To meet the requirements of the Old Testament law, a red heifer was needed to help accomplish the purification from sin—specifically, the ashes of a red heifer were needed. The red heifer was a reddish-brown cow, probably at least two years old. It was to be “without defect or blemish” and to have never borne a yoke. The sacrifice of the red heifer was unique in the law in that it used a female animal, it was sacrificed away from the entrance to the tabernacle, and it was the only sacrifice in which the color of the animal was specified.
The slaughtering of a red heifer is described in Numbers 19:1–10. Eleazar the priest was to oversee the ritual outside the camp of the Israelites. After the animal was killed, Eleazar was to sprinkle some of its blood toward the front of the tabernacle seven times (verse 4). Then he left camp again and oversaw the burning of the carcass of the red heifer (verse 5). As the red heifer burned, the priest was commanded to add “some cedar wood, hyssop and scarlet wool” to the fire (verse 6).
The ashes of the red heifer were collected and stored “in a ceremonially clean place outside the camp.” The ashes were used “in the water of cleansing; it is for purification from sin” (Numbers 19:9). The law goes on to detail when and how the ashes of the red heifer were used in purifying those who came into contact with a dead body: “Whoever touches a human corpse will be unclean for seven days. They must purify themselves with the water on the third day and on the seventh day; then they will be clean” (verses 11–12). The purification process involved the ashes of the red heifer in this way: “Put some ashes from the burned purification offering into a jar and pour fresh water over them. Then a man who is ceremonially clean is to take some hyssop, dip it in the water and sprinkle . . . anyone who has touched a human bone or a grave or anyone who has been killed or anyone who has died a natural death” (verses 17–18).
The imagery of the red heifer is yet another foreshadowing of the sacrifice of Christ for believers’ sin. The Lord Jesus was “without blemish,” just as the red heifer was to be. As the heifer was sacrificed “outside the camp” (Numbers 19:3), Jesus was crucified outside of Jerusalem (Hebrews 13:11–12). And just as the ashes of the red heifer cleansed people from the contamination of death, so the sacrifice of Christ saves us from the penalty and corruption of death.
The red heifer ritual was established in the Mosaic Law; in the interval since that time, Judaism has added many standards to what was originally a straightforward, rather simple set of instructions. Talmudic tradition speaks of the type of rope the red heifer was to be bound with, the direction it was to face when being slaughtered, the words spoken by the priest, the wearing of sandals during the ritual, etc. The rabbinical rules listed many things that would disqualify a red heifer from being sacrificed: if she had been ridden or leaned on, if she had a garment placed over her, if a bird had rested on her, and if she had two black or white hairs, among many other conditions.
According to rabbinical tradition, there have been nine red heifers sacrificed since Moses’ time. Since the destruction of the second temple, no red heifers have been slaughtered. The rabbi Maimonides (1135—1204) taught that the tenth red heifer would be sacrificed by the Messiah Himself. Those who anticipate the construction of a third temple are eager to find a red heifer that meets all the conditions, because the red heifer ashes will be necessary to purify the new temple. Many consider that the appearance of a red heifer will herald the construction of the temple and the return of Christ. According to the Temple Institute, a group advocating the construction of a third temple, a flawless red heifer was born in August 2018 in Israel.
According to the futurist timeline of eschatology, there will indeed be a third temple of God in Jerusalem. Jesus prophesied a desecration of the temple during the tribulation (Matthew 24:15; cf. 2 Thessalonians 2:4); for that to occur, there obviously will have to be a temple in Jerusalem to desecrate. Assuming that those who dedicate the end-times temple follow Jewish law, they will need the ashes of a red heifer, mixed with water, for the ceremonial cleansing. If a blemish-free red heifer has truly been born, it could be seen as one more piece falling into place leading up to the fulfillment of biblical prophecy.