The Wild Ox and Covenant Israel-Israel’s Descendants and Their Latter Day Destiny
by W. Jeffrey Marsh
Nauvoo Temple Baptistry
Copyright 2002 IRI
Whenever pictures of LDS temples are shown, usually included is a photograph of the baptismal font resting on the backs of twelve oxen. Reminiscent of the “molten sea” used in Moses’ day by the tabernacle priests for washing and cleansing (see Exodus 30:19-20), this laver was placed on the backs of twelve oxen when Solomon built the larger, more permanent temple (see 1 Kings 7:23-25), and has been so built in temples ever since.
Why oxen? Why not something more aesthetically appealing? Why the number twelve? There is great meaning to these symbols and by understanding them, Latter-day Saints can more fully appreciate the role, responsibilities, and blessings they can claim as modern Israel, or members of the house of Israel living in the modern world.
Long before they were born, members of the House of Israel were foreknown and forecalled to a covenant responsibility to assist in the salvation of all mankind. They were “called and prepared from the foundation of the world according to the foreknowledge of God, on account of their exceeding faith and good works” (Alma 13:3) – meaning that not only were their pre-mortal lives filled with “faith and good works,” but the Eternal Father also knew they could be counted on to exercise faith in Him and do His work while here on the earth. The Lord gave the name Israel to Jacob, the son of Isaac, and grandson of Abraham (Gen. 32:28; 35:10). The name Israel can refer to Jacob himself, his descendants, the kingdom those descendants possessed in the Old Testament, or the covenant people belonging to the Lord’s Church and kingdom on this earth. Israel was chosen by God because, in the premortal existence, they chose to follow God. As Elder Bruce R. McConkie explained, their capacity to hear and respond to the promptings of the Spirit was developed in premortality: “Above all talents – greater than any other capacities, chief among all endowments – stands the talent for spirituality. Those so endowed find it easy to believe the truth in this life….[and] in large measure, since the day of Abraham, they have been born in Israel where the Lord’s will is known.”(1)
President Joseph Fielding Smith also commented on the premortal development of Israel and that their progress was observed by God: “During the ages in which we dwelt in the premortal state we not only developed our various characteristics and showed our worthiness and ability, or the lack of it, but we were also where such progress could be observed….Under such conditions it was natural for our Father to discern and choose those who were most worthy and evaluate the talents of each individual. He knew not only what each of us could do, but also what each of us would do when put to the test and when responsibility was given us. Then, when the time came for our habitation on mortal earth, all things were prepared and the servants of the Lord chosen and ordained to their respective missions.”(2)
Israel’s being chosen before they were born was not meant to single them out as being better than anyone else. Rather, they were chosen to serve everyone else. President Joseph F. Smith was shown in vision that, “Even before they were born, they [the prophets of Israel], with many others, received their first lessons in the world of spirits and were prepared to come forth in the due time of the Lord to labor in his vineyard for the salvation of the souls of men” (D&C 138:56). God, who knows all things, determined the times and places where his covenant people would be born (see Acts 17:26). He even divided to all the nations of the earth their mortal inheritances, and “set the bounds of the people according to the number of the children of Israel” (see Deut. 32:8). He did this so that Israel could serve and help save as many of our Heavenly Father’s children as would accept Christ and receive his teachings.
Elder John A. Widtsoe explained that when Israel entered into a covenant relationship with God it placed upon them a covenant responsibility for all mankind: “In our preexistent state, in the day of the great council, we made a certain agreement with the Almighty. The Lord proposed a plan, conceived by him. We accepted it. Since the plan is intended for all men, we became parties to the salvation of every person under the plan. We agreed, right then and there, to be not only saviors for ourselves but measurably, saviors for the whole human family. We went into a partnership with the Lord. The working out of the plan became then not merely the Father’s work, and the Savior’s work, but also our work. The least of us, the humblest, is in partnership with the Almighty in achieving the purposes of the eternal plan of salvation. That places us in a very responsible attitude towards the human race. By that doctrine, with the Lord at the head, we become saviors on Mount Zion, all committed to the great plan of offering salvation to the untold numbers of spirits. To do this is the Lord’s self-imposed duty, this great labor his highest glory. Likewise, it is man’s duty, self-imposed, his pleasure and joy, his labor, and ultimately his glory.”(3)
In his final address to Israel, Moses explained this doctrine of premortal election to the children of Israel in these words:
For thou art an holy people unto the Lord thy God: the Lord thy God hath chosen thee to be a special people unto himself, above all people that are upon the face of the earth.
The Lord did not set his love upon you, nor choose you, because ye were more in number than any people; for ye were the fewest of all people.
