A Canaanite Bronze Figurine, c. 1500 B.C.
This small bronze figurine is thought to represent a god sitting on a bull. The bull was a widespread symbol of the gods in the ancient Near East. In Egypt, the bull was a symbol of the fertility god Apis. In Mesopotamia the storm god Ishkur/Adad is called “bull of heaven” and “grand bull.” In mythological texts from the ancient city of Ugarit, the bull is associated with the high god El, symbolizing both strength and fertility.
In ancient Israel, the bull was associated by some with Israel’s God, YHWH, although the biblical writers condemn such an association. An example of this connection is recorded in 1 Kings 12, in the Old Testament or Tanakh. When the united kingdom of Israel divided in two after the death of King Solomon, Jeroboam, king of Israel (or the Northern Kingdom), set up two new sanctuaries in Bethel and Dan. He made two calves of gold and set them up in the sanctuaries, referring to them as “your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt” (1 Kings 12:28-30, RSV). Many scholars believe that Jeroboam, rather than turning away from the worship of God, was using the calves to represent God (YHWH).
The bull motif also appears in the description of the “molten sea” in front of Solomon’s Temple in 1 Kings 7:23-26. There the base of the “sea” is said to be twelve oxen, three pointing in each direction. Bulls were also sacrificed in the Temple, according to Leviticus 4:14 (NRSV).
Photograph by West Semitic Research. Courtesy the USC Archaeological Research Collections and West Semitic Research.