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JIM - Why were oxen selected to represent the 12 tribes as the base to temple baptismal fonts? Is there some unique biblical reason for them as a symbol or was it an arbitrary decision?
JOEL - The first baptismal font to be used for baptisims for the dead in the latter-days was installed in the Nauvoo temple and consisted of a basin supported on the backs of twelve life-sized oxen, a reference to a similar basin, or "molten sea," described in the building of Solomon's temple.
"And he made a molten sea, ten cubits from the one brim to the other: it was round all about, and his height was five cubits: and a line of thirty cubits did compass it round about.
And under the brim of it round about there were knops compassing it, ten in a cubit, compassing the sea round about: the knops were cast in two rows, when it was cast.
It stood upon twelve oxen, three looking toward the north, and three looking toward the west, and three looking toward the south, and three looking toward the east: and the sea was set above upon them, and all their hinder parts were inward.
And it was an hand breadth thick, and the brim thereof was wrought like the brim of a cup, with flowers of lilies: it contained two thousand baths. (1 Kings 7:23-26.)
The "molten sea," a huge bronze basin at least fifteen feet in diameter, was supported by twelve large bulls or oxen, representing the twelve tribes of Israel, each three facing one of the four cardinal points of the compass. The bronze basin or font has been calculated to have a possible capacity of sixteen thousand gallons. The basin was probably not used for baptisms as we know them today, however Elder Bruce R. McConkie explained:
"It must be remembered that all direct and plain references to baptism have been deleted from the Old Testament (1 Ne. 13) and that the word baptize is of Greek origin. Some equivalent word, such as wash, would have been used by the Hebrew peoples. In describing the molten sea the Old Testament record says, "The sea was for the priests to wash in." (2 Chron. 4:2-6.) This is tantamount to saying that the priests performed baptisms in it.
In this temple building dispensation the Brethren have been led by the spirit of inspiration to pattern the baptismal fonts placed in temples after the one in Solomon's Temple.(Mormon Doctrine 104)
Besides representing the twelve tribes the number 12 is a symbol for priesthood, including its power and right to govern. This signifies the fact that baptisms for the dead is a priesthood ordinance necessary for all who wish to enter the celestial kingdom.
Oxen were most likely chosen by the ancient temple builders because, in the Bible, clean animals such as oxen, sheep, lambs, and goats are always positive symbols. Oxen are established types for Israel and represent power, patience, and sacrifice, as well as Christ or deity. Bulls also suggest images of royalty, divinity, power, sacrifice, atonement, and Jehovah.