‘Speak to the children of Israel, that they bring you a red heifer without blemish . . . ' (Numbers 19:2).
The heifer was to be burned completly 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 were then placed in a container where running water was put on them (verse 17). The mixture was then used by the priest.
What makes the ceremony in Numbers 19 special (other than in the use of a red heifer) is that it is the only one in the Old Testament where blood is burned for a ceremonial purpose. In fact, the entire animal (including the fecal matter in its body) is consumed by fire (verse 5). The use of animal ashes as an integral part of a temple-sanctioned service also makes this service unique.
Both those born in the land of Israel and those who are 'strangers' (aliens or Gentiles living in the land) could participate in the Numbers 19 ceremony (Numbers 15:14 - 15). Additionally, as no provision was made for sending the ashes of the heifer to different locations, this purification ceremony could only be participated in by those who came to Jerusalem's temple.
Red heifer ashes are needed so that they, with running water, can create what is translated as 'water of purification' (NKJV), ''water of cleansing' (HBFV, NIV), 'water of separation' (KJV), 'water to remove impurity' (NASB), 'water for the purification' (NLT) and 'waters of separation' (YLT). The word translated as purification, cleansing, separation, etc. in these verses is Strong's Concordance #H5079, niddâh, which in the Hebrew means rejection and by implication impurity.
The purpose of the ceremony is to purify, ceremonially, those who are unclean. It was primarily used to cleanse those who came in contact with a dead body (Numbers 19:11, 13). It was also used to remove ritual defilement created by taking booty from a war.
In the Jewish Mishna (Parah 3:2) it states that children were sent to the pool of Siloam 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.
An early Jewish tradition believed that the Numbers 19 ceremony was implemented to atone for Israel's sin of worshipping a golden calf. This incident (Exodus 32), which occurred as the children of Israel waited for Moses to come down from Mt. Sinai, angered God to the point where he wanted to DESTROY all the people (Exodus 32:7-10). Their behavior not only caused Moses to break the stone tablets containing the Ten Commandments, but also to have the idolatrous calf ground into powder and poured into water that the sinning Israelites had to drink (Exodus 32:20). As an interesting side note, the well-known first century Jewish Historian Josephus does not mention AT ALL the 'golden calf' incident in his writings that discuss the complete history of the Jews.
Another tradition holds that Solomon's God-given wisdom was able to help him understand all things EXCEPT the meaning of the red heifer. This is the reason, it is believed, why he stated "I used my wisdom to test all of this. I was determined to be wise, but it was beyond me." (Ecclesiastes 7:23)
The command in Numbers 19 states that an animal must be selected "on which a yoke has never come" (verse 2). Yet, in another example of going way beyond God's intent in order to create human traditions (see Matthew 15, Mark 7), the Mishna states that even a cloth placed on the animal would be considered a 'yoke' and render it unfit for use in the ceremony.
The New Testament
It is believed that the waters from the pool of Siloam, the same place where Jesus healed a man born blind, were used to combine with the ashes of the red heifer to create what was needed to make someone ceremonially clean (see John 9:1 - 7).
The apostle Paul referenced the heifer in the book of Hebrews. He emphatically informs us that the ashes of the animal could never purify our consciences before God. Only the blood of Christ, which makes our forgiveness possible, can perform that monumental task (see Hebrews 9).
There have been no animal sacrifices in Jerusalem since the Roman Empire completely destroyed the temple in 70 A.D. Some modern-day orthodox Jews, however, look for a time when daily animal sacrifices can be re-establishing in Jerusalem on an altar that will first be cleansed by the ashes of a red heifer. Towards this end, some Rabbis are on an on-going quest to find unblemished heifers that could be used for such purposes. The fact that some kind of altar and temple will be erected and used in the End Time before Christ's return was predicted by no less than Jesus himself (Mark 13:14, Matthew 24:15) and the apostle Paul (2Thessalonians 2:3-4).