3.2.5 Ox: Service
Volume 3: Living Symbols—Chapter 2.5
The symbolic distinction between a “bull” and an “ox” isn’t the species, but the service it provides. Both are cattle, bovines, but a bull is an uncastrated male, hence its place in the symbolic lexicon as something that is virile, powerful, and a bit dangerous, or at least unpredictable—an apt metaphor for the endeavors of man. An ox is the same kind of animal, but one that has been castrated before sexual maturity, making him more docile, predictable, and cooperative, thus suitable as a draft animal.
In the Hebrew, the contrast is even more marked, for the word usually translated “ox” can mean a bovine of either gender. The Dictionary of Biblical Languages defines sowr as: “Cattle, i.e. male or female of the bovine species, as a class or category of animal; a bull, i.e., a fully-grown male bovine—better translated “ox” or “steer” if castrated [note: a steer differs from an ox in why it has been castrated—it is raised for its beef, not its utility]; a cow: i.e., fully-grown female bovine able to bear young; a calf; young male bovine.” I suppose we shouldn’t be too surprised to find several words used to describe essentially the same thing in Hebrew, since the language was used by a largely agrarian society. We’ve already encountered baqar as a rather generic word for cattle or their herds. Sowr overlaps baqar a bit, but it seems to place the emphasis on the individual animal, not so much the herd or the species.
The generic term sowr is used occasionally to describe sacrificial animals in the Torah, but it is clear that oxen per se (that is, cattle that had been castrated to make them more compliant) were not suitable for Levitical offerings. “Any animal that has its testicles bruised or crushed or torn or cut you shall not offer to Yahweh…. Since there is a blemish in them, because of their mutilation, they will not be accepted for you.” (Leviticus 22:24-25) The symbolic point, of course, is that Yahshua would not have been a suitable sacrifice if His life had been “blemished” with sin or compromise. In order to be our propitiation, He had to be a perfect specimen of humanity, with all the promise and peril that implies. But in other ways, the sowr would indeed be pressed into service as a metaphor for the Messiah—in His role as the willing servant of God and man.
One of these Messianic metaphors is the “firstborn offering,” the bekor. This was an extension of the original Passover sacrifice, in which the blood of the Passover lamb identified those who were under Yahweh’s protection—the firstborn of the families whose homes were marked with the blood. Those who had been indemnified by the blood were now, in a very real sense, Yahweh’s property: their lives had been bought with a price, the blood of an innocent animal. So He told the Israelites, “All that open the womb are mine, all your male livestock, the firstborn of cow and sheep.” (Exodus 34:19) The firstborn son, saved through the sacrifice of the lamb, was a picture of Yahweh’s own “firstborn,” Yahshua, who would be slain to save men from the consequences of their own transgressions, just as the Passover lamb’s blood was shed to identify those who were under God’s protection. The picture couldn’t have been any clearer if God Himself had painted the blood on the doorway’s upright wooden post and its crosspiece with His own two hands. Actually, that’s precisely what He did—on Calvary’s cross.
Moses later provided more detail concerning the firstborn offering: “All the firstborn males that are born of your herd and flock you shall dedicate to Yahweh your God. You shall do no work with the firstborn of your herd [sowr—cattle], nor shear the firstborn of your flock. You shall eat it, you and your household, before Yahweh your God year by year at the place that Yahweh will choose. But if it has any blemish, if it is lame or blind or has any serious blemish whatever, you shall not sacrifice it to Yahweh your God.” (Deuteronomy 15:19-21) Yahweh is telling us something quite profound here. There is more than one way to provide “service.” Clean animals can be eaten, of course, oxen can also pull a plow or thresh out the grain, and sheep can provide wool. But by directing us to kill and eat the firstborn of the herd—before it has performed any conventional tasks—Yahweh is prophetically defining the real service His Messiah would provide: his death would provide us with life. Nothing else mattered. His teaching, His healing, His miracles—as wonderful as these things are, none of it would have helped us—not really. If Yahshua had not gone to the cross for us, but instead had lived on until this very day, teaching God’s word in our synagogues and churches, providing a shining example of how to live our lives, emptying out our hospitals, and feeding the hungry multitudes, He would have utterly failed in His real mission: as enlightened and contented as we might feel, we would still be bearing our sins.
So as an “ox,” Yahshua (God’s “firstborn”) came to render but one kind of service to us: sustenance. We are (as He so provocatively put it in John 6:53-54) to “eat His flesh and drink His blood.” That is, we are to assimilate the life that He personifies, making ourselves alive in the process. And considering the huge size of the typical ox, I’d say Yahshua’s remark about coming that we might have abundant life is germane. Spiritually, He’s not just a snack, an appetizer, an hors d’oeuvre. He’s the ultimate seven-course meal, and once we’ve tasted of His goodness, we’ll never be hungry again.
Sometimes, of course, a cow is just a cow—spoken of with no particular symbolic connotation. Often in such cases, the ox is listed along with other animals—donkeys and sheep—as examples of personal property protected by Torah law. But even here, when the ox is singled out, it’s because it’s functional nature is hinting at its symbolic significance. One example: “If a man steals an ox or a sheep, and kills it or sells it, he shall repay five oxen for an ox, and four sheep for a sheep.” (Exodus 22:1) Why the difference in what the thief must pay back? It’s because although both sheep and oxen are valuable resources, an ox is also a tool, an implement of industry—a man’s “tractor,” so to speak. If you steal an ox, you have stolen not only the potential barbecue and the leather made from its hide, but the service it could have rendered as well—its labor. Without his ox, a man would find it far more difficult to grow and process field crops like wheat and barley for his family’s bread. In other words, the service the ox provides represents a significant component of its value.
As if to make the point for me, the record states, “On the day when Moses had finished setting up the tabernacle and had anointed and consecrated it with all its furnishings and had anointed and consecrated the altar with all its utensils, the chiefs of Israel, heads of their fathers’ houses, who were the chiefs of the tribes, who were over those who were listed, approached and brought their offerings before Yahweh, six wagons and twelve oxen, a wagon for every two of the chiefs, and for each one an ox.” The tabernacle and its furnishings were designed to be portable; it had to be moved from time to time at the leading of Yahweh’s Shekinah. That’s not to say it was an easy task: there were literally tons of wood, metal, leather, and fabric to be packed up and transported whenever the pillar of smoke and flame indicated it was time to move on. Yes, the tribe of Levi numbered 22,000 men, but moving the tabernacle was still a physically demanding endeavor. So most of it was to be transported on these wagons, pulled by oxen. (The exceptions were the holiest items, like the ark of the covenant, the golden lampstand, the table of showbread, and the altar of incense, which were to be carried on the shoulders of the Levites of the clan of Kohath—see Leviticus 4.) “They brought them before the tabernacle. Then Yahweh said to Moses, ‘Accept these from them, that they may be used in the service of the tent of meeting, and give them to the Levites, to each man according to his service.’ So Moses took the wagons and the oxen and gave them to the Levites.” (Numbers 7:1-6) It’s worth noting that Moses and Aaron were of the clan of Kohath. Though these Levites were privileged to carry the most sacred parts of the tabernacle, it was no sinecure: they were given no wagons or oxen to help bear the load. The lesson: with increased honor comes increased labor; with more responsibility comes greater toil. Leadership roles in the kingdom of God are positions of sacrifice and service, not wealth and privilege.