But because the Lord loved you, and because he would keep the oath which he had sworn unto your fathers, hath the Lord brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you out of the house of bondmen, from the hand of Pharaoh. (Deut 7:6-8.)
In, Not Of the World
Israel has been called to be in the world – to be involved in the salvation of the souls of others, to make meaningful contributions to the society of mankind through service, and to be actively engaged in doing good to others (see D&C 58:26-29). Simultaneously, however, Israel is also called to not be of the world – to avoid worldliness (see D&C 133:14), to “not follow wrong paths or bend to accommodate or accept what is not right….[but rather] to lift the world and help all to rise above the wickedness that surrounds us.”(4)
Regarding the importance of not only rising above the sordid things of the world but of our responsibility to help others do the same, Elder M. Russell Ballard has said, “In the Church, we often state the couplet, ‘Be in the world but not of the world.’ As we observe television shows that make profanity, violence, and infidelity commonplace and even glamorous, we often wish we could lock out the world in some way and isolate our families from it all….
“Perhaps we should state the couplet previously mentioned as two separate admonitions. First, ‘Be in the world.’ Be involved; be informed. Try to be understanding and tolerant and to appreciate diversity. Make meaningful contributions to society through service and involvement. Second, ‘Be not of the world.’ Do not follow wrong paths or bend to accommodate or accept what is not right….
“Members of the Church need to influence more than we are influenced. We should work to stem the tide of sin and evil instead of passively being swept along by it. We each need to help solve the problem rather than avoid or ignore.”(5)
This same compassionate caring was expressed by Mormon in a letter to his son, Moroni: “And now, my beloved son, notwithstanding their hardness, let us labor diligently; for if we should cease to labor, we should be brought under condemnation; for we have a labor to perform whilst in this tabernacle of clay, that we may conquer the enemy of all righteousness, and rest our souls in the kingdom of God.” (Moroni 9:6.)
Moses learned the enormity of such a charge. It was one thing for him to take the children of Israel out of Egypt, where they had been exposed to a worldly lifestyle and philosophy for over 300 years, but it was an entirely different thing to get Egypt out of the children of Israel.
Blessings Promised to Israel
All throughout Moses’ admonitions are blessings promised to Israel. The Lord promised that blessings would flow to Israel in response to their obedience to God’s commandments. God promised that all would be well with their children (Deut. 5:29), and that wicked nations would be driven out before them (Deut. 11:22-25). Later in their history, when Israel would be scattered in all nations because of disobedience, the Lord promised he would gather them again when they remembered the covenant (Deut 30:3-5). If Israel would seek the Lord with all their hearts and all their souls, they would find him (Deut. 4:29). They would be blessed with righteousness (Deut. 6:24-25). And if Israel would do all God’s commandments, He would set them on high “above all nations of the earth” and pour out so many blessings there would not be room enough to receive them (Deut. 28:1-8). The other nations of the earth would be constrained to recognize that Israel had been blessed by God (Deut. 4:6-8). Eventually, Moses promised, the Lord would establish Israel as a holy people reserved for himself (Deut. 28:9).
Covenant Israel Today
As he finished his charge to his people, Moses pronounced a blessing on all twelve tribes of Israel (see Deut. 33). One of the most significant of these blessings was given to the family of Joseph. With prophetic foresight, Moses was inspired to bless the descendants of Joseph with the responsibility to gather Israel in the latter days (Deut. 33:17). He prophesied that the work done by Joseph’s descendants would eventually cause all of Israel to dwell safely in the Lord and to triumph (see Deut 33:27-29). Of Joseph and his progeny, Moses prophesied:
And of Joseph he said, Blessed of the LORD be his land, for the precious things of heaven, for the dew, and for the deep that coucheth beneath,
And for the precious fruits brought forth by the sun, and for the precious things put forth by the moon,
And for the chief things of the ancient mountains, and for the precious things of the lasting hills,
And for the precious things of the earth and fulness thereof, and for the good will of him that dwelt in the bush: let the blessing come upon the head of Joseph, and upon the top of the head of him that was separated from his brethren.
His glory is like the firstling of his bullock, and his horns are like the horns of unicorns [wild ox; see footnote 17b]: with them he shall push the people together to the ends of the earth: and they are the ten thousands of Ephraim, and they are the thousands of Manasseh. (Deut. 33:13-17).
This prophecy of Moses describes the covenant responsibility and latter-day destiny of Joseph’s descendants. The house of Israel was to be gathered in the last days before the second coming of Christ (see Article of Faith 10). The Lord gathers his children when they accept him and keep his commandments. Latter-day revelation has revealed the great mission and responsibility of gathering Israel that belongs to Joseph’s descendants in the last days (see 2 Nephi 3:3-24; 3 Nephi 20:25-27; JST Gen. 50:26-33).
