The History and Symbolism of the Red Heifer

Overview and Background of Hashem’s instruction about the Red Heifer in Parashah Chukat

On the 1st of Nissan, The mishkan’s last inauguration day, Hashem revealed to Moshe the laws regarding impure people who are expelled from the camp, and the purity laws of the kohanim priests. Hashem taught him how purification from the different types of impurities is achieved (either by the sacrifices that consummate the purification procedure, as well as by immersion in a mikvah of living waters)!

When Hashem taught Moshe that an Israelite becomes tamay (meaning impure) by touching a dead body, Moshe’s question was, “how does one purify himself of this tum’a?”

The Almighty did not answer his question right away, and Moshe’s face fell in grief and sadness. (This is because there can be no greater pain for a talmid cha’cham (a disciple or “student of a sage”, i.e. a Torah scholar ), whose life goal is to perfect himself in Torah knowledge and performance, then to be denied the knowledge he seeks.)

Actually, Moshe was sad for Aaron’s sake when Hashem did not reply… He thought that by participating in the Golden calf Aaron had brought back the Angel of death to the Jewish people and he would be eternally stigmatized, unless Hashem prescribed a way of each purifying themselves from the tum’a uncleanness caused by death. In truth however, Hashem delayed His answer as a kindness to Aaron!  The first time he addressed Moshe, Aaron was not present.  Hashem therefore waited until Aaron too was present and then addressed the laws of the para adumah about cleansing and purification from death to both of them. This publicized the fact that he had forgiven Aaron for having participated in the sin of the Golden calf.

Later that day Hashem resumed the subject, explaining to Moshe and Aharon, if someone became defiled by contact with a corps,e he is to be sprinkled with a special mixture of water and Ashes from a red heifer.”  The Almighty then instructed them in the laws of the para adumah… (which I will share with you now before we talk about the symbolism and prophetic significance behind the symbols)…

The Red Heifer – Bamidbar 19

God spoke to Moshe and Aharon and saying, this is the Chukkat command of the Torah which God commanded saying,

Tell the children of Israel they should bring to you a perfect red heifer

in Hebrew a [פָרָ֨ה אֲדֻמָּ֜ה תְּמִימָ֗ה] (tamim meaning pure), and which is devoid of blemish and has never had a yoke placed on it.  You should give it to Elizar the priest, he should take it outside all three camps and a non priest may slaughter it in his presence.  Elizar the priest should take some of its blood with his finger, turn so that he faces toward the front of the tent of meeting, and sprinkle it 7 times.  The cow should then be burned in his presence, it’s hide, its flesh, its blood and it’s dung should be burned.  The priest should take a piece of cedarwood, hyssop and Crimson wool and cast them onto the burning cow.  The priest should immerse his garments and wash his body in mikvah water. The priest will remain impure until the evening and then he may enter the inner camps.  The one who burns the cow should immerse his clothes in mikvah water and ritually purify his body in mikvah water, and then he will remain ritually impure until the evening. A ritually pure person should gather the cow’s ashes and divide them into three portions: he should leave one portion in the temple for the priests working there, place another on the Mount of olives outside the camp in a ritually pure place for priests preparing the red cow, and the third portion should be placed just outside the wall of the temple courtyard, as a secure reminder for the congregation of the children of Israel.  

What is interesting about this description of the three camps is that one is for the priests, one is for the rest of the house of Israel and one is on the Mount of Olives where he ascended to officiate as the high priest an intercessor for all of Israel

The Ashes are to be added to the sprinkling water which is used for ritual purification. The one who gathers the cow’s Ashes should immerse his clothes in a mikvah, and he will remain ritually impure until the evening.  This is an everlasting law, both for the children of Israel, and for the convert who lives with them.

The Ashes are to be added to the sprinkling water which is used for ritual purification. The one who gathers the cow’s Ashes should immerse his clothes in a mikvah, and he will remain ritually impure until the evening.  This is an everlasting law, both for the children of Israel, and for the convert who lives with them.