Like our trucks and tractors today, oxen for the Hebrews required upkeep and maintenance. You had to feed them. They made life on a larger scale possible, but there was a trade-off, as Solomon points out: “Where there are no oxen, the manger is clean, but abundant crops come by the strength of the ox.” (Proverbs 14:4) This (to me) points out the fundamental dichotomy between the monastic mindset (in which poverty for poverty’s sake is somehow perceived as honoring to God) and Christ’s statement that “I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly.” (John 10:10) Economic self-flagellation done to impress God (or worse, men) can be just as idolatrous as the love of money. What we have (or don’t have) in this life should be seen as a gift of God, to be used appropriately and honestly. If we find ourselves with “no oxen,” we should rejoice that we subsequently have no encumbrances to distract us—a “clean manger”; but if the “strength of the ox” has resulted in “abundant crops,” then we should rejoice instead that we have something to share with those who are less fortunate. The “ox” though, whatever form he takes, will work wherever God has placed him, able and willing to provide his own quiet service.
Throughout scripture there is an undercurrent of purpose: because Yahweh loved us, we are to love our fellow man in response—demonstrating that love through our service and generosity. This (with the added component of strength or ability) is the very picture the ox presents. But as I said, oxen require maintenance if you want them to continue functioning at their peak—you’ve got to feed them, water them, and let them rest from their labors. So we should not be surprised to find that Yahweh made it mandatory in the Torah to take care of one’s beasts of burden: “You shall not muzzle an ox when it is treading out the grain.” (Deuteronomy 25:4) Later, Paul made the obvious connection between the Torah precept and the day-to-day operation of the Kingdom of God: “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching. For the Scripture says, ‘You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,’ and, ‘The laborer deserves his wages.’” (I Timothy 5:17-18)
Balance and thoughtfulness are required here. Note that the ox isn’t to be given the deed to the farm, nor be fed the entire wheat harvest. The bane of Christendom (like every other religion in the world) is clerics who grow fat at the expense of the people they “serve.” Yahshua decried the practice of the scribes and Pharisees who got rich by “devouring widows’ houses.” Priests and preachers who don’t actually “labor” for their wages—never mind popes and cardinals (and whatever you’d call their non-Catholic counterparts) who are more politicians than servants of God or man—should hang their heads in shame. And yet, Yahweh has ordained that it is right and proper for His servants to receive remuneration for their labors in His fields—a living wage, commensurate with what any hard-working person might earn.
But (as any self-respecting ox knows) it’s not really about the wages. The ox doesn’t plow the field in order to get at what’s in the manger at the end of the day; rather, he does it because that’s the job—it’s what he’s supposed to be doing, taking cues from his owner, pulling the plow in a straight line. The salient admonition from Yahshua is, “Do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.” (Matthew 6:31-34) If we serve in love, Yahweh will be faithful in making sure there’s food and drink and a roof over our heads. Or at least, that’s always been my experience. But I’ve only been serving Him for sixty years now. Maybe things will change tomorrow. Somehow, though, I doubt it.
Yahweh knows our limits. Having designed us, He knows we’re not perpetual motion machines—we need to recharge our batteries (so to speak) every so often. So He provided for even this, in the Law of the Sabbath: “Six days you shall do your work, but on the seventh day you shall rest; that your ox and your donkey may have rest, and the son of your servant woman, and the alien, may be refreshed.” (Exodus 23:12) Everybody is to rest on the Sabbath. We’re told that even God “rested” from His labors on the seventh day (see Genesis 2:2-3). That’s not because He got tired, of course, but because He wished to introduce a universal symbol: the Sabbath rest is a picture of our ultimate need to rest in Him. “Observe the Sabbath day, to keep it holy, as Yahweh your God commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to Yahweh your God. On it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter or your male servant or your female servant, or your ox or your donkey or any of your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates, that your male servant and your female servant may rest as well as you….” There’s nothing wrong with work or service, you understand. It is what people are supposed to do. It’s what the “ox” symbol is all about. It’s worth noting that Adam, even before his fall into sin, had a job to do. (It’s the sin of man that turned work into drudgery.) But God has made it abundantly clear that no one—rich or poor, male or female, young or old, clean or unclean (the symbolic distinction between oxen and donkeys), master or slave, or Jew or gentile—can attain salvation or forgiveness by working for it. In the end, we must rest in Yahweh’s provision.
So He gives Moses’ original audience a pointed reminder of how His provision works, in terms they couldn’t miss: “You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and Yahweh your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore Yahweh your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day.” (Deuteronomy 5:12-15) The Israelites had been helpless to bring about their own release from slavery, and they knew it. God had had to provide it for them; they had only to accept it—and to walk out of Egypt free men. And in the process, they learned the difference between service and servitude. Like abused oxen, they had been used by their Egyptian overlords as beasts of burden. But now that Yahweh had freed them from all that, the last thing He wanted them to do was voluntarily return to a life of servitude and slavery—this time under cruel taskmasters of their own imagination or manufacture. No, the paradigm from this point forward was to be “Work while you can in gratitude to God and joyful service to your fellow man, for the Sabbath is coming when no man can work.”
Although they doubtless didn’t understand it at the time, this was all a picture of mankind’s release from his bondage to sin. Once freed, our only obligation became one of love for the God who had purchased our freedom. Gratitude and thanksgiving are our natural and proper response, shown to Him through our love for other people (see I John 4:7-8, etc.). But God’s word is peppered from one end to the other with indications (and outright prophecies) that our allotted time of service in this world is limited: “Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to Yahweh your God.” If II Peter 3:8 and Psalm 90:4 mean what they say (and aren’t merely metaphorical), then mankind’s opportunity to respond to Yahweh’s love in this world will be limited to a six thousand year period—from the fall of Adam until the beginning of the earthly reign of King Yahshua. The “Sabbath,” the last of man’s seven millennia, is prophetic of Christ’s thousand-year reign, when our opportunities for this sort of service will have passed us by. That might sound academic, but check your calendar: any way you calculate it, our six thousand year window of opportunity is almost closed. If working for God’s glory is on our personal agenda, we’d best get busy.
The world, of course, doesn’t really want us to work on behalf of the kingdom of God. Our service is resented (whether overtly or covertly) because it honors a God the world doesn’t recognize or revere. That service makes it harder for the world to “keep up with the Jones’s” in the self-righteousness department. And it (in their eyes, at least) “blows the bell curve” in the quiz of life: one legendary “Mother Teresa” they can live with, but a whole community full of goodie-two-shoes Christians reflecting the love of their Savior through their consistent, selfless service is just too much to stomach.
