[Reprinted with permission of the author.]
In the spring of 1989, a Pentecostal preacher named Clyde Lott was thumbing through the Bible, looking up all the references to cows. This wasn’t so odd, given that Lott is one of the leading cattle breeders in the Southeast. At the time, he specialized in raising show cattle for youngsters involved in 4-H clubs and the Future Farmers of America. His office, in Canton, Mississippi, contains many ribbons, plaques, and trophies, including awards for two national championships in judging and showmanship. As it happens, the Old Testament is full of references to cows and cattle; it is, after all, a history of an agricultural people. When Lott turned to Numbers 19, he read one of the many conversations that God had with Moses and his brother Aaron as they led the Jews through the desert toward the Promised Land. “Speak unto the children of Israel,” the Lord commanded, “that they bring thee a red heifer without spot, wherein is no blemish, and upon which never came a yoke.” The cow will be given to a priest to slay, the Lord continued, and burned on a pyre of cedar, hyssop, and a strand of scarlet thread. Then the ashes of the heifer will be mixed with water and used to purify those who have been exposed to death. Anyone who fails to be purified “shall be cut off from among the congregation, because he hath defiled the sanctuary of the Lord.”
This is one of the most mysterious injunctions in the Bible. Even King Solomon, who was said to understand the meaning of all things, could not explain the reason for the red heifer. Clyde Lott didn’t understand it, either. He also wondered where the children of Israel could have obtained a red cow. 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. “Your speckled and spotted cattle basically are recognized as a purebred cow, like a holstein,” Lott says. So where did the spotless red heifer come from? Genetically, it didn’t add up. And yet the Lord had specified that this was the only way for the Israelites to cleanse themselves and participate in the worship of God. “I didn’t realize then that God always sent to Israel, at the time she needed it, the man with the red heifer.”
Lott, who is forty-two, is a soft-spoken Southern gentleman, squarely built, with a full, fleshy face and curly brown hair that is beginning to gray. Although he is ordained in the ministry of the National Pentecostal Assemblies of Jesus Christ, he does not pastor his own church. “I would fit more in the category of evangelist–going on the road and preaching or teaching,” he says. Like all fundamentalist Christians, Lott believes that the Messiah will come again. His view of the End Time is that Jesus’ return will usher in a thousand years of peace and harmony. Before that, however, there will be seven years of tribulation: the Antichrist will appear, and the forces of good and evil will wage a cataclysmic struggle, culminating in Jesus’ defeat of the false Messiah. Many Evangelicals believe that Jews and other non-Christians will suffer for accepting the Antichrist as their messiah–that most of them will perish in the coming struggle, but those who survive will finally acknowledge Christ as their savior. True Christians will be spared these catastrophes, because they will have been raptured–snatched directly into Heaven–before the troubles begin. They will return to act as priests during Christ’s millennial reign. At the end of that time, Satan will rally the forces of evil for a final confrontation with Jesus and the saints of the Church at the battle of Armageddon. The satanic warriors, led by a prince named Gog, will come from the north, from a land called Magog (which Lott believes could be a satellite republic of the former Soviet Union); God will destroy them, however. The dead will rise for their day of judgment, and a New Jerusalem will descend from the sky. Once again, God will dwell among his people.
A longing for the rapture and the return of Jesus on Earth is at the core of Evangelicalism. The fact that we are coincidentally approaching a millennial milestone in the human calendar certainly adds to this yearning and to the sense of anticipation felt by believers of all faiths. Most fundamentalists assume that we are living on the edge of human history in any case, and that modern events in the Middle East are fulfillments of prophecies made some two thousand years ago by Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Isaiah, and John, among others. These prophecies require three great events before the Messiah can return: the nation of Israel must be restored; Jerusalem must be a Jewish city; and the Temple, the center of worship and sacrifice in the ancient Jewish world, which was last destroyed by the Romans in 70 A.D., must be rebuilt. Two of these conditions have been met in the last fifty years.
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.
