Oxen are, in general, very much like sheep and goats. They chew their cud like sheep and goats, and have similar hoofs and horns; they are useful in the same way for their flesh and skins and milk, and evidently are nearly related to them; much more nearly, for example, than horses are. But compare the oxen with sheep and point out some of the differences. How do they compare in size and general build? The oxen are much larger and coarser-grained. They are stronger, which makes them able to work.
And how do they compare in disposition? First, in their relation toward their master. Those who have tended cattle or have had calves as pets know that they are very much rougher than sheep. They do not follow so gently, but are easily driven and are obedient. Towards one another they are good natured, though they have not so tender an affection as sheep; a cow's attachment for her herd is very evident when she has lost sight of them and runs wildly about, lowing piteously. Her love for her calf is also very strong, and she will follow wherever the calf is led. Cattle are not so gentle in their ways among themselves as sheep are, but are fond of testing one another's strength. Oxen at work are models of patience, moving slowly, but with great strength, and they are not easily discouraged. As they lie chewing their cud they are pictures of content.
We began with the idea that oxen are much like sheep and goats, and have then noticed the differences. Let us do the same spiritually. The sheep represent a most innocent, tender love for the goodness of the Lord and for one another. Goats represent a hardly less innocent, but more intellectual affection, which loves the Lord for His wisdom, and is less tender in its expression towards one another. The cows and oxen represent a similar noble affection brought down to a still lower level, towards the Lord taking the form of obedience, and towards one another the form of patient usefulness. The sheep, the goats, and the cattle represent our affection for the Lord and for one another, of a celestial, a spiritual, and a natural kind. (AE 314)
We shall find the cattle used in the Bible to stand for a strong love of natural usefulness and for contentment with good natural things - a noble affection in its right place. (AC 2179, 2180, 2566) For example, in the Psalm, describing abundant life of every kind from the Lord, it is said: "When our garners are full . . . and our sheep bring forth thousands and ten thousands in our fields; when our oxen are well laden [or strong to labor]," etc. (Ps. cxliv. 13, 14) The sheep stand for abundant increase of interior spiritual affections, and the well laden oxen for strong and useful natural affections. (AE 652)
We remember that the lambs and kids were brought as offerings, representing the innocent affections with which we should come before the Lord. And now we find bullocks also appointed for sacrifice. (Exod. xxix. 1, 10, 36) It must mean that the Lord would have us bring to Him not only our inner thoughts and feelings, but all our natural interests and abilities, our worldly business and pleasures. We must consecrate them all to Him and have them purified and kindled by His holy fire. (AC 9391) How plain it is that the offerings of animals represented the consecration of the affections of our hearts, both interior and external! "Wherewith shall I come before the LORD, and bow myself before the high God? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves of a year old? Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, or with ten thousands of rivers of oil? . . . He hath showed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the LORD require of thee, but to do judgment and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?" (Micah vi. 6-8) "For I desired mercy, and not sacrifice; and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings." (Hosea vi. 6; AC 922) Remember also the bronze laver in the court of the temple: "It stood upon twelve oxen, three looking toward the north, and three looking toward the west, and three looking toward the south, and three looking toward the east: and the sea was set above upon them." (1 Kings vii. 25) Plainly the inner chambers of the temple represent the chambers of a heart in which the Lord can dwell. (Chapter 41) The court represents the outward life, and its laver where the hands and the feet of the priests were washed represents the cleansing of the outward life. It rested on the oxen to show that this cleansing must be done with all the power of obedient natural affection. (AC 10235) There are many practical commands concerning oxen in the Jewish law. Can we see now how they apply spiritually to ourselves? "Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's wife, nor his man-servant, nor his maid-servant, nor his ox nor his ass, nor anything that is thy neighbor's." (Exod. xx. 17) Plainly, besides its literal meaning, the command speaks of our neighbor's spiritual qualities, including his affection and ability for natural usefulness. These we are not to covet, and not in any way to desire to injure. (AC 8912) In this and in many other passages the ox and the ass are named together, the ox standing for natural affection, and the ass for the companion faculty, natural understanding. (Chapter xiv) "If thou meet thine enemy's ox or his ass going astray, thou shalt surely bring it back to him again." (Exod. xxiii. 4) The enemy here means one who holds a different view from our own, as those out of the church. Shall we condemn them when their efforts to be useful seem to us to be misdirected? or shall we try to show them a better way? (AC 9255) And here is a less familiar passage, but how plain its Chapter is! "If an ox gore a man or a woman, that they die, then the ox shall be surely stoned, and his flesh shall not be eaten; but the owner of the ox shall be quit. But if the ox were wont to push with his horn in time past, and it hath been testified to his owner, and he hath not kept him in, but that he hath killed a man or a woman; the ox shall be stoned, and his owner also shall be put to death." (Exod. xxi. 28, 29) The ox here is some unruly natural affection which does harm to the spiritual life. When it first breaks out before its quality is known, one is not to blame for it, though it is to be promptly condemned; but if its quality was known and still it was not repressed, but was allowed to break forth and do harm, one is to blame and his spiritual life is so far destroyed. (AC 9065-9075)