A revealing insight into how God feels about this can be gleaned from Jacob’s deathbed “blessing” of his twelve sons. Two of them had, years before, avenged their sister’s honor with the edge of the sword. The Hivite prince Shechem had raped their sister Dinah, so through subterfuge, Simeon and Levi slew the prince, plus his father and all the males of their city, plundering the populace and looting their livestock. (The story is found in Genesis 34). When he heard about it, Jacob was mortified—not because justice had been done upon Shechem, but because innocents had been destroyed along with the guilty. That song that has never been in Yahweh’s repertoire. So Jacob said, “Simeon and Levi are brothers; weapons of violence are their swords. Let my soul come not into their council; O my glory, be not joined to their company. For in their anger they killed men, and in their willfulness they hamstrung oxen. Cursed be their anger, for it is fierce, and their wrath, for it is cruel! I will divide them in Jacob and scatter them in Israel.” (Genesis 49:5-7)
Considering all the murder and mayhem the two brothers had inflicted, it may seem strange for Jacob to mention and condemn the comparatively insignificant fact that they had “hamstrung oxen.” But in light of the scriptural symbolism that’s emerging about oxen, perhaps we are being taught a lesson (beyond that of letting the punishment fit the crime). Oxen signify service. To willfully cut off the capability or possibility of future service in a fit of anger, wrath, and unrestrained malice is just plain wrong: it’s not only counterproductive, shortsighted, and mean spirited; it is a pretty clear picture of cutting off opportunities for repentance. In my experience, some of the most effective witnesses for the grace of God are people who have sinned greatly in the past, only to find and receive Christ’s love and mercy afterward. These folks (unlike lifelong believers) have a very clear picture in mind of what—and how much—they have been forgiven. I’m not saying this is the preferred path, of course, but it should be self evident that if their punishment had grossly outweighed their crimes, God’s mercy might have been rendered moot, as far as their subsequent earthly testimony was concerned. Repentance leading to service in love would have been tragically precluded: the oxen would have been “hamstrung.” It makes no sense to execute a man for J-walking, even though it is against the law; it’s far more logical to assign him to an afternoon’s community service as a school crossing guard. Don’t cripple the ox.
Speaking of “crime and punishment,” we should look into Yahweh’s civil liability law as it applies to (or rather, is revealed by) oxen. The ox is valuable as a draft animal for precisely the same reason it’s inherently dangerous: its strength. A two thousand pound animal doesn’t need a bad attitude to kill you, and it wouldn’t have to try very hard to get the job done. All it really needs is a moment of carelessness. The first time it happens, however, it’s impossible to tell whether the ox merely had an innocent accident or a momentary lapse in its normal docile, compliant nature. So Yahweh issued these wise instructions: “When an ox gores a man or a woman to death, the ox shall be stoned, and its flesh shall not be eaten, but the owner of the ox shall not be liable….” First, the ox’s owner isn’t to be held accountable for an eventuality he couldn’t possibly have foreseen. Second, we aren’t to take any chances. Not knowing what caused the ox to gore its victim, we are to err on the side of caution: the animal is to be killed. Third, no one is to benefit or profit from this tragedy: the ox is not to be used for meat. This is the opposite of the “firstborn offering” scenario we saw above. The difference is that Gods “firstborn” (Yahshua) was entirely innocent, while this out-of-control beast is guilty of manslaughter. Fourth, note the method of the ox’s execution: he is to be stoned to death. The point of stoning (as opposed to some other form of execution) is that the whole community is to participate in its death. As the congregation has been diminished by the loss of the victim, the ox must suffer retribution at the hands of the congregation. In other words, this isn’t a legal matter to be settled between the victim’s family and the ox’s owner; it’s a moral issue to be settled between the ox and the community it has harmed.
Remember, the ox is a symbol for service. If what the “ox” does is harmful (despite his intentions), the whole point of being an ox has been lost. In order to be of service, the ox must perform as its owner directs. Oxen don’t play chess: they aren’t known for their cleverness or their ability to calculate the consequences of their actions. When they act unilaterally, things tend to get broken. In this context, we believers are the “oxen,” operating (ideally) under the direct supervision of Yahweh, as the Messiah, through the Holy Spirit. But what happens when the Church doesn’t listen to its owner and tries to figure things out on its own. The field doesn’t get plowed; the grain doesn’t get threshed; the wagon doesn’t get pulled. Rather, fences are trampled, barn falls down, and men and women get gored to death. One historical example among many: in the late twelfth century a movement called the Waldensians gained traction among European Christians. It stressed a literal interpretation of the Bible, a life of simplicity, and a rejection of the top-heavy (and decidedly unbiblical) ecclesiastical structure of the Roman Catholic Church. The Catholics, feeling threatened by such outrageous “heresies,” hunted down and killed Waldensians by the tens of thousands. It is my belief that these Catholics (many of them) genuinely thought they were serving God by murdering these simple Christians. But these would-be “oxen” weren’t taking directions from their owner/master—Yahshua. Rather, they were just following their own brutish instincts. So, as the Torah points out, God wasn’t to blame for the destructive actions of the Church—even if it was His Church. Yahweh does not physically compel anyone to obey His commandments. No, this out of control “ox,” the Roman Catholic hate machine known as the Inquisition, needed to be taken out and stoned by the whole community.
The Torah’s lesson plan continues. What if the ox has shown aggressive tendencies in the past—even if it hasn’t actually killed anyone yet? “But if the ox has been accustomed to gore in the past, and its owner has been warned but has not kept it in, and it kills a man or a woman, the ox shall be stoned, and its owner also shall be put to death.” If the owner of the ox could have taken measures to prevent the tragedy—and didn’t bother—he is deemed criminally negligent, and subject to the same death-by-stoning penalty as the animal. It is as if the ox was like a land mine the owner had planted: it was only a matter of time before it went off and somebody got hurt. Of course, in the interest of being fair, the Torah considers an intermediate scenario. What if (for instance) the ox was known to be a bit frisky, so the owner had honestly tried to keep him confined—and he still got out and killed someone? In that case, the life of the owner could be ransomed with a stiff fine, presumably paid to the family of the victim. “If a ransom is imposed on him, then he shall give for the redemption of his life whatever is imposed on him. If it gores a man’s son or daughter [his own, is the implication in the Hebrew], he shall be dealt with according to this same rule....”
One more contingency deserves our attention: what if the victim were a slave? The fate of the errant ox is still the same, but slave’s owner is to be compensated. “If the ox gores a slave, male or female, the owner shall give to their master thirty shekels of silver, and the ox shall be stoned.” (Exodus 21:28-32) I realize this flies in the face of our American sense of freedom and equality. But God is making a symbolic point. He’s not condoning the institution of slavery, but He is pointing out that it is a fact of life. Whether we realize it or not, we are all slaves of whatever or whomever we serve. If you are Yahweh’s, “You are not your own, for you were bought with a price,” (I Corinthians 6:19-20)—and an incredibly steep price at that. But the same is true if we serve our sin: the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, or the pride of life. If we serve the world, it “owns” us—it is our master, and we are its slaves.
