The Red Heifer

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What does a red heifer have to do with Jerusalem's temple? Why do some religious people believe its ashes are necessary for it to operate?

The Old Testament describes an unusual ceremony that required a red heifer in order to be performed correctly. God's requirements regarding the animal, spoken to Moses and Aaron, were, "Speak to the children of Israel that they bring you a red heifer, a perfect one, in which there is no blemish, on which no yoke ever came" (Numbers 19:2, HBFV throughout).

The red heifer was to be burned completely by fire and its ashes collected and stored, "for the congregation of the children of Israel for the water of purification; it is for purifying from sin" (Numbers 19:9). The ashes of the red beast were then placed in a container where running water was put on them (verse 17) before being used by the priest.

The priest would use the mixture of red heifer ashes and water to purify, ceremonially, something that was unclean. It was primarily used to cleanse those who were exposed to a dead body (Numbers 19:11, 13). It was also used to remove ritual defilement created by taking the spoils of war.

How do Jews go to heaven?
What does red symbolize in the Bible?
Mythical Animals in Scripture!

Both those born in Israel and those who are 'strangers' in the land could participate in this purification ceremony (Numbers 15:14 - 15). Since no Biblical provision is recorded for sending either this animal's ashes or the purification water it made to other locations, the ceremony itself could only be partaken of at Jerusalem's temple.


A cow colored red
A cow colored red

What makes this ceremony unique (other than its use of a rare heifer that is born red) is that it is the only one, related to the worship of God, where blood is burned for a ceremonial purpose. In fact, the entire animal (including its dung) was commanded to be consumed by fire (Numbers 19:5). The use of an animal's ashes, as an integral part of a temple-sanctioned event, also makes this service unique.

In the Jewish Mishna (Parah 3:2) it states that children were sent to the pool of Siloam (the same place where Jesus healed a man born blind, John 9:1 - 7) to collect water for the red heifer ceremony. They traveled to and from the pool, on the back of bulls, so that they could remain unpolluted by not touching the ground. Another Jewish tradition states that Solomon's wisdom was able to help him understand all things except the meaning of this red beast.

The apostle Paul references this red animal in the book of Hebrews. He emphatically informs us that the ashes of the heifer could never purify our consciences before God. Only the blood of Christ, which makes our forgiveness possible, can perform that monumental task (Hebrews 9:11 - 14).

Some orthodox Jews (and even some Christians) would like a temple rebuilt in Jerusalem and daily animal sacrifices established. Before this can occur, however, it is believed the ashes of a red heifer would be needed to cleanse the altar. The Bible does indicate that a third temple of some kind will be erected in the End Time. It will be used by the "abomination of desolation" (2Thessalonians 2:1 - 4) to declare he is god and therefore deserves worship (see our timeline on man's last days).

Additional Study Materials
Design of Jerusalem's Temple
 Why do Jews pray at the Wailing Wall?
Attacks on Jerusalem in history
Why does God create a New Jerusalem?

References
The Temple at the Time of Christ


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