Recall the time when the ark was captive in Philistia, and the kine brought it home. (1 Sam. vi) The ark in that land represents the commandments held merely as things of knowledge, without application to life. (Chapter 39) Held so they are only an annoyance, showing how wrong we are. They become a blessing, and find their way to the central stronghold of the heart, when we yoke to the commandments strong, willing affections, ready to carry them out into practical deed, and to go straight on as the commandments guide. The lowing of the cows expresses the difficulty with which the natural affections become obedient. (AE 700; TCR 203)
Remember the return of the prodigal son, and how the father said, "Bring hither the fatted calf and kill it; " but how the elder son was angry and said, "Thou never gavest me a kid . . . but thou has killed for him the fatted calf." (Luke xv. 23, 30) The fatted calf means the earnest love of useful life, and for learning the ways of useful life, which is given to those who humbly repent of evil ways; while those who think themselves righteous have not even an intellectual interest in things of heaven. (AC 9391; AE 279; AR 242)
We have seen that the spiritual ox, the love of natural usefulness and of natural good things, is intended by the Lord to be a helpful servant. "Thou hast put all things under his feet; all sheep and oxen, yea, and the beasts of the field." (Ps. viii. 6, 7; AC 10609) How may it ever become an evil thing, and lead us away from spiritual life? Care for natural things may claim the chief place in the heart, and the natural affections may also extend to things that are not good. One of the excuses which keep us from the heavenly feast is: "I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I go to prove thetas; I pray thee have me excused." (Luke xiv. 19) We are trusting to the natural affections which seem good to us, among them some which lead quite away from heaven. We will try them first, and we pray to be excused from heaven. (AE 548)
In Egypt sacred bulls were worshipped. You can walk today through the underground gallery at Sakarah, and see the great sarcophagi in which their bodies were laid. This worship was in keeping with the character of the Egyptians. They delighted in natural good things and in natural learning. Their religion was not at all spiritual, but consisted of great temples and pomp and symbolic rites. Their sole regard for natural good things and natural learning, and for external forms of religion, is pictured in their making the cattle objects of worship. (AC 9391; AR 242) The Lord tries always to lead us out of bondage to merely natural things and external forms, into spiritual life and worship. But, like the Israelites, we turn back to natural aims and set up a calf to worship. The calf at Horeb was an expression of the truth that the Israelites' affections were almost wholly for things of this world, and that they cared only for the external forms of worship. (Exod. xxxii. 4) "They changed their glory into the similitude of an ox that eateth grass." (Ps. cvi. 20; AC 9391, 10407)
Can we distinguish spiritually between the ox and the cow and the calf? The ox is especially the strong, patient love of practical helpfulness; the cow is especially the affection for introducing others into ways of practical usefulness and instructing them. And the calf? The calf is especially the innocent affection for learning ways of helpfulness. (AR 242)
If the cow is the love of teaching useful ways, and the calf is the love of learning them, what is the milk? Surely, the instruction in regard to practical usefulness. (AC 2184, 1824) Milk is chiefly water, but made rich and nourishing by the addition of other substances, especially cheese and butter and sugar. Instruction is for the most part truth which is communicated, but we are not content to give the bare information, which would be simply water. (Chapter 28) We try, especially with children, to make the instruction pleasant; this is the sugar. (AC 5620) We also put our heart into it, that it may touch our hearers' hearts; this love in the instruction is the oil or butter. (AC 2184; see Chapter 22) And we try to inspire something of our own earnest interest in the good work which we are teaching; this is the cheese, the muscle making element of the milk.
The land of Canaan is often called in the Bible, "a land that floweth with milk and honey." (Deut. xxvi. 9) Canaan means the Lord's kingdom; the milk is the abundant knowledge of heavenly things, rich in kindness, which is given in that kingdom; the honey is the abundance of happiness and delight accompanying such knowledge. (AC 5620; AE 617) It was predicted of the Lord as a little child: "Butter [or curds] and honey shall he eat, that he may know to refuse the evil, and choose the good." (Isa. vii. 15) The prophecy tells of the goodness and the pleasantness which the Lord as a child felt in instruction from the letter of the Word, which enabled Him to distinguish wisely, when afterward suggestions of evil intruded themselves. (AE 617; AC 5620)