Hunt for the Red Heifer: Suck-Starting the Apocalypse

Hunt for the Red Heifer: Suck-Starting the Apocalypse July 8, 2020

Hi and welcome back! Back when I was Pentecostal, most of my denomination obsessed over the Endtimes. Many of us had whole boxes full of diagrams and photocopies of prophecies and analyses. We thought this stuff predicted ‘the day and the hour,’ to borrow the Bible’s phrasing. Recently, I got an intense reminder of one of the prophecies that blew me away early on in my time with that group. I’ll show you that prophecy today, and how it worked out for the Christian trying so, so, so hard to supply Israel with the perfect red heifer so the Apocalypse could finally begin.

the red heifer at last
Dixie, the magical red heifer that Chaim Richman said would change the world. (Narrator: She didn’t.)

Evangelicals: No man knows the day or the hour!
Also evangelicals: **OBSESSION ABOUT THE DAY AND THE HOUR INTENSIFIES**

— Mr. Captain

Everyone, Meet Old Testament-Style Magic.

Early on, I realized that the Old Testament boasts a downright wackadoodle magic system.

  • 2 Kings 6: 1-7: Elisha floats an iron axe head in water to demonstrate how favored he is with Yahweh.
  • Judges 6:33-37: Gideon works magic twice with a sheep’s fleece — once asking Yahweh to soak it overnight, and another time asking Yahweh to leave it dry amidst morning dew — to figure out if he’s really hearing from his god.
  • Genesis 30: 32-43: Jacob works magic by laying spotted/streaked branches near where his livestock mated. The livestock that mated within view of these branches bore speckled and white-streaked young. The other livestock bore solid-coated young.
  • Leviticus 16:10: That whole thing with the scapegoat, where the Israelites chose one goat to be the bearer of all their sins — and then drove that goat into the wilderness to suffer and die a horrific death from predators.
  • 1 Samuel 28:7-25: King Saul consults the Witch of Endor, asking her to raise the spirit of the prophet Samuel for military advice. (When Samuel gives him exceedingly bad news, Saul freaks out. The witch ends up having to calm him down by feeding him.)

The Red Heifer.

But one of the wackiest examples of magic might well be this odd thing we find at the beginning of Numbers 19:

1Then the LORD said to Moses and Aaron, 2“This is the statute of the law that the LORD has commanded: Instruct the Israelites to bring you an unblemished red heifer that has no defect and has never been placed under a yoke. 3Give it to Eleazar the priest, and he will have it brought outside the camp and slaughtered in his presence.

4Eleazar the priest is to take some of its blood on his finger and sprinkle it seven times toward the front of the Tent of Meeting. 5Then the heifer must be burned in his sight. Its hide, its flesh, and its blood are to be burned, along with its dung. 6The priest is to take cedar wood, hyssop, and scarlet wool and throw them onto the burning heifer.

Once the red heifer had been ritually slaughtered and burned to ashes, those ashes themselves became part of a magical ceremony (among many others) to ritually purify any Israelite who’d accidentally come into contact with a corpse. It seems like Jews generally considered the ashes of a red heifer to be about the most purifying substance on the planet.

How Now Not-Brown Cow?

There is no explanation whatsoever in the passage for Yahweh’s reason for requiring “an unblemished red heifer.” Jews don’t even completely agree on the English translation of “red” here. Sure, they agree that the heifer had to be solid-colored as well as perfectly healthy, but some of the specifics — like its exact required color — get hazy. In fact, some translations render the term “red” as golden-yellow or ruddy.

One pulpit commentator on BibleHub thinks Yahweh made this odd coat specification because solid red heifers were plentiful and inexpensive to obtain. (Because yes, the Mad Blood God of the Desert (MBGD) is always and forever lookin’ out for his peeps, amirite? Ignore all that circumcision stuff and those constant divine commands to commit genocide against other tribes.)

However, the requirements were so strict that it was actually almost impossible to find a cow fitting that description. They weren’t common at all. In fact, they were priceless.

For Want of a Red Heifer the Temple Was Lost.

Here’s the reason why this red heifer was so important:

It is integrally important to the process of rebuilding the main Jewish temple in Jerusalem. They can’t start the rebuilding without it.

Romans tore their temple down centuries ago (in 70 CE). Consequently, there are no services or rites happening at the Jerusalem temple because there just isn’t one there anymore.

In fact, this was the second Jerusalem temple. (King Solomon supposedly built the first one.) Ever since its destruction, they’ve gone without an official main Jerusalem temple.

Jewish eschatology — yes, they have their own version of Endtimes theorizing — says someone will definitely build a Third Temple in Jerusalem at some point. That rebuilding represents an important part of how the world will end.

