Torah Tuesdays: Everything there is to know about the Red Heifer

Shalom, folks. Every Tuesday, we dissect a Biblical commandment and add it to the massive visual tree over at EtzMitzvot. Today, we break from our commentaries on marriage (see Get Hitched! and God & Gay Rights),  to look at the odd ritual purity laws surrounding the Red Heifer, a spotless, never-worked red kind of cattle; a biological rarity. Timely, as the Temple Institute announced this week an initiative to breed a Red Heifer for use in the coming 3rd Temple in Jerusalem.

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For the last month, the Temple Institute, the Jewish organization aimed at building of the 3rd Temple in Jerusalem, has been trumpeting a “big, ground-breaking, earth-shattering, life-changing” announcement to be unleashed July 12th, 2015.

I didn’t pay much attention to hype, until Orthodox Messianic mentioned to me his excitement for the announcement last week in a private message.

Well, folks, July 12 arrived this past Sunday, and the Temple Institute revealed their earth-shattering announcement: they’re raising a herd of cows. (Much to Orthodox Messianic’s great disappointment.)

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More specifically, they’re teaming up with an Israeli cattle ranch to implant frozen embryos of Red Angus cattle into Israeli domestic cattle, eventually producing a herd of Red Heifers. In doing so, they hope to raise a Red Heifer without defect, thus removing one of the final remaining roadblocks to rebuilding the 3rd Temple: ritual purity gained only through the Red Heifer.

Who cares?

I must admit to previously knowing very little about the Red Heifer. I’ve heard the term thrown around several times in my religious circles. Now and again I hear mention that a Red Heifer was found. Then later, disqualified.

By and large, I have relegated Red Heifer stuff to the dusty bin of “weird things the Bible talks about which don’t have any impact on my life.”

Why care about the Red Heifer? Certainly for Christians and Messianics and even for folks in Judaism, the Red Heifer has zero impact on your daily life. It’s easy to dismiss right now; it seems unimportant. My post on God & Gay Rights generated 100+ comments; this post I’ll be lucky if a single soul reads to the end, let alone comments!

However, the commandments regarding the Red Heifer will have a real impact on future events in the world, and these events may occur in this generation. Events that will cause religious people to rejoice, secular people to wail and complain and protest. Events that may provoke a war in Israel. The Red Heifer commandments really are significant, even though it doesn’t seem like it today.

Another reason to care is, it’s one of God’s commandments. We should learn about God’s commandments, even if they seem unimportant or outdated or unrelated to our lives. This mitzvah from God appears in the Torah and is referenced again in the New Testament – it’s the duty of every disciple of Messiah to study and learn.

To seal the matter, this is one of the explicitly eternal commandments. God specifically calls out the laws concerning the Red Heifer as “a perpetual statute for the people of Israel, and for the stranger who sojourns among them.” (Numbers 19:10)

So, let’s go the extra mile that most Christians, Messianics, and Jews do not go: let’s learn everything there is to know about the Red Heifer.

The function of heifers in the Torah

In a sentence, the red heifer is the only means to undo the state of impurity caused by death. In essence, the red heifer ceremony is a requirement for outward purity, and a necessary prerequisite to the Temple service.

Prior to this commandment for purity, the people of Israel complained (Deut 17:12-13) they could not approach the tabernacle; anyone in an impure state died before the presence of the holy God.

Thus, God provides a way and protocol for people to approach: purification through the red heifer.

Now the Lord spoke to Moses and to Aaron, saying, “This is the statute of the law that the Lord has commanded: Tell the people of Israel to bring you a red heifer without defect, in which there is no blemish, and on which a yoke has never come. And you shall give it to Eleazar the priest, and it shall be taken outside the camp and slaughtered before him…gather up the ashes of the heifer and deposit them outside the camp in a clean place. And they shall be kept for the water for impurity for the congregation of the people of Israel; it is a sin offering.

-Numbers 19:1-3

Numbers 19 is a unique chapter in the Bible, as it’s the only chapter in the Bible that deals with this unique red heifer used in priestly purity. All other Biblical mentions of a heifer – a female cow that has not given birth –  are not necessarily Numbers 19’s special red heifer required for priestly purification.

