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Biblical Beasts: Cow

Thursday, July 14, 2011
The cow is the female of many animals but we usually take the term to refer to the most domesticated of farm animals, the one pictured on the left. She grazes in fields all over the world and supplies most of our milk and meat. When God created the land animals, the 'cattle' get special mention (Genesis 1:24). Again, it need not necessarily refer to what we now understand by that term: many kinds of bison, buffalo, and wildebeeste might be included.

There is one significant mention of a cow in the New Testament. Hebrews 9 speaks of the infinitely superior value of the blood of Christ in contrast with the blood-offerings of the old law. The blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer served to sanctify defiled persons as regards 'the purification of the flesh', it says. How much more then will the blood of Christ, the perfect sacrifice, purify consciences from dead works to serve the living God? Hebrews is referring to the 'ceremony of the red heifer' about which we read in the Book of Numbers, chapter 19. This was a kind of scape-cow ceremony in which the young animal was killed outside the camp, its blood used to sanctify the tent of meeting, its remains burned, and its ashes mixed with water for rites of purification. It seems like a primitive ritual for removing impurity and sin, but Hebrews is suggesting that it be seen as a type of the sacrifice that was to come, the self-offering of Christ, who in truth takes away the sins of the world.

Already in Genesis 15:9 a young cow or heifer is included among the animals sacrificed by Abram as he seals the covenant God has made with him. The Book of Deuteronomy explains how a heifer is to be sacrificed in atonement for innocent blood whenever a human being is found lying dead in the countryside and nobody knows how they have died (21:1-9). The First Book of Samuel testifies that the heifer remained susceptible to being sacrificed (16:2). There is an echo of this in the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15), which I once heard called the parable of the unsuspecting calf. Here once again it is the young cow that gives its life as part of a celebration of reconciliation and restoration.


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