“Why are oxen used in the design of our temples’ baptismal fonts?” Ensign, Mar. 1993, 54–55
Edward J. Brandt, administrative assistant, Evaluation Division, Church Correlation Department; and Gospel Doctrine teacher, Hillcrest Second Ward, Sandy Utah Hillcrest Stake. Oxen are often used in the scriptures to represent the twelve tribes of Israel. The first reference is found in the record of the exodus of the children of Israel from Egypt. The Lord led the Israelites to Mount Sinai, where they dwelt for a little over a year.
While there, the Lord directed the Israelites to construct a “portable” building wherein ordinances could be administered until a temple could be built. (See D&C 124:37–38.) The ordinances performed in this mobile structure were designed to prepare the people to accept, in due time, the higher order. (See Gal. 3:24; Heb. 9:1–28.)
At the dedication of this structure, commonly called “the tabernacle,” the leaders of each tribe presented a variety of gifts and offerings. Among them were six wagons drawn by twelve oxen for the proper transport of the tabernacle. (See Num. 7:2–8.)
In ancient Israel, the ox, “bull,” “wild bull,” (or “unicorn,” as it is rendered in the King James Version) was a type or symbol of strength and power. (See Num. 23:22, n. 22a; Num. 24:8.) In addition, the bull and wild bull symbolize the people of Joseph as represented by his two sons Ephraim and Manasseh. (See Deut. 33:17, n. 17b.)
Decades after the tabernacle was dedicated, Solomon built a great temple complex. Included in the temple was a large basin font supported by “the similitude of oxen.” (2 Chr. 4:3.) Solomon employed Hiram of Tyre to build the temple, and Hiram’s foundry laborers produced the bronze oxen for the temple. (See 1 Kgs. 7:40, 44–46; 2 Chr. 4:11, 15–17.) The oxen were placed in groups of three, with each group facing outward toward a point of the compass, and with the large basin placed upon their backs. (See 1 Kgs. 7:25; 2 Chr. 4:4.)
What was the purpose of this “molten sea”? (See 1 Kgs. 7:23; 2 Chr. 4:3.) The scriptures indicate that it “was for the priests to wash in” (2 Chr. 4:6)—evidently either for washing themselves or cleansing others. (See Ex. 30:18–21; Ex. 40:30–32.) Cleansing and covenant-making are fundamental principles for the house of Israel in every age; ancient Israel practiced baptism even under the law of Moses. (See 1 Cor. 10:2; 2 Ne. 9:23; D&C 84:26–27.) Whether or not this font was used for baptism in Solomon’s day is lost from the scriptural record.
The location of the font is also unclear; the record suggests that it might have stood in the temple courtyard. (See 1 Kgs. 7:38–39; 2 Chr. 4:9–10.) The scriptures record that when the Babylonians destroyed the temple some decades later, the “brasen sea that was in the house of the Lord” was salvaged for its brass. (See 2 Kgs. 25:10–16; Jer. 52:15–20.)
Almost one hundred years after the temple was constructed, King Ahaz of Judah remodeled the “sea” by removing the oxen and setting the font upon a stone foundation. (See 2 Kgs. 16:17.) The original oxen or their replacements may have been restored later as the support for the font; Jeremiah reported that the Babylonians destroyed the “twelve brasen bulls.” (See Jer. 52:17, 20.)
The ancient pattern of temple-building has influenced the construction of temples in our own dispensation. The Prophet Joseph Smith taught that “the baptismal font was instituted as a similitude of the grave, and was commanded to be in a place underneath where the living are wont to assemble.” (D&C 128:13.) Baptismal fonts in latter-day temples since the Nauvoo Temple have followed the ancient pattern wherever possible. (See History of the Church 4:446; 7:358, 430–31.) For various reasons, some fonts—such as those in the Hawaii, Atlanta Georgia, and Seoul Korea temples—are not situated below the main level of the temple, but most fonts stand upon the statues representing the twelve oxen.
Thus, we can see that the twelve oxen represent the tribes of Israel and also signify the strength and power on which God has established his work for the children of mankind. Those who are obedient and faithful to their covenants are the covenant family chosen to accomplish God’s purposes. They are the ones upon whom his work “rests,” just as the temple fonts rest upon the backs of the oxen.