The Red Heifer, Christian Zionism, and the Dangers Of Now

How a Holy Cow encapsulates an unholy zealot alliance

it's a red heifer

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TW genocidal fanatics (from all three Abrahamic faiths!)

We could talk about the Red Heifer without talking about Christian Zionism and its outsized role in creating the current Israel/Gaza conflagration, but I'm not sure how– not this year, in any case.

There's a ton of context to track it all, so let's begin at the beginning.

Some of you may remember that back in Leviticus, we talked about how you had to be in a special kind of– oh, energetic/ spiritual state (?) – when you went to the Temple. Various things– like contracting certain diseases, emitting semen, menstruating, experiencing pregnancy endings, coming in contact with a corpse, etc. – put you in the "everyday state" (that is, made you tameh). Depending on what it was that made you tameh, different things might need to happen to get you back into that Temple-ready "elevated state," (make you tahor). Some of these required waiting a certain amount of time (eg, waiting a week after the onset of menses), some required washing in water at the end of a prescribed time, some necessitated getting sign-off from a priest, and then there's this:

God spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying: This is the ritual law that God has commanded: Instruct the Israelite people to bring you a red cow without blemish, in which there is no defect and on which no yoke has been laid....(Numbers 19:1-2)

The famous "unblemished red heifer" was to be sacrificed, then burned entirely, with a bit of cedar wood, hyssop, and a crimson worm– and then the ashes of this mix are used as part of returning someone defiled by corpse tumah back into the ritually elevated state.

Yep: the ashes of a perfect red cow are needed to tahor-ify someone after contact with the dead.

No, I don't know either. This whole business is so mystifying that it exemplifies one of two types of Jewish law. There are mishpatim, mitzvot whose reasoning is totally obvious (don't murder, don't steal, provide for those in poverty) and then there are chukkim, mitzvot whose reasoning can be summed up as, basically: "Uh, because God said so?" Why are we not supposed to wear wool and linen together? Why is shrimp off the menu? What's this business with the red heifer?

No tradition that edges up against the Sacred lives entirely in the realm of the purely rational; that includes my own.

Back to today:

We are now, 2000-ish years after the Romans torched the Temple, all in this tameh "everyday" state; it's been a minute since we've had red heifer ash around to reboot everybody back to tahor.

So for the people who want to rebuild the Third Temple, this becomes an issue.


You can't very well restart animal sacrifice in God's House if you're tameh, dig?

Needless to say, this issue is far from theoretical.

Five red heifers arrived in Israel on Sept. 15, 2022. (Photo: Boneh Israel)

There are various extremist Jewish and Christian (and Jewish and Christian, together) groups working to rebuild the Third Temple, each for their own aims; an unholy alliance between extremist far-right members of the Israeli government and those with powerful American political sway.

On the Christian side, well, here's how Moral Majority founder Jerry Falwell, sometimes called sometimes the father of contemporary Christian Zionism, once put it:

“I am one of those who believe that the next event on God’s calendar is the rapture of the Church—the coming of Christ to take the Church to itself. I believe there will be a seven-year tribulation period. It is during that time that the new Temple will be built. And I believe that, at the end of the seven years of tribulation, the battle of Armageddon will transpire and the establishment of the one-thousand-year reign of Christ on Earth will begin.” (2)

Got that?

In order to get to Rapture + Second Coming, you gotta have Third Temple and Armageddon.

Both parts.

Gosh, who could be players in an Armageddon war?

In 1999, he "pledged that 200,000 evangelical ministers would keep Congress from pressuring Israel to concede more territory to the Palestinians."*

*1999. Just before the historic, ill-fated Camp David meeting in 2000 in which Barak and Arafat failed to come to a peace deal, paving the way for the Second Intifada and all the horrors we’ve seen since then. Imagine a world in which Falwell's threat's didn't likely shape the US's approach to that pivotal moment. Understand the significance.

Too subtle? Matt Hagee, son and co-pastor of Christians United for Israel (CUFI) with his more famous father, the Pentecostal televangelist John Hagee, formulated it this way more recently:

“God has a hook in the jaws of these nations, and he’s drawing them here. God tells Ezekiel exactly how he’s going to defend Israel. He speaks about raining down fire and hail and brimstone. That’s a heavenly air assault.”
Pam from the office looks at the camera
So yeah: Palestinians (never mind that many are Christian) do not fare well in this Doomsday scenario. And Jews are generally presumed to either convert or be cannon fodder before everything is said and done. Cool, cool.

Christian Evangelical Speaker of the House Mike Johnson's reasoning for his opposition to a ceasefire in Gaza?

“God is not done with Israel.”

