Who’s afraid of the big fat ox?
The biblical man did not fear an ox, though the Torah notes this week that an ox might gore a human to death. And whilst the Torah requires the execution by stoning of a man-killer oxen, it similarly decrees the same verdict for a human who murdered his fellowman. In both instances of the death penalty – meted out against an ox or a human, as Rabbinic law has it – it is reached by a majority of twenty-three court judges who have heard two competent witnesses, while the defendant, either the human or the animal, must be present for the verdict… We see hereby a strong indication about the respected status of the ox in biblical times, whom the prophet Isaiah compared favorably with the nation of Israel: “An ox knows his owner… [yet,] Israel does not know’’ its own Master.
That the biblical man did not recoil in fear from a freely roaming ox, can be evidenced in the biblical commandment (that our weekly Torah portion reveals) about the obligation to bring back to the owner, even if he happens to be one’s enemy, an ox (or an ass) that went astray, even when the animal walks astray habitually. The Torah expects a person to return an ox to its owner even if retrieving a ‘’fugitive’’ individual would require considerable effort. This should be done in the name of returning a lost item to its owner (Exodus 23:4), one of many Mitzvot that this weekly portion has in store. Evidently, there is no peril in handling an ox, as fulfilling such a mitzvah should not put its performer in harm’s way – ‘’You are to keep my laws and my regulations, which when a human does them, he lives by them’’ (Lev. 18:5).
Similarly, Job makes that case in his lamentation over the ubiquitous crime that goes unpunished; the repossessing of ‘’the widow’s ox as a pledge’’ for the payment of a debt, an ox that the widow used for tilling her land. Associating the handling of an ox with any possible risk is laid to rest, then, with any of these examples where man meets an ox.
To be sure, the biblical ox was held in a high esteem. Ezekiel includes the face of a lion side by side with the face of an ox (and of an eagle too) in his complex and detailed depiction of a mysterious chariot, functioning as the divine throne, from which he beheld ‘’of the semblance of the Presence of the Eternal’’.
David, the psalter, dubs the ox poetically as “the Mighty One of Jacob” (Psalm 132: 2, 5) in referring to God. With this image in mind, one could further speculate why an idolatrous golden bovine – or the ‘’golden calf’’ — was chosen by the Israelites (per Exodus 32:4, 8) to symbolize the absent Moses who linked them to God.
We can also better understand why Balak, King of Moab, who consternated while beholding the mighty Children of Israel lest they encroach on his land, compared them to “the ox [who] nibbles the grass of the field” (N 22:4). Hence, he desired to hire the non-Hebrew prophet Balaam to curse them. Though Balaam was compelled (albeit reluctantly) to heed the word of God, he went on to resemble God to “the wild Ox’s [adorned by its] “lofty antlers” (N 23:22, 24:8).
It is also highly likely that in his farewell speech Moses likened Joshua, whom he ordained as his successor by imparting to him of his own “majesty”, to a bull. Moses envisions here (Deut. 33:17) the great prowess that Joshua would display on the battlefield as befitting a powerful ox that gores with “the horns of a wild ox”. Importantly, the bull or the ox has outstanding images in the Bible ranging from God through the nation of Israel, or Jacob.