That “thirty shekels of silver” reference, of course, sounds very familiar to anyone conversant with the crucifixion narrative: it is the price Judas Iscariot was paid for betraying Yahshua—it was the price of a slave (establishing the concept that Christ was the servant of mankind). Is this precept a prophecy, then? Let’s see. Who shelled out the thirty pieces of silver—defining them as the irresponsible “owner” of the killer ox? It was the chief priests—the religious elite of Israel. The ox itself—who should have been kept under control but who ended up goring the innocent One to death—was Rome: that big, powerful, supposedly benign political entity that just couldn’t restrain itself from throwing its weight around. The innocent “slave,” as we’ve established, was Yahshua the Messiah.
The shocking epiphany here is identity of the slave’s “master.” It was Judas Iscariot who was paid the thirty silver shekels. Judas? Yes—along with all of the rest of us who are given the opportunity to learn for ourselves who Yahshua is. We don’t “own” God, of course. But in this context, the “slave master” is the one who gets to call the shots, to make his own decisions, to exercise his free will—at least insofar as the “slave” is concerned. In other words, it is up to us to choose what we wish to do with the Christ. We aren’t forced to regard the Messiah one way or the other. Judas, wielding his free will like a three-year-old with his father’s loaded pistol, decided to turn Him over to the guys keeping the uncontrollable ox in the flimsy pen. The other disciples merely trembled in fear of the Roman ox—until they received the Spirit of boldness and began preaching the truth in the ox’s backyard. But this is where the earlier admonition comes into play: “If the ox has been accustomed to gore in the past, and its owner has been warned but has not kept it in, and it kills a man or a woman, the ox shall be stoned, and its owner also shall be put to death.” The events of Passover, 33 AD, proved that the Roman ox couldn’t be trusted. But the chief priests of Israel stubbornly maintained their relationship with the unruly beast, because it pulled so much weight for them. After Yahshua had raised Lazarus from the dead, “the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered the Council and said, ‘What are we to do? For this man performs many signs. If we let Him go on like this, everyone will believe in Him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.’” (John 11:47-48) So much for “best-laid plans.” Less than one generation after they had turned their “ox” loose on God’s Messiah, this very thing happened: in 70 AD the Romans turned on the chief priests and Pharisees, goring them by “taking away their place and their nation.” And although it took a few centuries to bring the beast down, the Roman ox eventually collapsed under the weight of internal corruption and barbarian pressure. Just as the Torah had prescribed.
The ox probably wouldn’t seem to be a particularly compelling scriptural symbol, except for one thing. It is used—in both the Old Testament and the New—as a direct visionary representation of God’s nature. In both places (one in Ezekiel 1 and the other in Revelation 4) the prophet was being shown that Yahweh manifests Himself to men (as the Messiah) through four different character profiles—symbolized by the man, the ox, the lion, and the eagle—apparently shifting in predominance according to where (or should I say, when) mankind is in the progression of God’s plan for our redemption. The first two are now historical reality, and the last two are still within the realm of yet-to-be-fulfilled prophecy. Although both visions were clearly meant to convey information about God to the prophet, in neither case is it suggested that these symbols are all there is to Yahweh’s character. In John’s vision, in fact, the man-ox-lion-eagle image is seen standing in the presence of God (pictured as One seated on a throne), but also separate from the Lamb (see Revelation 5:6). In other words, God, though “One,” is presenting Himself through several distinct symbols, all shown together in the same vision. Each divine attribute is to be considered separately. And note further that both visions were given to prophets living in exile, as if to say, “People need to understand the complex nature of God more than ever when they’re facing tribulation.”
If you’ll recall, I covered both of these passages back in Volume I, Chapter 2 (The Nature of God: Visionary Manifestations—God as Apparition). It is not my purpose here to plow over old ground, but to focus on the ox as a symbol describing one of the ways Yahweh manifests His presence among us. First, Ezekiel describes what he saw: “As I looked, behold, a stormy wind came out of the north, and a great cloud, with brightness around it, and fire flashing forth continually, and in the midst of the fire, as it were gleaming metal. And from the midst of it came the likeness of four living creatures [Hebrew chayah—living beings, not “creatures”]. And this was their appearance: they had a human likeness, but each had four faces, and each of them had four wings….” God is not telling us what He looks like. Rather, He’s revealing the character or nature of the One through whom He has elected to interact directly with man. Basically, His chosen form is that of a human being—like us. I see this as an amazing expression of empathy: His primary purpose is not to terrify or intimidate us, awe us into submission, or impress us with His glory. If He had wanted to do those things, He could just as easily have presented Himself as a glowing seven-ton tarantula. Instead, He wanted to put us at ease, to give us something (someone) familiar and non-threatening in form, with whom we could relate—even though God is not actually a man. Bear in mind, of course, that these four living beings emanated from something that was awesome and unapproachable, something decidedly non-anthropomorphic. Yahweh doesn’t really look like that, either, but Ezekiel needed to witness the process of God’s condescension on our behalf—His reaching out to us in love and tenderness.
It’s a matter of conjecture, of course, as to why the form of a man was chosen. We have something of a chicken or egg dilemma here: since “God made man in His own image and likeness” (Genesis 1:26), was He merely reverting back to His true form, or was it that mortal man was “designed” to be the perfect physical receptacle for hosting an eternal but ephemeral Spirit? I don’t know, and I don’t suppose it matters. What does matter is that God purposed to walk among us as a man, sacrificing Himself in flesh in order to reconcile our race to Himself. So here in Ezekiel’s vision, the living creatures’ form was basically anthropomorphic. Thus we read, “Their legs were straight.” That is, they looked like human legs, as opposed to animals’ legs and feet, which are invariably crooked. The living beings walked upright before God (in every conceivable way). But there were differences, too, all of which were symbolic, designed to convey information beyond the fact that God would appear as a man: “And the soles of their feet were like the sole of a calf’s foot. And they sparkled like burnished bronze….” The “calf” here is our old friend egel, the bull-calf, an adolescent, weaned, nearly-mature male bovine—who at this stage of his life has the potential of becoming either a “bull” (indicative of the endeavors of man) or an ox (symbolic of service). The “calf” is thus standing at a crossroads: a choice must be made to determine which potential character trait will define him. The “burnished bronze” of the hooves reinforce this idea: bronze is symbolic of judgment, which in scripture doesn’t so much mean condemnation as it does decision, choice, the selection of one thing over another one. As we can see in retrospect, the man-calf, Yahshua, became an ox, not a bull—serving God and man in His life and through His death, opting against the tempting path of human effort and logic.