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. It occurred to Lott that God, who he believed had directed the evangelist’s own success in the showring, was now guiding his hand in a much larger matter. Where was the red heifer to come from? “That was the question we couldn’t answer,” says Lott, who sometimes uses the first-person plural when referring to himself. “It plagued us day in and day out for months.” Finally, in the latter part of the summer of 1990, as he was baling hay, a piece of equipment broke, and he started to drive into town to get a spare part. But then he found himself driving to Jackson, the state capital, and walking into the office of Roy D. Manning, the director of international trade for the Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce. “I will never forget as long as I live walking into Mr. Manning’s office that day and just the cold shock on his face of seeing someone coming out of the hayfield–bluejeans, tennis shoes, baseball cap, dirty and smelly–and walking into his office unannounced and saying,’I have read the Bible and the Bible says Israel has to have a red heifer,”‘ Lott said later in one of many testimonials to Evangelical congregations in the South. “For some reason, he didn’t kick me out of his office.” Instead, Manning wrote a letter to an attaché at the American Embassy in Athens who was in charge of agricultural exports to the Middle East. “We have been approached by a producer and seller of cattle from the state of Mississippi and I am quoting him in the following,” Manning wrote, and the letter went on:
“Red Angus cattle suitable for Old Testament Biblical sacrifices, will have no blemish or off color hair, genetically red will reproduce red, eye, nose pigmentation will be dark, heifers at a year old will weigh approximately 600 to 700 pounds. These cattle will adapt quickly to Middle Eastern climate, also excellent beef quality.”
Manning’s letter was bounced to a State Department official, who rerouted it to the American Embassy in Tel Aviv, where it was forwarded to the Israeli Ministry of Religious Affairs. Someone there eventually thought to send it to the Temple Institute, a private organization of religious Jews in Jerusalem who suspect–like Lott–that the End Time may be near and are dedicated to rebuilding the Temple. The letter arrived on the desk of Rabbi Chaim Richman, ninety days after Manning posted it.
The Temple Institute operates a small museum in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City. A visitor steps down into a basement room that houses the collection and a bookstore; one of the books on display is “The Mystery of the Red Heifer: Divine Promise of Purity,” by Rabbi Richman. Also on display is a scale model of the sacrificial altar and replicas of the decanters and lavers used in the Temple service. The flaxen robes of the priests have been carefully reproduced, along with the trumpets, harps, and lyres that the Levites are said to have played in the courtyard of the Temple. “You woke up in the morning to the sound of music from the Temple. You went to bed to the sound of music from the Temple,” a guide tells visitors. “Any beautiful building you ever saw cannot compare with the beauty of the Temple.”
The goal of the institute is not only to restore the Temple itself but to reinstate the priestly castes, clerical rule, and animal sacrifice that characterized the nation of Israel at the dawn of the Iron Age. To secular Israelis, this sounds like a Jewish version of the Taliban. And yet the construction of a third Temple is essential to the view that many Orthodox Jews have of salvation and the coming of the Messiah. Without the Temple, there is no way to fulfill many of the religious obligations, such as ritual sacrifices, that the Torah requires. In Orthodox theology, that means that all Jews are stuck in a state of impurity, and are therefore unable to be in the presence of God. When a glass is broken at a Jewish wedding, it is done in memory of the destruction of the Temple. “The Holy Temple in Judaism is so important and primary that it can really be said that Judaism as it is practiced today is not the vehicle that God intended it to be,” Richman says. “The Prophets of Israel emphasize the fact that the Temple is really much more than just a synagogue…. The Temple is actually the device through which God manifests His presence to mankind.”
