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The Symbolism Behind 8 Animals in the Scriptures That Can Help You Understand Christ's Atonement on a Deeper Level

A number of animals—red heifers, rams and ewe lambs, he-goats and nanny goats, turtledoves, bulls, pigeons, and a bronze serpent—serve as symbols of Jesus Christ’s atonement or sacrifice. The blood of the group of animals sacrificed in sacred ceremonies was shed in anticipation of Jesus’ blood, which would flow in Gethsemane and on the cross. Female animals that were sacrificed had specific life-giving qualities that pointed to Jesus as the giver of immortality and eternal life; male animals had other qualities that served as types of Jesus. The animals’ economic worth made them a sacrifice of value to Israelite households that offered them in sacred temples. None of these animals deserved to be slaughtered—meaning none of them had committed sins or transgressions that required their death. Rather, their innocence is symbolic of Jesus Christ’s innocence, and their lack of blemishes pointed toward his perfection.

The bronze serpent belongs in a category of its own because it was not sacrificed like the lambs, bulls, goats, birds, and heifers. Its symbolism was unique in that it was lifted up on a pole as a prophecy that Jesus would be lifted up on the cross. This chapter will deal with all of these and other aspects of animals that are types and shadows of Jesus Christ’s atonement (see also chapter 16, which, in part, deals with the atonement and the law of sacrifice).

Sacrificial Animals Symbolize Jesus Christ’s Atonement

Sacrificial animals died violent deaths in anticipation of Jesus’ violent death on the cross. These animals were killed and gave up their lifeblood; the sacrifice of these animals anticipated Jesus’ death and spilled blood. Whereas the animals’ blood supported their physical life, Jesus’ blood provides a spiritual life for us. The violence associated with the animals’ slaughter stood as a reminder that Jesus’ death would be cruel and brutal.

Each of the sacrificial animals had characteristics that pointed to Christ.

1. Lambs

A lamb has qualities that typify Jesus and his great sacrifice. For example, a lamb signifies meekness, innocence, and submissiveness, qualities exhibited by Jesus during his trial only hours before his crucifixion. Once when Jesus approached John the Baptist, John pronounced these words: “Behold the lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). According to Isaiah’s prophecy, Jesus was “brought as a lamb to the slaughter” (Isa. 53:7; Acts 8:32), meaning Jesus went to his death without resistance or protest.

The Passover lamb too anticipated Jesus’ death. This lamb, like Jesus, was unblemished (Ex. 12:5; 1 Pet. 1:18–19), male (Ex. 12:5), did not experience broken bones at his death (Ex. 12:46; John 19:33), and made atonement for the people (Num. 28:22). The Passover lamb’s blood saved ancient Israelites from physical death, and Christ’s atoning blood saves souls from spiritual death (Ex. 12:13; Hel. 5:9). The lamb’s meat was edible and clean according to Mosaic law, and the Israelites partook of it in anticipation of Jesus’ broken flesh. In comparable ways, we now partake of sacramental bread in remembrance of his broken flesh.

2. Bulls

A fully grown bull, weighing about two thousand pounds, presents the image of great strength. One scriptural passage refers to the “strength of the ox” (Prov. 14:4), and others compare God’s strength to that of a wild ox (NIV Num. 23:22; 24:8). To offer up one of these great bulls to the Lord was a sacrifice of great economic value because its hide, meat, and ability to produce offspring were surrendered at the time of its offering. Somewhat comparable to the bull with its unparalleled strength, Jesus Christ was omnipotent, or all-powerful, in his ability to work the atonement and provide eternal life to all who would follow him and keep his commandments.

3. Turtledoves 

Ancient Israelites who lacked the economic means to offer a lamb as a sacrifice were permitted to offer a dove, a creature of lesser value. A dove, which belongs to the pigeon family, is known to be an affectionate bird, both to its mates and its offspring. In many cultures, in antiquity as well as in modern times, a dove is a symbol of peace. The correspondences between a dove and Jesus Christ are noteworthy—both spilled their blood when being offered up as sacrifices, and qualities of affection and peace are attributed to both. Jesus, of course, is called the Prince of Peace.

Beyond the lambs, bulls, and turtledoves, other sacrificial animals also possess qualities or attributes that pertain to Jesus Christ. Perhaps most important, these animals were all clean animals according to the law of Moses, and their blood looked forward to Jesus’ atoning blood.

