It seems that every few years, a red heifer (red cow) is born in Israel, and it results in some people thinking that the return of Jesus is near. Why is this? What does a red heifer have to do with the end times? Before we explore that question directly, it is important to understand the significance of a red heifer in the Bible.
To meet the requirements of the Old Testament law, a red heifer was needed to help accomplish the purification of the Israelites from uncleanness—specifically, the ashes of a red heifer were needed (see Numbers 19). Because red heifer ashes were necessary for the purification rites held at the temple, many have regarded the appearance of a red heifer today as heralding the construction of the third temple and the return of Christ.
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 (Parah Adumah, ch. 3, § 4). The Temple Institute, a group advocating the construction of a third temple, reports that five flawless red heifers from Texas arrived in Israel on September 15, 2022 (https://templeinstitute.org, accessed 9/22/22). Many people view this event as a fulfilment of prophecy, since the acquisition of a red heifer is a major step forward in plans for a new temple.
The Mosaic Law specified that the red heifer was to be “without defect or blemish” and to have never borne a yoke (Numbers 19:2). 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 to add “some cedar wood, hyssop and scarlet wool” to the fire (verse 6).
The ashes of the red heifer were then 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 in 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 commands concerning the red heifer were 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 as established in the Mosaic Law was fairly simple; in the interval since that time, Judaism has added many standards and extra criteria. 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 not found in the biblical text.
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 to occur during the tribulation (Matthew 24:15; cf. 2 Thessalonians 2:4); for that to happen, there obviously will need to be a temple. Assuming 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 found and is in Israel, that could be one more piece falling into place for the fulfillment of biblical prophecy.
Must a red heifer be found before the rapture occurs? No, Jesus could return to receive His own at any moment. The rapture is not contingent on the presence of any particular cow. Must a red heifer be found before the temple is rebuilt? Not necessarily, although temple advocates certainly want one for ceremonial purposes. Are animal sacrifices of any type required today? No, Jesus fulfilled all the requirements of the law, and His sacrifice provides true forgiveness and life eternal.
Scripture explicitly contrasts the red heifer ceremony with the greater sacrifice of Christ: “The ashes of a heifer sprinkled on those who are ceremonially unclean sanctify them so that they are outwardly clean. How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God!” (Hebrews 9:13–14).