Naturally, the name Lott caught the attention of the rabbis at the institute– and not just because another Lott from Mississippi happens to be the United States Senate Majority Leader. Genesis recounts the story of Abraham’s nephew Lot, whose wife became a pillar of salt when she disobeyed the Lord and turned to look back on Sodom as it was being destroyed. “Rabbi Richman told me that Lot was a Gentile and he was a very, very good cattle breeder,” Clyde Lott has said. The rabbis thought that the coincidence was a good sign. After an excited exchange of letters and telephone calls between Jerusalem and Canton, Lott went to Jerusalem to meet with the rabbis. “I really didn’t know what to expect,” he told me. “I came out of a religious background that taught that Jewish people were ignorant and lost, and this kind of thing.” He was dazzled by the Temple artifacts that the members of the institute had reconstructed. “You can just imagine, having read all your adult life about the Temple and the Tabernacle and the vessels, and seeing them firsthand–that was amazing to me. It was a life-changing experience.”
Lott tried to explain his own beliefs to his hosts. “We talked about Jesus and the Holy Spirit, and speaking in tongues. They knew where we were coming from.” The rabbis were impressed by Lott’s sincerity. “This is a person without guile,” Richman, who was born in America and immigrated to Israel in 1982, concluded. Richman took Lott on a tour of the Western Wall and the Temple Mount. Over the next several days, he gave the Pentecostal evangelist an education in the Jewish oral tradition and the voluminous commentaries on the enigmatic commandment of the red heifer. Jewish law, which is called Halakah, maintains that all Jews today are impure because of their direct or indirect contact with the dead. For that reason, observant Jews may not go to parts of the Temple Mount, lest they step on the Holy of Holies, the spot where the Ark of the Covenant holding the fragments of the stone tablets containing the Ten Commandments resided until it was supposedly lost during the Babylonians’ destruction of the First Temple, in 586 B.C. According to the rabbis, the only way that Jews could become pure again was by being sprinkled with the ashes of a red heifer that has been mixed with water traditionally drawn from the pool of Siloam. According to the Mishnah, the written version of the oral tradition, the ceremony of the red heifer sacrifice has only been performed nine times in the history of the Jewish people. When the tenth heifer appears, the Messiah will finally come.
The rabbis, for their part, learned something about cattle. Lott interpreted the reference, in Numbers 19, to a cow without spot or blemish to mean a good-milking, sweetly disposed, handsomely constructed animal–“basically; a twenty-first-century, high-tech cow.” Lott could see for himself that the entire Israeli ranching industry was depressed and behind the times. It occurred to him that with modern breeding techniques and champion Red Angus stock he could produce not just one red heifer but an entire herd.
As Lott likes to tell Evangelical audiences, one of the rabbis wanted to know how many red cows it would take to produce, in Israel, the kind of heifer described by Numbers 19.
“Approximately two hundred cows.” Lott said.
“How much per cow?”
“Of this extremely high quality, about two thousand dollars a head.”
When Richman translated the figure into Hebrew, it caused a heated response among the other rabbis. Lott asked what was wrong.
“Twenty thousand a head is a lot of money,” Richman said.
“We didn’t say twenty thousand, we said two thousand,” Lott replied. ”We’re not trying to take advantage of you as you seek to turn back to God.”
This response brought expressions of amazement to the faces of the rabbis. Richman explained to Lott that in the time of the Second Temple a jewel from the breastplate of the high priest had fallen off. A delegation of priests journeyed to the town of Ashkelon, to the house of a well-known jeweler named Dama ben Netina. He agreed to replace the jewel for a hundred shekels, but he said he could not do it immediately, because the replacement was in a box that was under the bed where his father was sleeping. The priests thought this was merely a bargaining ploy and doubled the price. The jeweler again refused. The priests continued to offer more money, and reached the sum of a thousand shekels. But when the jeweler remained adamant the delegation angrily started off on the road back to the Temple. At last, the jeweler’s father awakened. Dama ben Netina got the jewel and raced after the delegation, catching up with it in a grove. When a priest handed him a thousand shekels, the jeweler would accept only the hundred that he had agreed to. I am not trying to take advantage of you as you are seeking to turn to God,” he said.
