On the west side of the tabernacle in the wilderness three tribes camped: Ephraim (primary tribe), Manasseh, and Benjamin. Ephraim’s banner was that of an ox. In considering the banners of the four primary tribes, we see represented an ox (Ephraim), an eagle (Dan), a lion (Judah), and a man (Reuben.) It is my contention that these four “faces” represent the four primary callings of God’s people: ox = priestly, eagle = prophetic, lion = kingly, and man = sonship.
I’m going to take this one step further by suggesting that the names of the three tribes included in each of the four tribal divisions add supplemental revelation and confirmation of these four callings. We will consider these one at a time, beginning with the ox/priestly calling.
The ox represents strength, service, and sacrifice and, therefore, is an apt symbol for the priestly ministry and calling. Priestly ministry flows in two directions, Godward and manward, and it is the divinely-ordained conduit between the two. Under the Old Covenant, this ministry was relegated to a select few, the sons of Aaron, but under the New Covenant, it is the calling of all who are in Christ Jesus, the Anointed One, and in whom the eternal High Priest now dwells.
Ephraim – The primary tribe of the west side encampment of the tabernacle was Ephraim, whose standard was the ox. Ephraim’s name means “doubly fruitful.” It is through the “hoofs on the ground” strength and labor of the ox that abundant fruitfulness is produced, and so it is with priestly ministry. Priestly ministry is the “bull-work” of the kingdom of God and it is “doubly fruitful” in relation first to God and secondly to man. This abundant fruitfulness also comes through the two related aspects of priestly sacrifice and priestly service.
Manasseh – The next tribe included in this division was Manasseh, whose name means “causing to forget.” The greatest work of a priest in the Old Testament was that of offering sacrifices. Those sacrifices foreshadowed the all-inclusive, once-for-all sacrifice of the Lord Jesus Christ. It was the perfection of His sacrifice of Himself on the cross that atoned for all sin, for all time, and was the ground of God’s forgiving and “forgetting” our sins. The foundational promise of the new covenant, upon which all the others are contingent, is: “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.” (Jeremiah 31:34, Hebrews 8:12) God also says, “I, even I, am he who blots out your transgressions, for my own sake, and remembers your sins no more.” This tribe’s name, Manasseh, meaning “causing to forget”, points to the greatest effect of the greatest sacrifice of the greatest Priest of all time!
Benjamin – The third tribe in this division was Benjamin whose name means, “son of my right hand.” The high priestly ministry of the Lord Jesus Christ not only involved His offering of the all-sufficient sacrifice of Himself on the cross while in his earthly body, but also continues on in resurrection and ascension at the Father’s right hand in ongoing priestly service within the heavenly sanctuary. Hebrews 1:3b says, “After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven.” Similarly, in verse 10:12 it says, “But when this priest had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God,” In this same epistle, the writer says, “Now the main point of what we are saying is this: We do have such a high priest, who sat down at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, and who serves in the sanctuary, the true tabernacle set up by the Lord, not by a mere human being.” (Hebrews 8:11-12 NIV)
Whereas the name of Manasseh (“causing to forget”) points to Christ’s sacrifice which “cast all our sins into the depths of the sea” (Micah 7:19) so that God remembers them no more, the name of Benjamin (“son of my right hand”) points to the ongoing priestly service of Christ at the Father’s right hand within the heavenly sanctuary. All of this has been accomplished and established by the mighty, ox-like strength of the Lord.
The “doubly-fruitful” priestly work of Christ, therefore, is well represented by the “face of the ox” as well as by the three tribal names of Ephraim, Manasseh, and Benjamin.
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We will look next at the face of the eagle and the prophetic calling in relation to the tribes encamped on the northern side of the tabernacle.