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Red heifers in Israel - A sign of the end of the world?

How the red heifers and the Third Temple unite antisemitic Muslim and Christian beliefs about the End of the World

I recently traveled to Shiloh in Samaria to see the red heifers which have set parts of the internet afire with rumors and conspiracy theories. 

As crazy as it sounds, a bunch of red cows from Texas have sparked conspiracy theories about the Third Temple, the wars of Gog and Magog and Armageddon, and the coming of the Antichrist. 

However, it’s not just Christians. Even Muslim commentators have been in uproar over the arrival of the red heifers to Israel. 

Marking the 100th day of the Gaza War, Hamas spokesman Abu Obeidah said Jews “bringing red cows” to Israel was part of the reason for the Al-Aqsa Flood on October 7. 

According to both groups, the arrival of the red heifers in Israel is a sign that Jews will soon try to rebuild their Temple, possibly even destroying the Dome of the Rock and the Al Aqsa Mosque, in preparation for the coming of the Messiah. 

Some American Evangelicals are excited about the red heifers, believing their arrival signals the second coming of Yeshua (Jesus). 

Video commentators on YouTube, and blog writers across the internet have called the red heifers the fulfillment of Jewish prophecy and spoken of the “sacrifice” of a red heifer during Passover ahead of the rebuilding of the Temple. 

But is the story of these red heifers a cause for concern? 

I do not believe the presence of these red heifers is proof of a hidden Zionist conspiracy, nor is it something that should overly excite or concern faithful disciples of Yeshua. 

First, let’s look at a quick history of the significance of the red heifer in the biblical sacrificial and purification system laid out in the Torah. 

In the biblical system, the Tabernacle, and then the Temple in Jerusalem, were places where God’s presence rested in a physical way among his people. In Parashat Terumah (Exodus 25:1-27:19), God expressed His desire to live among his people. 

“And let them make me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them.” (Exodus 25:8) 

Many of the laws of the Torah are concerned with the issue of purity. In fact, most of the Book of Leviticus is about the topic of purity. One had to be in a state of ritual purity to enter the Tabernacle or Temple. The priests had to maintain ritual purity to conduct their services, and visitors to the Temple had to attain a state of ritual purity in order to enter the Temple courts. 

In Numbers 19:1-10, we see the regulations for making the water of purification, which is used to cleanse people, places and objects before they come into the presence of God.

In that passage, we see that the red heifer must be “an unblemished red heifer in which is no defect and on which a yoke has never been placed.” (Numbers 19:2) 

It has to be slaughtered “outside the camp” [or city]. (Numbers 19:3) 

The heifer has to be burned in its entirety, along with hyssop, cedar wood, and scarlet thread. (Numbers 19:5-6).

The ashes of the heifer are then taken to make the “water of purification,” used to purify those who are ritually unclean, and to purify the sanctuary itself. (Numbers 19:9) 

According to that understanding of ritual purity, if the Jewish people desire to rebuild the Temple in accordance with the instructions of the Torah, then it must include the water of purification commanded by the Torah. 

While there is a movement to gather support for the rebuilding of the Temple today, it remains a small part of Israeli society. However, following the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks, there has been an increasing spirituality in Israel, and support for the return of the Temple system could grow further over the next few years. 

The question, though, is why is this such a controversial matter?

One answer, among many Christian and Muslim commentators, is that the presence of the red heifers is proof that Jews are planning to rebuild the Temple on the Temple Mount in the near future. 

This would be problematic, because the majority of historians and archaeologists believe the Temple Mount, where the Dome of the Rock and the Al Aqsa Mosque currently sit, is the site of the First and Second Temples. Thus, a plan to rebuild the Temple would indicate an apparent willingness to destroy either or both of those sites or, at least, build a Jewish center of worship in an area that has been reserved for Muslim worship for at least the past thousand years. 

For support, those who are concerned point to the rabbinic Jewish tradition, dating back to at least the time of Maimonides, which says that only nine red heifers have been killed for the water of purity between the time of Moses and the destruction of the Second Temple, and the tenth red heifer will be used by the Messiah. 

“…the tenth red heifer will be accomplished by the king, the Messiah; may he be revealed speedily, Amen, May it be G-d's will,” wrote Maimonides in his commentary on the Mishnah. 

Taken together with the belief among some Jews that only the Messiah can build the Third Temple, one could understand the concern among some of the Muslim population, as it would indicate that at least some Jews are expecting the soon coming of the Mashiach (Messiah) and the rebuilding of the Temple on the Temple Mount. 

But is there more to this concern among the Muslim community than just a fear over the fate of the Dome of the Rock? Is there something about this story that would raise concerns for the end of the world and the coming of the Islamic messiah, the Mahdi, along with the coming of the Islamic antichrist, the Dajjal? 

What are some Muslims saying about the red heifers and how does it relate to the conflict going on right now in Israel? 

Some Muslims who focus on an apocalyptic understanding the end times described in Muslim literature, drawn from a mixture of passages from the Quran, the Hadith, and the Tafsir (commentary on the Quran), believe that the coming of the Islamic messianic figure, called the Mahdi, is connected to the fortunes of the Jews in the land of Israel. 

In this, they share many commonalities with certain groups of Evangelical Christians who focus more on eschatology (the study of last things) than on other parts of Scripture. 

Just as many of those Evangelical Christians expect a return of the Jews to the land of Israel and a rebuilding of the Temple as signs of the Second Coming of Yeshua, preceded by the coming of a figure known as the antichrist, so these groups of Muslims expect a return of Jews to the land, including a temporary increase in Jewish control over the land and oppression of the Muslims in the area, before the coming of the Mahdi and the corresponding antichrist figure known as the Dajjal. 

