[Heb., shohr (Ex 21:28), par (Ex 29:10), ba·qarʹ (1Ki 7:25), ʽagha·limʹ (“young bulls”; Am 6:4), reʼemʹ (“wild bull”; Nu 23:22); Aramaic, tohr (Da 5:21); Gr., tauʹros (Mt 22:4), bous (1Co 9:9), moʹskhos (“young bull”; Lu 15:23)].
These original-language words for the male of cattle have been variously translated “bull,” “bullock,” “calf,” “ox.” In modern English usage “ox” has come to apply especially to a castrated bull, but the original-language words often rendered “ox” and “oxen” in various translations are not to be understood in this restricted sense. Although castration is the method ordinarily employed for breaking bulls for service as draft animals, apparently this was not practiced by the Israelites, for a mutilated animal was unfit for sacrifice. (Le 22:23, 24; De 17:1; compare 1Ki 19:21.) It has, therefore, been suggested that the breed used by the Israelites may have been of a gentle temper.
The male of beef cattle has occupied a prominent place in the religions of many pagan peoples. Whether because of its great strength or its potential as sire of numerous offspring, it has been honored, even worshiped. The Babylonians employed the bull as the symbol of their principal god, Marduk. In Egypt living bulls were venerated as incarnations of a god—Apis at Memphis and Mnevis at Heliopolis. The occurrence of the bull, Taurus, as one of the primary signs of the zodiac offers additional evidence of the important place accorded the bull in pagan religions.
Shortly after the Exodus, even the Israelites, likely because of being contaminated by the religious concepts with which they became acquainted while in Egypt, exchanged Jehovah’s glory for “a representation of a bull.” (Ps 106:19, 20) Later, the first king of the ten-tribe kingdom, Jeroboam, set up calf worship at Dan and Bethel. (1Ki 12:28, 29) Of course, according to God’s law to Israel, no veneration whatsoever, not even in a representative way, was to be given to the bull or any other animal.—Ex 20:4, 5; compare Ex 32:8.
Bulls were offered in sacrifice by the Israelites (Ex 29; Le 22:27; Nu 7; 1Ch 29:21), and at certain times the Law specifically directed that bulls were to be sacrificed. If the high priest committed a sin that brought guiltiness upon the people, he was required to offer a bull, the largest and most valuable sacrificial victim, this undoubtedly in keeping with his responsible position as leader of Israel in true worship. A bull also had to be offered when the entire assembly of Israel made a mistake. (Le 4:3, 13, 14) On Atonement Day a bull was to be offered in behalf of the priestly house of Aaron. (Le 16) In the seventh month of their sacred calendar the Israelites were required to offer more than 70 bulls as burnt offerings.—Nu 29.
The bull was used by the Israelites in the work related to farm operations, for plowing and threshing. (De 22:10; 25:4) The creature was to be treated humanely. The apostle Paul applied to God’s Christian servants the principle embodied in the Law with respect to not muzzling a bull while it is threshing, indicating that just as the working bull was entitled to feed on the grain it was threshing, likewise the one sharing spiritual things with others is worthy of receiving material provisions. (Ex 23:4, 12; De 25:4; 1Co 9:7-10) Legislation covered cases of theft of a bull and of damage done to persons and property by an untended bull.—Ex 21:28–22:15.
The bulls sacrificed by the Israelites symbolized the one unblemished offering of Christ as the only adequate sacrifice for the sins of mankind. (Heb 9:12-14) Sacrificial bulls are also representative of another sacrifice, one that delights Jehovah in all times and circumstances, namely, the spontaneous fruitage of lips that, like vigorous young bulls, are used to “make public declaration to his name.”—Ps 69:30, 31; Ho 14:2; Heb 13:15.
In Bible symbolism the bull is used to denote power and strength. The molten sea in front of Solomon’s temple rested on representations of 12 bulls, in groups of three facing each of the cardinal directions. (2Ch 4:2, 4) The four living creatures seen in vision by the prophet Ezekiel accompanying the chariotlike throne of Jehovah each had four faces, one of which was that of a bull. (Eze 1:10) In the vision of the apostle John, one of the four living creatures around the throne was like a young bull. (Re 4:6, 7) Hence, the bull would fitly represent one of Jehovah’s basic attributes, namely, unlimited power.—Ps 62:11; Isa 40:26.
In the Scriptures the bull also figures as a symbol of the aggressive enemies of Jehovah and of his worshipers, who would seek to enslave or destroy God’s servants but who would themselves be annihilated at Jehovah’s day of vengeance.—Ps 22:12; 68:30; Isa 34:7, 8; Eze 39:18; see CALF; OFFERINGS.
In Scripture, allusion is made to several of the characteristics of the “wild bull” (reʼemʹ): its intractable disposition (Job 39:9-12), its swiftness and invincibility (Nu 23:22; 24:8), the power of its great horns (De 33:17; Ps 22:21; 92:10), and its friskiness in youth (Ps 29:6). Wild bulls are also used to represent the intractable enemies of Jehovah against whom the execution of his judgments is directed.—Isa 34:7.