However, the end of the world literally can’t begin without this one particular beastie!

Why My Denomination Focused On The Red Heifer.

When I became a Pentecostal in 1986, I realized quickly that other evangelicals regarded my new tribe as one of the most dangerous, weirdest, wackiest group of zealots ever to come down the pike. And a big part of that opinion derived from the Endtimes fantasizing my peers enjoyed creating and consuming. It just seemed so occultic to my non-Pentecostal peers — so bizarrely fusty and wall-of-crazy ( <– TVTropes Walkabout Warning). Their own freshly-scrubbed, bright-eyed-and-bushy-tailed Jesus-ing looked nothing like it.

The Endtimes fanatics in my group didn’t care. They saw their job as spreading the word about all the components coming together to make the end of the world happen. Indeed, they didn’t want anybody to be caught unawares — especially not TRUE CHRISTIANS™, who faced the danger of being left behind by the Rapture if they weren’t prayed up and expecting trouble.

So when they noticed this whole thing about the red heifer and its importance, they leapt on it with both feet.

My tribe had always considered themselves extra-Jewish Jews, anyway, so they embraced Jewish eschatology. The faster Israel got what it needed, they reasoned, the faster the end of the world could happen — and the earlier TRUE CHRISTIANS™ (like themselves) could wind-sprint into Heaven to begin their eternal partying.

This is why American fundagelicals have been so obsessed for decades with Israel becoming a nation of its own and building that all-important Third Temple. Jesus can’t end the world without them getting that red heifer in hand

The Day I Heard About the Red Heifer.

I still remember very vividly the day I learned about the importance of the red heifer. When I was 17 or so, Biff told me about it while waving photocopied diagrams around.

At the time, word had it that Israel’s ranchers were busy trying to breed themselves the perfect red heifer. As soon as they got one, they’d start doing their big rituals again — and that was a maaaaaaajor milestone in the Endtimes fantasy. In fact, they thought they’d had one born recently, so if it grew up still spotless and whatnot, then IT WAS ON AT LAST.

At the time, I was just in awe of this news. I could hardly even believe it! This Old Testament stuff was happening in This Current Year!

I had no way of knowing then that this urban legend recycles constantly.

The Temple Institute.

In 2018, a fundagelical site breathlessly announced the birth of the “first red heifer born in 2,000 years.” This article would have run along exactly the same lines in 1987. That site offers an excuse for the constant recycling of the legend:

While red heifers have previously been found by the organisation [Temple Institute] they were disqualified for not meeting prophetic standards.

One was found in 1999, but was disqualified for being male – and a second was born in 2002, which was found to have a patch of white hair.

Snap!

Of course, the Temple Institute seems to be a bunch of out-and-out nutjob fanatics, but the above story about their OMG DISCOVERY didn’t much improve that perception.

In point of fact, they’ve been rabbiting on about red heifers for yearsThe article I linked in this post misspelled the name of Chaim Richman and called him the group’s director. However, Richman doesn’t seem to have been more than an associate of this group. He wrote some kind of book about the importance of the red heifer that the Temple Institute super-likes (as do like-minded conspiracy theorists). Its director is, in fact, Yosi Vardi — and he’s been there for 16 years. But what’s the point of fact-checking when the world is ending?

Little did I know that one of my fellow Pentecostals would soon hear about this same legend in the 90s, much less that he would feel inspired to take active steps to help the Jews achieve it.

Everyone, Meet Clyde Lott.

In 1989, PBS tells us, Clyde Lott worked as a rancher. Based in Mississippi, he raised show cattle intended for county fairs and competitions. He also belonged to a Pentecostal denomination called National Pentecostal Assemblies of Jesus Christ — and furthermore, was ordained to the ministry in that group.

Now, he didn’t actually pastor a church. He just preached at anybody who would stand still long enough for him to do it. And he also bred show cattle.  You know. As you do.

Forty-two at the time he stumbled across the whole red heifer thing, he found himself greatly puzzled by how hard it’d apparently proven for Jews to obtain the specific animal they needed. But he thought he’d figured it out for those poor silly Jews:

From his own reading, he had concluded that the Old Testament herd was descended from the cattle that Jacob, the son of Isaac, had received in wages from his uncle Laban. Those animals–as described in the King James Bible–were speckled, spotted, and brown.

Of course! The historical Jews had simply bred completely different-colored cattle over the years! Gosh, y’all, how in the world could they not have noticed that?

How lucky they were that Clyde Lott was on hand to set ’em straight!

Helping Them Out.

