chemosh, the Egyptian Apis and Osiris, the Assyrian winged bull Lamassu, the Minotaur of Crete, the Greeks’ Dionysus, and the Romans’ Mithras. (Nimrod’s character also surfaces, though not as a bull, in such entities as Hermes, Mercury, Janus, Chaos, and Vulcan.) For my money, the Marduk/Merodach character is highly significant, as “he” was positioned as the supreme deity of the Babylonians, since Babylon is a consistent Biblical symbol for systematic false worship. Listen to what Isaiah has to say about Babylon’s “bull” gods: “The idols of Babylon, Bel and Nebo, are being hauled away on ox carts. But look! The beasts are staggering under the weight! Both the idols and the ones carrying them are bowed down. The gods cannot protect the people, and the people cannot protect the gods. They go off into captivity together.” (Isaiah 46:1-2 NLT) That’s what happens when the endeavors of man take precedence over the authority of Yahweh.
And yet, Yahweh ordained that bulls, along with lambs, goats, and rams, were destined to play a significant role in the Torah’s Levitical offering regimen. Further, on some level, every blood sacrifice symbolized some facet or another of Yahshua’s atoning or redeeming work. So although they are no doubt connected in some way, what the world sees when it looks at bulls, and what God means for us to perceive, are apparently two different things. Or perhaps they are the same thing, but viewed from opposite directions. One thing is certain: we’ll have to stay on our toes if we hope to unravel what Yahweh meant to teach us with the metaphor of the bull.
The crux of the issue, I believe, will turn out to be whether we’ll do things our way or God’s way. The bull brings forward the issue of whom we trust—Yahweh, or ourselves. In one of the first instances in scripture in which this issue is addressed, an image of a bull plays a starring role. I’m referring, of course, to the “golden calf” debacle recorded in Exodus 32. “When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered themselves together to Aaron and said to him, ‘Up, make us gods who shall go before us. As for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.’” (Exodus 32:1) Moses had been up on Mount Sinai (a.k.a. Mount Horeb) for over five weeks at this point. And this wasn’t his first trip: he had been called up before (see Exodus 19:20) to receive the Ten Commandments. At that time, Yahweh had specifically instructed him, “You shall not make gods of silver to be with Me, nor shall you make for yourselves gods of gold.” (Exodus 20:23) This was in addition to His clear prohibition against making “graven images” in the Second Commandment.
However, I don’t believe it was the Israelites’ intention to jettison Yahweh in favor of whatever god-idol Aaron could come up with. They weren’t that stupid. What they were looking for was some sort of visual representation they could associate with their God, which was precisely what Yahweh had told them not to do. Up to this point, they’d had Moses—whom they knew wasn’t God, but someone they had nevertheless come to rely upon as Yahweh’s spokesman, his “public persona.” But although Moses had told them to “Wait here for us until we [i.e., he and his protégé Joshua] return to you.” (Exodus 24:14), leaving Aaron and Hur in charge, the great Lawgiver had been gone so long now, the people despaired of his prospects of ever returning.
At this point we need to ask the provocative question: does Yahweh know how we’re wired? Does He understand that we need a physical manifestation of His presence in order to feel secure about His reality? Of course He does. That’s why He had shown Himself as a pillar of cloud and fire to guide their way, and why He had wreathed Mount Horeb in fire and smoke to announce His presence. But in a more fundamental sense, Yahweh told us not to make images of Him—or anything else—because He intended to provide One for us—in the person of Yahshua of Nazareth. Today’s mockers delight in patting us on the head as if we are idiot children as they refer to God as our “imaginary friend.” But in doing so, they are merely displaying their willful ignorance of the historicity of God’s human manifestation—of Yahshua’s life, death, and resurrection—the latter a fact so compelling, it caused the church to grow from a couple of dozen despondent and defeated disciples into a worldwide fellowship of confident, dedicated believers hundreds of millions strong, enduring for two thousand years against every weapon Satan could bring to bear against it. So yes, Yahweh knows we need a physical, tangible “Elohim to go before us.” His name is Yahshua. Of course, the same mockers who say God must be imaginary because we can’t see Him insist that Jesus—Yahshua—couldn’t have been God because He was an historical figure, a mortal man. The only thing that would satisfy them, I suppose, would be an anthropomorphic manifestation of deity who suddenly appeared as a King of kings, whose countenance shone with the brightness of the sun, and who could—and did—destroy entire armies with a mere word from His mouth. Don’t look now, but the next time Yahshua shows His face on earth, He will look very much like that: see Revelation 19:11-16. Somehow, though, I don’t think the scoffers will like this version very much, either. Sigh.
Back at the foot of Mount Horeb, things were going south in a hurry. “So Aaron said to them, ‘Take off the rings of gold that are in the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.’ So all the people took off the rings of gold that were in their ears and brought them to Aaron. And he received the gold from their hand and fashioned it with a graving tool and made a golden calf [egel]….” Despite the lame explanation Aaron would later feed to his brother (v. 24), the text reveals that Aaron purposely fashioned the bull with a “graving tool”: this was no accident, no fluke. His model was doubtless the bull-gods of Egypt—the strongest, most virile, most “worthy” image he could think of to represent Yahweh—never mind what God had actually instructed. The animal described in the text, an egel, is a young bullock, a bull-calf—an adolescent, weaned, nearly-mature male bovine, the symbolic essence of strength, energy, and potential. By the way, notice where the gold to make the statue came from: not from the guys pushing for this idolatrous expression, but from their dependents. We should not be unaware that our failures before God tend to impoverish those we love.
Now Aaron, having compromised with the ignorant masses who were depending on him for leadership in Moses’ absence, became the prototypical politician—blowing like a dry leaf before the wind. It was the elders and citizens of Israel, not their God-appointed High Priest, who declared the golden bull-calf to be a proper representation of Yahweh: “And they said, ‘This is your god [elohim], O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!’” So the politician/priest saw which way the wind was blowing, picked up the ball, and ran with it: “When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it. And Aaron made proclamation and said, ‘Tomorrow shall be a feast to Yahweh.’ And they rose up early the next day and offered burnt offerings and brought peace offerings. And the people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play….” Eating, drinking, and playing before Yahweh are all good things: we are commanded to rejoice in His presence. But this bull statue wasn’t Yahweh, no matter what the people thought. The amazing thing to me is that the people apparently didn’t even realize they’d done anything wrong. Aaron had rolled over and played dead every time pressure had been applied to “bend the rules.” If I know Moses, he would have blown a gasket at the mere suggestion of making a golden calf image as a representation of Yahweh. But Aaron gave the people no reason to suspect that doing such a thing was contrary to God’s revealed will.
Meanwhile, Moses’ allotted forty days (Exodus 24:18) came to an abrupt conclusion. “And Yahweh said to Moses, ‘Go down, for your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves.” Moses must have thought, “Oh, swell. Now they’re my people, and I brought ’em out of Egypt! This does not bode well.” Yahweh didn’t see the golden calf as a mere mistake, miscalculation, or bad idea. It was corruption—the Hebrew verb is shachath: to destroy, become ruined, ravaged, perverted, corrupted, decayed, or spoiled—the implication is that the object has become useless. “They have turned aside quickly out of the way that I commanded them. They have made for themselves a golden calf and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it and said, ‘This is your god, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!’” (Exodus 32:2-8) Reality check: Christians and Jews who cluck their tongues at these folks in condemnation of their idolatry need to take a step back and examine their own thought processes. The Israelites weren’t guilty, exactly, of leaving Yahweh in favor of some other deity—somebody from the Babylonian pantheon, for example. No, they were guilty of defining Yahweh’s character according to their own preconceptions, of letting man’s “wisdom” take precedence over God’s word. How many of us have fallen into the same trap—of assuming because of our long-held (and unchallenged) religious traditions that we know who God is, even if our conception doesn’t quite square with His revealed word? Many of us—most of us—are, on occasion, just as guilty as the Israelites were of “making graven images” of God.
So Moses and Joshua headed back down the mountainside. “When Joshua heard the noise of the people as they shouted, he said to Moses, ‘There is a noise of war in the camp.’ But he said, ‘It is not the sound of shouting for victory, or the sound of the cry of defeat, but the sound of singing that I hear.’ And as soon as he came near the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, Moses’ anger burned hot, and he threw the tablets out of his hands and broke them at the foot of the mountain….” Israel’s corruption, in other words, caused Moses to “break” the law—literally. It didn’t matter whether they had sinned out of stupidity or malice. Our sins never have a positive effect on those around us. There is no such thing as a victimless crime.