Yahweh’s Messiah, having manifested Himself as a man walking in the path of service, will subsequently reveal a series of other “faces,” one of which is the ox, as Ezekiel’s vision now demonstrates: “Under their wings on their four sides they had human hands. And the four had their faces and their wings thus: their wings touched one another. Each one of them went straight forward, without turning as they went. As for the likeness of their faces, each had a human face. The four had the face of a lion on the right side, the four had the face of an ox on the left side, and the four had the face of an eagle. Such were their faces….” All four living beings had the same four faces, each explaining a different facet of the nature of the Messiah, the anointed Man. The ox speaks of His service (to God, on behalf of man); the lion His authority; and the eagle (as lord of the heavens) His deity.
The living beings in Ezekiel’s vision didn’t turn from side to side in order to emphasize one “face” or another at any given time. Rather, all four of them moved as a unit, and the direction it moved put one face at a time in the position of prominence. “And their wings were spread out above. Each [living being] had two wings, each of which touched the wing of another, while two covered their bodies. And each went straight forward. Wherever the spirit would go, they went, without turning as they went.” I think what’s being revealed here is that the Messiah doesn’t change or morph from one character to another as He fulfills His destiny. As James puts it (in 1:17), with the Father of lights, “there is no variation or shadow due to change” (or “shadow of turning” in some translations). The Messiah is always all four things—human, servant, king, and God, even though one of the four attributes is being accentuated at any given time during our walk through history. Even the apparent opposites—servant vs. Sovereign or man vs. Maker—are always equal parts of the overall picture. “As for the likeness of the living [beings], their appearance was like burning coals of fire, like the appearance of torches moving to and fro among the living [beings]. And the fire was bright, and out of the fire went forth lightning. And the living [beings] darted to and fro, like the appearance of a flash of lightning.” (Ezekiel 1:4-14) Lest we be tempted to reduce the Messiah to a series of mental metaphors, Ezekiel reminds us (again) that what he saw was in reality completely foreign to our normal earthly human experience. Though words no doubt failed him (as they would us), we must nevertheless try to appreciate the awe the prophet must have felt: he had been given a glimpse of the very glory of God.
Ezekiel later saw a vision with similar imagery. This time, however, the ox (the servant) is replaced with a cherub. “And every one had four faces: the first face was the face of the cherub, and the second face was a human face, and the third the face of a lion, and the fourth the face of an eagle.” (Ezekiel 10:14) The point of the symbol has, however, remained absolutely constant. Cherubs (i.e, cherubim) are a class of powerful angelic beings, usually depicted with wings, who serve God—and, at His direction, man as well. So in that respect, cherubim are like oxen.
John had a similar vision during his stay in exile on the Island of Patmos. Thankfully, his was a bit simpler: “After this [the messages to the seven individual churches of Asia Minor] I looked, and behold, a door standing open in heaven! And the first voice, which I had heard speaking to me like a trumpet, said, ‘Come up here [an invitation that sounds a lot like the rapture—the fulfillment of the Feast of Trumpets], and I will show you what must take place after this.’” If the invitation does indeed refer to the rapture, then “this” refers to the church age, whose historical course was plotted through the seven letters of Revelation 2 & 3. This in turn would mean that what followed is a description of the Messiah as He will be revealed after the Christians have been caught up from the earth. “At once I was in the Spirit, and behold, a throne stood in heaven, with one seated on the throne. And he who sat there had the appearance of jasper and carnelian, and around the throne was a rainbow that had the appearance of an emerald. Around the throne were twenty-four thrones, and seated on the thrones were twenty-four elders, clothed in white garments, with golden crowns on their heads. From the throne came flashes of lightning, and rumblings and peals of thunder, and before the throne were burning seven torches of fire, which are the seven spirits of God, and before the throne there was as it were a sea of glass, like crystal….” We are in the very throne room of Yahweh Almighty (which explains why John had to be put “into the spirit” in order to see it). Note that the twenty-four elders (representing the redeemed of the previous ages, both Israel and the ekklesia) are present with God in heaven—another indication that this scene is subsequent to the rapture. But since the Messiah has yet to be revealed in the totality of His character, it is clear that the Tribulation and Millennium are still future as this scene unfolds. This is thus one of many strong scriptural evidences for a pre-Tribulation rapture.
“And around the throne, on each side of the throne, are four living creatures [as in Ezekiel, “beings” is a much better translation—these are not created entities, but are manifestations of Yahweh’s nature], full of eyes in front and behind: the first living [being] like a lion, the second living [being] like an ox, the third living [being] with the face of a man, and the fourth living [being] like an eagle in flight….” This time, the living ones are seen separately, identified by their individual characteristics: authority, service, humanity (that is, empathy with mankind), and finally deity. And this time, the order is apparently significant: the very first thing we see is Christ in His post-rapture persona as King of kings and Lord of lords—something we didn’t get to experience (except through the eyes of faith) during His first advent. But at this point in the story, Yahweh’s heavenly glory (the eagle) isn’t yet the all-consuming paradigm. The second character profile is still that of the lowly ox. The Messiah is still in “service” mode, for there are yet mortals living upon the earth at this point, and there will be for another thousand years. They too need salvation and guidance. Thus the humanity of the Servant-King is stressed next. Only then is the deity of the Messiah revealed as His primary characteristic, and this facet of His nature will dominate the rest of eternity. I have no idea if the people who assembled the New Testament canon understood any of this, but I find it fascinating that the order of the Gospels reflects precisely what we see here in John’s vision: Matthew presents Christ as King; Mark stresses His service; Luke highlights Yahshua’s humanity; and John reveals the deity of our Savior.
John’s vision continues: “And the four living [beings], each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all around and within, and day and night they never cease to say, ‘Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!’” This is the second time God’s “vision” is emphasized: the living beings have eyes “in front and behind,” “around and within”—He sees and comprehends everything. “And whenever the living [beings] give glory and honor and thanks to Him who is seated on the throne, who lives forever and ever, the twenty-four elders fall down before Him who is seated on the throne and worship Him who lives forever and ever. They cast their crowns before the throne, saying, ‘Worthy are You, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for You created all things, and by Your will they existed and were created.’” (Revelation 4)
It’s easy enough for us redeemed mortals to see “casting our crowns” before God in worship and adoration. But to someone raised (as I was) on the idea that God is a trinity—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—this whole scene with the four living beings is impossible to comprehend. Yes, “God the Father” seems to be the one seated upon the emerald-rainbow-wreathed heavenly throne. And “God the Son” shows up on cue a few verses later as a “Lamb standing, as though it had been slain, with seven horns and with seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth.” (Revelation 5:6) But the four living beings clearly display the attributes of the Messiah—a.k.a. the Lamb. By no stretch of logic or desire can they be construed as a manifestation of the Holy Spirit, and they can’t be angels, either. And yet, here they are, surrounding the throne, giving glory, honor, and thanks to Yahweh. It is only when we come to terms with the truth that Yahweh our God is One, but that He manifests Himself in all sorts of diminished forms in order to save, instruct, and commune with you and me, that any of this makes sense. There is no “box” big enough to contain the true and living God. We should really stop trying to shoehorn Yahweh into our neat little theological theories. He won’t fit.
