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Parasha Chukat (Statute or Decree): The Mystery of the Red Heifer

Chukat (Statute or Decree)
Numbers 19:1–22:1; Isaiah 66:1–24; Matthew 21:1–17

“This is a requirement [chukat] of the law that the LORD has commanded:  Tell the Israelites to bring you a red heifer without defect or blemish and that has never been under a yoke.”  (Numbers 19:2)


Jewish men reverently touch the Torah scroll at the Western (Wailing) Wall in Jerusalem.

Last week in Parasha Korach, a Levite named Korach challenged the leadership of Moses and Aaron, emphasizing that all of Israel was holy.  In response, God confirmed the calling of Moses and Aaron through two miracles: the earth opened and swallowed Korach and his followers, and the staff of Aaron blossomed.

Chukat (חֻקַּת), Hebrew for decree or ordinance, reminds us of the spectrum of mitzvot (commandments) in the Torah, which are divided into the following three major categories:

  1. Edut (testimonials)—commemorative commandments that represent something; for instance eating matzah on Passover;
  2. Mishpatim (judgments)—logical, rational commandments, such as the giving of charity or the prohibition of murder and theft;
  3. Chukim (decrees)—mitzvot that transcend reason; for instance, the laws of kashrut (Jewish dietary laws) and laws of purification through the Parah Adumah (Red Heifer).
Jewish-men-children-pray-Western (Wailing) Wall-Jerusalem

Jewish men and children pray at the Western (Wailing) Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem.

Although chukim (ordinances) are laws that seem to have no rational explanation, and remain undecipherable to our limited human understanding, we can trust that God has good reason for instituting them.

Just like children do not always understand why their parents lay down certain rules, we don’t always understand our Heavenly Father’s intentions or reasons.

When we ask “why?” and get the answer “because I said so…”, in childlike faith, we must be satisfied.  We can be certain that He always has something good in mind, and so we obey Him out of love and reverence.

“Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding.  In all your ways acknowledge him, and He will make straight your paths.”  (Proverbs 3:5–6)

So it is with the mysterious law at the beginning of Parasha Chukat:  The law of purification through the Red Heifer—a three- or four-year-old red cow whose ashes have the power to cleanse the unclean, in particular those unclean through coming in contact with death.

overlooking-Temple Mount-Kotel-kippah

A Jewish man prays toward the Temple Mount.

The Law of the Red Heifer

That is slaughtered and burned outside the camp at the “Mount of Anointment,” which is on the Mount of Olives opposite the eastern gate of the Temple Mount.

Unlike the rest of the sacrifices, which are offered at the Holy Temple’s altar, this sacrifice was made a distance away facing the Holy Temple.

Afterward, its ashes are mixed with natural spring water, a solution that the Bible calls “the waters of purification.”  This solution is used to clean that which is ceremonially unclean.  The state of ritual purity obtained through the ashes of the Parah Adumah is a necessary prerequisite for participating in any Temple service.

For a red heifer to be selected for this special purpose, it has to be without a spot or blemish and evenly red, including its hooves, nose, and eyelids.

It also has to be without internal or external defect.  Even two hairs of another color on the red heifer’s body would disqualify it for purification purposes.  Furthermore, it must never have worn a yoke or performed physical labor.

Such a perfect red heifer is rare and one has not been seen in Israel for nearly 2,000 years.


The Temple Mount as seen from the Mount of Olives, on which the prophet Zechariah foresaw Yeshua’s feet standing at His second coming.  (Zechariah 14:1–4)

The Red Heifer and the Third Temple

Since the ashes of the red heifer are necessary for the purification of the vessels that have been created by the Temple Institute for use in the Third Temple, as well as the kohanim (Temple priests) who will serve in it, the Divine service in the Third Temple cannot resume without this very special animal.

Therefore, because of the pivotal importance of this sacrifice, efforts have been made to locate a perfect red heifer by both Jews and Christians committed to the rebuilding of the Holy Temple.

Over the years, multiple candidates have resulted in disappointment after they were disqualified when hairs of a different color sprouted, or for other reasons.

Until recently, perhaps.

The Temple Institute in Jerusalem has just released video footage of a red heifer that they believe may meet the Biblical requirements.