Ritual impurity from a corpse

Anyone touching the corpse of a human being will become ritually impure for 7 days.  On the 3rd and 7th days he should ritually purify himself with the Ashes of the red cow, in order to become ritually pure. But if he does not sprinkle himself with it on the 3rd and 7th days, he will not become ritually pure.  Anyone who touches the corpse of a human being that died, and does not ritually purify himself, and then enters the temple courtyard, has made God’s Tabernacle ritually impure so his soul will be cut off from Israel.  Being that the sprinkling water was not sprinkled on him, he remained ritually impure and even if he immersed in the mikvah, his ritual impurity remains with him.

The Law regarding a man that dies in a tent

Anyone entering the tents and anything in the tent will be ritually impure for Seven days. Any open vessel which has no seal fastened around its cover becomes ritually impure.  Anyone who is in an open field and touches a person who was killed by the sword or a corpse or a human bone or a grave will be ritually impure for Seven days.

Laws For the ritually impure person

They should take some of the Ashes of the burnt purification offering of the red cow and place them in a vessel filled with spring water.  A ritually pure person should take hyssop, dip it into the water, and sprinkle it on the tent, on all the vessels, and on the people who were in it and on anyone who touched the bone… the killed person, the corpse or the grave.  The ritually pure person should sprinkle the ash water on the ritually impure person on the third day and on the 7th day.  On the 7th day he will become ritually pure but first he should immerse his clothes and wash himself in mikvah water and he will become ritually pure in the evening.  [Revelation 7:14 says, “These are the ones who died in the great tribulation. They have washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb and made them white.”]   Now get this, If a person becomes ritually impure and does not purify himself and enters the sanctuary his soul will be cut off from the congregation because he has made God’s sanctuary ritually impure for he remained ritually impure since the sprinkling waters were not sprinkling upon him.  

Just like the parable of the man who came to the wedding without the required wedding garment of white in Matt 22 and was cast out… we where a white kittle when married in Israel

Hashem goes on to say,

This will be an eternal law beyond human understanding…

A General Overview of the Red Heifer Ceremony and Its Greater Implications

The Jewish sages teach that the (mitzvah/commandment) of the red cow is “beyond human understanding.” Like the afikomen (and how the middle broken matzah that is “buried” and “resurrected,” is a picture of the death, burial and resurrection of Yeshua) in the (Pesach) Seder, the meaning of which to this day remains unclear to the Jewish scholars, the pure red cow is a ritual that makes sense only when Yeshua the Savior is added to the picture!  It is said that even the legendary Solomon (Shlomo), the wisest of men who could even talk to animals, was baffled by it and could not puzzle out the rationale for Para Aduma. They say that when Solomon wrote, “I said I would acquire wisdom, but it is far from me” (Ecclesiastes 7:23), he was referring to the Red Heifer ritual. (Eccles. R. 7:23 no. 4).

In Bamidbar Rabba, Chukat 3, it recounts instances of Shlomo’s Hamelech’s (King Solomon’s) deep understanding of everything, reflecting his exceptional wisdom. But at the end of all this, it quotes Shlomo himself saying that despite all his attempts at studying it, he could not understand the nature of Para Aduma, the Red Heifer, which was burned to ash, after which the ashes were used for ritual purification (Bamidbar 19).

Just think, if Solomon had had the revelation of Yeshua HaMashiach, he would have understood more!  The RED HEIFER (Heb. פָּרָה אֲדֻמָּה), was a pure red cow  (פָרָ֨ה אֲדֻמָּ֜ה תְּמִימָ֗ה – the Pey, Resh, and Hey hint through the Hebrew picture language the face and noble authority of Adam/”Aduma” revealed in purity “t’mimah”)  the para aduma t’mimah red cow was three to five years of age whose body went from red to white ashes symbolizing blood bringing purity and used in the ritual purification of persons and objects defiled by death (Num. 19). While the English term heifer means a young cow that has not had a calf, the Torah (Num. 19:2) speaks simply of a cow (Heb. parah) [ and Yeshua was young and without children at the time of his sacrifice… in fact if you correlate the lifespan of a righteous man being 120 years and the lifespan of a cow being 15, then you get about an 8:1 ratio in cow years to human years.  Multiply 8 by the age of the average red hefier when sacrificed at a little over 4 and you get 33 years old… the approximate age of Yeshua at his death!] The Torah prescribes that the red cow be without blemish (Heb. temimah), that it should have no defect (Heb. mum), and that it should never have been yoked (Num. 19:2).