We Christians rightly endeavor to be “Christ-like.” But of these four Messianic characteristics revealed by the four “living beings” of both Ezekiel’s and John’s visions, only one—the ox—is a proper object for our emulation. Yes, it was astonishing for God to have humbled Himself by taking upon Himself the form of a man, but for us, it’s no big deal—this is how we were created, though we have managed to screw up Yahweh’s original design. And although we are destined to reign (as it says in Revelation 1:6) as “kings and priests” under the auspices of Yahshua, the exercise of royal authority over men is clearly the prerogative of the Messiah alone, as He informed us after His resurrection: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Me.” (Matthew 28:18) (Actually, the word translated “kings” here (the Greek basileia) could just as legitimately be rendered “kingdom,” i.e., the territory or populace subject to the monarch’s rule—“a kingdom of priests.”) And deity? Mormon theology notwithstanding, that’s the last thing Yahweh would have wanted us to aspire to. Remember, in Isaiah 14, Lucifer—Satan—said, “I will make myself like the Most High.” But the prophet reported what would really happen: “But you are brought down to Sheol, to the far reaches of the pit.”
That leaves only the ox as an attribute of Christ that we should be striving to duplicate. As Yahshua instructed His disciples, “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you. Rather, let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. For who is the greater, one who reclines at table or one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at table? But I am among you as the one who serves.” (Luke 22:25-27) Later, the Master performed a very un-masterly task: He washed His disciples’ feet—normally the job of a lowly bondservant in that culture. And He asked them, “Do you understand what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you.” (John 13:12-15) Basically, He was saying, “Don’t consider it ‘beneath you’ to perform the most menial of tasks on behalf of your fellow man in My name. It is in My nature to function as an ox, rendering quiet service to mankind—doing for them what they are not able to do for themselves. Go, and do likewise.”
This may sound (to the uninformed) as if work, service, and effort are the price of salvation. I can assure you: thousands of scriptures conspire to declare that this is not the case. Quite the opposite, in fact. That being said, Yahweh’s “week” is comprised of six days of work, followed by one day of rest. In other words, work is a fact of life, at least for now. Confucius once said, “Do something you love, and you’ll never ‘work’ a day in your life.” Having been on both sides of that coin, I can vouch for the basic veracity of the sentiment. (Those six months I spent as an insurance salesman in my youth went by far more slowly than my thirty years as a designer.) Although work doesn’t have to be drudgery, it sometimes is—laborious, difficult, unfulfilling, underappreciated, and poorly remunerated. What we wouldn’t give, sometimes, for somebody to work alongside us, mentoring, assisting, encouraging, and at the end of the day, congratulating us for a job well done. Actually, Yahshua is the very person we’ve been hoping to find.
Comparing Himself (once again) to an ox yoked to God’s plow, He invites us to join Him: “Come to Me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you, and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy, and My burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30) To fully appreciate this invitation, you have to picture a typical yoke of Yahshua’s day. It was built for two animals, walking side by side. To train a neophyte ox, it would be yoked together with an older, experienced ox, one who had seen his share of barley fields and knew how to get the job done. The “mentor” ox would, by example, teach the “student” all about pace, straight furrows, and following the subtle instructions of the plowman. Christ is saying that He is this “mentor ox.” (I suppose you could also say that the “Plowman” is Yahweh, but that role is not really being discussed here.) Not only does Yahshua know the ropes, but He outweighs us by a ton, so our distractions, misguided inclinations, and petty rebellions are going to be countered with irresistible momentum designed to keep us in line, moving at the right pace and in the right direction—if we’re yoked together with Him. If we fight against Him, we’ll end up frustrated, exhausted, and bruised, though the field will still get plowed. We’re being trained to focus on the task at hand.
However, this is the only farm in the world in which the young ox has a choice of who (if anyone) he wants to be yoked with. Being yoked with Christ is strictly voluntary, though if you want to serve, it’s the only game in town. Dragging a plow around the field of life without reference to the Plowman’s (Yahweh’s) intentions or design will do more harm than good. But doing things God’s way—yoked together with the Messiah—is actually easier than it looks, because He is pulling most of the weight.
As I said, the typical yoke is made for two oxen. Therefore, the one with whom we choose to be yoked is of critical importance. Paul admonished us, “Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness? What accord has Christ with Belial? Or what portion does a believer share with an unbeliever? What agreement has the temple of God with idols?” It’s one thing to yoke two oxen together (one mature, wise, and strong, the other young and untrained). It’s something else entirely to yoke an ox with a garden slug, a tyrannosaurus rex, or a dead tree. If you do, that field will never get plowed. “For we are the temple of the living God; as God said, ‘I will make My dwelling among them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. Therefore go out from their midst, and be separate from them, says Yahweh, and touch no unclean thing; then I will welcome you, and I will be a father to you, and you shall be sons and daughters to Me, says Yahweh Almighty.” (II Corinthians 6:14-18, quoting Isaiah 52:11 and Jeremiah 31:1, 9) The whole point of being “equally yoked,” of God’s people working side by side with God (rather than with God’s enemies) is the issue of holiness. We are to be separate, set apart from the world and set apart for Yahweh’s use and pleasure. I am constantly flabbergasted that such a large segment of the “church” doesn’t seem to understand this. Yes, we should reach out in love to atheists, homosexuals, Communists, Muslims, and serial jaywalkers. But that doesn’t mean we are to embrace their attitudes and idolatries—yoking ourselves to someone other than Christ. It is not a loving act to make someone feel good about committing suicide. If a man is sinking in quicksand, it won’t help to jump into the pit with him out of a misguided sense of empathy. We are to remain separate—and throw him a lifeline.
Paul (as usual) was building upon a principle laid down in the Torah. “You shall not sow your vineyard with different kinds of seed, lest the yield of the seed which you have sown and the fruit of your vineyard be defiled. You shall not plow with an ox and a donkey together. You shall not wear a garment of different sorts, such as wool and linen mixed together.” (Deuteronomy 22:9-11) None of these things are intrinsically “evil.” The prohibitions are strictly symbolic: by following Yahweh’s instructions here, Israel would have been demonstrating what it means to be holy. In the case of being “unequally yoked,” note that there’s nothing wrong (in the eyes of the precept) with plowing with a couple of donkeys. In practical terms, this means that just as good works done in service to God and man in Yahweh’s name and in His strength (reflecting the “clean” status of the ox) are our proper due as believers, “good works” done by lost people (donkeys are ceremonially unclean animals) in the power of the flesh are not to be discouraged or forbidden. However, the two things are separate, and are to remain distinct. God won’t take credit for man’s pitiful efforts, and the endeavors of man must not be elevated to parity with the works of God (which is the underlying connotation of the Third Commandment, if you think about it).
