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The red heifer is a cow recommended for slaughter in the Old Testament, as part of a purification ritual. Some people believe its sacrifice will also bring about the end of the world, being connected with the building of the Third Temple in Jerusalem and the consequent coming of the Jewish Messiah/Second Coming of Jesus. For that reason, certain very special people are actually trying to breed red heifers or even start a breeding population in Israel.
Specifically, its coat can have at most one single hair that isn't red, and its skin, hooves, and eyelids must also be of a reddish colour, and its hair can't have any sign of the marks made by a yoke. And according to the Bible, it must never do a day's work in its life. Which would be awesome if it wasn't then killed and burnt. Since a heifer is a young (female) cow who has never had a calf, presumably it must also be kept away from bulls.
The red heifer is mentioned in the Book of Numbers chapter 19 where God tells Moses and Aaron "Speak unto the children of Israel, that they bring thee a red heifer without spot, wherein is no blemish, and upon which never came yoke". It then describes in some detail how the heifer should be killed and burnt with cedar, wool and hyssop (a herbaceous plant used since ancient Egypt in purification rituals, although as is often the case with ancient botany, people aren't entirely sure if their hyssop was the same as our hyssop). All those involved in this ritual will be unclean until nightfall and must wash themselves in the prescribed way, but the ashes can be used as a purification of sin for those who touch a dead body, although those who gather the ashes are also unclean until nightfall.
Sating God's bloodlust
Pious Jews are at this moment trying to breed the spotlessly pure "red heifer" mentioned in the book of Numbers, chapter 19, which if slaughtered again according to the exact and meticulous ritual will bring about the return of animal sacrifices in the Third Temple, and hasten the end of time and the coming of the Messiah. This may appear merely absurd, but a team of like-minded Christian maniac farmers are attempting as I write to help their co-fundamentalists by employing special breeding techniques (borrowed or stolen from modern science) to produce a perfect "Red Angus" beast in Nebraska.
Meanwhile in Israel, the Jewish biblical fanatics are also trying to raise a human child, in a pure "bubble" free from contamination, who will at the attainment of the right age be privileged to cut that heifer's throat. Ideally, this should be done on the Temple Mount, awkwardly the site of the Muslim holy places but nonetheless the very spot where Abraham is alleged to have drawn the knife over the live body of his own child.
Other sacramental guttings and throat-cuttings, particularly of lambs, occur every year in the Christian and Muslim world, either to celebrate Easter or the feast of Eid. The latter, which honors Abraham's willingness to make a human sacrifice of his son, is common to all three monotheisms, and descends from their primitive ancestors. There is no softening the plain meaning of this frightful story.
The problem with the above ritual, aside from its tedious repetition of the phrase "unclean until nightfall", is that red heifers are extremely rare. Some Jewish tradition claims that from Moses' day to the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 CE, only 9 were found, and none have been born since then. (Jews stopped sacrificing animals when the Second Temple was destroyed.)
Once discovered and scrutinised for hairs and spots, the cow must be looked after carefully, to make sure it doesn't do any work and isn't branded and generally gets to be blemish free until the day of its glorious death.
A red calf was born near Haifa in 1996 but it grew white hairs and was disqualified and probably eaten or something.
But what if you could make a red heifer, kind of like in Jurassic Park? You would have power over all the Jews, and be able to touch all the corpses you wanted, and do loads of other unclean things?
Christian tradition reportedly associates the red heifer with Jesus, because he was perfect and he was sacrificed, and as a result some fundamentalist Christians believe a red heifer will signal the Second Coming of Christ. In addition to the red heifer it is also required that Jerusalem must be fully returned to the Jews and the Temple rebuilt for the sacrifice, but the cow is seen as a good start.
In particular, a Mississippi rancher and preacher named Clyde Lott is trying to breed red heifers and ship them to Israel to bring about the Apocalypse, battles of Armageddon, Rapture, reign of the Antichrist, subsequent triumph of Christ, and Judgment Day. Lott, a resident of Canton, Mississippi, started in 1990 after meeting Chaim Richman of the Temple Institute in Jerusalem, who are focused on rebuilding the Temple in Jerusalem (and presumably destroying the mosque currently there). Lott worked on it for at least 25 years, taking donations and organising rabbinical appraisals of candidate beasts. In 1998 it was reported he was planning to ship 500 cows to the West Bank. A couple of times (in 1997 and 2002) he thought he had found cows, but they failed to pass muster.
- See the Wikipedia article on red heifer.
- Holy Cow! Red Heifer Born in the US, Breaking Israel News, June 21, 2014
- See the Wikipedia article on Hyssopus officinalis.
- God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, Christopher Hitchens, page 71.
- Red Heifer Found in America, Archived from the original at Israel Today, June 26, 2014
- Forcing the End, Lawrence Wright, New Yorker, July 20, 1998
- This Mississippi Rancher Who Tried to Bring About the Second Coming of Jesus by Shipping Red Cows to Israel, Oddity Central, Nov 12, 2014
- Clyde Lott and the red heifer of millennial doom, Things Magazine, 2012