Moses now set about undoing the damage as best he could: “He took the calf that they had made and burned it with fire and ground it to powder and scattered it on the water and made the people of Israel drink it.” He then turned his attention to his idiot brother: “And Moses said to Aaron, ‘What did this people do to you that you have brought such a great sin upon them?’ And Aaron said, ‘Let not the anger of my lord burn hot. You know the people, that they are set on evil. For they said to me, “Make us gods who shall go before us. As for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” So I said to them, “Let any who have gold take it off.” So they gave it to me, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf.”’” (Exodus 32:17-24) Aaron did what politicians usually do—he tried to weasel out of his predicament by blaming others for his own failure. And he flat-out lied about how the statue came to be. Moses, I’m sure, didn’t buy a word of it.
Scripture doesn’t record what punishment, if any, Aaron personally endured for his part in this debacle. (The nation suffered a minor plague and a small scale civil war in its wake.) But it is not without irony that a bull-calf, an egel, was specified as a sin offering for Aaron himself on the final day of the priestly ordination process: “On the eighth day Moses called Aaron and his sons and the elders of Israel, and he said to Aaron, ‘Take for yourself a bull calf [egel ben baqar] for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering, both without blemish, and offer them before Yahweh.’” (Leviticus 9:1-2) The Hebrew noun baqar is a generic term for a bovine—cattle or their herds. I find it significant that Aaron would not be qualified to assume his role as Israel’s High Priest until an egel, a “bull-calf son of the herd,” had been sacrificed to atone for his sin. It is doubly ironic that the ultimate fulfillment of the bull-calf symbol would turn out to be Yahweh in the flesh: Yahshua—the only person ever to live up to the potential God had built into the human race.
It could be argued, then, that the Israelites weren’t exactly wrong when they pictured Yahweh as a young bull, for the bull or bull-calf metaphor is used time and again throughout the Levitical Instructions. And all such blood sacrifices were to be fulfilled in Yahshua the Messiah—Yahweh’s image in human flesh—though of course they didn’t know that. The fact remains, however, that Yahweh had specifically prohibited the making or worship of graven images. The point is that it doesn’t help to be right if we are at the same time being disobedient to God’s revealed word. The bull is the perfect test case for this principle: the question is whether we’re relying on the strength, intellect, logic, and wisdom of man, or upon the sovereignty of Yahweh.
Relying on man’s thought process is a slippery slope at best, as another scene involving the egel as a graven image will demonstrate. We’ve run across this incident before, in reference to demonic idols being characterized as goats: “And he [Jeroboam] appointed his own priests for the high places and for the goat idols [sa’ir] and for the calves [egel] that he had made.” (II Chronicles 11:15) If you’ll recall, after the fracturing of Israel into northern and southern components (the direct result of the aging Solomon’s apostasies) Jeroboam, the northern king, realized that Torah law required that every male in Israel go to Jerusalem three times a year to celebrate before Yahweh. He concluded (and not without cause) that this would weaken his own political grip on the ten northern tribes. So Jeroboam did what men so often do: he threw out God’s word and replaced it with a manmade substitute, a counterfeit, a plan more to his liking and purpose. “And Jeroboam said in his heart, ‘Now the kingdom will turn back to the house of David. If this people go up to offer sacrifices in the temple of Yahweh at Jerusalem, then the heart of this people will turn again to their lord, to Rehoboam king of Judah, and they will kill me and return to Rehoboam king of Judah….’” True enough, Jerry, but you should have thought of that before you revolted against the house of David, even if Rehoboam was a spoiled jerk unworthy of the throne.
At this point, Jeroboam had options. He knew what the Torah had instructed his people to do. He knew Rehoboam was the rightful king, the heir of Solomon. So he could have—and should have—encouraged his people (who hated the oppressive rule of Rehoboam as much as he did) to continue going to the Jerusalem temple anyway to worship Yahweh in the manner prescribed in the Torah—at the same time praying that Yahweh would provide a way to reunite the kingdom under godly and benign rule (i.e., under somebody other than Rehoboam, though still in David’s lineage—which he himself was not). But Jeroboam had now tasted power, and he was hooked on it. So he chose instead to elevate himself over Almighty God, and in the process doomed his fledgling nation to apostasy, confusion, and wrath. “So the king took counsel and made two calves of gold. And he said to the people, ‘You have gone up to Jerusalem long enough. Behold your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.’” These were practically the same words Israel had used in ascribing deity to Aaron’s golden calf. This was, to put it bluntly, bull. Not only had Yahweh not rescinded His prohibition against making graven images, He had not put an expiration date on the command to gather before Him three times a year (Exodus 23:14-17), nor had He moved the venue for His feasts away from Jerusalem (II Chronicles 6:6). So human arrogance—utter disregard for the word of God—was the only possible explanation for Jeroboam’s disastrous edict: “And he set one in Bethel, and the other he put in Dan.”Bethel was on the southern edge of the northern kingdom—only a few miles north of Jerusalem; and Dan was located in the far north of Jeroboam’s realm. “Then this thing became a sin, for the people went as far as Dan to be before one....”
And Jeroboam didn’t stop there. Not comprehending the difference between Yahweh’s Instructions and some mindless manmade religion, he began swapping out the specifics—places, people, and practices, dates and duties. “He also made temples on high places and appointed priests from among all the people, who were not of the Levites. And Jeroboam appointed a feast on the fifteenth day of the eighth month like the feast that was in Judah, and he offered sacrifices on the altar. So he did in Bethel, sacrificing to the calves that he made. And he placed in Bethel the priests of the high places that he had made. He went up to the altar that he had made in Bethel on the fifteenth day in the eighth month, in the month that he had devised from his own heart. And he instituted a feast for the people of Israel and went up to the altar to make offerings.” (I Kings 12:26-33) Once again, religious Christians tend to shake their heads and mutter in disgust, “How could he?” But we do the same sort of thing all the time. Our traditions have superseded God’s clear instructions. For many, Rome has replaced Jerusalem in our affections. Christmas (with all its pagan baggage) has replaced the Feast of Tabernacles (the announcement of God’s symbolic intention to “camp out” among men). Good Friday has replaced Passover, we ignore the Feast of Unleavened Bread altogether, and Easter is celebrated in place of the Feast of Firstfruits. Oh, and Jeroboam’s contrived “fifteenth day of the eighth month” feast day? That falls suspiciously close to “All-Saints Day,” a.k.a. Halloween. I hate to rain on the parade, but many of our “Christian traditions” are just as far away from the center of God’s will as Jeroboam’s bogus neo-Judaism was. But at least Jerry’s symbols tell us where we’ve gone wrong: it’s all a lot of bull.