Another permutation of this principle was played out in Acts 16. A demon-possessed slave girl was following Paul and Silas around Philippi, announcing, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation.” (Acts 16:17) Although this was by all accounts true, Paul was irked, disturbed, troubled, and greatly annoyed (Greek: diaponeomai) at her. Why? Because this young fortune teller was getting her information from the demon who inhabited and controlled her, not from her own experience, and certainly not from God. This illustrates what it means for an ox and a donkey to be unequally yoked: even though the clean and the unclean may seem to be plowing the same furrow together, their true agendas are actually polar opposites. Yahweh does not need, nor does He want, a testimonial from Satan, even if the devil sometimes shows up looking like an angel of light. Remember, counterfeit cash won’t fool anybody if it doesn’t look a lot like the real thing. But fake money isn’t an homage, it’s a destructive and deceptive fraud that diminishes the value of the real thing.
As I approach old age, I find my priorities have shifted a bit. I’ve realized that I’d hate to reach the end of my mortal life only to find that my service and sacrifice had all been a counterfeit, a pointless waste—that nobody in heaven or earth deemed what I’d done with my life to be of any lasting value. In light of what we’ve seen concerning the scriptural symbolism of the ox, Yahweh offered a dire and sobering warning to Israel (and through them, to us) on this very subject. “If you will not obey the voice of Yahweh your God or be careful to do all His commandments and His statutes that I command you today, then all these curses shall come upon you and overtake you…. Your ox shall be slaughtered before your eyes, but you shall not eat any of it.” (Deuteronomy 28:15, 31) On strictly symbolic terms, the warning is that one’s service will be rendered moot if not performed in the spirit and under the auspices of God’s law. And what is that spirit? What does that Law demand? That we serve in love—both for God and our fellow man. If we refuse to serve, or if we serve only ourselves, we will not only lose the opportunity to serve in the future, we will receive no real benefit from whatever we did do.
There is more than one way to serve. I’ve been using the idea of “pulling the plow” as a general euphemism for the kind of “service” an ox provides. And scripture mentions “treading out the grain” and pulling wagons as well, not to mention the “service” a sowr (which, if you’ll recall, is the generic Hebrew word for cattle, generally translated “ox”) can provide as a Levitical sacrifice (though he must be uncastrated—hence more precisely a bull—in order to do so). If God needs us to perform a particular task, it is our proper role as His servant to do it to the best of our ability, in an attitude of love and humility. One important tip-off as to the nature of the specific service to which Yahweh is calling us is our preparation, our gifting—what God has enabled and equipped us to do. For example, it’s rather obvious (in hindsight) that Moses was prepared from birth to lead Israel. He didn’t just wake up one morning and unilaterally decide to liberate his people and write the Pentateuch. His education in the courts of Pharaoh (not to mention his “grad-school” internship on the backside of the desert herding somebody else’s sheep for forty years) were gifts from God—and as such were expected to be used in His service.
So in the spirit of thinking outside the box, and since sowr can mean either a male or female bovine, I’d like to take this opportunity to cover a cow symbol that might otherwise have slipped through the cracks in this study. I’m speaking of the precept of the red heifer, the rite through which someone may be declared “clean” if he has touched a dead body. The particular sowr in question in this case is a para, the feminine form of a word we’ve encountered before (par, the usual word for “bull”). In our text in Numbers 19, it’s translated as a “heifer”—i.e., a young cow that has not borne a calf (according to Webster). This definition would make it the female equivalent of the bull-calf , or egel, the feminine form of which would be the Hebrew eglah (as used in Deuteronomy 21:3). Why this word choice? It is possible that God used para instead of eglah because of the word’s apparent linguistic root: the verb parar means “to break (in the sense of breaking a vow), destroy, frustrate, or invalidate.” As we shall see, the ordinance of the red heifer is a picture of God’s invalidation of the curse of death on mankind.
Here is the text of the “law.” I’ll warn your right up front that if you’re not willing to countenance its symbolic character, this precept will sound as goofy as anything you’ll find in the Torah. There is absolutely nothing “practical” about it. If the requirements of the ordinance of the red heifer don’t comprise a significant Messianic prophecy, then it would appear Yahweh has a serious obsessive-compulsive personality disorder, and He’s gone off His meds. (I think you know where I stand on that question.) “Now Yahweh spoke to Moses and to Aaron, saying, ‘This is the statute of the law that Yahweh has commanded: Tell the people of Israel to bring you a red heifer without defect, in which there is no blemish, and on which a yoke has never come….” The cow was to be young but almost mature (in other words, full of promise), a flawless specimen of its type, unworked (and, because it had never borne a calf, unmilked) and red in color. Depending on how “strict” you are about the color requirement (the rabbis insist that no more that three hairs on the animal may be other then red, though the Torah doesn’t say) this is an exceedingly rare animal. Only nine are recorded to have been used to carry out this precept in Israel, none of them within the last two thousand years.
“And you shall give it to Eleazar the priest, and it shall be taken outside the camp and slaughtered before him.” Note who is to administer the rite: not Aaron (the High Priest, symbolic of the Messiah), but his son, Eleazar (who represents those of us who follow Him). In this role, Eleazar represents the faithful witnesses to Yahshua’s sacrifice, in which He was subjected to the fires of judgment on our behalf. “And Eleazar the priest shall take some of its blood with his finger, and sprinkle some of its blood toward the front of the tent of meeting seven times. And the heifer shall be burned in his sight. Its skin, its flesh, and its blood, with its dung, shall be burned….” Just as Eleazar’s finger sprinkled the blood before the tabernacle, Yahshua’s disciples (ultimately including us) are to take a hands-on role in the process of making purification available to all mankind.
A few things beside the heifer herself are to be burned: “And the priest shall take cedarwood and hyssop and scarlet yarn, and throw them into the fire burning the heifer….” Cedar represents the pride of human strength. Hyssop symbolizes the converse—weakness and insignificance. Together, theses things (which I’ll cover in a future chapter) tell us that our human achievements—and our failures—will die with us. We will have nothing of which can boast, or be ashamed, once we are purified through what this rite represents. And the scarlet thread? That news is even better: it means that our sins, as permanent and stubborn as they might seem to us, are up in smoke as well. These three substances together represent the irony of the human condition—its irrational pride, its irrelevance apart from Yahweh, and the indelible stain of its defilement. They are all ritually consumed in fire along with the red heifer. The lesson: Christ’s sacrifice purges us of all the negative aspects of our fallen human nature.