Also, unlike ordinary sacrifices, which could be slaughtered only at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting (Lev. 17:5), the red heifer was to be slaughtered outside the camp (Num. 19:3). 

God told Moses that the sacrificial altar of the Red Heifer was to be built “outside” the camp, 2000 cubits (2,916 feet) to the east of the tent tabernacle.

The Red Heifer was led through the Eastern Gate over an arched roadway that spanned the Kidron Valley to the “Place of Burning” on the Mount of Olives. The Heifer would be bound and thrust into a pit filled with the firewood prepared for the ritual prior to being slain by the priest. The Heifer’s blood would be sprinkled seven times toward the Holy of Holies before the fire was ignited. Finally, the mysterious cedar wood and hyssop, bound by scarlet wool, was thrown onto its carcass.

The picture that is painted at the “Place of Burning” is that of Yeshua being led out of Jerusalem to be cast into the pit, likened to the sheol, taking our eternal punishment for our rebellion against G-d.

In Yeshua’s day, that altar was atop the Mount of Olives, the Red Heifer Bridge led from the Temple Mount to the Mount of Olives, where the priest would have had a direct view over the East Gate and the inner east gate, looking for the signal as to when to begin the sacrifice.  The concept of outside the camp signifies outside of, or away from, the divine presence or shekinah of YHVH meaning outside the tabernacle courtyard (The ArtScroll Chumash, p. 839).  [Yeshua, like the red heifer was killed outside the camp on the Mount of Olives where the red heifer alter was, and felt how the sin separated him from the Father… saying my God, my God why has thou forsaken me.]

While the priest did the slaughter and the burning of the red heifer, the ashes were gathered by a ritually clean man (Num. 19:9) [Think: Yoseph of Aramathea, his uncle] and placed outside the camp in a ritually pure place [Think: the grave of a rich man] (cf. Lev. 6:4). The gatherer of the ashes could evidently be a layman as could also the slaughterer of a freewill offering (Lev. 1:5).

The ashes of the red heifer were combined with living spring water (Heb. mayim ḥayyim) in an earthen vessel (Num. 19:17) to produce a mixture called “water of lustration” (Heb. me niddah). The mixture was applied by dipping into it and sprinkling (19:18) on the third and seventh days after defilement (19:19). This defilement was acquired by touching a corpse, a grave, or a human bone, or by being under the same roof with any of these. [the third millennial day after the sacrifice of Yeshua is the 7 millennial day from the Sin of Adam in the beginning!]

Historically, according to the rabbis there were nine (Par. 3:5), and the tenth and last will be prepared by the Messiah (Yad, Parah Adummah 3:4).   Ten is the number of completion in Hebrew, and the number of the humble yud starting his name Y’hoshua meaning Yah’s Salvation!

Numbers 19:9 states that the waters of sprinkling were for purification. The Hebrew word for purification is chatat, which according to some rabbinic interpreters is a reference to a sin offering. This is a striking parallel to Y’hoshua’s salvation work at the cross.

Rabbi Shaul understood the greater implications of the red heifer as it pointed to Y’hoshua when he wrote to the Hebrews 9:

But Messiah being come a high priest of good things to come, by a greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands, that is to say, not of this building; neither by the blood of goats and calves, but by his own blood he entered in once into the holy place, having obtained eternal redemption for us. For if the blood of bulls and of goats, and the ashes of an heifer sprinkling the unclean, sanctifies to the purifying of the flesh: how much more shall the blood of Messiah, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without spot to Elohim, purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living Elohim? And for this cause he is the mediator of the renewed covenant, that by means of death, for the redemption of the transgressions (the law of sin and death) that were under the first covenant, they which are called might receive the promise of eternal inheritance.

