Summary: We don’t have high regard for cows in our culture. Even the term, sacred cow, is funny to us. However, God has given cows a special place in the Holy Scriptures.
One of my favorite Far Side cartoons shows a herd of cattle standing at a fence, facing a leader. In the background is a large urban city in flames. In the caption, the leader cow is saying,
“Evidently, Agent (some number) has accomplished her mission.”
Cows. Even the word is funny.
We don’t have high regard for cows in our culture. Even the term, sacred cow, is funny to us.
However, God has given cows a special place in the Holy Scriptures.
To begin with, cows always seem to be mentioned separately from other animals. In Genesis 1:25, the sixth day of Creation we see that God makes cattle, separate from the birds, the fish, and the reptiles. Cattle, of course, are the only domesticated animal mentioned. On that same day, man is created. This is an important day! A noteworthy day for men and cattle.
Throughout the Pentateuch, cattle are a symbol of wealth and prosperity. They are also used specifically for sacrifice, especially offered in the consecration of the High Priest. The bull must be slaughtered before the Lord, and its blood sanctifies the Altar, and is poured out before the altar. (Ex. 29:10-12)
When God is explaining to the Prophet Jonah, who is sulking because, thanks to his spectacular preaching, the entire city of Nineveh has actually repented before God (he wanted to see the fireworks fly from heaven), God explains that He loves and pities
“Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?” (Jonah 4:11)
Again with the cows.
In Ezekiel, there are four Living creatures before the throne of God, each with six wings and many eyes. One has the head of a bull. We understand these four to be representative of Christ’s mission on earth. One has the head of a man, and represents Jesus’ humanity. Another the head of a Lion, representing His royalty, as He is the son of the earthly David, and the Son of the Heavenly Father. Another has the head of an eagle, representing His divinity. After all, what creature flies higher, and sees farther, than an eagle?
Then there is the guy with the head of a bull. What animal does man use domestically more than any other, for a multitude of uses? Which one is strongest? Which one is a powerful beast of burden, a placid helper, and abundant provider of nourishment for mankind? Why, the answer is the humble cow, of course. Even peasants in war torn regions would rather have a single cow than relief aid handouts. “Give us a cow,” they say, “and we can feed ourselves.”
The creature with the head of a bull represents Christ as a sacrifice, in His sacrificial role as redeemer of all mankind. Christ is strong, there are none stronger. His blood makes the altar of our hearts holy. His blood sanctifies the Heavenly Altar. He goes like a lamb to the slaughter, as He is the Lamb of God, the True Passover. But He is strong, powerful, and friendly to man.
This is evident in the snippet of Psalm 51 that is recited by every Orthodox Christian priest at the conclusion of the Great Entrance during Divine Liturgy.