When the children of Israel were wandering in the wilderness, each tribe carried before it a banner with a unique and identifiable symbol on it. The symbol for the tribe of Joseph was the wild ox (Deut. 33:17, footnote 17b). With its two great horns, the wild ox came to symbolize power and strength. The horn was an Old Testament symbol for power (see Num. 23:22; 1 Sam 2:1; 1 Kings 22:11; Psalm 75:4, 10; 89:17). Joseph’s descendants would be blessed with the strength and power to gather scattered Israel back into the Lord’s covenant. That power is the priesthood which has been restored in these latter days through the Prophet Joseph Smith.
The wild ox is a symbol that is very familiar to Latter-day Saints. The twelve oxen which uphold the temple baptismal font represent the twelve tribes of scattered Israel. They are placed facing outward in every direction of the compass: north, south, east, and west. The symbolism here as it relates to the mission of the tribe of Joseph is profound. The priesthood keys necessary for the gathering of Israel were delivered to them by Moses himself in the Kirtland Temple (see D&C 110:11). With that authority and power, modern Israel is to build temples and carry the blessings of the restored Gospel (the Lord’s covenant renewed in these latter days) to every nation, kindred, tongue, and people. Joseph’s modern-day descendants are to receive their own temple blessings and then, under the direction of the living prophet (a modern Moses), travel to the four quarters of the earth and “push” or “gather” the Lord’s people together into the restored covenant. Moses foresaw that those who would respond to the call would be the ten thousands of the descendants of Ephraim, thousands of the descendants of Manasseh, and by inference, hundreds of the descendants of the other tribes (Deut. 33:17).
Moses’ prophecy is now being fulfilled! The first temple built and dedicated to the Lord in this dispensation was at Kirtland, Ohio. Since that time, the descendants of Joseph under the direction of living prophets, have dedicated temples in many lands around the world.
It is also worth noting that the name Joseph in the Hebrew is Asaph, which means “he who gathers,” “he who causes to return,” or most appropriately, “God gathereth.”(6) By divine design, the ancient patriarch who saved Israel from death by famine in the worldly Egypt (Joseph in Egypt; see 1 Nephi 5:14; Genesis 41:56-57), the tribe in Israel who would save Israel from spiritual death in the latter days (the descendants of Joseph; see Deut. 33:17), and the great prophet of the Restoration (Joseph Smith; see D&C 135:3) were all given the name that most appropriately describes their role and divine calling in God’s plan for the salvation of all mankind. “As the ancient Joseph gathered his father’s family in Egypt and supplied them with bread during famine, so the latter-day Joseph would gather their descendants from the ends of the earth to feast upon the words of eternal life….As Moses would liberate Israel from Egyptian bondage, the “choice seer” of the last days [the Prophet Joseph Smith] would liberate them from the bondage of false traditions.”(7) With the Restored Gospel of Jesus Christ, the authority of the holy priesthood, and using the Book of Mormon to manifest the Messiah, latter day Israel is being delivered from spiritual bondage (2 Nephi 3:9) through the restoration of lost truths, covenants, and ordinances.
The counsel and teachings of Moses in Deuteronomy to ancient Israel are the like the voice of God to all modern Israel (see D&C 1:38). The descendants of Israel today are finding our modern world to be one that is becoming increasingly more alienated from the plan and purposes of God. Inspired by the Spirit to speak for God, the words of the Prophet Moses to Israel echo through the dispensations of time to our own day and circumstance. The book of Deuteronomy is a poignant reminder that members of the house of Israel were chosen, before they were born, to help gather scattered Israel and carry the blessings of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the temple to all nations. The temple font resting on the shoulders of twelve oxen is an ancient, and perfect representation of what is now occurring. Covenant Israel is shouldering the responsibility to build temples and carry the blessings of the restored Gospel to scattered Israel, wherever they may be found.
1. Millennial Messiah, 234-235. Elder Bruce R. McConkie also stated, “No two persons are born with the same talents and capacities…each is unique….They enter this life with the talents and capacities developed in the pre-existence.” (A New Witness for the Articles of Faith, 33-34.)
2. The Way to Perfection, pp. 50-51.
3. “The Worth of Souls,” The Utah Genealogical and Historical Magazine 25 (October 1934): 189-190.
4. M. Russell Ballard, Conference Report, April 1989, 100; or Ensign, May 1989, 80.
5. Conference Report, April 1989, 100-101; or Ensign, May 1989, 80.
6. See Joseph Fielding McConkie, “Joseph Smith as Found in Ancient Manuscripts,” Religious Studies Monograph Series – Isaiah and the Prophets, Brigham Young University, Vol. 10, p. 17.
7. Encyclopedia of Mormonism.
2002 Meridian Magazine. All Rights Reserved.