And Christian Zionist cash looms large, funding Jewish resettlement to Israel, bankrolling West Bank settlements, and, of course, paying big into the politicians whose support they'd like to buy. (CUFI is the largest pro-Israel lobby group in the US by far.)

This is all a pretty common belief among US Evangelical Christians– that is to say, one out of every four adults in the US– 63-80% of whom believe that the establishment of the State of Israel fulfilled biblical prophecy and proved that the Second Coming is getting closer. (3)

Top image: Jesus (from the back) with Middle Eastern identified people (also from the back) some with Kafiyahs looking down towards Jerusalem, the most prominent feature the Dome of the Rock, but also modern skyscrapers visible, in the distance a big flag of Israel is the sky.
Bottom image: an armed Israeli soldier (from the back) looks towards a valley, a (Christian looking) God appears in a cloud.
A couple of AI images a friend encountered on Facebook. Jesus taking everybody to the Temple Mount-- with that flag in the sky, guessing it's not to worship at the mosque (even if Jesus is affirmed as a prophet in Islam.) And that IDF soldier encountering Jesus is, I'm guessing, not meant to be going Jew-v-Jew on the latke-hamentaschen debate.

To understand how we got here, let's go back to the Protestant Reformation.

Luther had hoped that The Jews would convert to his version of Christianity– that once the Catholic Church was out of the picture, Jesus' people would be glad to follow Jesus. When we Jews didn't flock to Protestantism, Luther got angry (and wrote On the Jews and their Lies, from which Hitler drew much.) Jews thus continued to be a serious theological problem for Christianity in a way that, say, Hindus were not.

Solutions were still needed.

16th c. Calvinists and Presbyterians developed a theology positing that Jews would convert right before the big End Times sequence, with the Holy Land taking center stage.

In 1648, when some Dutch Jews asked for reentry to England (they'd been banned since the 13th c.) two Baptists named Johanna and Ebenezer Cartwright wrote, in their petition advocating in favor,

That this Nation of England, with the inhabitants of the Netherlands, shall be the first and the readiest to transport Israel's sons and daughters on their ships to the land promised to their forefathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob for an everlasting inheritance.

AKA: "Jews should come to England, but soon we'll ship them off to the Holy Land where they'll convert and thus help usher in the Second Coming." Way to make a Yid feel welcome.

Some of the early Puritans in what we now call the US were also big proponents of moving all the Jews to the Land of Milk and Honey– including John Cotton, the minister and theologian of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and Increase Mather, one of the first presidents of Harvard. This notion was in the US psyche early.

And back to our Holy Cow:

For people for whom rebuilding the Third Temple is an immediate theological– or theocratic – goal, getting their hands on that sweet heifer ash becomes a matter of critical importance.

Some Christian Zionists have been working on breeding an unblemished red heifer since the 80's.

It's no joke. Unblemished means: Unblemished.

According to the Mishnah, from the time of Moses until the destruction of the Second Temple, only nine red heifers were used to prepare the “purifying waters." (4) According to Maimonides, the tenth red heifer will be prepared by the Messiah. (See FN 1)

Most recently:

In September, 2022, five unblemished Red Heifers were shipped (First Class!) from Texas to, ultimately, the West Bank Israeli settlement of Shiloh.

I've seen one report that three of the five Texas bovines have been disqualified (not unblemished after closer examination) and will be bred for offspring, and another that all five have already been ruled out. The search continues.

As far as I can tell, both Christian Zionist fundamentalists (some of whom are, you know, also white supremacist Christian nationalists glad there's somewhere to send the Jews) and Jewish fundamentalists are glad to use each other, each thinks the other's vision of the Final Whatever will prove incorrect so why not exploit shared goals? Take that Christian cash/ make the Jews do the thing you want to have happen /etc ? At least– I am under the impression that it's that cynical.

Invitation in Hebrew and English for a ceremony of the arrival of the red heifers to Ben Gurion airport in Israel by Boneh Israel, a Christian-Jewish joint group
Five red heifers arrived in Israel on Sept. 15, 2022. Boneh Israel is a Christian Zionist organization focused on rebuilding the Third Temple and "and actively bringing the redemption closer."

This heifer business, though– it's not just some wild side quest by a few marginal characters with no real practical implications..

The site that once held the First and Second Temple?

There now: The Al-Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest site in Islam.

(As Muslims understand it, the Prophet Muhammad travelled miraculously from Makkah in Saudi Arabia to the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem before ascending from there to heaven, all in one night.)


 Western Wall and the Golden Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem
Here you can see the plaza of the Western Wall-- the only remains of the retaining wall surrounding the Temple Mount, and a holy site for Jews. You can also see Al-Aqsa Mosque in the background, built on what was once the Holy of Holies of the Temple and considered to also be a profoundly sacred site in Islam and the focus of much Muslim worship.