According to many of these Muslims, there are three signs they expect to see before the coming of the Dajjal, the Mahdi, and the ultimate subjugation of the world to Islam. These signs are based on passages in the Quran (one of which is Sura 17:7) as interpreted in the Tafsir. 

Those signs, according to Sheikh Ustadh Wahaj Tarin, are as follows: the humiliation of the Muslims by the Jews (at least the Muslims living in the vicinity of the Jews); the entering of the Masjid (mosque) by the Jews - which is interpreted to mean the Al Aqsa Mosque; and the destruction of what has been built up (interpreted as either the Dome of the Rock, or the Muslim cities in the land). 

While I have no desire to enter into the basis for these beliefs, as interpreting the Quran is notoriously difficult, even for Arabic scholars, I want to look at how these beliefs affect some in the Muslim world, who are also increasingly leaning in an apocalyptic, eschatological direction, just as many Evangelicals are also doing. 

Among many of the interpretations that I investigated, some Muslims are expecting the coming of the Dajjal (the antichrist figure in Islamic eschatology) to be a sign welcomed by Jews. One scholar even said that the Dajjal would be accepted by the Jews as their Messiah. He tied this understanding to the prophetic statement of Maimonides, saying the coming of the Dajjal could only happen after the sacrifice of the 10th red heifer. This is similar to how some Evangelicals expect the sacrifice of the red heifer and the rebuilding of the Temple to be necessary for the coming of the Antichrist, as was predicted in the Book of Daniel, the Book of Revelation, the teachings of Jesus, and the teachings of Paul. 

However, several of these teachers of Islamic prophecy, believe that the killing of the red heifer will be followed by some kind of Jewish uprising that will destroy the Al Aqsa Mosque. 

Abdullah Hakim Quick expressed a common Muslim misunderstanding when he said: “Above the Temple (of Solomon) is the Majid al-Aqsa (al-Aqsa Mosque).” In reality, the Al Aqsa Mosque does not sit above the site of the Temple, but where the outer courts used to be. The Dome of the Rock is situated above the site where the Temple stood. 

Sheikh Abdullah Quick claimed that religious Jews believe that if they perform the red heifer sacrifice (which is not truly a sacrifice in biblical terms), the Mashiach (Messiah) will appear to lead the Jews to dominion over the earth. 

The focus on the Jews in the Quran and Islamic eschatology has puzzled even Islamic thinkers. One scholar, Hassan Mneimneh, wrote about the Jews in an article about the modern reinterpretation of classical Quranic texts.

“If the large amount of space allocated to Banu Isra’il and the Yahud of Yathrib [two Jewish groups] in the Qur’an is primarily history, rather than moral wisdom parables, the Qur’an is reduced largely to a book focused on the Jews.” 

He continued: “Popular and scholastic theologians have recently resorted to a demonization of the Jews to rationalize the vast space their accounts occupy in the Qur’an.” 

This focus, he says, explains the outsized role that Jews have in modern jihadist movements. 

“These new theological interpretations of Jews as both uniquely evil and deserving of disproportionate punishment play out on the modern political stage.” 

In the conclusion of his article, he writes: “In fact, both public rhetoric and actions of Hezbollah, Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, or even in the ubiquitous slogan of the remote Ansarullah (Huthis) in Yemen—proclaiming ‘Death to America, Death to Israel, Cursed be the Jews’—demonstrate the widespread belief of Jihadist groups that the Jews as a collective are intrinsically evil, and thus potentially subject to elimination.” 

Mneimneh tied this understanding to the prophecy – common among many jihadist groups – that the subjugation of the world to Islam depends on the defeat of the Jews. Some of the Islamic sheikhs and commentators I researched claim that until the Jews are defeated as a political and religious power, the Muslim Ummah (community) will not be able to spread Islam to all peoples. 

While some Muslims believe the return of Jesus will lead to Jews abandoning their religion and converting to Islam, that view appears to be a minority view among the jihadist interpretations. 

More common is the view expressed in the hadith of Sahih Muslim:
"The Prophet said...The last hour would not come unless the Muslims will fight against the Jews and the Muslims would kill them until the Jews would hide themselves behind a stone or a tree, and a stone or a tree would say: Muslim, or the servant of Allah, there is a Jew behind me; come and kill him."

[This hadith was quoted in the original Hamas charter.]

What is concerning, in the hype and hubbub over the red heifers in many Christian and Muslim videos, blogs, and podcasts, is the central role given to the supposed inherent evil of Jews, as well as the focus on the supposed nefarious plans of Jews to sacrifice a red heifer in order to bring about the destruction of Al Aqsa Mosque. 

It shows that among some extreme elements, an antisemitic interpretation of current events, tied to an antisemitic view of eschatology, drives the discussion. The Jewish people are not given the right to aspire to a restoration of their homeland and their religious system. Instead, everything is cast in a dark, nefarious, satanic light. 

For those in the Christian faith, this is a dangerous position. The prophets warn that in the last days, God will make Jerusalem a controversy in the world (Zechariah 12:3). It will be His instrument to shatter the nations (Psalm 2:9). However, this will be the precursor to Him turning to Israel in covenantal love, rescuing Israel from the wrath of the nations (Zechariah 12:9 & 14:3), and turning the hearts of Israel and the nations to his Anointed King (12:10-14). 

J. Micah Hancock is a current Master’s student at the Hebrew University, pursuing a degree in Jewish History. Previously, he studied Biblical studies and journalism in his B.A. in the United States. He joined All Israel News as a reporter in 2022, and currently lives near Jerusalem with his wife and children.

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