Sacrificed Female Animals Were Also Symbols of Christ

4. Ewe lambs

Female lambs without blemish were sacrificed as symbols of Jesus Christ (Lev. 4:32; 14:10; Num. 6:14). Furthermore, in a prophecy about Jesus, Isaiah used the image of a female sheep, or ewe lamb (Hebrew rachel): “He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth: . . . and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he openeth not his mouth” (Isa. 53:7; emphasis added). Isaiah’s prophecy was precisely fulfilled during Jesus’ trial when he appeared, first before Herod and later before Pilate. When Jesus stood before Herod, Luke records that Herod “questioned with him in many words; but [Jesus] answered him nothing” (Luke 23:9). And when Jesus appeared before Pilate, “the chief priests accused him of many things: but he answered nothing. And Pilate asked him again, saying, Answerest thou nothing? behold how many things they witness against thee. But Jesus yet answered nothing” (Mark 15:3–5). By answering nothing, Jesus fulfilled Isaiah’s prophecy that “he openeth not his mouth.”

Why were female lambs sacrificed to represent Jesus, who is a male? The answer pertains to the fact that ewes are the bearers of new life. They possess the capacity to give birth to one, two, or even more lambs at a time. Just as a ewe gives physical life, so Jesus gives spiritual life to his daughters and sons. “And now, because of the covenant which ye have made ye shall be called the children of Christ, his sons, and his daughters; for behold, this day he hath spiritually begotten you . . . ye are born of him and have become his sons and his daughters” (Mosiah 5:7).

5. Female goats

A goat is a ruminant mammal that has straight hair, usually has a beard, and often has hollow horns that curve backward. Goats are related to sheep but are frequently more aggressive, stronger, hardy, and lively. Goats eat vegetation, plants, leaves, flowers, fruits, and other foods. For a number of reasons, a female goat was highly prized by an Israelite family. By giving birth to two or three kids per year, she helped the family’s economy by multiplying the herd’s size. Further, she was of great value by providing milk (which was used to make various dairy products), wool, meat, leather, and fertilizer.

On certain occasions, God’s law required the ritual sacrifice of female goats; Leviticus 4:28 refers to the offering of “a kid of the goats, a female without blemish.” More important, however, this sacrifice was a type and shadow of Jesus Christ’s divine sacrifice. Why a female goat? Perhaps to typify the Savior as a giver of life (see above).

6. Red heifer 

The Lord revealed that the way to remove corpse defilement was through the sacrifice of a red heifer. A heifer is young female that has not given birth. Heifers can mate after they are about fifteen months old. The red heifer ceremony featured set prescriptions. The heifer had to be “without spot, wherein is no blemish, and upon which never came yoke” (Num. 19:2). The heifer was slaughtered and then burned, together with hyssop, cedar wood, and scarlet wool (Num. 19:6, 18). Afterward, its ashes were placed in a vessel, and then fresh water (the Hebrew text reads literally “living water”) was poured into the vessel over the ashes. This mixture of ashes and water constituted the water of cleansing that was sprinkled on obedient Israelites who had been defiled by the dead. God considered the purification rituals to be so vital to the Israelites that if the defiled person failed to adhere to the appropriate rituals that served to cleanse him, he would be cut off from the community because he defiled the sanctuary (Num. 19:13, 20).

There is much symbolism attached to the sacrifice of the red heifer. The ritual slaughter of a heifer is a genuine sacrifice of economic value because the heifer’s owner gives up all the future benefits that this animal would yield—milk, calves, leather (for clothing and scrolls), and meat. More significant, the sacrifice of the heifer is symbolic of Jesus Christ’s divine sacrifice; its blood points to Jesus’ blood, and the fact that the heifer was a female and potential life-giver anticipates the life-giving force of Jesus’ atonement. Two colors figure prominently in the ceremony: the red heifer and the scarlet wool. Both red and scarlet denote the color of blood, pointing to Jesus’ blood. The symbolism of the water of cleansing pertains to the symbolic purification of the defiled person; just as water cleanses a person who has soiled hands, even so the water of cleansing ritually purifies the defiled soul.

