What are the Bulls of Bashan? – 4 Views Explained

The Context – Psalm 22

The bulls of Bashan has been an interesting and much discussed topic. It is a phrase is found in the rich text of Psalm 22:

Many bulls have surrounded me;

Strong bulls of Bashan have encircled me.

They open wide their mouth at me,

As a ravening and a roaring lion.  

             Psalm 22:12-13

This psalm contains strong prophetic elements and describes some amazing details of the cross of Christ.

As such, it connects the events of the New Testament to the eternal, overarching plan of God. As David expresses his agony in his current context, he is foreshadowing the depth of agony on the cross.

The Purpose of the Passage

Like a lot of Biblical prophetic writing, this passage had a present and a future implication. David wrote to describe his circumstance.

Through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, we see past David to Christ. We are given an advance glimpse into His suffering and glorification.

The death of Jesus on the cross is in full view throughout Psalm 22.

The Importance of Bashan

As you read the Bible, it is important to note that from the heavenly perspective, it is one integrated message. God has something to say to us and He used the scope of history to convey it.

When we read it as a whole, we will see familiar locations appear consistently in the text and Bashan is one of those locations.

It is referenced many times throughout the Old Testament and is usually talked about it a negative context.

From malevolent kings to pagan practices, Bashan is consistently linked to wickedness.

It is even linked in other extra-biblical texts to the gates of Sheol or Hell.

This influences the way we view the phrase “bulls of Bashan.” The phrase is using imagery of living things from a notoriously evil place.

Let us explore four views of what these bulls of Bashan can be.

Four Views on the Meaning of the Bulls of Bashan

Bulls of Bashan as Actual Livestock

The first view strips the poetic imagery of the text and leave the literal meaning of the phrase itself. In this, the phrase would just be describing the scene as if painting the backdrop to the focus of the passage.

In an agrarian culture, it would make sense for there to be livestock within view of both David and the cross.

If you take verse 12 in isolation, this seems plausible. Combined with verse 13, however, it seems less likely.

As the imagery shifts to give further detail on what is being described, the bulls are also given the characteristics of lions.  The hungry, roaring mouths would be out of place on typical bovine.

Instead, I think it is clear that David is using conventional poetic imagery. He combining these two images to describe one thing, which would be consistent with the other poetic devices found in the passage.

Figurative Language Speaking of the People Involved

In this second view, the phrase becomes descriptive of the people that surround David and those that surrounded the cross.

The cross drew a crowd and this view would say that verses 12 and 13 show the demeanor and disposition of that group.

Early listeners to these words would have made the connection to the incredible stubbornness and unmatched strength of the bulls that came from Bashan. Combined with the description of the mouths in verse 13, you get a picture of people so steeped in stubbornness that they refuse to see the truth in front of them.

This is accurate to the New Testament picture of the crowd that shouted, “Crucify Him.”

One potential criticism of this view is the application of the concept of strength to this group.

The group would have contained some Romans who could be characterized by incredible strength, since Rome was the most powerful country in the world.

However, a majority would have been comprised of the people who lived in and around Jerusalem as well as other Jews traveling to the city. It is hard to say that this group of subjected people would be embodied by a symbol of strength.

Figurative Language Speaking of the Spiritual Entities Involved

The third view incorporates the reality of the spiritual realm. All around us is an unseen realm with beings that interact to a certain extent with our world. Ii Kings 6:16-17 give us a small glimpse of this from the Biblical perspective:

So he answered, “Do not fear, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them.” Then Elisha prayed and said, “O Lord, I pray, open his eyes that he may see.” And the Lord opened the servant’s eyes and he saw; and behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha.  

           Ii Kings 6:16-17

The cross of Christ and subsequent resurrection was the most important event in human history. It rationally follows that the spiritual realm was present in some fashion.

With that in view, the bulls of Bashan can be describing the malevolent beings that surrounded the cross, but were unseen to the crowd.

This would give us a picture of pride-filled beings of incredible strength conceptually connected to a place of evil.

One thing to consider is the distinction presented between verses 12-13 and verse 16. This can be a distinction between the Jews and the Romans or it can be a distinction between the physical and the spiritual.

A Combination View – Can the Bulls of Bashan be both?

Our last view is really a concession to the previous two. It is that this phrase describes both parties, man and spiritual being.

It is plausible that both groups are spoken of with this descriptive phrase, however, I am less likely to accept this view.

With this, you introduce three levels of prophetic intent: the current context of David, the physical people surrounding the cross, and the spiritual realm present at the event.

While not impossible, I believe you will have to settle on either view two or three without combining them.

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  1. Shelly Mc Kend says:

    Thanks for enlightening me of what I was ignorant of. Blessings to you. Amen

  2. When I look up the Legion of Roman soldiers stationed there at the time of Christ it was the X legion whose symbol is the bull. Could this be a reference to them and there strength and evilness.