The owner of the calf, which was born in the United States in January of this year, had contacted the Institute for instructions on how to care for the red heifer according to the Torah and the Oral Law, raising hopes everywhere that this animal will be brought to Israel and the Third Temple will soon be built.

And because Jewish tradition links the reappearance of the Red Heifer with the coming of the Messianic Era, Jewish hopes are high for the coming of the Messiah.  Indeed, such a sacrifice would seem to be an essential component for the last-day scenario before the return of Yeshua to play out in full.

“For I will take you out of the nations; I will gather you from all the countries and bring you back into your own land.  I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols.  I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.”  (Ezekiel 36:24–26)

Heifer-Parah Adumah

YouTube capture of the red heifer that is currently being watched over as the potential Parah Adumah.  The animal is in the process of molting its winter coat, so its color looks a bit uneven.  (Temple Institute)

The Red Heifer and the Golden Calf

Jewish tradition explains that this mysterious sacrifice is connected to the sin of the Golden Calf, which occurred 40 days after the revelation at Mount Sinai.

According to tradition, the red heifer atones for the spiritual chaos that came into the world as a consequence of that sin.  The Torah, however, does not state this.

The Mishna (book of rabbinic commentary) relates that the ceremony of the Red Heifer was enacted only nine times in history: once by Moses, once by Ezra during the time of the First Temple, and seven times during the Second Temple period by the High Priests.

The preparation of these ashes disappeared from priestly rituals with the destruction of the Temple in AD 70.

The Golden Calf-James Tissot

The Golden Calf, by James Tissot

Purification Through the Red Heifer

The traditional rabbinical commentary on this Parasha admits that the way in which the ashes of a red heifer cleanse a person from defilement is a mystery.  How can a solution of water mixed with the ashes of a burned animal purify the impure?

This is especially mysterious in light of the paradox that those ritually pure priests who prepared the ashes were rendered impure in the process of their preparation.

At the heart of the Jewish faith, however, is an openness to questioning and, consequently, there is great discussion concerning the Red Heifer.  Still, in matters of faith and chukim, which transcend reasoning, there is not always an answer for every question.


Jewish men pray at the Western Wall.

When we look ahead to the Messiah’s atoning sacrifice, however, we can better understand this portion of Scripture.

The requirements surrounding the sacrificial process of the Red Heifer (Parah Adumuh) were fulfilled by Yeshua.  Not only was He was without sin or blemish (2 Corinthians 5:21; John 8:46), He was killed outside the camp (Hebrews 13:12–13).

Through Him, we can be cleansed from all uncleanness (1 Peter 1:2; Hebrews 12:24; Revelation 1:5; Ephesians 5:25–6), not with the ashes of the Red Heifer, nor the blood of bulls and goats, but with a more perfect sacrifice—Himself.

Through Him, we not only receive cleansing from the defilement of sin, but we also receive eternal redemption.

“He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but He entered the Most Holy Place once for all by His own blood, having obtained eternal redemption.  The blood of goats and bulls and 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 the Messiah, 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)

Seen from the Cross-James Tissot

Seen from the Cross, by James Tissot

Death in the Wilderness

“…and Miriam died there and was buried there.”  (Numbers 20:1)

It is traditionally believed that Moses had been given the law of the Red Heifer in the second year after leaving Egypt during the Exodus account, when the Mishkan (Tabernacle) was erected, but that it appears in this Torah portion since the Israelites needed to be purified following the death of Miriam in the wilderness.

Although a prophetess of Israel who led the women in singing, dancing and rejoicing when the Israelites escaped from Pharaoh’s army through the Red Sea, she also later spoke against the leadership of her brother Moses, after he married an Ethiopian woman.

Her death is so sparsely recorded that it only takes up half a verse in this portion.

Of course, Miriam was over 120 years old.  The people seem either prepared for her death or unmoved.  There is no mention of their mourning her and almost immediately after her death, they complain about the lack of water.

Miriam-Anselm Feuerbach

Miriam, by Anselm Feuerbach

One of the wondrous things about the Torah is that it does not present only the more positive side of the Jewish People, but also chronicles their failures and infidelities, so that we may learn from their example.