Numerous heifers make their appearance in the Biblical text. A heifer makes its first appearance early on in Genesis, at a very special time in history: Immediately after God promises to Avram the land of Israel and promises that his descendants that would outnumber the stars, immediately after the famous, “Avram believed the LORD and he counted it to him as righteousness” (Gen. 15:6), the heifer appears:

I am the Lord who brought you out from Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to possess.” But Avram said, “O Lord God, how am I to know that I will possess it?” He said to him, “Bring me a heifer three years old…”

Genesis 15:7-9

There’s no indication, however, that this heifer is in any way related to the red heifer of Numbers 19.

We do, however, see a heifer function as an atonement in one other area of the Torah. In Deuteronomy 21, an unsolved murder is atoned for through the sacrifice of a heifer that has never been worked nor had a yoke around it.

If in the land that the Lord your God is giving you to possess someone is found slain, lying in the open country, and it is not known who killed him..the elders of the city that is nearest to the slain man shall take a heifer that has never been worked and that has not pulled in a yoke…and they shall break the heifer's neck there in the valley… And all the elders shall wash their hands over the heifer…and they shall testify, ‘Our hands did not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see it shed. Accept atonement, O Lord, for your people Israel, whom you have redeemed, and do not set the guilt of innocent blood in the midst of your people Israel, so that their blood guilt be atoned for.’ So you shall purge the guilt of innocent blood from your midst, when you do what is right in the sight of the Lord.

-Deuteronomy 21:1-9

The function of the heifer in Deut 21 is similar to our purity law of Numbers 19:

Heifer of Num. 19 Heifer of Deut. 21
Purifies a person who has touched a corpse or grave. Atones for an unsolved murder.
Must be unworked, without blemish, and red Must be unworked
Slaughtered Neck is broken
Blood is sprinkled towards the Tabernacle Elders wash hands over the heifer
Restores purity Purges bloodguilt

Still, only Numbers 19 deals with the unique, unworked and blemish-free red heifer, and serves a function unique within the entire Bible: restoring purity required for participating in the Temple service.

Requirements: Biblical demands and rabbinic stringencies

In the Scriptural text, the heifer is required to be without blemish, unworked, never having a yoke around it, and red.

These requirements may seem simple enough, and yet, for the last 2000 years, the world hasn’t witnessed a red heifer that qualifies. In fact, according to tradition, from Moses until the destruction of the 2nd Temple in 70 AD, only 9 qualifying heifers were sacrificed.

What about those rumored red heifers in recent years? In 1997, and again in 2002, a potentially qualifying red heifer was found:

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…only to be later disqualified:

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Why is it so hard to find a qualifying red heifer?

Qualifications are measured by Orthodox rabbis, and Orthodox Judaism has additional stringencies about the red heifer. In Jewish oral traditions in the Mishna, Tractate Parah elaborates on these additional stringencies. (Side note: “Parah” = cow. I love that Tractate Cow is a thing.)

In particular, Tractate Parah indicates that the red heifer:

  • Must be 3 years old. (Parah  1)
  • Must not be pregnant. (Parah 2:3)
  • Must not be a dwarf cow. (Parah 2:11)
  • Must be born naturally. (Parah 2:12)
  • Must never had a person ride it. (Parah 2:15)
  • Must never had a person lean on it. (Parah 2:16)
  • Must never had a person hang on its tail. (Parah 2:18)
  • Must never had a person doubled on its leading rope. (Parah 2:19)
  • Must never had a person use it to cross a river. (Parah 2:18)
  • Must never be mounted by a male. (Parah 2:23)
  • Must not have 2 black or white hairs. (Parah 2:24)

These are extra-biblical stringencies created by the sages of Judaism as they ruled on what the Bible means when it says “a red heifer without blemish.”

With these additional stringencies, every potential red heifer discovered in modern history has been disqualified, and thus, it’s impossible to keep the red heifer commandment, and more pressingly, no way to rebuild a pure Temple.

(Side note: Tractate Parah isn’t unified on all these stringencies. Some rabbis had more stringent requirements than others. For example, R. Eliezer rules in Parah 2:28 that a red heifer qualifies even if it has 50 black hairs.)

Usage of the red heifer

Once a qualifying red heifer is found, the priest performs a complex ceremony to create ashes for use in purity:

You shall give the heifer to…the priest, and it shall be taken outside the camp and slaughtered before him. And he shall take some of its blood with his finger, and sprinkle some of its blood toward the front of the tent of meeting seven times. And the heifer shall be burned in his sight. Its skin, its flesh, and its blood, with its dung, shall be burned. And the priest shall take cedar wood and hyssop and scarlet yarn, and throw them into the fire burning the heifer.