Having lived through a few, I can understand how a single apostate national leader could adversely affect the fortunes of his whole nation. But Jeroboam wasn’t alone: the general populace was right there with him, circling the drain of history. After a few generations, despite the fact that Yahweh had sent prophets to warn the people and their kings, we are confronted with this sad commentary: “But they would not listen, but were stubborn, as their fathers had been, who did not believe in Yahweh their God. They despised His statutes and His covenant that He made with their fathers and the warnings that He gave them.” Just because we are blessed with free will, it doesn’t follow that all paths are equally viable. Yahweh wants us to choose to follow Him. Although He won’t physically force us to obey His precepts, He does command us (for our own good) to do so. And then He warns us of the consequences of choosing poorly: we take on the characteristics of whatever we revere. “They went after false idols and became false, and they followed the nations that were around them, concerning whom Yahweh had commanded them that they should not do like them. And they abandoned all the commandments of Yahweh their God, and made for themselves metal images of two calves [the egel that Jeroboam had made]; and they made an Asherah and worshiped all the host of heaven and served Baal.” As the bull was a recurring permutation of Nimrod-worship, the Asherah image celebrated the pagan female counterpart—that of Semiramis, Nimrod’s wife and the mother of Tammuz—the prototypical false Christ. “And they burned their sons and their daughters as offerings [Molech and Chemosh were both bull-gods] and used divination and omens and sold themselves to do evil in the sight of Yahweh, provoking Him to anger. Therefore Yahweh was very angry with Israel and removed them out of His sight. None was left but the tribe of Judah only.” (II Kings 17:14-18)
Dieticians tell us, “You are what you eat.” We have just seen that Israel’s Northern kingdom (a.k.a. Ephraim) “went after false idols and became false.” This leads us to the parallel conclusion that in a sense, You become what you worship—that is, you tend to take on the characteristics of whatever you revere, whether falsehood or godliness. Israel had forsaken the worship of Yahweh, replacing Him with Jeroboam’s twin bull-calves. I find it fascinating, then, that Yahweh ties Israel’s eventual repentance and restoration (something prophesied time and again in scripture) to their recognition that they had become just like what they’d worshipped—an unruly bull-calf. “There is hope for your future, declares Yahweh, and your children shall come back to their own country. I have heard Ephraim grieving, ‘You have disciplined me, and I was disciplined, like an untrained calf [egel]. Bring me back that I may be restored, for You are Yahweh my God. For after I had turned away, I relented, and after I was instructed, I slapped my thigh; I was ashamed, and I was confounded, because I bore the disgrace of my youth.’” For His part, Yahweh never turns a deaf ear to genuine repentance. He asks, in light of Ephraim’s new realization of its own culpability, “Is Ephraim My dear son? Is he My darling child? For as often as I speak against him, I do remember him still. Therefore My heart yearns for him; I will surely have mercy on him, declares Yahweh.” (Jeremiah 31:17-20) Prophetic scripture (notably Ezekiel 37 and 48 and Revelation 7) confirms that in the kingdom age, all twelve tribes of Israel, including the ten “lost” ones, will inhabit the Land and serve their Messiah. They will all have decided that it was a really bad idea to follow the “bull” of man’s endeavors instead of the word of Yahweh.
The most commonly used Hebrew word for “bull” is par, which means a bull, bullock, ox, or calf, i.e., an adolescent (one or more years old) to fully-mature male bovine, usually inferred to not be castrated. Par is a more generalized word than egel (a word that stresses the adolescent exuberance of the bull).
The Torah’s first mention of sacrificial bulls after the tabernacle had been built was in the ordination ritual for the priests. We read of these things being performed in Leviticus 8, but the instructions themselves are found in Exodus 29. “Now this is what you shall do to them to consecrate them[Aaron and his sons], that they may serve Me as priests. Take one bull [par] 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) The elements of consecration are all symbolic of what a priest’s function was to be, what his role was to represent. The wheat flour and the things made from it (as we saw in the previous chapter) indicate God’s provision: the priest (whose job it was to intercede with Yahweh) was provided by Yahweh on behalf of the people. “Fine” flour indicates that the non-nutritive chaff has been removed and discarded: there is to be nothing useless or vain about the service of a priest. He is also to be filled with the Spirit (the olive oil) and untainted by sin (so the bread is unleavened). Of course, the priests, being human beings, were not actually sinless. (The bull, in fact, was to be a sin offering, as we shall soon see.) But the role of the High Priest was prophetic of the One who would render us all sinless before God—the Messiah, Yahshua. The two rams, as we saw earlier in this chapter, represent Christ as the leader of the flock—the first was an olah or burnt offering signifying His total commitment to our salvation, and the second was a selem, or peace offering: Yahshua’s sacrifice reconciles us to Yahweh, removing the enmity that kept us separated us from Him. This leaves only the meaning of the bull, the sin offering, to ponder.
I believe the sacrifice of the bull in this context indicates that all the human effort, schemes, calculation, and logistics that might easily characterize our walk before God must laid aside if we are to serve as “priests of Yahweh.” And since the bull is the very first sacrificial element to be dealt with, it means that our agenda and methods must be made subservient to God’s from the very beginning. Manmade religious practice has no place in a relationship with God. So the instructions continue: “Then [that is, after Aaron and his sons had been bathed, ceremonially dressed, and anointed for service] you shall bring the bull before the tent of meeting. Aaron and his sons shall lay their hands on the head of the bull….” This, as always, indicated transference—in this case, the sin of doing things our way (and in our own strength) instead of God’s way. How sadly ironic it is that immediately after this ceremony was first performed, Aaron’s two oldest sons, Nadab and Abihu, evidently not having a clue as to what it all meant, proceeded to “do religion” their own way, and promptly got “devoured by fire” for their sin (see Leviticus 10:1-3).
“Then you shall kill the bull before Yahweh at the entrance of the tent of meeting, and shall take part of the blood of the bull and put it on the horns of the altar with your finger, and the rest of the blood you shall pour out at the base of the altar.” The bull’s blood represents its life, the bronze-covered altar represents judgment (i.e., separation from sin), and its “horns” represent the fact that Yahweh alone has the authority to judge. So the picture here is that of the submission of the priest to Yahweh—his recognition of God’s intrinsic and inalienable right to call the shots. “And you shall take all the fat that covers the entrails, and the long lobe of the liver, and the two kidneys with the fat that is on them, and burn them on the altar….” These fat portions, you’ll recall, represent “the best we have to offer.” It is thus no surprise that it was to be burned in homage and submission to Yahweh on the altar.
But what about the meat? If this were a peace offering, trespass offering, firstborn offering, or even an ordinary sin offering, the priests would have used the bull’s flesh for food. So this last bit of instruction may come as an epiphany: “But the flesh of the bull and its skin and its dung you shall burn with fire outside the camp; it is a sin offering.” (Exodus 29:10-14) Why not eat the beef? Because the sin in question, the transgression being covered by the bull’s death, is the priest’s sin. The principle is: under no circumstances are we to benefit or profit from our own transgression. In this case (as the hapless Nadab and Abihu discovered) the message is loud and clear: servants of God are not to invent or perform religious practices designed to enrich or empower themselves. Please understand: I’m not advocating “muzzling the ox that treads out the grain” (a subject I’ll address in the next section), but rather warning against human endeavor and manmade religious tradition being used as tools to bring power, riches, prestige, and influence to people who are supposed to be serving as “priests” of Yahweh—intercessors between a lost world and the God who seeks to save it. Relationship with Yahweh is not a business.
But wait, you say. Aren’t all of these sacrifices supposed to symbolize something the Messiah was, or did? This bull seems to be indicating something negative that we must eliminate from our modus operandi. What gives? Yes, Christ personifies innocence, so He is rightly represented as a lamb; He bears our sins, so the goat reveals His “job description”; He is the undisputed leader of our flock, so seeing Him as a ram makes perfect sense. But none of these things would have been possible if Yahweh had not manifested Himself as a human being. The point of the bull as a sin offering is that Yahshua, though a man, did not rely upon human methods or resources in order to achieve humanity’s reconciliation with God. Being found as a man, His reliance upon God consisted of doing only what any human could do in similar circumstances: depending upon the word of God for guidance and the Holy Spirit for moral strength—but not feeling free to call upon legions of angels for timely assistance. In all three synoptic Gospels, we read of Satan’s temptation of the Messiah. In each of the three “categories” of testing, the devil’s intention was to entice Yahshua to achieve a goal or solve a problem by “cheating”—by circumventing the painful process of submitting Himself totally to Yahweh’s will as a human being. Christ withstood these temptations, and in doing so became the rightful object of the Torah’s “bull” metaphor. Having humbled Himself as a man, He now relied upon God’s strength alone—just as we are supposed to do.
Yahshua lived a life entirely free of sin (which by definition, you’ll recall, is “missing the mark” of God’s perfection, falling short of His standards and opinions). We fallen humans, on the other hand, have a problem with sin—and I don’t mean merely doing it. Even though we’d like to imagine that sin doesn’t affect us (or doesn’t really exist), deep down, we know it does. Whether we admit it or not, we spend our entire lives trying to scrape off its consequences and ramifications—something no animal would ever dream of doing. Every religion under the sun is designed—at its core—as a strategy for appeasing God. Even non-religious “faiths” like atheistic secular humanism are there for one purpose only: to convince their adherents that sin (of which they somehow know they’re guilty) isn’t real. But it’s all whistling in the dark—false hope and fables, the opinion of man taking precedence over the word of God. Bull!
