The red heifer, known in Hebrew as parah adumah, is a cow described in the Bible that had very special significance in ancient Jewish ritual purification practices. The Bible first mentions the red heifer in Numbers 19, where God instructs Moses and Aaron regarding the use of a red heifer for purification from sin and impurity.
The Ritual of the Red Heifer
According to Numbers 19, the red heifer was to be without defect or blemish, and it was to be taken outside the camp and slaughtered (Numbers 19:3). Its blood was to be sprinkled seven times toward the front of the Tent of Meeting (Numbers 19:4). The heifer was then to be burned completely, along with cedar wood, hyssop, and scarlet material (Numbers 19:6). As it burned, the priest was to throw the materials into the fire (Numbers 19:10). The ashes of the red heifer were then collected and stored in a ceremonially clean place outside the camp (Numbers 19:9).
These ashes were to be mixed with water from a live, flowing source to create the “water of cleansing” (Numbers 19:9,17). This water was used in a purification ritual for those who had become ceremonially unclean by touching a corpse or grave (Numbers 19:11-13). The unclean person was to be sprinkled with the water on the third and seventh days of the purification ritual (Numbers 19:12,19). After the sprinkling, the person underwent bathing and washing of clothes, and was considered clean again at sunset on the seventh day (Numbers 19:19).
Significance and Symbolism
The red heifer ritual was significant in several ways:
Purification from Sin
The ritual provided a way for purification from sins and impurity, restoring people to a state of ritual purity so they could participate in worship. The sprinkling of the red heifer’s ashes purified people from the impurity associated with death and mortality. This symbolic cleansing pointed toward the greater purification from sin available through faith in God.
Foreshadowed Christ’s Sacrifice
The sacrifice and burning of the unblemished red heifer is seen by some Christians as foreshadowing Christ’s own sacrifice on the cross. The red color symbolized the blood Christ would shed, and the unblemished quality represented Christ’s sinless nature. Just as the heifer’s ashes were used for cleansing and purification, Christ’s death provides cleansing from sin.
Prepared Priests for Service
The red heifer ashes were also used to purify priests before they could perform certain duties (Numbers 19:9). In this way, the ritual prepared them for service in God’s tabernacle. It reminded them of the need for holiness as they drew near to God. This too prefigured the way Christ’s sacrifice would prepare believers for service in God’s kingdom.
Pictures Need for Redemption
On a basic level, the red heifer ritual affirmed humans’ need for redemption and cleansing from sin. The sacrifice and sprinkling of ashes demonstrated that reconciliation with God requires the shedding of blood and sacrifice of an innocent substitute – concepts fulfilled in Christ. The ritual kept the concept of sin and redemption before the people of God.
Unusual Nature of Ritual
Unlike most other sacrifices, the red heifer was conducted outside the camp, not at the tabernacle. And those who carried out the sacrifice became unclean – unique among sacrifices (Numbers 19:7-10, 21). This unusual nature of the ritual affirmed the exceptional role it played in God’s plan of redemption. It required an extraordinary sacrifice to provide purification for the people’s sins.
Red Heifer in Jewish History
According to Jewish tradition, only nine red heifers were properly prepared and sacrificed from the time of Moses until the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 AD. These rare and precious heifers enabled the continuation of the purification rites over the centuries.
The Mishnah (a collection of Jewish traditions) records details about red heifers born later in Jewish history. It tells how the heifers were carefully inspected for blemishes and their ashes compounded with other materials for use in purification (Parah 3). Rabbis imposed strict standards disqualifying most candidate heifers, but accepted others including heifers prepared by the high priests Yochanan in the late 2nd century BC and Yishmael ben Piabi in the early 2nd century AD.
With the loss of the Temple in 70 AD, sacrifices including the red heifer could no longer be offered. But the Mishnah regulations ensured the existing ashes could continue to be used into the 3rd century AD or later. The scattered Jews longed for renewal of sacrifices including the red heifer when the Temple would be restored. And to this day, some Orthodox Jews have attempted to locate ritually pure red heifers in hopes that this unique sacrifice could be reinstated with rebuilding of the Temple.
As previously noted, the red heifer sacrifice has been understood by Christians as foreshadowing and typifying the greater sacrifice of Christ. Beyond this, Christian scholars over the centuries have proposed other interpretations and insights regarding the red heifer, including:
Representation of Christ
The red heifer has specifically been seen as a Christ figure, representing the Messiah who would purify God’s people from sin. Early Church fathers like Chrysostom viewed the red color as symbolizing Christ’s blood shed at Calvary. And the uncommon nature of the sacrifice outside the camp was also like Jesus’ crucifixion outside Jerusalem at Golgotha.
Symbol of Holy Spirit
Some writers like Augustine have proposed that the red heifer represents the Holy Spirit, who was sent by Christ after his sacrifice to apply Christ’s redemptive work to believers and sanctify them. As the red heifer ashes were sprinkled to purify, so the Spirit cleanses and makes holy.
Represents the Word of God
Other interpreters see the red heifer as a symbol for the Word of God. The Scriptures testify to Christ and apply his sacrifice to cleanse hearts and consciences when received by faith. Like the red heifer ashes were combined with living water, God’s Word connects with the living water of the Spirit to bring cleansing.
Typifies the Church
Viewing the heifer collectively, some argue that like Israel the red heifer represents the Church as a corporate body. Through faith in Christ’s sacrifice, the worldwide Church experiences purification from sin’s defilement. The sprinkling of the ashes finds parallel in baptism by which the Church is cleansed.
Foreshadows End-Time Events
Some futurist interpreters link the red heifer to end-time prophecies, viewing it as foreshadowing a purified Israel ready to build the prophesied Third Temple. This remains speculative, but shows how profoundly the red heifer has impacted Jewish thought and eschatology.
The Red Heifer Today
In recent decades, some Orthodox Jewish and Christian fundamentalist groups have aimed to reinstate Temple sacrifices, including that of the red heifer. Cattle breeding programs have attempted to produce satisfactory ritual heifers, though facing challenges and controversies. However, most Jews and Christians see the red heifer laws as part of the now-fulfilled Mosiac code. They believe its symbolic functions find complete meaning in Christ without any need for renewed sacrifices.
While amplification of the red heifer’s symbolism continues in sermons, books, and films today, scholars debate whether its ashes still have future relevance. But all agree that in the canon of Scripture, this unusual sacrifice occupies an important part of the unfolding story of redemption – one more piece of the puzzle illuminating God’s great work in history to reconcile humanity to himself.