Over to the Israeli side for a moment:

There are a range of people in power right now, from the democratically-inclined to the secular autocrats (like Netanyahu) to a smorgasbord of theocratic ideologies, including radical extremists from the Third Temple/Temple Mount movement. One prominent name served as a member of the Knesset from 2016-2019; another called for the Third Temple in place of Al-Aqsa just last month. (Mostly the Third Temple people are cagey about what they they plan for the mosque, but– come on.) Israel's Minister of National Security, the explicitly genocidal Kahanist (aka follower of the racist ultranationalist theocrat Meir Kahane) Itamar Ben-Gvir– well, his wife is also involved with a group seeking to rebuild the Temple. And when a bunch of Temple Mount zealots were arrested for trying to sacrifice a goat at the Temple Mount this past year, they bragged after their speedy release that it was Ben-Gvir who got them out. (5)

Temple Mount zealots do some sacrifices at the very much not-rebuilt-not-Temple last Passover. Anyone else see the irony of the Greco-Roman architecture on the fake backdrop? Can't come up with something with more Ancient Near Eastern ✨vibes ✨?

And the Jewish-extremist / Christian Zionist unholy partnership has been going on for quite some time.

One notable incident happened when a bunch of Kahanists tried to blow up the Al-Aqsa Mosque in 1982. They were caught by a Muslim guard and Israel arrested them, but a few weeks later, the Christian Zionist “Committee of Concerned Evangelicals for Freedom of Worship on the Temple Mount.” put up a huge ad in the Jerusalem Post demanding the terrorists' release. They also raised the legal &tc. fees; the Kahanists were out within the year.

Open Letter to the Prime Minister and People of Israel The Imprisonment of Religious Israelis Thursday, March 10, witnessed a great setback to religious freedom in Israel - and throughout the world. We refer to the jailing of earnest. faithful sons of Israel whose only crime was to try to pray upon the most sacred site of Judaism, the Temple Mount: Our Father which art in heaven: Guard the children of all nations who perform thy will and fear they great name. We, as evangelical Christians, find the imprisonment of these sons of Israel within the gates of Jerusalem, biblically unconscionable. This comes as an international shock to vast segments of the Evangelical world. For the Jewish people to be restricted and imprisoned for such a noble design staggers the moral imagination. Exclusive and erroneous Islamic claims to this most holy site, militate against historical and biblical injunction. The People of Israel, through Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David. Solomon. Ezra, Nehemiah, Haggai, Zechariah, and the early church (Stephen, Paul, James and Jesus Himself) with many others, paid the most holy price for this sanctified space. The Almighty desires it to be a House of Prayer for all peoples. (Isaiah 56:7) If the sons and daughters of Zion are restricted access to Zion's holy hill, then the return of His chosen people to their land of promise is in vain for the heart of Jerusalem awaits the foot of the Jew, not the trodding down by the gentiles. Mr. Prime Minister, your brethren have considered their ways and gone up to the Mountain of the Lord. Therefore, we ask you to intervene on behalf of Israel's faithful who demonstrate their divine privilege. Your people, who gave to the gentiles the knowledge of the one true God, must be allowed full freedom of worship within the holy boundaries of the Mo It May the Almighty strengthen the resolve of your government to do that which is right in the sight of the Lord. www and the gentiles shall come to Thy light and kings to the brightness of Thy rising... the forces of the gentiles shall come unto Thee they shall come up with acceptance on mine altar. and I will glorify the house of my glory. (Isaiah 60) Be strong, Mr. Prime Minister, and "all ye people of Eretz Israel, saith the Lord, "and work: for I am with you', saith the Lord of Hosts". (Haggai 2:4) Your Evangelical Friends in America Conmittee of Concerned Evangelicals for Freedom of Worship on the Temple Mount P.O. Box 6081 Terry Risenhoover Doug Krieger Co-Chairmen Norman, Oklahoma 73070 Dr. James DeLoach The Feast of Freedom Pessah, 1983 (5743)

With all of this context, it's perhaps not a surprise that the 2022 bringing of the red heifers from Texas – was read by some as an existential provocation to their sacred site.

Nor that it would be exploited by those would would seek to incite and justify atrocity. (6)

The Palestine Chronicle translated a speech by the spokesperson of Hamas' military wing– known as Abu Obaida– at "100 days of war" after October 7th. This was posted on January 14th of this year.

According to the paper, Huzaifa al-Kahloot, also known as Abu Obaida, said,

“We look back 100 days to remember the educated, the complicit, and the incapacitated among the world powers governed by the law of the jungle, reminding them of an aggression that reached its peak against our path (Al-Quds) ["The Holy," aka the Arabic name for Jerusalem] and Al-Aqsa [Mosque], with the start of its actual temporal and spatial division, and the bringing of red cows as an application of a detestable religious myth designed for aggression against the feelings of an entire nation in the heart of its Arab identity, and the path of its prophet (the Night Journey) and Ascension to heaven."