The Torah alone meets the problem head on. It declares, “We’re all sinners before Yahweh, so deal with it. Here are His instructions on what to do about our transgressions.” The heart of the Torah’s atonement rituals, however, can be somewhat disconcerting for someone trying to eliminate his own guilt by becoming less guilty. It says, “Something innocent must die in order to cover and remove your sins—and you aren’t innocent.” In other words, although we (rightly) feel like we ought to do something to pay for our own transgressions (even if we don’t believe there’s a God), the Torah tells us we can’t: the lamb, the goat, and the ram (or more to the point, Who they represent) must die in our stead. Religions often suggest that penance, or alms, or good behavior, or self denial, or even martyrdom will balance the books. But God’s word flatly denies this: these are man’s answers to a problem only God can solve.
This brings us back to the bull of the sin offering. It says, ever so eloquently, “The most logical, most well conceived, most powerful, and most promising way man can think of to rid himself of the guilt he feels is inadequate and insufficient.” The problem must, rather, be dealt with in God’s strength, solved with His logic. We may say we want justice, but justice is only a good thing (on a personal level) if we’re innocent. And the fact is, we aren’t. If we wish to get out of this predicament alive, we should be looking not for justice, but for mercy. Obtaining mercy, however, requires that we swallow our pride and admit that man’s way won’t work. Sacrificing a bull as a sin offering, as the Torah prescribes, says that very thing. But since literal sacrifices and offerings are no longer possible (by God’s decree, no less), we have no choice but to look at what the fulfillment of the “bull” symbol turned out to be. And (surprise!) just as with every other blood sacrifice in the Torah, that fulfillment turns out to be Yahshua the Messiah.
It should be obvious to us by now that it wasn’t literally bulls, lambs, goats, and rams that Yahweh was interested in. These were merely symbols—pictures of the things God was in the process of sacrificing on our behalf. He commanded Israel to do these things for precisely the same reason Yahshua instructed His disciples to partake of the rite of communion: “Do this in remembrance of Me.” Just because the rite, in an of itself, does not “save” us, there is no reason to consider it obsolete or worthless. The precept is a lesson, and our repeated rehearsal is crucial if we wish to comprehend what Yahweh wants us to know. The real sacrifice, after all, is not actually being made by the worshiper anyway—it’s being made by the bull or the goat.
That being said, there is something we fallen humans are to bring to the party: not our lifeblood, our alms, our good deeds, or our penance—things that are worthless to God outside of a relationship with Him. No, what we may (or should I say, must) contribute is an attitude of humility. David, faced with the reality of his own sin, wrote, “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, You will not despise. Do good to Zion in Your good pleasure; build up the walls of Jerusalem. Then will You delight in right sacrifices, in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings; then bulls will be offered on Your altar.” (Psalm 51:17-19) Everything we’ve talked about in this chapter—all of these sacrifices, all of that spilled blood—is mere “kabuki theater” if done (or studied—since the temple no longer stands) without an attitude of contrition and humility before our God.
Sadly, when most Christians stray into passages like Leviticus 4, where the procedures covering the sin offering (the chata’t) are detailed (and I do mean detailed), their eyes usually begin to glaze over as they slowly descend into a state of serene stupor, while a little voice within the most primitive part of their brains begins to softly murmur, Didn’t you hear somewhere that the Law was obsolete? This isn’t for you. Your eyelids are getting heavy. Sleep. Sleeeeep. Jews on the other hand, if they’re paying attention, read this stuff and break out in hives brought on by the sure knowledge that doing what “HaShem” is commanding them to do here is impossible—and has been for almost two thousand years. Without a temple and a priesthood, none of the myriad of offerings and sacrifices in the Torah can be performed. Yet the excruciating detail of the rite of the sin offering here mocks their frustration: God has apparently commanded them to do what He knows can’t be done.
It is my contention, however, that the Torah’s minutiae is vitally relevant for the Christian, and eminently doable for the Jew—if they’re willing to embrace the symbols Yahweh has presented here. Why? In God’s prophetic mind, the sanctuary is not a place; it’s a plan. And the priesthood isn’t actually the sons of Aaron; it’s the called-out assembly of God’s spiritual children—all of us. Anyway, you’d have to be terribly naïve to think that the blood of a bull actually does anything to remove our sin. Israel was instructed to go through this goofy sounding ritual for only one reason: it’s a picture, a parable, a symbol of the process by which our lapses in behavior before God can be atoned.
Sin offerings for individual Israelites were specified to be goats (read: sin bearers)—males if the sinner was a ruler of the people and female goats if an ordinary citizen were applying for forgiveness. But if the sinner was a priest, or if the whole congregation’s sin was in view, a bull was specified—emphasis being placed on the fact that the sin must be dealt with God’s way, not through the machinations of man. “Yahweh spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Speak to the people of Israel, saying, if anyone sins unintentionally in any of Yahweh’s commandments about things not to be done, and does any one of them, if it is the anointed priest who sins, thus bringing guilt on the people, then he shall offer for the sin that he has committed a bull from the herd without blemish to Yahweh for a sin offering.’” Here it is made clear that when a priest—one whose job it is to intercede with God on behalf of the people—goofs up, he brings “guilt on the people,” because the people are relying on him to get it right. (I find it ironic that since a secular leader of the people was to bring a goat, no such expectation of circumspect behavior was made: it’s as if it were a given that kings and generals would usually get it all wrong.) The warning is not just for Aaronic priests, of course, but for anyone who fulfills what the symbol the priesthood represents—any child of Yahweh, but especially those who find themselves in a position of public trust. We should never forget that what we believers say and do is a direct reflection on our God. The precept stresses instances in which these “priests” do things that God’s law expressly prohibits—which smells to me like hypocritical behavior: saying one thing while doing another. The world is watching, brothers and sisters. We owe it, at the very least, a good example—a consistent, holy life lived in accordance with Yahweh’s instructions. When we start making up our own rules based on situational morals, political correctness, or whatever makes us feel good, we bring guilt upon the people.
And as we have seen, the symbolic remedy for having pursued such a path is the sacrifice of a bull. “He shall bring the bull to the entrance of the tent of meeting before Yahweh and lay his hand on the head of the bull and kill the bull before Yahweh.” Again, the priest’s sin is symbolically transferred to the bull before it is slain. “And the anointed priest shall take some of the blood of the bull and bring it into the tent of meeting, and the priest shall dip his finger in the blood and sprinkle part of the blood seven times before Yahweh in front of the veil of the sanctuary.” If we find we have misled the people, there will be (figuratively, anyway), blood on our hands. This is serious business: the life is in the blood. Where was the blood to be sprinkled? The place being described is where the altar of incense stood—where (symbolically) the prayers of the saints were sent heavenward. So we read, “And the priest shall put some of the blood on the horns of the altar of fragrant incense before Yahweh that is in the tent of meeting.” Horns represent power, so smearing some of the bull’s blood on the horns on the corners of the altar of incense is a picture of forsaking man’s solutions while accessing the power of prayer. In other words, it’s like saying to Yahweh, “Not my will, but Yours be done.” “And all the rest of the blood of the bull he shall pour out at the base of the altar of burnt offering that is at the entrance of the tent of meeting….”The rest of the bull’s life-blood thus became associated with the judgment Christ endured for our sakes. Make no mistake: taking man’s word over God’s is a capital crime.
As we have seen before, the specified fat parts represent “the best we have to offer” being reserved for Yahweh’s honor and use. “And all the fat of the bull of the sin offering he shall remove from it, the fat that covers the entrails and all the fat that is on the entrails and the two kidneys with the fat that is on them at the loins and the long lobe of the liver that he shall remove with the kidneys (just as these are taken from the ox of the sacrifice of the peace offerings); and the priest shall burn them on the altar of burnt offering.” At this point, a distinction needs to be drawn. There is a fundamental difference between “giving our best” to Yahweh and getting it into our heads that anything we have to offer is intrinsically valuable—that God should be impressed with us. As a Christian musician, I’ve struggled with this conundrum for decades. On the one hand, it is a very good thing to sing or play an instrument in Yahweh’s honor, giving it one’s very best effort—practicing, honing one’s craft, being diligent in service, and considering it a great privilege to help lead God’s people in corporate worship. On the other hand, our goal should never be to impress anyone, God or man, with our skill or our gifts. So although it would be dishonoring to God to purposely play worse than I’m capable of doing, my “best” should be designed to enhance the worship experience—and not to enhance my reputation as a guitarist or singer. The whole thing would make me crazy if I dwelled on it. So mostly, I just try to “lay the fat on the fire,” playing as well as I can but concentrating on the lyrics of the song. It helps to know that there’s always somebody more gifted than me out there, and yet Yahweh has allowed me (of all people) to praise Him with a Strat in my hands. Wow!