In regard to the corpse itself, death pertains to lifelessness and the corruption of the physical body, both of which are opposite to God’s eternal vitality and immortal life. Death, as the ultimate state of physical corruption, separates us from God. Further, humans are entirely helpless when it comes to sustaining their mortal lives beyond the natural processes of mortality. We must rely upon God for all things that sustain life, including oxygen, water, and food. To teach the principle that death stands opposite to God’s immortality and eternal life, God revealed that a corpse communicates ritual defilement to the living (Num. 19). That is to say, according to God’s law as revealed to Moses, when a person (male or female) touched a dead body, a human bone, or a grave, or whenever a person was in the presence of a dead body in a tent or a room, that person would be rendered ceremonially unclean (Num. 19).

This defilement often came about accidentally when one inadvertently walked on a grave or entered a room where someone had recently died; or the defilement sometimes came knowingly when family members prepared a loved one for burial, buried their dead, and so forth. Defilement also came during war. When the Israelites killed others or touched the slain, they were required to adhere to the red heifer rituals. For instance, Moses required Israelite combatants who battled the Midianites to follow the purification procedures before returning to camp (Num. 31:19–24).

There is yet another lesson attached to the laws associated with the red heifer and the dead. As we learned above, when a living person comes into contact with the dead through touching a corpse, bone, or grave, that living person is ritually defiled. The touching and subsequent defilement of the living recalls other scriptural passages about touching unclean things. For example, Paul warned the Corinthians to “touch not the unclean thing,” a reference to idols (2 Cor. 6:17). Alma, the high priest, taught, “Come ye out from the wicked, and be ye separate, and touch not their unclean things” (Alma 5:57). Isaiah warned the righteous to “touch no unclean thing” (Isa. 52:11) and to “go ye out from Babylon” or “go ye out from among the nations, even from Babylon, from the midst of wickedness, which is spiritual Babylon” (D&C 133:5, 14; see also D&C 133:7; 38:42). The Lord through Moses commanded the Israelites not to touch the things of three wicked men—Korah, Dathan, and Abiram: Moses “spake unto the congregation, saying, Depart, I pray you, from the tents of these wicked men, and touch nothing of theirs, lest ye be consumed in all their sins” (Num. 16:26). In his revelation, John too heard a plea from heaven for God’s people to come out of the wickedness of Babylon when he “heard another voice from heaven, saying, Come out of her, my people, that ye be not partakers of her sins, and that ye receive not of her plagues” (Rev. 18:4).

Just as the living are defiled by the dead, even so the living are defiled by the spiritually dead and by spiritually lifeless situations. Spiritual death surrounds us during mortality in this world, and it affects our innocence and virtue to the extent that we need Christ and his atonement to remove such defilements from our hearts and minds. Paul sums up: “The ashes of an heifer sprinkling the unclean, sanctifieth to the purifying of the flesh: How much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without spot to God, purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?” (Heb. 9:13–14).

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The Lion and the Lamb

The scriptures refer to Jesus Christ as both the Lamb and the Lion (Isa. 31:4; Hosea 5:14; Rev. 5:5). That is to say, Jesus Christ has qualities that remind us of these two animals. With regard to the atonement, Christ is the embodiment of both the Lamb and the Lion. As the “Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world” (John 1:29) he submissively, meekly, and with innocence faced his accusers and went to the slaughter, ultimately suffering death on the cross.
7. Lion
As the Lion, he with might and power overcame death and stands exalted in heaven, reigning forevermore with perfect majesty over his kingdom of Saints. Isaiah compared the Lord to a lion: “For thus hath the Lord spoken unto me, Like as a lion and the young lion roaring on his prey, when a multitude of shepherds is called forth against him, he will not be afraid of their voice, nor abase himself for the noise of them” (Isa. 31:4).

Revelation 5:5–6 places the lion and the lamb in the same setting. In Revelation 5:6 Christ is called “Lamb,” but in 5:5 he is called “Lion,” a creature hostile and adverse to the Lamb. Christ as the Lamb portrays one who is submissive, as a sacrificial victim who is “brought as a lamb to the slaughter” (Isa. 53:7), or one who condescended to descend below all things. Christ as the Lion depicts one who has power over all creatures and is a majestic, fearless king (as a lion is “king of the beasts”) who possesses great strength. In this context the title is especially appropriate, because just as a lion prevails over other creatures, so Christ “prevailed to open the book” with seven seals (Rev. 5:5) (or, according to the RSV, Christ “has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals”).

