What’s All This Talk About Red Heifers?

By Michael Brown Published on April 8, 2024

Have you heard Bible teachers in recent days talking about red heifers? If so, do we need to educate ourselves on the subject? And do red heifers have anything to do with the return of Jesus?

Let’s start first with a definition of “heifer,” since not everyone may be familiar with the word. According to Dictionary.com, a heifer is “a young cow over one year old that has not produced a calf.”

As for the significance of a red heifer in particular, that goes back to the book of Numbers, where we read that the Israelites were to bring to Moses “a red heifer without defect or blemish and that has never been under a yoke.” It was then to be slaughtered outside the camp and burned to ashes, and the ashes were “to be kept by the Israelite community for use in the water of cleansing; it is for purification from sin” (Numbers 19:2, 9).

Under the Old Covenant, when an Israelite became ritually unclean, his rites included being purified by “the water of cleansing,” which was mixed with the red heifer’s ashes.

The Hunt for the Red Young Heifer

What if the ashes were all used up and the Israelites could not find another red heifer “without defect or blemish and that has never been under a yoke”? What if they could not replenish “the water for cleansing”? Technically, they would be in a state of perpetual impurity.   

That’s why traditional Judaism teaches that since the Temple was destroyed in 70 AD and there has been no ceremonial cleansing water, all Israel has been in a state of ritual impurity. (The assumption is that, in one way or another a Jewish person would become ritually impure through some kind of contamination, such as touching a corpse; and since they could not be purified, whoever they touched also would be contaminated. Thus, over time, the whole nation would become ritually unclean.)

As for the red heifer, in his authoritative twelfth-century Law Code, the Mishneh Torah, Maimonides devotes an entire section to the subject, stating in 3:4,

Nine red heifers were prepared from the time that the Jewish people were commanded this mitzvah [meaning Torah commandment] until the Second Temple was destroyed. The first was prepared by Moses, the second by Ezra, and there were seven more from Ezra until the Temple’s destruction. The tenth one will be prepared by the King Messiah, may he be revealed soon, Amen.

This ties in with the traditional Jewish teaching that when the Messiah comes, along with bringing Israel into obedience to the Torah and regathering the Jewish exiles, He also will rebuild the Temple, making it the Third Temple.

Evangelical Cattlemen

Even though the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque currently stand on the site of the Temple and stand in the way of it being rebuilt, the fact that Israel has been reestablished as a nation with Jerusalem as its capitol has created a fresh expectation that the Messiah will soon be revealed.

But what use will the Temple be if no one can enter it because of impurity? A red heifer without blemish must be found so that it can be slaughtered and its ashes used for the ceremonial water — and that’s why the devout have been searching for such a spotless animal in recent decades.

Interestingly, though, there has been more talk about rebuilding the Temple and finding the red heifer in Christian circles — particularly among evangelical Christians — than in the traditional Jewish world.

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That’s because most traditional Jews believe they can do nothing whatsoever to rebuild the Temple other than pray for the coming of the Messiah and seek to hasten His arrival by fulfilling the commands of the Torah. Others believe that with the advent of the Messiah, the fully built Third Temple will come down from Heaven.

There is, however, a small group of religious Jews who have been working behind the scenes for years, preparing all the items needed in the Temple – such as the altars, the candlestands, and the priestly garments — as well as training Levites in the Temple rituals. When the Messiah is revealed, everything will be ready to go!

Evangelical Christians who believe that modern day events in Israel tie in directly with end-time prophecy have been watching some of this keenly. And now, with news that several red heifers have been discovered — with the help, no less, of evangelical cattle breeders! — there is a fresh buzz about the subject.

Should we care?

Big Issues, Small Details

In my view, not at all, since we have no idea whether the red heifers being produced means that the Temple will be rebuilt in five years, 10 years, or 50 years. There is not a verse in the Bible that gives us any kind of related timeline, and these fascinations tend to take our eyes off more tangibly practical issues, including: What about all the people worldwide who have not yet heard the Gospel? How can we more effectively share the message of Yeshua the Messiah with the Jewish people, both in the Holy Land and abroad? Is there way for the Israelis and Palestinians to live alongside each other in peace?

So, even though I personally believe that the Scriptures point to a Third Temple being built before Jesus returns, and even though I am convinced that it is God Himself who brought my people back to the Holy Land in 1948 in partial fulfillment of prophecy, I leave the timing of the remaining details to God, concentrating instead on what He called us to do.

If you enjoy staying up to date on these matters and the discovery of the red heifers encourages your faith, fine and good. I simply encourage you not to get overly caught up in all those details, as there are plenty of major things to occupy our attention before we reach the end of the age.

 

Dr. Michael Brown is the host of the nationally syndicated Line of Fire radio program. He is the author of more than 40 books, including Can You be Gay and Christian?Our Hands Are Stained With Blood; and Seize the Moment: How to Fuel the Fires of Revival. You can connect with him on FacebookX, or YouTube.

 

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