The instructions continue: “But the skin of the bull and all its flesh, with its head, its legs, its entrails, and its dung—all the rest of the bull—he shall carry outside the camp to a clean place, to the ash heap, and shall burn it up on a fire of wood. On the ash heap it shall be burned up.” (Leviticus 4:1-12) As we saw with the ordinance of dedication, since the chata’t is being offered to cover the sin of the priest, he himself is not to partake of the nutritional value the bull might have provided. The lesson: we cannot profit or benefit from our own transgressions. Burning the carcass “outside the camp,” of course, is a transparent euphemism for the crucifixion of Christ, who was executed outside Jerusalem’s city walls, even though His shed blood fulfilled the precept’s “altar” symbols—unleashing the power of prayer for our forgiveness and atoning for our sins as He endured God’s judgment for our sakes.
We have seen how the sins of the priests bring “guilt upon the people,” since the people are relying on them to be an accurate reflection of God’s will in the world. So what is the remedy for the congregation’s guilt? It is the same as it was for the priest: “If the whole congregation of Israel sins unintentionally and the thing is hidden from the eyes of the assembly, and they do any one of the things that by Yahweh’s commandments ought not to be done, and they realize their guilt, when the sin which they have committed becomes known, the assembly shall offer a bull from the herd for a sin offering and bring it in front of the tent of meeting. And the elders of the congregation shall lay their hands on the head of the bull before Yahweh, and the bull shall be killed before Yahweh.” This time, the elders of the congregation—the temporal leaders representing those who had fallen into sin—are to lay their hands on the head of the bull in order to symbolically transfer the people’s guilt to it. But the rest of the rite is identical: “Then the anointed priest shall bring some of the blood of the bull into the tent of meeting, and the priest shall dip his finger in the blood and sprinkle it seven times before Yahweh in front of the veil. And he shall put some of the blood on the horns of the altar that is in the tent of meeting before Yahweh, and the rest of the blood he shall pour out at the base of the altar of burnt offering that is at the entrance of the tent of meeting. And all its fat he shall take from it and burn on the altar. Thus shall he do with the bull. As he did with the bull of the sin offering, so shall he do with this. And the priest shall make atonement for them, and they shall be forgiven. And he shall carry the bull outside the camp and burn it up as he burned the first bull; it is the sin offering for the assembly.” (Leviticus 4:13-21)
These two “bull” sin offerings (for the priest and then for the congregation) are described separately (though one right after the other) in Leviticus 4. The implication seems to be that it is likely—though not inevitable—that when the whole nation goes astray, it is the fault of the “priests.” That is, the problem will probably be that the alleged followers of Yahweh haven’t been following closely enough. More to the point, what the world will have perceived in our words and walk is actually our own opinions, our own solutions, our ownour own logic, and our own rules—not Yahweh’s. Israel fell into this trap and was removed from the Land and the sanctuary for her apostasy—twice. And the church has fared no better for the most part—being declared “dead” at one point (Revelation 3:1), and “wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked” at another (Revelation 3:17). It’s no comfort (well, not much) that God knew how badly we were going to fail even before we did so. But it is a great comfort (to me, anyway) that Yahweh provided—from the very beginning—the means for all of us to reenter His fellowship. Yes, the Bull would have to die: all of our human pretensions, plans, and plots would have to be subjected to the fires of judgment. From our point of view, of course, it seems a small enough price to pay for such a huge benefit. But the Bull Himself (I’m speaking, of course, of Yahshua) might beg to differ: He gave everything He had—life itself—so that our foolish man-centric sins could be covered, so that our “human condition” could be cured. At the very least, we owe Him our sincere and heartfelt apology.
We see precisely the same symbology repeated in the instructions for the Day of Atonement, the sixth holy convocation on Yahweh’s annual calendar. We’ve already seen how the two goats (one who dies and the other who is set free) play their part. But before we ever get there, the priest who is to offer them must make a chata’t offering to cover his own sins—you guessed it: a bull. “Aaron shall present the bull as a sin offering for himself, and shall make atonement for himself and for his house. He shall kill the bull as a sin offering for himself….” So far, this is exactly the same as any priestly sin offering. Normally, he would merely smear some of the bull’s blood on the horns of the altar of incense and depart the sanctuary.
But on this one day of the year, the High Priest was to actually enter the holy of holies, and that changed things, for this (symbolically, anyway) was where God was said to dwell. “And he shall take a censer full of coals of fire from the altar before Yahweh, and two handfuls of sweet incense beaten small, and he shall bring it inside the veil and put the incense on the fire before Yahweh, that the cloud of the incense may cover the mercy seat that is over the testimony, so that he does not die….” This incense, you’ll recall, symbolizes prayer: we cannot enter into the presence of God unless we are protected by prayer—intimate communication with Yahweh. But remember who the High Priest represented: his role reveals that of the Messiah. The point is that it is actually Yahshua’s communication with the Father that indemnifies us against harm on Yom Kippurim—the day set apart to commemorate the affliction of the soul that leads to repentance in humility, the day in which we either respond to Yahweh’s offer of cleansing or cut ourselves off forever from the household of faith. It is Yahshua who provides our atonement.
So on this day, the blood is sprinkled not on the altar of incense, but on the mercy seat itself. “And he shall take some of the blood of the bull and sprinkle it with his finger on the front of the mercy seat on the east side, and in front of the mercy seat he shall sprinkle some of the blood with his finger seven times.” (Leviticus 16:11-14) The same procedure would be followed with the first goat (v. 15). But the goat prophesied Christ’s accomplishment as He bore our sins on Calvary’s tree, while the bull that preceded it represented the fact that He did so not according to the wisdom or logic of man (because let’s face it, the idea of saving someone by sacrificing your own life is about as counterintuitive as it gets), but rather, in simple obedience to God. Upon reflection, it transpires that this is the only possible way God could have been both just and merciful at the same time. Honestly, you couldn’t make this stuff up.
Numbers 28 and 29 inform us as to what sorts of animals were to be offered in the context of God’s scheduled convocations in theocratic Israel, and when. Since the temple and priesthood do not exist (at the moment) we must content ourselves with the instructions themselves—we can’t watch the play being performed; we can only read the script. In the matter of bulls, if we stay on our toes, the information imparted can be quite revealing. Bulls are not specified for either the daily or weekly scheduled sacrifices—for these, it’s lambs only: we are constantly being reminded of the innocence of our Messiah, not to mention our responsibility to rest in His finished work.
We begin to see bulls specified in the monthly, or “new moon” offerings. It has occurred to me that the phases of the moon symbolically indicate the varying amount of spiritual “light” that’s being reflected toward our world at any given time. Isaiah, for example, sarcastically challenges the proud wise men of “idolatry central”—Babylon: “Stand fast in your enchantments and your many sorceries, with which you have labored from your youth; perhaps you may be able to succeed; perhaps you may inspire terror. You are wearied with your many counsels. Let them stand forth and save you, those who divide the heavens, who gaze at the stars, who at the new moons make known what shall come upon you.” (Isaiah 47:12-13) It’s dark outside at the time of the new moon—symbolically and literally, the best time to “gaze at the stars” and pretend that man’s wisdom is actually worth a tinker’s damn. Yahweh’s wisdom, on the other hand, is represented when the maximum amount of His light is being reflected onto the earth— symbolically, at the full moon. This truth is demonstrated through God’s timing: His feasts of Passover, Unleavened Bread, Firstfruits, and later, Tabernacles, all occur at the “full moon” phase. (In contrast, the Feast of Trumpets, which I believe predicts God’s scheduling of the rapture harvest, happens at a time of maximum spiritual darkness—the new moon.) So it’s no coincidence that bulls are to be offered at the new moon feasts: our eras of spiritual blindness invariably coincide with the periodic ascendency of the endeavors of man. As one increases, the other diminishes, like inversely proportional clockwork. Thus we are told (in Numbers 28:11) that two bulls are to be offered at all of Israel’s new moon feasts.