Nothing we’ve seen so far is the rite per se; it’s “merely” preparation. But there are ramifications and consequences even at this preparatory stage: “Then the priest shall wash his clothes and bathe his body in water, and afterward he may come into the camp. But the priest shall be unclean until evening. The one who burns the heifer shall wash his clothes in water and bathe his body in water and shall be unclean until evening. And a man who is clean shall gather up the ashes of the heifer and deposit them outside the camp in a clean place. And they shall be kept for the water for impurity for the congregation of the people of Israel; it is a sin offering. And the one who gathers the ashes of the heifer shall wash his clothes and be unclean until evening….” Everyone who is involved in procuring the ashes is rendered temporarily (and ceremonially) unclean in the process, even though they aren’t necessarily the people the ashes (something I’ll explain in a moment) were prepared in order to help. The point is that the “prep team” are human too. Their job is to ensure that the Good News of Yahshua’s salvation is available, no matter what role they’re assigned in the process. It may seem strange to us, but Yahweh has ordained that we, His people, are responsible for presenting His Word to the world, even though we’re fallen, sinful creatures just like those we’re trying to reach with God’s love.
The remedy for our condition (as its stated here) is three-fold. First, we are to wash our clothes. As we shall see in a later chapter, clothing is symbolic of our spiritual status before God. So our garments—what God “sees” when He looks at us—must be clean and white, indicating our innocence. (Of course, since our clothing is something we “put on” to cover our bodies, it is clear that any innocence we display is imputed, not intrinsic.) Second, our bodies too must be washed with water—that is, cleansed by the word of God. Note, however, that for this to be at all helpful, the “body” must be alive. It does no real good in the long run to wash a corpse. It will still be dead—rotting, stinking, and deteriorating. And third, we must remain ritually unclean until evening—disqualified from participation in the full life of God’s community. This is a thinly veiled euphemism for physical death, the point being that we really won’t be able to fully participate in the activities of the Kingdom of God while we’re still restricted to life in our mortal bodies. But when “evening” comes—i.e., death or rapture, whichever comes first—we will no longer be defiled by our mortal state.
Yahweh then points out two important issues. “This shall be a perpetual statute for the people of Israel, and for the stranger who sojourns among them.’” (Numbers 19:1-10) First, the statute is perpetual. It is not meant to be temporary. Being symbolic, it presents an eternal, unchanging truth, one that will be “in force” as long as mortal man walks the earth. And second, this truth is not just for Israel, but also for the “strangers who walk among them,” in other words, everybody else. The principles laid down in the ordinance of the red heifer would remain essential after Israel’s theocratic society disintegrated, after their idolatrous kingdoms had been carted off into captivity, and after God in His fury had scattered Israel’s rebellious sons to the far corners of the earth. The statute is in operation to this day, kept not in literal water and ash, but in what these things represent.
So how were the ashes to be used? The cremated remains of the sacrificed red heifer, the cedar wood, hyssop, and scarlet cord were to be collected and stored outside the camp until they were needed. When someone encountered death (something that would have happened all the time in a nation as big as Israel was), a bit of the ash would be mixed in water and sprinkled on him, twice in seven days. “Whoever touches the dead body of any person shall be unclean seven days. He shall cleanse himself with the water on the third day and on the seventh day, and so be clean. But if he does not cleanse himself on the third day and on the seventh day, he will not become clean. Whoever touches a dead person, the body of anyone who has died, and does not cleanse himself, defiles the tabernacle of Yahweh, and that person shall be cut off from Israel; because the water for impurity was not thrown on him, he shall be unclean. His uncleanness is still on him.” (Numbers 19:11-13)
Needless to say, this law had no basis in hygiene or public sanitation. It was purely symbolic. So let us examine the symbols, one by one. (1) Death is separation: as physical death separates the soul from the body, spiritual death separated God’s spirit from one’s soul. Not surprisingly, though it is universal and inevitable, death is presented as a bad thing, one associated with uncleanness and defilement. (2) Uncleanness is sin—that which separates us from Yahweh’s presence. The whole point of the precept was to teach us how uncleanness associated with death could be overcome. (3) To touch a dead body is, I believe, a euphemism for “contact with death.” That is, it’s the unavoidable end result of the human condition. (4) The third day requirement is, as we can see in hindsight, a clear reference to the resurrection of Yahshua the Messiah, the fulfillment of the third miqra, the Feast of Firstfruits. This is therefore a preview of our own impending reawakening. (5) The seventh day is likewise a reference to the convocations of Yahweh—this time the last one, the Feast of Tabernacles, indicative of the Millennial reign of King Yahshua, not to mention our ultimate Sabbath rest, when death’s curse will be undone once and for all. Together then, the third and seventh days exemplify the life made available to us through Yahshua’s sacrifice. (6) The tabernacle of Yahweh, said to be defiled if one does not avail himself of the cleansing of the water of purification, is the plan of God for our salvation and redemption. If we refuse to be indemnified from the curse in the manner prescribed by God, we have declared our intention to remain unclean. (7) Being cut off from Israel is metaphorical of separating oneself from Yahweh forever, whoever you happen to be, Jew or gentile.
The details support and confirm our findings: “This is the law when someone dies in a tent: everyone who comes into the tent and everyone who is in the tent shall be unclean seven days.” The “tent,” I presume, represents someone’s cultural, or societal, or even religious environment. Who among us lives in a place that doesn’t have a few “dead bodies” lying around? Even Christ’s twelve disciples had Judas Iscariot among them. We all need cleansing. “And every open vessel that has no cover fastened on it is unclean.” We rightly endeavor to be open to life and truth, but most of us are bombarded with deadly lies from morning ’til night as we walk through this fallen world. The presence of death permeates our environment. “Whoever in the open field touches someone who was killed with a sword or who died naturally, or touches a human bone or a grave, shall be unclean seven days. For the unclean they shall take some ashes of the burnt sin offering, and fresh water shall be added in a vessel. Then a clean person shall take hyssop and dip it in the water and sprinkle it on the tent and on all the furnishings and on the persons who were there and on whoever touched the bone, or the slain or the dead or the grave. And the clean person shall sprinkle it on the unclean on the third day and on the seventh day. Thus on the seventh day he shall cleanse him, and he shall wash his clothes and bathe himself in water, and at evening he shall be clean….” When society is in upheaval or when cultural influences are in a state of flux, it’s even harder to remain undefiled, for death (whether physical or figurative) can become commonplace. But real death—spiritual death—is neither normal nor inevitable. A cure has been found. His name is Yahshua.
Make no mistake: we are at war, a spiritual conflict fought against spiritual enemies who would leave none of us alive if they were given any choice in the matter. We are all touched by death. “If the man who is unclean does not cleanse himself, that person shall be cut off from the midst of the assembly, since he has defiled the sanctuary of Yahweh.” (Numbers 19:14-20) We are born condemned (see John 3:18) into a world characterized by death. It’s bad enough that our sins are strewn about the landscape waiting to defile us. But the “graves” of our religious traditions also lie hidden, lurking, for all we know, like land mines underfoot. Insofar as religion obfuscates the love of Yahweh, it is both dead and deadly. So we are all in need of the purifying work—the “red heifer”—of Yahshua the Messiah. As “oxen” go, this one renders the most vital service of all, for without it we will remain unclean, defiled, and forever separated from the Living God.
(First published 2014)