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The powerful ox Symbolism and meaning

After the human face of God in Matthew’s Teacher of Israel and the bounding lion of Mark, the next symbol for Jesus might seem odd: to us, the ox seems somewhat slow and stupid – and, indeed, some commentators have been known to call Luke, with his long-drawn-out two volumes (the Gospel and Acts), a bit of a ‘plodder’! However, in biblical times things were different. In the absence of machinery, the ox was the ancient world’s most powerful engine, a symbol of divine strength in ancient representations from Assyria to Egypt. Even the Pentateuch likens God to ‘the horns of a wild ox’ (Num. 23.22; 24.8). The common description of the Lord as ’abir, ‘the Mighty One’ of Jacob or of Israel (e.g. Gen. 49.24; Ps. 132.2, 5; Is. 1.24; 49.26; 60.16), has a verbal pun on ’abbir, the mighty ox. Human kings, like Pharaoh, could be likened to an ox, and the final blessing of Moses on the Twelve Tribes calls Joseph ‘a firstborn bull . . . the horns of a wild ox’ (Deut. 33.17)…

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