Can you shed some light on the significance of a "red heifer" to be born prior to the coming of the Messiah?
Let us first of all understand that there is nothing in the Bible demanding a red heifer to be born prior to the return of Jesus Christ. It is true, however, that some Jews and Christians have attached an end-time application to the ancient Old Testament ritual of the killing of a red heifer for purposes of purification. As will be explained herein, this ritual is no longer in force. But some Jews and Christians believe that the ritual must be applied today, as a prerequisite for the commencement of sacrifices and the building of a third temple, and they expect a red heifer soon to be born. (In fact, when conducting a Yahoo search on the Internet, one receives about 280,000 results for “red heifer.”).
To obtain a better understanding as to the rationale behind this expectation, let us first review the rituals pertaining to the red heifer, as described in Numbers 19.
The Wikipedia Encyclopedia informs us that “The Red Heifer… was a sacrificial cow whose ashes were used for the ritual purification of people who came into contact with a corpse. According to Numbers 19:2: ‘Speak unto the children of Israel, that they bring thee a red heifer without spot, wherein is no blemish, and upon which never came [a] yoke’… The heifer is then slain (Numbers 19:3) and burned outside of the camp (Numbers 19:3–6)… the remaining ashes are placed in a vessel containing pure water (Numbers 19:9).
“In order to purify a person who has become ritually contaminated by contact with a corpse, water from the vessel is sprinkled on him, using a bunch of hyssop, on the third and seventh day of the decontamination process (Numbers 19:18–19)… The kohen [Levitical priest] who performs the ritual must… bathe himself and his clothes in water. He shall be deemed impure until evening.”
Just based on this description, it is indeed difficult to see at first how the ancient “red heifer” ritual could have anything to do with the coming of the Messiah or even a purification ceremony pertaining to a third temple. However, we should take note of the fact that the ritual was applied in conjunction with the tabernacle in the wilderness, the predecessor of the temple (compare Numbers 19:4, 13).
Based on their “interpretations,” the “oral law” and other traditional “additions” to the Law of God, Judaism has established all kinds of requirements in relationship to the “red heifer” and the “water of purification.”
The Wikipedia Encyclopedia explains:
“… the presence of two black hairs [or two white hairs, see below] invalidates a Red Heifer [as the Jews understand the requirement that the red heifer must be “without spot” as meaning, “without any other color but red,” or “having no mixture of any other color but red”]… there are various other requirements, such as natural birth (Caesarian section renders a Heifer candidate invalid). The water must be ‘living’ or spring water… Rainwater… cannot be used in the Red Heifer ceremony. The Mishnah reports that in the days of the Temple in Jerusalem, water for the ritual came from the Spring of Shiloah…
“To ensure complete ritual purity of those involved, enormous care was taken to ensure that no-one involved in the Red Heifer ceremony could have had any contact with the dead… The Mishnah recounts that children were used to draw and carry the water for the ceremony, children born and reared in isolation for the specific purpose of ensuring that they never came into contact with a corpse…
“According to the Mishnah, the ceremony of the burning of the Red Heifer itself took place on the Mount of Olives. A pure priest slaughtered the Heifer, and totally sprinkled of its blood in the direction of the Temple seven times… In recent years, the site of the burning of the Red Heifer on the Mount of Olives has been tentatively located by archaeologist Yonatan Adler…
“The existence of a red heifer that conforms with all of the rigid requirements [of Jewish tradition] is a biological anomaly. The animal must be entirely of one color, and there are a series of tests listed by the rabbis to ensure this, for instance, the hair of the cow must be absolutely straight (to ensure that the cow had not previously been yoked, as this is a disqualifier). According to Jewish tradition, only nine Red Heifers were actually slaughtered in the period extending from Moses to the destruction of the Second Temple…
“The absolute rarity of the animal, combined with the mystical ritual in which it is used, have given the Red Heifer special status in Jewish tradition… Because the state of ritual purity obtained through the ashes of a Red Heifer is a necessary prerequisite for participating in any Temple service, efforts have been made in modern times by Jews wanting to rebuild the Temple to locate a red heifer and recreate the ritual…”