-Numbers 19:3-6

Here we have 3 actions the priest is to take:

  1. Slaughter the heifer outside the camp
  2. Sprinkle its blood towards the Tabernacle/Temple
  3. Burn the whole heifer along with cedar wood, hyssop, and scarlet yarn.

Let’s dissect each one.

Why slaughter outside the camp?

We often see matters of impurity – such as lepers (Lev 14), the rebellious (Numbers 12) and even latrines (Deut 23) – handled outside the camp.

So why is the red heifer slaughtered outside the camp? I suggest it is because the heifer is an offering for these impurities. I see parallels to the suffering Messiah, who also was grouped with the impure, slaughtered outside the camp as an offering to purify Israel. As Isaiah writes, “Because he poured out his soul to death and was numbered with the transgressors.”

The New Testament echoes this reality: “So Messiah also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood.”

Why sprinkle blood towards the Tabernacle?

The blood sprinkled towards the Tabernacle is one half of a dual sprinkling: blood towards the Tabernacle, heifer ash water on the people being purified. This whole ceremony was about enabling otherwise unclean people to approach God’s pure presence. The protocol for doing so saw both the house of God’s presence and the people sprinkled.

And we are reminded, as the New Testament cites, that almost everything in the Torah is cleansed with blood. And it was for this reason the suffering Messiah’s blood was also poured out, as it’s written in Isaiah, “By the anguish of his soul, My righteous servant will justify many. Because he poured out his soul to death and was numbered with the transgressors, yet bore the sin of many and makes intercession for the sinners.”

Why cedar, hyssop and scarlet yarn?

All 3 have cleansing properties in the Torah and in the Psalms. In Leviticus 14, these same 3 ingredients are used in cleansing of lepers.

Likewise, in King David’s famous repentance psalm, Psalm 51, before asking God that often-sung phrase, “Create in me a clean heart, O God”, David asks God, “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean.”

Scarlet represents sin throughout the prophets and the New Testament. God speaks through Isaiah saying, “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow.”

Inside the Tabernacle/Temple, the great veil separating the Holy of Holies was made of blue, purple, and scarlet yarns. It was this same scarlet veil in the Temple that was torn when the suffering Messiah cried out his last sentence before death.

The 3 elements were burned along with sacrifice to produce a means of purification. For the red heifer, purifying the people to enable access to the holy house. For the suffering Messiah, purifying the people through the atonement and forgiveness of sins, enabling sinful people to approach the holy God.

Priestly duties regarding the red heifer

At this point, there are no commandments for purity; only commandments for the priests to burn it. Once burned, the priest returns to the camp, washes his clothes and bathes:

Then the priest shall wash his clothes and bathe his body in water, and afterward he may come into the camp. But the priest shall be unclean until evening. The one who burns the heifer shall wash his clothes in water and bathe his body in water and shall be unclean until evening.

Numbers 19:7-8

It’s unclear to me (I’d appreciate any comments on this) whether this is the same person. It seems as though the priest and “the one who burns the heifer” are the same person, and they have the same ritual purity requirements.

Once burned, the ashes are used for purifying the people of Israel.

Purity for Israel

And a man who is clean shall gather up the ashes of the heifer and deposit them outside the camp in a clean place. And they shall be kept for the water for impurity for the congregation of the people of Israel; it is a sin offering.

Numbers 19:9

Another man (also the priest, the following day when he’s clean?) gathers up the ashes and puts them in a clean place outside the camp.

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These ashes are then reserved for purification for the people of Israel by mixing the ashes with water and sprinkling the people who become unclean by contamination with death:

Whoever touches the dead body of any person shall be unclean seven days. He shall cleanse himself with the water on the third day and on the seventh day, and so be clean. But if he does not cleanse himself on the third day and on the seventh day, he will not become clean. Whoever touches a dead person, the body of anyone who has died, and does not cleanse himself, defiles the tabernacle of the Lord, and that person shall be cut off from Israel; because the water for impurity was not thrown on him, he shall be unclean. His uncleanness is still on him.

-Numbers 19:11-13

The law of the Red Heifer is specifically for purifying Israelites who were contaminated by death, in particular, touching a dead body (vss 11, 16), or as we’ll see later, by going into a tent where someone has died (vs 14),  or by touching a grave (vs 18).

