The passage in Numbers 19:1-10 is rather uninteresting in itself. So much so, in fact, that I almost left it out of the Bible in Fewer Words podcast. It is, after all, just another animal sacrifice - the type of thing that is found throughout the Pentateuch. There are burnt offerings, meat offerings, peace offerings, sin offerings, heave offerings, and wave offerings. And I've probably left out a few. This one seems to be just one more.
But it turns out that this one is rather special - at least to many of today's Christians and Jews. Pretty much everything depends on the red cow  of Numbers 19. Without it the temple can't be rebuilt, the Messiah won't come, Jesus won't return, and the world won't end.
You're probably wondering how that can all be true. Well, God commanded the Israelites to find and kill a red, unblemished heifer that had never done a day's work in its life. After killing it, they were to burn its flesh, skin, blood and dung. God told them to collect the resulting ashes, mix them with water, and use it to purify those who happen to touch (or come near) a bone, dead body or grave.
God made it clear that this cleaning procedure could only be done by using this "water of separation" made from the red cow's ashes. And that this was a statute forever.
Things worked out fine from the time of Moses until the destruction of the second temple in 70 CE. Enough unblemished red heifers were found, killed, and burned to keep a continuous supply of holy water. But when the Romans destroyed the temple, the stash of ashes was lost or destroyed.
Many, perhaps most, of the Jews in Jerusalem were killed during the siege, and those that survived were enslaved, displaced, or fled to surrounding countries. This caused a complete change in Judaism: from a temple-based religion, with lots of animal sacrifices, to a new form called Rabbinical Judaism, with no sacrifices.
Maimonides, a renowned rabbi who lived the late 12th and early 13th centuries, said that there were only nine red heifers from the time of Moses to the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. During that time the ashes were saved and used as necessary to make the water of separation, which ensured that the priests could be purified to allow them to perform the temple animal sacrifices. But after the ashes of the last red heifer were lost and the temple was destroyed, it was no longer possible to perform them.
So for nearly 2000 years, the Jews haven't sacrificed animals to God. There are, of course, many commandments in the Bible that require animal sacrifices, but the Jews believe that sacrifices can only be performed by priests in the temple. And since there is no temple, there can't be any sacrifices.
And that seemed like a good excuse until relatively recently. The Jews returned to Israel in 1948 and took control of the territory that contains the site of the temple in 1967. So a third temple could be rebuilt and animal sacrifices could resume. What's the hold up?
The hold up is the red cow. A red cow that meets the requirements of Numbers 19 must be found and sacrificed to make the holy water that can purify priests from all the dead bodies that they have come into contact with during their lives.
Once a red cow is found, killed, and burned, its ashes can be used to purify priests, the temple can be rebuilt, and God will smell the sweet savor of burning animal flesh once again.
And according to Maimonides, when the third temple is rebuilt the Messiah will come.
Of course, Christians believe the Messiah came and went a long time ago. But many also believe that when a red heifer is found and the temple is rebuilt, he'll come again. And then all hell will break loose and the end of the world will come.
Recently five red heifers have been sent from Texas to Jerusalem, hoping that one of them will meet the rabbi's standards.
Here's a video about it.
And an update on 8 April 23
- There is some disagreement about the color of the cow. The Quran insists that the cow was bright yellow.
Allah commandeth you that ye sacrifice a cow ... Verily she is a yellow cow. Bright is her colour, gladdening beholders. Quran 2:67-69
- Well, that's not the only hold up. The Dome of the Rock, which is one of Islam's most holy sites, is situated on top of the site of the second temple. So the third temple couldn't be built there without causing even more hostility between Jews and Muslims.
But I suspect that the real reason why the temple will not be rebuilt is that Jews don't want to sacrifice animals anymore, and not having a temple provides a convenient excuse not to.