Why two? Since it isn’t explained, we’re left to speculate, but it seems fairly obvious to me that the two bulls represent two erroneous man-centric paths—one followed by the nations, and the other followed by Israel. In other words, Jews and gentiles both fall into error and apostasy, but their respective heresies tend to differ. Both, however, are rooted in the practice of taking man’s word over God’s. Most Christians are hyper-aware of the fact that the vast bulk of Yahweh’s communication to mankind came to us through Israel, but it helps to remember that Israel’s place as the exclusive conduit of the oracles of God lasted for only fifteen hundred of man’s six thousand year tenure (so far) upon the earth. As I’ve said before, salvation is of the Jews, though not (exclusively) for the Jews. So two bulls are the rule.
Passover per se is the day of preparation—the day the Lamb was slain. But the result of Passover begins on the seven-day Feast of Unleavened Bread, and here again (Numbers 28:19) we see two bulls specified as an olah—a burnt offering. The same is true of the Feast of Weeks (28:27). If we examine the historical fulfillments of these prophetic convocations, we see that both Jews and gentiles participated in or benefitted from them: the Feast of Unleavened Bread (which includes the Feast of Firstfruits) speaks of the removal of our sin from us; and the Feast of Weeks (a.k.a. Pentecost) predicts the subsequent indwelling of the Holy Spirit within the individual lives of the Messiah’s followers—both Jews and gentiles.
The Feast of Trumpets (Yom Teruah) is where we get our first telling little hint that we’re on the right track in identifying the two bulls of previous mention as applying to Israel and the nations. For here, in the first yet-to-be-fulfilled holy convocation on Yahweh’s schedule, only one bull is specified (Numbers 29:2). Why? Because the day prophesies the removal of the ekklesia from the world—the bodily spiritual transformation of the called-out assembly of Yahshua, as described in I Corinthians 15:49-54. Although the church today is comprised of both Jews and gentiles without functional distinction, this will no longer be the case after the Feast of Trumpets: the rapture will for the first time in two millennia place God’s prophetic focus on Israel alone—and it will go a long way toward restarting the stopwatch that has been paused since March 28 (Nisan 10), 33 A.D.—i.e., between the 69th and 70th “weeks” of the amazing Daniel 9 prophecy. Bottom line: after the definitive Yom Teruah (on the first day of Tishri in some future year that God has chosen not to reveal) Yahweh will no longer suffer the “bull” of gentile religious practices, whether within the church or outside it. Israel will be Yahweh’s focus—a fact revealed by literally hundreds of prophecies predicting their eventual regathering (all twelve tribes), redemption, restoration, and renewal under the rule of their Messiah and King, Yahshua. Needless to say, that hasn’t happened yet.
The really enlightening commentary on the “bull” symbol, however, is latent in the instructions for their sacrifice during the eight days of the Feast of Tabernacles—the final convocation of the annual series, the one prophetic of the Messiah’s Millennial kingdom upon the earth. The details are enumerated in Numbers 29:12-40, but they make no sense at all unless you understand who King Yahshua is dealing with during this period of time. There will be two “races” of humans on earth during the Millennium. First is the immortals—those who, whether living or dead, will have taken part in the rapture event on the Feast of Trumpets—years before the Kingdom age will begin (or a subsequent harvest of martyrs implied to have taken place at the end of the Tribulation: see Revelation 20:4). These people will have received their immortal “spiritual bodies,” as described in I Corinthians 15:42-44. The “bulls” of the Tabernacles offerings do not apply to these believers, for they, as immortals, now have the capacity to “know as they are known.” Confusing human wisdom with God’s word is no longer a problem for them. I, for one, am really looking forward to that.
The Millennial mortals, on the other hand, are in a very different boat. Who are they? These are folks who (1) were alive on earth but missed the rapture (having no relationship with God at the time the event took place); (2) are comprised of both Israelites (whose collective national epiphany concerning the identity of Yahshua as the Messiah will be the central feature of the definitive Day of Atonement) and gentiles, those who subsequently took Yahshua’s advice to the church of Laodicea in Revelation 3:18; (3) all of whom somehow survived through the horrors of the Tribulation, and (4) were counted as “sheep” instead of “goats” as the Kingdom commenced (as characterized in Matthew 25:31-46). These blessed mortals will enter the Millennial kingdom under the personal reign of Christ. They’ll rebuild the earth under His rule, and repopulate the planet.
But they’ll have a problem, at least initially. Every last one of them is, by definition, a “new believer.” It is highly unlikely that more than a handful of them will have any knowledge of God’s plan or purpose beyond the rudimentary information they were able to glean—on the run—during the Tribulation from the angelic messengers or the 144,000 anointed Jewish messengers. All they’re likely to know for sure is to “Fear God and give Him glory, because the hour of His judgment has come, and worship Him who made heaven and earth, the sea and the springs of water.” (Revelation 14:7) If they do this (and manage to stay alive), they will enter the kingdom as one of the blessed mortal “sheep” of Matthew 25:34. But you must admit: as theologies go, this is kind of on the thin side. Yes, they’ll have a thousand years to figure out who Yahweh is, mentored by the raptured immortals and led by the divine King in Jerusalem. But at the beginning of the kingdom age, they won’t know any more than Abram did when God told Him to leave Ur and move to Canaan.
Hence the instructions of Numbers 29. Singling out the bulls (though there is admittedly a lot more going on here), we find that a descending number of bulls are to be sacrificed as burnt offerings during the festival’s eight-day run. On the first day of the feast (v. 13), thirteen young bulls are to be sacrificed—that’s right, thirteen: there’s apparently going to be a whole lot of error in play at the beginning of the Millennial kingdom: even though everybody will honor God, few will even know His name. But things will gradually get better as the time wears on: on the second day twelve bulls are to be offered (v. 17); on the third day, eleven bulls (v. 20); on the fourth day, ten (v. 23); on the fifth day, nine (v. 26); on the sixth day, eight (v. 29); on the seventh day (which seems to indicate the completion of the Millennial kingdom age), seven bulls are to be sacrificed—apparently telling us that the process of weeding out error among the mortal population of the earth will be complete as well.
And what then? The eighth day is set apart as a special Sabbath (v. 35), one I believe symbolizes the commencement of the eternal state. Earth will be dissolved, replaced with a new earth, new heavens, and a new Jerusalem. And every remaining child of Yahweh will shed his or her mortal frame, trading it in for a body designed not for earth, but for eternity. Although we will at this time, by all accounts, be sinless creatures, free of error, and living in perfect harmony with the leader of the flock, there are still sacrifices to be made on the eighth day of the Feast of Tabernacles: seven lambs, one ram, one goat—and one bull—all with their appropriate grain and drink offerings. I can only conclude that throughout our blessed eternal future, Yahweh doesn’t want us to forget anything about what He did for us. Yes, God will wipe away every tear from our eyes—including the tears of shame and frustration our sins have brought upon us. And yes, we are instructed to “Behold, I [Yahweh] create new heavens and a new earth, and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind.” (Isaiah 65:17) But somehow, though our sin, our history, and our former home will have vanished like a bad dream, we will vividly remember waking up in Yahweh’s presence. Just because we will have been “cured” of our fallen humanity at this point, we must never forget the incredible lengths to which God went in order to bring us to this point. I, for one, wouldn’t want to.
I think my favorite “bull” story in scripture is the “prophets’ duel” between Elijah and the priests of Ba’al on Mount Carmel. Israel’s King Ahab (and his pagan queen, Jezebel) had followed the path of Jeroboam (who, you’ll recall, had installed two bull idols for Israel to worship, so his people wouldn’t go to Jerusalem as Yahweh had commanded them to do). Yahweh had responded by sending a severe drought to encourage Israel to reconsider their position—announced by the prophet Elijah. Three years into this drought, Elijah, not surprisingly, found himself “public enemy number one.” (Irrational people invariably attack the messenger instead of heeding the message.) But in a surprise move, he sent word to Ahab to gather the priests of Ba’al and meet him for a showdown at Mount Carmel. This is roughly like John Dillinger calling J. Edgar Hoover and suggesting they meet to talk things over at the First National Bank.