In this way, God makes demands on his people, a high calling for holiness: even though touching a dead body is not sin, it did create outward uncleanness; impurity. For God’s pure and separated presence to live among ordinary humans, God requires his people to be pure, both in heart – as we see later in the prophets and the New Testament – but also outwardly, as we see here in the Torah.

Any contamination with death – via touching a person who died of natural causes, of war or violence, touching human bones, touching a grave, or even entering a place where a person died – required purification so that God’s presence would remain with the people:

This is the law when someone dies in a tent: everyone who comes into the tent and everyone who is in the tent shall be unclean seven days. And every open vessel that has no cover fastened on it is unclean. Whoever in the open field touches someone who was killed with a sword or who died naturally, or touches a human bone or a grave, shall be unclean seven days.

-Numbers 19:14-16

When a person was contaminated with death, the priest took the water mixed with the ashes of the red heifer and again used hyssop to sprinkle the water and ash mixture on the contaminated person on the 3rd and 7th days after contamination:

For the unclean they shall take some ashes of the burnt sin offering, and fresh water shall be added in a vessel. Then a clean person shall take hyssop and dip it in the water and sprinkle it on the tent and on all the furnishings and on the persons who were there and on whoever touched the bone, or the slain or the dead or the grave. And the clean person shall sprinkle it on the unclean on the third day and on the seventh day. Thus on the seventh day he shall cleanse him, and he shall wash his clothes and bathe himself in water, and at evening he shall be clean.

-Numbers 19:17-19

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Notice also we have a sprinkling again with hyssop – the ash mixture would contain ashes from the hyssop from the initial offering of the red heifer.

Implications for the impure

What are the implications if a person refused to purify himself outwardly according to the protocol God laid out here?

If the man who is unclean does not cleanse himself, that person shall be cut off from the midst of the assembly, since he has defiled the sanctuary of the Lord. Because the water for impurity has not been thrown on him, he is unclean. And it shall be a statute forever for them. The one who sprinkles the water for impurity shall wash his clothes, and the one who touches the water for impurity shall be unclean until evening. And whatever the unclean person touches shall be unclean, and anyone who touches it shall be unclean until evening.”

-Numbers 19-20-22

To be cut off from Israel implies being put outside the community; no longer part of the people of God. This is a repeat of the warning issued earlier in the chapter, when it says in vs 13, “[W]hoever does not cleanse himself defiles the Tabernacle of the Lord, and that person shall be cut off from Israel.”

You begin to see why the red heifer is so important: anyone in Israel contaminated by death must be purified by the red heifer protocol, or be cut off from Israel. Anything short of this, and anything he touches becomes unclean, and more pressingly, God’s presence among the people is defiled, leading to the people’s eventual expulsion or God’s disappearance from their midst.

Conclusions, and a Messianic note

It’s for this reason, the Temple Institute is raising funds to bring up a halachically kosher red heifer in Israel. The Temple Institute has already recreated virtually all of the Temple implements; but a Temple could not be made clean – and perhaps God’s presence not return – without the protocol of the red heifer.

In what is perhaps the only other reference to the red heifer outside of Numbers 19, the author of Hebrews, writing to Jewish followers of Messiah who knew well the ceremonies and protocols of the Temple service, refers back to the red heifer purification protocol and draws parallels between the heifer and the suffering servant Messiah:

For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Messiah purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God. For Messiah offered himself without blemish to God through the eternal spirit.

-Hebrews 9:13

I think a lot of people want this to mean, “The red heifer stuff is old news and no longer relevant; it’s been replaced by Messiah.”

But as I see it, this speaks of a difference of function: the heifer to purify the outward person ritually so as not to contaminate the holy presence, but Messiah to purify the person inwardly so as to cleanse the person of the guilt of sin, an offering not unlike that of Deuteronomy 21.

The offerings of the heifer and the suffering Messiah serve different functions, one outward and one inward. God requires both for his holy people. And this is not a new law, but one the Torah testifies to when commands both circumcision of the flesh and heart,

“Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn.

-Deuteronomy 10:16

I hope this has helped you better understand God’s commandments regarding the Red Heifer, fine Kineti reader. Shalom, and see you next week.

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Husband, dad, disciple of the Jewish Messiah Yeshua, technologist. Author of Chavah Messianic Radio, MessianicChords, and EtzMitzvot. @judahgabriel


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