Ox, Man, Lion, Eagle, the Compass, the Tribes and the Gospels

HomeChristianity and the BibleOx, Man, Lion, Eagle, the Compass, the Tribes and the Gospels

An interesting question found my inbox this week. A GodWords friend was wondering about the connections between these things found in Scripture:

It appears that most of this is traditional, rather than scriptural. That’s not to say they’re not well-established, though. For example: a quick look at the history of Christian art shows that the writers of the gospels are often associated with those four animals. Small things found in the Bible, or interpreted from the Bible, seem to have led to these symbols being used.

I wouldn’t suggest that there’s any deep, hidden spiritual meaning in these connections. If there were, it would be spelled out in the Bible for all to see… after all, God doesn’t keep secrets. However, explaining how these came to be is actually pretty complex. Each of these sets is known as a tetramorph. Tetra is “four” and morph is “shape.”

The Compass

We see the cardinal signs (north, south, east, west) in Numbers 2. While traveling in the wilderness between Egypt and the promised land, the Israelites were to arrange themselves into groups and camp in a way that surrounded the tent of meeting (tabernacle).

Verse 3, the east side: Judah, Issachar, and Zebulun.
Verse 10, the south side: Reuben, Simeon, and Gad.
Verse 18, the west side: Ephraim, Manasseh, and Benjamin.
Verse 25, the north side: Dan, Asher, and Naphtali.

Verse 17 shows that the Levites were to be in the middle of the camps, next to the tent of meeting. So we can see why the tribes of Judah, Reuben, Ephraim, and Dan were associated with East, South, West, and North. It’s right there in the Bible. What about the animal symbols?

The Animals

Judah and the Lion:
In Genesis 49, Jacob gathers his sons and tells them what to expect in the future. In v9 we see You are a lion’s cub, Judah; you return from the prey, my son. Like a lion he crouches and lies down, like a lioness—who dares to rouse him? Verse 10 connects the coming Messiah to the line of Judah. Jesus, the Messiah, is called the Lion of Judah in Revelation 5:5… so there is a strong connection between Judah and the lion.

Reuben and the Man:
Genesis 29:32 tells of the birth of Jacob’s firstborn, named Reuben… which means “see, a son.”

Ephraim and the Ox:
The son of Joseph, Ephraim was Jacob’s grandson. In Deuteronomy 33:17 we see Moses pronouncing a blessing on the tribes. Here’s what he said about Joseph, and – by extension – about Ephraim: In majesty he is like a firstborn bull; his horns are the horns of a wild ox.

Dan and the Eagle:
It’s interesting to note that Deuteronomy 33:22 associates Dan with the lion, not the eagle: Dan is a lion’s cub, springing out of Bashan. This suggests that Ephraim’s connection to the bull – at least in this specific passage – isn’t a spiritual designation from God Himself. If it were, we would expect Dan to be connected with the eagle.

Weird Angels

The Bible also refers to strange, angelic creatures that are associated with these four animals:

Ezekiel 1:
In Ezekiel’s first vision, he saw four strange creatures. In v10 we see this: Their faces looked like this: each of the four had the face of a human being, and on the right side each had the face of a lion, and on the left the face of an ox; each also had the face of an eagle. Strange indeed! Each creature had four faces, one with each of the symbols. The four sides of their heads could, in theory, symbolize the four directions in the Israelite camp. They’re identified in Ezekiel 10:15 as cherubim. 

Revelation 4:
In vv6-8 John records seeing four creatures in the heavenly throne room: In the center, around the throne, were four living creatures, and they were covered with eyes, in front and in back. The first living creature was like a lion, the second was like an ox, the third had a face like a man, the fourth was like a flying eagle. Each of the four living creatures had six wings and was covered with eyes all around, even under its wings.

The Gospels

Finally, we get to the four Gospels. How were Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John connected to these animal symbols? A number of early Christian writers interpreted the Scriptures in a way that combined them. These writers include Irenaeus and Jerome, among others. 

Matthew and the Man:
The gospel of Matthew emphasizes the humanity of Jesus, including a description of His birth and human ancestry.

Mark and the Lion:
This is a little more obscure. First, Mark’s gospel emphasizes Jesus’ kingship, and the lion often symbolizes the strength and ferocity of kings. John the Baptist, featured at the beginning of Mark, is said to bring to mind a lion’s roar with ‘a voice crying out in the wilderness.’

Luke and the Ox:
Luke emphasizes Jesus’ sacrifice, and the ox regularly symbolizes Israel’s temple sacrifices. His gospel begins with the priest Zechariah, and priests performed the sacrifices… so the ox came to symbolize Jesus as high priest.

John and the Eagle:
John emphasizes Jesus’ deity… that Jesus came from above, as an eagle might come down after soaring in the heavens. John, being the presumed author of Revelation, also ‘saw the future from afar’ as an eagle might see prey on the ground from high above.

Conclusion

I see no Scriptural or traditional connections between the four gospels and the four tribes, or any real connection between the gospels and points on a compass. The practice of associating four things with four other things is easy to understand. In the Bible we see four winds, four corners of the earth, four faces on cherubim, four creatures in the heavenly throne room, four rivers flowing out of Eden, four gold rings on the four feet of the Ark of the Covenant, and so on.

Despite this easy association, I see no good reason to assume that these things are connected by God, in some sense of a unifying spiritual meaning. I’m aware of no scriptural basis for connecting Ephraim and Luke, for example, even though both may be traditionally symbolized by an ox. The connection seems to be incidental, not intentional.

While these connections probably aren’t meaningful, they certainly are interesting!


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