“Jesus is a member ‘of the tribe of Judah,’ whose emblem is the lion (Gen. 49:9).”6

8. The Bronze Snake—A Symbol of Christ on the Cross

As the Israelites traveled through the wilderness near the kingdom of Edom, they complained to God and Moses concerning what they considered to be a lack of adequate food and water. God responded to their complaints by sending poisonous snakes among them, killing many. The people recognized their error and pled with Moses to ask the Lord to remove the snakes. As a result of his prayer, “the Lord said unto Moses, Make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon a pole: and it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live. And Moses made a serpent of brass, and put it upon a pole, and it came to pass, that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he beheld the serpent of brass, he lived” (Num. 21:8–9).

This historical incident affected the Israelites to such a great degree that for centuries they revered the bronze snake.7 In fact, during the reign of King Hezekiah, the Israelites burned incense to it, which was an act of apostasy because they worshipped the symbol (the bronze snake) instead of that which was symbolized (Jehovah, or Jesus Christ). As a result of the Israelite apostasy, Hezekiah, a righteous ruler and great reformer, “removed the high places, and brake the images, and cut down the groves, and brake in pieces the brasen serpent that Moses had made: for unto those days the children of Israel did burn incense to it” (2 Kgs. 18:4).

The bronze serpent typifies Jesus Christ on the cross in several ways:

1) The serpent was attached to a pole; Jesus was nailed to the cross.

2) Both the serpent and Jesus were “lifted up.” Nephi, Helaman’s son, explained, “And as [Moses] lifted up the brazen serpent in the wilderness, even so shall he [Jesus] be lifted up who should come” (Hel. 8:14; emphasis added). Jesus also taught this doctrine: “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:14–15).

3) Whoever of the Israelites looked up at the serpent did not die from the venomous serpents but lived; and whoever looks to Jesus on the cross (by accepting Jesus and his atoning death) lives spiritually. Again, Nephi taught, “And as many as should look upon that serpent should live, even so as many as should look upon the Son of God with faith, having a contrite spirit, might live, even unto that life which is eternal” (Hel. 8:15; emphasis added).

4) Many Israelites who were bitten by the poisonous serpents died because it seemed too simple to look up at the bronze serpent in order to be healed. Nephi, Lehi’s son, taught that the Lord “sent fiery flying serpents among them; and after they were bitten he prepared a way that they might be healed; and the labor which they had to perform was to look; and because of the simpleness of the way, or the easiness of it, there were many who perished” (1 Ne. 17:41). Similarly, people of all ages scoff at the idea of the cross because they deem it to be foolishness: “For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness, but unto us which are saved it is the power of God” (1 Cor. 1:18).

5) God “gave unto Moses power that he should heal the nations after they had been bitten by the poisonous serpents” (2 Ne. 25:20). Moses was a type and shadow of Jesus Christ, who heals the nations from spiritual disease and sin, and through the power of the resurrection the nations are healed from the sting of death.

Lead image from Pixabay.

Image titleSymbols & Shadows presents a tapestry of symbols and foreshadowings of the Atonement. And as we study the symbols, we can learn deep truths about Jesus Christ and his mission and increase our desire to become like God. Symbols and Shadows is a unique book that:
1. Analyzes the many symbols of the Atonement — some familiar, some unexpected — and encourages us to look deeper into the scriptures.
2. Discusses why Jesus Christ was uniquely qualified to be the Atoner.
3. Examines the fulfillment of the Atonement in Christ's mortal life and sacrifice.
4. Details the multitude of symbols and shadows in the scriptures that testify of the infinite atonement and the blessings of God's grace.


^1. Taylor, Mediation and Atonement, 146; emphasis added.

^2. Heber C. Kimball, Journal of Discourses, 5:137.

^3. Smith, History of the Church, 5:343–44.

^4. Fee and Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All It’s Worth, 177–78.

^5. Fee and Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All It’s Worth, 177–78.

^6. Parry and Parry, Understanding the Book of Revelation, 69.

^7. For the bronze serpent as a type of Jesus, see McConkie, Promised Messiah, 399–402. For the serpent as a type of Jesus, see Skinner, “Savior, Satan, and Serpent,” 359–84.

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