According to that PBS piece, Clyde Lott realized quickly just how important this red heifer was:

As Lott read the Bible that day, he realized that the Second Coming and the fate of humankind now depended on the red heifer. In order for the Jews to rebuild the Temple and prepare the way for the return of the Messiah they must be purified with the ashes of a red heifer.

But see, in Freedom Land it’s not that unusual to have solid-coated reddish cows:

A qualified red heifer has not been found in Israel in almost two thousand years. And yet red cattle are not really so unusual in the United States. A breed known as the Red Angus is as red as an Irish setter.

OMG! How had the Jews somehow missed that fact? Obviously Jesus had led Clyde Lott to this whole idea so he could help them out.

Beginning the Project.

The next year in 1990, Clyde Lott impulsively visited Roy D. Manning, then the director of international trade for the Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce. Still reeking of farm work and dressed in filthy farm clothes, he informed Manning that they needed to help Israel get the red heifer they needed.

Luckily, Manning turned out to be pretty solidly fundagelical himself. He agreed to help Lott get in touch with the folks in Israel who needed the heifer. Three months later, Chaim Richman received Lott’s letter. Soon enough, Lott went to Jerusalem to meet with the Temple Institute’s rabbis.

He apparently impressed them enormously by Christian-splaining Numbers 19 to them. As well, his name reminded them of Lot — as in Sodom and Gomorrah’s Lot — who was also a rancher and Gentile.

The Price of an Apocalypse.

In that meeting, Lott informed them that he could totally get them what they needed for about USD$400k. He’d need to breed about 200 cows, he estimated, to get the specific one they needed, and the cows cost $2k apiece.

The Institute agreed to this price. A few years later, he presented them with four heifers, one of which (“Dixie”) seemed to be acceptable. As The New Yorker tells it, the two men then went on a proper evangelistic “barnstorming” tour of the Deep South to publicize their efforts.

By the time PBS caught up with him, he’d begun seriously sinking serious resources into the ranching of Red Angus cattle (which included freezing embryos from Dixie along with donor bull sperm) — all to ship these cattle out to Jordan so the real sacrificial cow can be born there.

I heard rumors — which I couldn’t verify or debunk either way — that Lott was super-sore at the Temple Institute for not paying him for all these cattle around the year 2000. Currently, he’s not even listed on their site anywhere that I could find. As well, I heard that they’d disqualified one heifer in 1997 for not being up to standards — perhaps that was Dixie.

So all this effort Clyde Lott expended didn’t end up advancing the Endtimes much at all. Israel’s leaders haven’t even rebuilt the Third Temple yet. And they probably never will. See, the site of the temple happens to be occupied already — by Al-Aqsa and Dome of the Rock, which belong to the Muslims.

Pop Culture Through the Years.

Off and on over the years, Clyde Lott’s escapades have bubbled up to the surface of popular culture.

In 2014, he earned a treasured position (#894) on the Encyclopedia of American Loons — and if you haven’t read there, be ready for a potential walkabout.

In 2015, someone on YouTube made a brief video about him:

Overall, though, this whole thing turned into yet another of those wacky Christian conspiracy theories that just goes nowhere and does nothing. It makes Christian conspiracy theorists really happy to imagine that they know something normies just don’t, and it keeps them engaged and busy with their various projects. Conspiracy theories like this one also keep money flowing into wingnut groups’ coffers. Otherwise, none of them make much impact on the world as a whole. Thank goodness!

Despite one wingnut group calling the hunt for the red heifer “one of the greatest mysteries of the Torah,” and despite so many wingnuts slavering to see this hunt come to fruition, I’m very relieved that Israel’s current government isn’t getting involved much with the project.

So that’s the story of one of the weirdest Endtimes fantasies I ever encountered and what happened behind the scenes in reality. I wonder sometimes what I’d have thought had I been able to investigate it then like I did today.

At the time, it all seemed so powerful and compelling. Now, it strikes me as yet another fundagelical scam.

NEXT UP: Fundagelical U begins a new semester! This time, the class is Special Topics in Endtimes Christianese. See you tomorrow!


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About Captain Cassidy
Captain Cassidy grew up fervently Catholic, converted to the SBC in her teens, and became a Pentecostal shortly afterward. She even volunteered in church (choir, Sunday School) and married an aspiring preacher! But then--record scratch!--she brought everything to a screeching halt when she deconverted in her mid-20s. That was 25 years ago. Now a comfortable None, she blogs on Roll to Disbelieve about psychology, pop culture, politics, relationships, cats, gaming, and more--and where they all intersect with religion. She lives with an adored and adoring husband named Mr. Captain and a sweet, squawky orange tabby cat named Princess Bother Pretty Toes. At any given time, she's running out of bookcase space. You can read more about the author here.

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