(Heb 9:11–15, emphasis added)

As believers in Yeshua, we know that all the Old Testament sacrifices pointed to different aspects of the atonement procured by the Messiah in His first appearance. The burning of the Red Heifer is no exception. The full instructions explain that this sacrifice takes away the defilement of death­­ – that which separates man from God. Its ashes were to be gathered and stored for use in mixing with water to form the ‘waters of separation’ that had to be sprinkled on everything and everyone connected with the performance of Temple worship.  Separating us through Shabbat, Torah and Yeshua makes us holy!

Now, a little more detailed Overview of the Red Heifer Ceremony and Its Greater Implications on how the Red Heifer Relates to Yeshua’s Death on the Cross

So how does the mysterious ritual of the red heifer relate to Yeshua’s atoning death on the cross? Let’s recount the ways in which Yeshua’s death fulfilled every aspect of the curious red heifer ritual.

  • The heifer was to be pure red in color (Num 19:2). Red is the color of the stain of sin (Isa 1:18, “though your sins be as scarlet … red like crimson.”). Red is also the color of clay earth out of which Elohim formed the first man naming him Adam (Strong’s H119/120) which means “ruddy, red, bloody or rosy in color.” The Red Cow is called ‘Adumah” as Red is also the color of the Second Adam, Yeshua the Messiah, who was literally red, while being covered in his own blood while hanging on the cross as our sin sacrifice.
  • The red heifer was to be spotless and without blemish or defect (Num 19:2). More care was exercised in choosing a spotless cow than in any other sacrifice. This spotless purity represents Messiah Yeshua, the perfect, and sinless sacrifice.

What does the Talmidim write about Yeshua in regards to being spotless and without blemish?

He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth.

1 Peter 2:22 

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.

Hebrews 4:15 

For our sake He put upon him our sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

2 Corinthians 5:21 

You know that he appeared to take away sins, and in him there is no sin.

