Cattle were primarily a measure or symbol of wealth in biblical times. They were both familiar and significant, good characteristics for symbolic use. Among his livestock, the wealthy Job had a thousand oxen (Job 1:3). Cattle not only provided meat, milk, leather, and other by-products, they were the main animal workforce in ancient agricultural societies. Oxen (castrated bulls) pulled plows as well as wagons.
The size and strength of bulls made them ready symbols of power and virility (Deu 33:17; Ps 22:12; 68:30; 92:10; Isa 66:3). They are naturally aggressive and difficult to domesticate. They were admired in ancient cultures to the point of being revered as gods. Sacrificing them would underscore their less-then-divine status and make them a valued offering to God as substitutes for humans.
Bulls were necessary for breeding purpose, but one bull was sufficient for several dozen cows. Significant numbers of bulls were also raised for sacrificial uses. Bulls are mentioned in connection with general sacrifices in which a “perfect animal” was not required (Lev 22:23). Gideon was instructed to offer a seven-year-old bull as a protest sacrifice on the wrecked altar of Baal using the chopped-down wooden symbol of Asherah as fuel (Judg 6:25-32). When Hannah delivered young Samuel to Eli at the tabernacle in Shiloh she included a three-year-old bull that was sacrificed on the occasion (1 Sam 1:24-28).
Calves present a strong contrast of symbols in Scripture. The golden calf created by Aaron in the wilderness that was worshiped by the people was the poster image for idolatry. Aaron mistakenly thought this idol could represent the God who led his people out of Egypt; instead this episode stand as a lesson of how easily we can turn from the glory of the invisible Creator and worship created things that cannot begin to meet the need we have for God. The lasting memory of this event was captured in Psalm 106:19-23, though the lesson it should have taught the people remained unlearned.
The incident has a close parallel in 1 Kings 12:28 when jeroboam (who, ironically, had recently returned from exile in Egypt) also created golden calves, telling the people, “Israel, here are your gods who brought you out of Egypt.” First Samuel 6 has an interesting mention of calves in a sign that was given after the Philistines had captured the ark of the covenant and discovered defeating Israel was one thing, but defeating the God of Israel was another matter entirely. The return of the ark was arranged by separating two cows from their recently born calves and hitching them to a cart bearing God’s ark. If the cows behaved against their natural inclination to seek out their calves and instead pulled the cart back to Israel, that action would be a sign of God’s intervention.
But the calf can also be a positive metaphor. Jesus included the picture of the fatted calf in his parable of the prodigal son whose father is so overjoyed by his return that the calf is prepared for the welcome-home banquet. It becomes for the community a symbol of joy, forgiveness, and welcome (Luke 15:11-32). The fact that the calf was already fattened reminds us that the father was anticipating and hopeful of his son’s return.
This also speaks to the willingness to forgive, the expectation of a joyful reunion worth celebrating, and a prepared welcome long before the guest of honor shows up. The chapter begins with Jesus under attack for his compassionate treatment of society’s undesirables: “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them” (Luke 15:2). By the end of the chapter, Jesus has made the case that his purpose in eating with sinners has to do with inviting them to join him in the great feast where the Father will prepare the fatted calf for all his prodigal children.