Importing the red cows was framed, by Hamas, as part of the aggression.

And it was done, I will note, with some amount of U.S. State approval:

That is to say: U.S. House Speaker Mike Johnson convened a National Gathering for Prayer & Repentance on January 31, 2024.

The program included both Jewish fundamentalist Yitshak Mamo and Christian Zionist fundamentalist Byron Stinson speaking about the Red Heifer and rebuilding the Third Temple.

There, Stinson said,

"We're going to accept the Messiah, and we need the Messiah to come. For me, the red heifer is red for the blood of Jesus Christ. That's why it's red."

This isn't a fringe movement.

If it ever was, it hasn't been for a long time.

But if there's anything that this story about an incomprehensible biblical law about a cow can tell us it's this:

There's honestly nothing new in this story.

Rather, it's just more proof that everyone who uses zero-sum thinking with regards to this region is doomed to sink everyone who lives there.

"My real fear is something we've seen before,"

Scholar of contemporary religion Tomer Persico says.

"I worry that if a new peace process makes headway, either with Palestinians becoming citizens of Israel or a two-state solution, extremists in the Temple Movement will do what they have always done any time there is a step toward peace: attempt to derail it by any means necessary."


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[1] Some of us don't want to rebuild the Temple, thank you!
[3] Early Christian Zionism
[4] Only 9 red heifers prepared from Moses until the destruction of the Second Temple, according to the Mishnah
[5] Israeli government cooperation around the Third Temple
[6] Hamas and the cows

  1. Some of us hold by the more expansive Maimonidean approach, which talks about how rebuilding the Temple isn't our job, the Messiah can show up at some point and worry about that–or maybe Rashi's right and the thing will just drop out of Heaven, whole-cloth, who knows. And that generally--per Maimonides, again--the point for us down here was to go from idolatry to sacrifices, and then to prayer, and eventually maybe we can get to just pure contemplation of the divine. ↩︎

  2. Fallwell also said at an "I Love America" rally (boy, really can't make anything up, can you) that a Jew "can make more money accidentally than you can on purpose." and one of his Moral Majority buddies said that "God Almighty does not hear the prayer of a Jew." And Hagee of course (mentioned just below) also rocks some A+ antisemitism, eg said that Hitler was a "half-breed Jew" and that both Hitler and the Holocaust were God's work because they led to the creation of Israel. The whole point here is that Jews, as Palestinians, are ultimately cannon fodder on the road to bringing the Rapture. ↩︎

  3. One Pew poll in 2010 suggested that 58% of white Evangelicals, and 41% of all Americans, think that Jesus will “probably” or “definitely” be back by ↩︎

  4. If they did not find the residue of the ashes of the seven [red cows] they performed the sprinkling with those of six, of five, of four, of three, of two or of one. And who prepared these? Moses prepared the first, Ezra prepared the second, and five were prepared from the time of Ezra, the words of Rabbi Meir. But the sages say: seven from the time of Ezra. And who prepared them? Shimon the Just and Yohanan the high priest prepared two each; Elihoenai the son of Ha-Kof and Hanamel the Egyptian and Ishmael the son of Piabi prepared one each. (Mishnah Parah 3:5) ↩︎

  5. Ir Amim, an (excellent) watchdog NGO dedicated to an "equitable and stable Jerusalem with an agreed political future," shared research that the Israeli government assisted with the red heifer import process, too– evidently the Ministry of Agriculture gave them a little some help bypassing standard regulations. The Ministry of Jerusalem Affairs and Heritage was involved in cow transfer, funding a cow sacrifice site, and spoke at the Welcome Cow ceremony at the airport. ↩︎

  6. Yeahhhh sorry if I'm a little cynical that a terrorist organization whose founding charter says, "Israel will exist and will continue to exist until Islam will obliterate it," and, subsequently, ""The Day of Judgement will not come about until Moslems fight the Jews (killing the Jews)..." was spurned to action specifically because of this. Whether or not they use the heifers as a pretext-- for sure. As a means of inciting others? Quite likely. As an additional affront and provocation? Absolutely possible. But I personally don't believe that was the "reason" for the October 7th attacks, let me just be clear. AT THE SAME TIME, this terrorist organization's use of the cows in this speech is still really critical information in the context of this post and conversation. And YES, Hamas committed an atrocity on 10/7. And what Israel has done to Palestinians in the months since is a thousandfold more. Both can be true. I'm personally glad that both Hamas and Bibi got calls from ICC. ↩︎


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