Gershom Gorenberg writes the following in “The End of Days,” copyright 2001:
“… this sacrifice [of the red heifer] must be performed outside the Temple, yet the heifer’s ash becomes the key to the sanctuary: It alone can cleanse a man or woman tainted by contact with human death… anyone who touches a corpse, or bone, or grave, anyone who even enters the room of a dead body, is rendered impure, and must not enter the Temple. Yet proximity to death is an unavoidable part of life… So to free a person from impurity… mix the heifer’s cinder with water, and sprinkle the mixture on him… Two white hairs would disqualify [the heifer]… The last ashes of the last heifer ran out sometime after the Romans razed the Temple in Jerusalem in the year 70. Every Jew became impure by reason of presumed contact with death…”
We need to understand that the temporary ritual pertaining to the red heifer pointed at and foreshadowed the atoning Sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible explains:
“This burning of the heifer [was not] performed at the altar… yet was typical of the death and sufferings of Christ… It must not only be without blemish, typifying the spotless purity and sinless perfection of the Lord Jesus, but it must [be] a red heifer, because of the rarity of the colour… Christ, as man, was the Son of Adam, red earth, and we find him red in his apparel, red with his own blood, and red with the blood of his enemies. And it must be one on which never came [a] yoke, which was not insisted on in other sacrifices, but thus was typified the voluntary offer of the Lord Jesus… our Lord Jesus, being made sin and a curse for us, suffered without the gate…
“Eleazar was to sprinkle the blood directly before the door of the tabernacle, and looking steadfastly towards it… This signified the satisfaction that was made to God by the death of Christ, our great high priest, who by the eternal Spirit… offered himself without spot unto God…”
Adam Clarke’s Commentary on the Bible adds:
“The ordinance of the red heifer was a sacrifice of general application. All the people were to have an interest in it, and therefore the people at large are to provide the sacrifice… the ordinance of the red heifer… was designed to typify the sacrifice of our blessed Lord.”
As mentioned before, the Sacrifice of Jesus Christ superseded the red heifer ceremony. Paul writes in Hebrews 9:9-10 that the Old Testament rituals and fleshly ordinances were only imposed until the time of reformation. In this context, he says in Hebrews 9:11-14:
“But Christ came as High Priest of the good things to come… Not with the blood of goats and calves, but with His own blood He entered the Most Holy Place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption. For if the blood of bulls and goats and THE ASHES OF A HEIFER, sprinkling the unclean, sanctifies for the purifying of the flesh, how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without spot to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God.”
The Jamieson, Fausset and Brown commentary writes:
“The water of separation, made of the ashes of the red heifer, was the provision for removing ceremonial defilement whenever incurred by contact with the dead. As she was slain without the camp, so Christ… The ashes were laid by for constant use; so the continually cleansing effects of Christ’s blood, once for all shed. In our wilderness journey we are continually contracting defilement by contact with the spiritually dead, and with dead works…”
Paul made very clear that Christ came to “take away” sacrifice and offering (Hebrews 10:8-10), and that there is no longer a requirement of offering for sin (Hebrews 10:18). He wrote that the Old Covenant with its rituals has been made obsolete (Hebrews 8:13). Rather than being purified with water mixed with ashes from a red heifer, “let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water” (Hebrews 10:22). Paul also explains in Galatians 3:24-25 that we are no longer under the tutor of the ritual law.
It is also interesting to note that the procedures for the inauguration of the Millennial temple, which are outlined in Ezekiel 40, beginning with verse 18, do not mention a red heifer or water of purification.
In conclusion, the red heifer ritual is no longer biblically commanded, and the Bible does not demand the birth and sacrifice of a red heifer and its ashes as a requirement for the return of Christ. However, it is very likely that Jewish clerics may insist that the sacrifice of such a heifer to produce the ashes for the water of purification of the Temple Mount and the temple itself will be essential for the reconstruction of the temple and the coming of the Messiah. We can therefore expect that the diligent search for a “pure” and “spotless” red heifer will continue.
Lead Writer: Norbert Link