1 John 3:5 
  • The red cow had borne no yoke (Num 19:2). Similarly, Messiah was neither under the yoke of sin nor was beholden to or under bondage to any human, institution, government, religious system or anything else of an earthly nature.
  • The heifer was slain outside of the camp (Num 19:3). During the first and second temple eras the red heifer was slain on the Mount of Olives by the priests. The Mount of Olives was located off the Temple Mount and outside the walls of the city of Jerusalem (see The Pentateuch/Numbers, p. 329, by Samson Hirsch). Messiah Yeshua was sacrificed outside of the city gates of Jerusalem (Heb 13:12) and very possible, contrary to Christian tradition, on the Mount of Olives from which the front of the temple and the veil was clearly visible. Remember, the rent veil was visible from the place of crucifixion (Matt 27:5154Mark 15:38–39).
  • The red heifer was to be slaughtered and then totally burnt (Num 19:5). This represents his complete destruction of the ego and his burning away the lower self. Y’hoshua suffered in body, soul and spirit (Isa 53) to atone for man’s sin.  The red heifer is just one more of the many shadow pictures that point to the Suffering Servant Messiah found in Torah.
  • The high priest sprinkled the blood of the heifer at the door of the tabernacle seven times (Num 19:4). Yeshua bled from seven places in his body (his head, back, side, two hands and two feet), while likely facing the front of the temple, as he was crucified on the Mount of Olives near where the altar of the red heifer was located in the first century. The apostolic writers speak of Yeshua’s blood being sprinkled to cleanse sinners (1 Pet 1:2Heb 10:19–2212:241 John 1:7).
  • The ashes of the red heifer were for purifying from sin (Num 19:9). Yeshua died for our sins (Rev 1:5).
  • After the red heifer was slaughtered, its body was burnt. Into the burnt offering fire were thrown three things: cedar, hyssop and scarlet (Num 19:6).
    • The cedar tree grows tall, imposing and wide symbolizing haughtiness and loftiness of sinner in rebellion against Elohim. This wood was used to build a house for King David (2 Sam 5:11) as well as for the temple that Solomon built (1 Kings 6:9–10). Cedar wood points to the wooden cross upon which Yeshua was crucified.
    • Hyssop represents that to gain atonement the cedar one must bow in humility like a blade of hyssop. In 1 Kings 4:33, we see the contrast of the great cedar tree to even the hyssop. Hyssop was used to put the blood of the Passover lamb on the door posts as well as to put the sour wine to Yeshua’s lips while on the cross. It is a medicinal plant known for its cleansing properties (Ps 51:7).
    • On the spiritual significance of the cedar and the hyssopThe Jewish Encyclopedia (1901–1906 edition) states, “The symbolical significance of the rite has been interpreted as follows: The majestic cedar of Lebanon represents pride, and hyssop represents humility; uncleanness… and sin and death are associated ideas; the ceremony, therefore, is a powerful object-lesson, teaching the eternal truth that a holy God can be served only by a holy people.”
    • The color scarlet represents the stain of sin (Isa 1:18); the priests made red with dye from a snail or insect—a lowly creature symbolizing the penitent’s new-found humility. This is one of the colors in the Mishkan (Tabernacle) as well as the priestly garments. It is also a color of royalty and prosperity (Prov 31:21Daniel 5:7Rev 17:4). It is the color Matthew describes as that of the robe the Roman soldiers put on Yeshua on Passover (Matt 27:28). We also see the cedar wood, the hyssop and the scarlet, in Leviticus 14:4 for cleansing one with the infectious skin disease of tzaaras, which is another picture of sinful man being cleansed from the infectious disease of sin.
    • Throughout the Tanakh (Old Covenant), being purified from sin is synonymous with the color white, and the purification rituals required by God point to the final cleansing of sin by the Messiah. “‘Come now, let us settle the matter,’ says the Lord.  ‘Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.’”  (Isaiah 1:18)

Hashem gave the children of Israel the red heifer ritual some 1500 years before Yeshua died on the cross, yet Hashem foretold the events surrounding the death of his Son on the cross to match perfectly the details of the red heifer’s sacrifice, knowing that men would even sin in worshipping his Son instead of Him.  Now get this!  As I think I mentioned before…this Parashah was communicated to Moshe on the first of Nissan at the beginning of the religious calendar… Why then did it take place in parshah chukat, which we read in the month of Tammuz named after the Golden calf?  Just like a mother cleans up her child’s mess it is said that the almighty proclaimed, let the latter female cow atone for the impurity created by the Golden calf.   If then purification comes by the sacrifice having a similar image to that which caused Israel to fall into idolatry, and if the symbolism of the red heifer points to Yeshua then perhaps we should not only repent of the sin of worshiping God in the form and  image of the Golden calf but also in the image of Yeshua as we are commanded not to worship any image of God’s creation… No matter if it came from the heavens above or if it is something from the earth beneath!  (Just like we do not worship the Red Cow that purifies us and takes away the sins of worshipping the Golden calf, so to we learn a lesson that Hashem does not desire us to worship His son, who takes away our sins and purifies us!  Ezekiel 36:25–26 says, “Then I shall sprinkle pure waters upon you, and you shall be clean, from all your uncleanness, and from all your idols, will I cleanse you.  I will also give you a new heart, and I will place within you a new spirit.”  

It is said that the mitzvah of the red heifer would be unfathomable until the time of Mashiach when God will reveal to all Israel the reasons for all the symbols behind it and, in particular, how it purifies an impure person while defiling a pure one!  Think of Yeshua’s sacrifice, purifying an impure unclean person defiled by death… (in other words those who did not know the Torah) while at the same time defiling the pure temple leaders who were a part of orchestrating his death… and yet there is a way made for them to be purified after through the living water in the Messianic age and re-enter the Temple!

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Torah Parashah teachings and articles by Rabbi Isaac.
© 2023 Assembly of Called-Out Believers. Use by Permission.



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