Ahab wouldn’t pass up this opportunity to corner the illusive seer. “So Ahab sent to all the people of Israel and gathered the prophets together at Mount Carmel. And Elijah came near to all the people and said, ‘How long will you go limping between two different opinions? If Yahweh is God, follow Him; but if Baal, then follow him.’ And the people did not answer him a word….” It had been the better part of a century since Jeroboam had promulgated his bull idols, and by this time, the populace of the Northern Kingdom were so used to the travesty, nobody gave it a second thought anymore. (It’s sort of like the Federal Income Tax in America, which had been deemed unconstitutional, illegal, and downright idiotic until 1913, when it suddenly became the law of the land, slipped in right under our noses in the dark of night.) The reason, I believe, that everybody just stood around with their hands in their pockets when Elijah said this, was that nobody had a frame of reference: it never occurred to them that there was anything wrong with their religious practices. They’d lived with apostasy all their lives—so long that the worship of Yahweh probably seemed a quaint and foreign anachronism.
“Then Elijah said to the people, ‘I, even I only, am left a prophet of Yahweh, but Baal’s prophets are 450 men. Let two bulls be given to us, and let them choose one bull for themselves and cut it in pieces and lay it on the wood, but put no fire to it. And I will prepare the other bull and lay it on the wood and put no fire to it.” Only Elijah, of course, would have realized that bulls were appropriate as sin offerings—particularly the sin of placing man’s wisdom over Yahweh’s word. These, however, were not characterized as Levitical offerings—the Levites and priests had all been banished to Judah. But the symbol still holds true. “And you call upon the name of your god, and I will call upon the name of Yahweh, and the God who answers by fire, he is God.” And all the people answered, ‘It is well spoken….’” I imagine the 450 priests of Ba’al didn’t appreciate having their “faith” put to the test like this. But the wily Elijah had backed them into a corner like a lion in a cage—using the clueless King Ahab as his whip. Priceless!
Knowing he had the upper hand, the prophet of Yahweh suggested that his rivals go first. “Then Elijah said to the prophets of Baal, ‘Choose for yourselves one bull and prepare it first, for you are many, and call upon the name of your god, but put no fire to it.’ And they took the bull that was given them, and they prepared it and called upon the name of Baal from morning until noon, saying, ‘O Baal, answer us!’ But there was no voice, and no one answered.” Of course no one answered: Ba’al was a figment of their imagination, a non-existent “deity” invented with one purpose in mind: to enslave the people. “And they limped around the altar that they had made.’ And at noon Elijah mocked them, saying, ‘Cry aloud, for he is a god. Either he is musing, or he is relieving himself, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.’” Elijah was having entirely too much fun with this, but Ba’al, let’s face it, was good for only one thing: getting a laugh. They would have turned and attacked Elijah, of course, but the king had sanctioned this whole fiasco. Their hands were tied. “And they cried aloud and cut themselves after their custom with swords and lances, until the blood gushed out upon them. And as midday passed, they raved on until the time of the offering of the oblation, but there was no voice. No one answered; no one paid attention….” I can’t help but note that if Allah were to be put to the test in a similar fashion today, he too would become a laughing stock. The world would be a very different place if all “religious disputes” were handled like this. The only thing people should be allowed to do is ask their “god” to act. But stonings, beheadings, and car-bombings in defense of your “god’s” questionable reputation should be universally recognized as admissions that he is either an impotent moron, or he doesn’t even exist. Although Yahweh seldom raises His hand or His voice in our world (yet), He does reserve the right to personally exercise judgment—in His own good time. Unlike Allah, He doesn’t demand (or even suggest) that His followers to kill people in defense of His honor. He doesn’t need to.
Anyway, the priests of Ba’al proved convincingly that their “god” wasn’t the least bit interested in helping them. “Then Elijah said to all the people, ‘Come near to me.’ And all the people came near to him. And he repaired the altar of Yahweh that had been thrown down.” The Bible lists quite a few of these altars, scattered about the Land—built by men like Abraham, Jacob, Samuel, Saul, and David. They were not intended to be venues of sacrifice, rivals to the tabernacle or temple (which would have violated the Torah) but were simply commemorative “stone piles,” reminders of times and places in which Yahweh had made His presence known. “Elijah took twelve stones, according to the number of the tribes of the sons of Jacob, to whom the word of Yahweh came, saying, ‘Israel shall be your name,’ and with the stones he built an altar in the name of Yahweh. And he made a trench about the altar, as great as would contain two seahs of seed.” That is, about five bushels. “And he put the wood in order and cut the bull in pieces and laid it on the wood. And he said, ‘Fill four jars with water and pour it on the burnt offering and on the wood.’ And he said, ‘Do it a second time.’ And they did it a second time. And he said, ‘Do it a third time.’ And they did it a third time.’ And the water ran around the altar and filled the trench also with water….” Elijah’s point, of course, was that nothing is impossible for the true and living God. It doesn’t really matter if your wood is all wet; Yahweh is still perfectly capable of lighting your fire, if you ask in faith.
“And at the time of the offering of the oblation, Elijah the prophet came near and said, ‘O Yahweh, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that you are God in Israel, and that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your word.’” That is an extremely important point, one we dare not skip over. Elijah wasn’t “running ahead of God”(as we so often do, asking Him to bless the messes gotten ourselves into with a timely miracle). There’s a difference between faith and presumption. “‘Answer me, O Yahweh, answer me, that this people may know that You, O Yahweh, are God, and that You have turned their hearts back.’” That is an extremely important point, one we dare not skip over. Elijah wasn’t “running ahead of God” (as we so often do, asking Him to bless the messes gotten ourselves into with a timely miracle). There’s a difference between faith and presumption. The point of the whole demonstration was to turn the hearts of the people back to Yahweh. And turn them back, He did: “Then the fire of Yahweh fell and consumed the burnt offering and the wood and the stones and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench. And when all the people saw it, they fell on their faces and said, ‘Yahweh, He is God; Yahweh, He is God.’” (I Kings 18:20-39) You’ve heard of Yahshua turning water into wine. Here, it appears, Yahweh turned it into something a bit stronger: 200-proof alcohol, perhaps. Whatever it was, Yahweh hit it (I imagine) with a lightning bolt, and the whole thing vaporized—the bull, the wood, the rocks, the “water,” and even the dust—leaving nothing but a gaping hole in the ground. And much to the chagrin of the 450 priests of Ba’al, the people came to the proper (not to mention obvious) conclusion: Yahweh is God.
Over the years, the Israelites had forgotten—with a great deal of assistance from their government—who the God was who had been worshiped and relied upon by their forefathers. It is with great sadness that I look upon my own beloved America and realize that the very same thing has happened to us: we too have been led astray into apostasy and error by our elected leaders and the puppet masters who pull their strings—so long now that many of us can’t really remember who our founding fathers relied upon for divine providence. Between revisionist history and satanic sleight of hand, America today has become like Israel of old. By stealing our past, our leaders have denied us our future. At the time of this writing, we are apparently still in the “three-years-of-drought” phase—we’re suffering one national catastrophe after another, designed to wake us up to Yahweh presence and purpose. It is as Isaiah predicted it (in a passage I believe to be prophetic of America’s role in the Last Days): “For before the harvest, when the blossom is over, and the flower becomes a ripening grape, He cuts off the shoots with pruning hooks, and the spreading branches He lops off and clears away.” (Isaiah 18:5) Face it: we are being pruned back like a diseased grapevine, for diseased we are. America needs a “Mount Carmel” experience in the worst way, and I think Isaiah has identified what that “way” will be: the harvest, i.e., the rapture, the catching up of the saints into the heavens, the singular event that will “keep us out of the hour of trial that is to come upon the whole world” (as it’s described in Revelation 3:10). But before the Tribulation has run its course (doing to much of the earth roughly what happened to Elijah’s bull sacrifice), the formerly apostate inhabitants of the earth (some of them, anyway) will be more than ready to admit, “Yahweh, He is God; Yahweh, He is God.”
The point of looking into the prophets’ duel on Mount Carmel was to explore the use of bulls as a scriptural metaphor. The two bulls personify the two different ways man approaches God. The priests of Ba’al demonstrated that they considered man’s methods superior to God’s (since Ba’al—being an invention of the human imagination—had never actually told them to do anything. They had simply made their religion up as they saw fit). But Elijah demonstrated the proper approach, telling Yahweh: “I am your servant, and I have done all these things at your word.” He was a man who allowed Yahweh to work through him. The lesson: the endeavors of man are valid only if performed in the context of Yahweh’s sovereignty. Our “good works” can clothe us either in “filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:6) or “fine linen, clean and bright, the righteous acts of the saints” (Revelation 19:8), depending on our relationship with Yahweh and His Messiah.