Thirty eight years have gone by since the Israelites believed the evil report of the 10 men who returned from scouting the Promised Land.  Their belief in the words of these men doomed them to wander in the wilderness until the entire generation died there.

Rather than learning to walk by faith, trusting God for their provision and protection, out of a heart of fear and unbelief, they spoke into existence the worst possible outcome:  “We’re all going to die here—we and our cattle…”  (Numbers 20:4)

Like Job who said of his troubles:  “That which I feared has come upon me,” when we focus on what we fear, we face the dangerous possibility of it becoming a reality in our lives.  Instead, when faced with serious life challenges, we need to maintain an attitude of faith and trust God by meditating on His Word.

This is what two men of faith—Joshua and Caleb—did.  Because they believed God’s promise in spite of the serious obstacles they had to overcome, these two men entered the Promised Land with the next generation of Israelites.

The Death of Aaron-James Tissot

The Death of Aaron, by James Tissot

Not even Moses and Aaron entered the Promised Land.

Aaron died on the mountain of Hor four months after Miriam’s death.

“…and Aaron died there on the top of the mountain.”  (Numbers 20:28)

Moses died in the same year.  He did not enter the Promised Land because he disobeyed God after Miriam’s death.

He was sorely tested by the Israelites who again succumbed to fear when there was no water:  “Now there was no water for the congregation, so they gathered together against Moses and Aaron.”  (Numbers 20:2)

Moses apparently became so fed up with the Israelite’s whining that he struck the rock twice instead of speaking to it as God commanded.  This act cost him the privilege of personally leading the children of Israel into the Land God had promised.

He seemed to react from sheer exasperation and frustration, which we all do at some point in our lives; nevertheless, the temptation to react instead of act, giving in to rage, can have disastrous consequences—as it did for Moses.

“Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.”  (James 1:19–20)

While there is a righteous anger, reacting with uncontrolled anger against sin can be no less sinful than the sin itself.  In fact, the Bible tells us that people who rule their own spirit and are slow to anger are mightier than a warrior who conquers a whole city (Proverbs 16:32).

Bar Mitzvah-Torah-tik

A 13-year-old Jewish boy prays at the Temple Mount.  The wooden case beside him is a Torah tik or case, designed to protect the precious scroll.

Moses was the humblest man on earth, and God favored him for it with face-to-face communication, revelation, miracles, and leadership: he represented God to the people.

“With such privilege comes great responsibility, since more is required of them who have been given much.”  (Luke 12:48)

But Moses stepped out of his role of representing God before the people when he twice struck the water-giving rock (a symbol of Messiah) instead of speaking to it as God told him.  Moreover, in pride, Moses ridiculed the people and took credit for bringing forth the water.

“Then Moses and Aaron gathered the assembly together before the rock, and he said to them, ‘Hear now, you rebels: shall we bring water for you out of this rock?’”  (Numbers 20:10)

Although God honored the leadership of Moses by releasing the water, he reproved him for his lack of faith and for dishonoring Him before the Israelites.

Moses Smites the Rock-James Tissot

Moses Smites the Rock, by James Tissot

In a previous incident, God had asked Moses to strike the rock once and life-saving water poured out, an act that may have been a picture of the Messiah being struck once for our spiritual salvation (1 Corinthians 10:4).  In other words, striking the rock may have represented Yeshua’s death on the Roman execution stake (Hebrews 7:27).

This time, God asked Moses to speak to the rock, an act which God might have intended to symbolize prayer and the spiritual power of words.

Perhaps the people missed a valuable lesson due to the disobedience of Moses: when we walk with God, empowered by His Ruach HaKodesh (Holy Spirit) and His Word, we can speak to a problem and release the power of God into our circumstances.

Though God does forgive our sin through Yeshua when we repent, our disobedience to God not only has consequences for us, it has consequences for others, especially when we are in a position of leadership.

Do our neighbors, co-workers, and friends know for certain that we represent God as He really is?  Do they witness God’s character and will in our actions and words?  Most importantly, are we, in obedience to God, acting when we should act and speaking the Words of Life when we should speak?

Of course, we don’t always represent God perfectly.  Only Yeshua can do that.  But we do have the power to make a difference that can resonate for eternity “because through HaMashiach Yeshua the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death.”  (Romans 8:2)

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