    1. There were a couple of close points in the article, however, it fell short of the true identity of the Bulls of Bashan. The Bulls of Bashan represents the strength, rebellion, and idolatry of Israel. Tribes of Israel were given the land of the Amorites (Bashan). In Deuteronomy 32:13-16, these tribes, addressed as “Jeshurun,” grew fat from the land and were rebellious, they turned to idolatry. To add further context, in the Psalm, the bulls roar like a lion. This is depicting Israel (the bull) behaving like Judah (the lion). Note; Israel at this point were called, “the lost sheep.” Judah, was still holding on to Torah, however, some were not receptive to the Messiah. When we look at Psalms 22:20, the dog has power, ruling by the sword, and is in control. This is because the dog represents Romans (Gentile). Although it’s not a popular scripture, especially among Christians, the Messiah referred to the Gentiles as dogs (Matthew 15:26). Although it was prophecy, it appears that the Canaanite woman’s faith was where the grafting of the Gentiles began. Prior to that event, he was only speaking to the children of Israel (Jacob & Israel).
      To interpret scripture, line must be upon line, and precept upon precept (Isaiah 28:13). It is also very important to read from the beginning to the end. Keep and guard the laws GOD; this is your wisdom, knowledge, and understanding.

      1. He is speaking of malevolent beings and the leaders of the day the chief priests the scribes and elders .to simplify it .Sometimes you have to look at scripture in every light given by the HOLY SPIRIT.If the literal sense makes sense seek no other sense.But obviously this isn’t literal .The religious leaders ,chief priests,scribes and elders.(Strong bulls of Bashan )they had influence also mocking my father .
        The bull itself lends itself to power and strength.Influence it was the key.In the book of Enoch which isn’t cannon the reference to Noah as the white bull .The golden calf .

    2. How very interesting! 🙂 Thank you!

  3. A minor point is that it’s 2 Kg.6:16-7, not 1 Kg.6:16-7. A major point is that you detetragrammatised God’s name, falling below Tyndale (who toggled between ‘Yahweh’ & LORD) back into Wycliffe/Vulgate (Lord/Dominus). Please don’t rely on copy/paste for OT texts that feature God’s name.

    1. Kelley G Faulkner says:

      How about that Bull statue in NYC

  4. I awakened from a vivid dream this morning that led me to this article. I saw a herd of bulls jockying for position on a hillside from which they would launch themselves in attack, running and leaping, hurling their bodies as wrecking balls, twisting in the air and swinging their huge horned heads to maim & gore anything in their path. One catapulted himself onto the roof of a house, splintering timbers with his enormous weight and destructive force.

    “What are these beasts?” I wondered. “Bulls, bulls of Bashan,” came a reply in my thoughts. I could not recall the term, though it seemed to me biblical. I reached for my phone and typed the phrase in the search engine and this is where I landed.

    So, I’m going with the the third view, spiritual entities. Lord protect us from the bulls of Bashan.

  5. Teri Sheddy says:

    Blessed insight! I was looking for the meaning of Bashan, Ps 68:23, “I will bring them back from Bashan…” and I found your article. What meaning and clarity to Ps 68:19 and Ephesians 4:8. “You went on high and led captivity captive.”
    Thank you SO MUCH for putting your inner thoughts on “paper” and sharing to build up the Body of Christ!

  6. I read this and the comments. Appreciate the views. It shined a light on the bulls of Bashan. I do have something to say… I have learned to not limit the Word.
    The spiritual teaches the physical and the physical teaches the spiritual. We often think in a Greek way, linear, that this OR that is true but sometimes both or more are true.
    If a house was on fire and there were people all around it there would be a different view of what was happening from every angle. Each would be a part of the whole truth. This is more of a Hebrew way of thinking. Hebrew is a language beyond any other. It has opened up the depth I cannot explain.
    Just think..
    Heaven and earth were present at that moment when our Messiah was on the cross. Was the enemy enjoying the steal, kill and destroy of the moment? Did he think he had won by killing the Son of God? The angels were waiting for just one command to rescue. And the Father was silent. And the people, a wave of many souls, some blinded by their own self righteousness speaking insults to our King. Then there was a soldier, ‘surely this was the Son of God’. And another group a mother grieving for the horror done to her son… her heart crushed. A disciple and beloved of the Jesus comforting his mother.
    Heaven and earth converges so intense that sun went dark. Was this all the sin of the world plunging onto our King? And the rocks cried out… an earthquake. The curtain in the temple was torn. Was this God the Father ripping His clothes as is the custom when grieving?
    I have no doubt the spiritual world was very present along with the physical.
    Read Psalm 22-31. If you wanted to know what was in the mind and heart of our Messiah as he bled and died with the sin of the world placed on him.
    This teaches me not only is it possible for there to be multiple meanings but that by the very height, length, depth and breadth of each there is much to uncover.
    In Hebrew the name Jesus is meaning ‘salvation’. Each letter of the name has a deeper meaning.
    I say all of this to say… if you don’t ever limit the Bible to one understanding… the Word within its context will come alive and not teach a small corner of truth but will teach your spirit, soul and body a vast expanse. It is the inspired Word of the Most High. Sharper than any 2 edged sword. Our instruction in right living… a roadmap on the greatest adventure of our life… to learn of our Father, King and Beloved. There is no greater purpose.

    1. You are so right, Sandy. Isn’t there a saying “Everything means something & something means everything” indicating the many layers of meaning the same scripture can have?

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