That’s not to say doing things God’s way, or in His wisdom, feels natural or intuitive to the average man. It doesn’t. What “feels right” to us is to pay for our own mistakes, right our own wrongs, and work for our own salvation. We naturally believe in supply and demand, cause and effect, action and reaction, crime and punishment—all of which are logical, though incomplete, indicators of how our world usually works. But where our relationship with an infinite God is concerned, His program turns our whole logical paradigm on its head. It’s based on love, not obedience (though obedience is a good thing); mercy, not justice (though justice is ultimately achieved); free will, not obligation (though we are forever indebted to His grace); holiness, not inclusivity (though everyone is welcome in Yahweh’s family). Man’s mind says, “Do right, or God will punish you.” God’s mind says, “Do right, because I have already taken your justly deserved punishment upon Myself.” Man says, “This is too easy: there must be a catch.” And God says, “Of course there’s a catch: salvation your way is impossible—which explains why I had to do everything for you. But easy? You call this easy? It wasn’t easy for Me, I assure you.” It was so difficult, in fact, it took God Himself to pull it off.
Men are morons. It was not for nothing that Yahshua, being crucified, prayed for His tormentors, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34) We don’t know what we’re doing, and we never have. This wasn’t the first time God had expressed this sad fact, either. “After Yahweh had spoken these words to Job [proving His divine sovereignty, and in the process revealing the comparative inadequacy of human logic], Yahweh said to Eliphaz the Temanite: ‘My anger burns against you and against your two friends, for you have not spoken of Me what is right, as My servant Job has.” Job hadn’t really gotten everything right, but at least he’d honored God as being sovereign and just, in spite of his puzzling circumstances. Eliphaz and his friends, in contrast, had blundered in and redefined God’s character according to what they thought He ought to be like. Yahweh was not amused. “Now therefore take seven bulls and seven rams and go to My servant Job and offer up a burnt offering for yourselves. And My servant Job shall pray for you, for I will accept his prayer not to deal with you according to your folly. For you have not spoken of Me what is right, as My servant Job has.’” (Job 42:7-8) The seven rams inform us that Job was to be looked upon as the spiritual leader of their group of friends (or, more to the point, their “priest,” since he was instructed to pray for them), just as Yahweh was honored as Job’s “leader.” But the bulls are an admission that the ideas and ideology of man must take a back seat to Yahweh’s revealed word. Granted, in Job’s day, He hadn’t revealed all that much—there was no “Bible” to which they could refer—and yet Yahweh held Job’s “miserable comforters” responsible to comprehend what He had shown them at this point in man’s history through encounters with such men as Adam, Enoch, and Noah.
Since we have been given more light by which to see, our responsibility today is greater than that required of Eliphaz and company—something that ought to be a rather sobering thought. And I, like Job, would pray for my generation, asking Yahweh not to deal with us according to our folly. But for that prayer to be answered in the affirmative, rams and bulls—symbolic of a fundamental change of heart and mind—must be offered up. Repentance is in order. If it is not forthcoming, the anger of Yahweh will continue to burn against mankind.
Why would anyone subject himself to the anger of Yahweh if there were a way to avoid it? This issue goes deeper than merely “missing some answers” on the quiz of life. The ultimate expression of man’s folly was his rejection of God’s perfect plan for our salvation—carried out, ironically enough, by fulfilling the sacrificial symbols of the Torah by crucifying the Messiah. In one prophetic look at this, the role of the bull is highlighted: “Be not far from Me, for trouble is near, and there is none to help. Many bulls encompass Me; strong bulls of Bashan surround Me; they open wide their mouths at Me, like a ravening and roaring lion.” (Psalm 22:11-13) The entire Psalm in an incredibly accurate picture of the crucifixion, as seen through the eyes of Christ—a thousand years before it happened. The antagonistic “bulls” referred to here symbolize what was really responsible for the murder of the Messiah: man’s refusal to see things God’s way. One could argue that the scribes, Pharisees, chief priests, and Romans who conspired to have Yahshua executed were singularly responsible for carrying out the requirements of the Torah, but their intention was quite the opposite: you don’t get extra points for making two mistakes that cancel each other out. That would be like saying that Adolph Hitler was Israel’s greatest friend because the holocaust he precipitated was ultimately what shifted world opinion (for a brief moment) in favor of a national homeland for the Jews. I’m reasonably certain that this was not his intention. In the same way, when Christ saw “many bulls encompassing Him,” it was clear that their purpose was to throw God’s plan out the window and implement their own. Like I said, men are morons.
That’s true not only individually, but also institutionally. A consistent scriptural symbol (one we’ll cover in detail in a later chapter) for the systematic implementation of the endeavors of men (as opposed to the will of God) is the city of Babylon, the nation of the Chaldeans. Notice how the prophet ties Babylon to bulls in this passage: “How the hammer of the whole earth is cut down and broken! How Babylon has become a horror among the nations! I set a snare for you and you were taken, O Babylon, and you did not know it. You were found and caught, because you opposed Yahweh.” As so often happens in prophetic scripture, “Babylon” here is not only the temporal city-state Jeremiah knew, but also a symbol for something larger—universal, in fact—displaying the same character traits. This is proven beyond the shadow of a doubt by John’s use of the symbol in Revelation 17 and 18. The crux of the symbol (as expressed here, anyway) is that Babylon, the “hammer of the whole earth” (indicating something well beyond one city on the Euphrates) “opposed Yahweh.” “Yahweh has opened his armory and brought out the weapons of his wrath, for the Sovereign Yahweh of hosts has a work to do in the land of the Chaldeans. Come against her from every quarter; open her granaries; pile her up like heaps of grain, and devote her to destruction; let nothing be left of her.” That has been true of political Babylon for several millennia now, but symbolic Babylon, the home of idolatry, is still alive and causing trouble. So Yahweh says, “Kill all her bulls; let them go down to the slaughter. Woe to them, for their day has come, the time of their punishment. A voice! They flee and escape from the land of Babylon, to declare in Zion the vengeance of Yahweh our God, vengeance for His temple.” (Jeremiah 50:23-28) In the long run, Yahweh’s temple is more than the building that Nebuchadnezzar’s armies destroyed in 586 B.C. It is, rather, what the temple (and the tabernacle preceding it) represents: the plan of Yahweh for our redemption and restoration. The “bulls of Babylon” have been at war against God’s purposes since the very beginning. It’s time to see them all sacrificed as a sin offering for the whole world.
It would be a disastrous mistake to assume that all of the Bible’s “judgment passages” have already been fulfilled, just because the historical city of Babylon is now nothing but an archeological dig. Do not presume that Yahweh has forgotten about the godless agenda of fallen man that it represented. Another take on the same basic warning is presented here: “For My sword has drunk its fill in the heavens. Behold, it descends for judgment upon Edom, upon the people I have devoted to destruction.” Edom is the land of Esau—the one man in scripture who (symbolically at least) God said He hated. Esau, you’ll recall, “despised his birthright,” which, in the end, represented Yahweh’s grace. “Yahweh has a sword; it is sated with blood. It is gorged with fat, with the blood of lambs and goats, with the fat of the kidneys of rams. For Yahweh has a sacrifice in Bozrah, a great slaughter in the land of Edom. Wild oxen [not to be confused with the domestic oxen we’ll explore in the next section] shall fall with them, and young steers with the mighty bulls. Their land shall drink its fill of blood, and their soil shall be gorged with fat. For Yahweh has a day of vengeance, a year of recompense for the cause of Zion.” (Isaiah 34:5-8) The reference to Bozrah, an Edomite city, is paralleled in Isaiah 63:1-6 (not to mention Jeremiah 49), where the returning Messiah is seen (apparently at the very end of the Tribulation, at the “battle” of Armageddon) “treading out the winepress of the wrath of God alone.” Who is in line for Yahweh’s vengeance? The bulls (among others)—those who revel in their own strength, listen to their own counsel, and despise the grace of God. The most impressive endeavors of mankind will prove pitifully inadequate when marshaled against the sword of Yahweh, wielded in righteous anger.
Make no mistake: if we don’t sacrifice the “bull” of our lives as a sin offering, God will.
(First published 2014)