When Lott heard this story, he was deeply moved. “It was word for word the same thing we said twenty-five hundred years later,” he later recalled. “Right there in that grove, they prayed a blessing over Dama ben Netina, a Gentile, and the blessing was that out of your Gentile lineage, one day when Israel needs it, will come the producer of the red heifer.”
In the fall of 1994, Richman went to Mississippi to examine four freshly washed and groomed heifers that Lott had produced for his inspection. The Talmud states that even two hairs that are not red would be enough to disqualify a candidate. One of the cows immediately caught Richman’s eye. “He didn’t even look at the three others,” Lott recalls. “He walked into that pen with that heifer tied to the back of that stall, and he just stopped for a few minutes to appraise her from one end to the other. Then he walked right up to that heifer within a matter of inches, and he looked down at her, then he went back four or five feet and just stared at her.” Finally, Richman placed his hand on the animal, which Lott’s daughter, who was then six, had named Dixie. “This is the heifer that will change the world,” Richman said.
On June 7, 1967, Israeli paratroopers dashed down the Via Dolorosa in the Old City of Jerusalem. It was the third day of the Six-Day War. Jerusalem had been until then a divided city, with Jordan in control of the eastern half, including the Old City, and Israel in control of the western half. This had been the status quo for nearly twenty years. The 55th Parachute Brigade was about to change that.
And yet there was a strange ambivalence on the part of many Israelis regarding the taking of the Old City. Moshe Dayan, the Defense Minister, had ordered General Uzi Narkiss to surround the Old City but not to enter it. Dayan was worried not only about heavy casualties but also about the political consequences of seizing the Temple Mount. The rest of the Israeli Cabinet overruled him, however, and ordered the retaking of the Old City.
The day before the final battle, Israeli troops captured Mt. Scopus, the highest point in the city. Dayan rode to the summit and lunched there with General Narkiss. Dayan, who wore a black eye patch that covered a wound he’d received fighting against the Vichy French in Syria, personified Israeli military bravado. Before him were the honey- colored limestone walls of the Old City. “What a divine view!” Dayan, an avowedly secular man, declared. All around him, he could see the hills of Golgotha, the Mount of Olives, Mt. Zion–names that ring with meaning to believers of all three of the great monotheistic religions. And in the middle of a bowl formed by limestone ridges was the smaller elevation of Mt. Moriah, which Jews and Christians call the Temple Mount, and which Muslims call Haram al-Sharif (the Noble Sanctuary): It was here that King Solomon built the First Temple, nearly a thousand years before the birth of Jesus. After it was destroyed by Nebuchadrezzar, the Second Temple was built, and was later expanded by King Herod into one of the greatest monuments of the ancient world. The Romans destroyed it during their sacking of Jerusalem. As Dayan looked down on the Temple Mount he realized that the following morning it would be back in Jewish hands for the first time in nearly two thousand years.
But what Dayan also saw below him was a colossal political problem. The sacred precinct was now occupied by two mosques: the venerable Al-Aqsa, which was built in the eighth century, and the thirteen-hundred-year-old Dome of the Rock. Its golden dome–the most recognizable symbol of the city–enshrines the craggy peak of Mt. Moriah, which Jews call the Foundation Stone and Muslims call es-Sakhra (the Rock). It figures prominently in the legend of all three religions. It is said to be the first place God created–the perch He stood on when He formed the rest of the world. It is also said to be the spot where Adam was made, and where Cain killed Abel. Jews believe that it is where Abraham brought his son Isaac to be sacrificed. For Muslims, it was Ishmael–Abraham’s other son, and their ancestor — who was intended to be sacrificed. For Jews, the Mount is the holiest place in the world, the focus of their prayers, the place where they believe God lived. Muslims believe that this was the place from which the prophet Muhammad ascended into Heaven on the back of a winged horse. Jerusalem was the original direction of Muslim prayers, before Mecca, and is still a destination for pilgrims. They count it as the third holiest place in Islam, after Mecca and Medina.
Many conquering armies have entered the Temple grounds. In Jerusalem’s bloody history, the city has been contested by Assyrians, Babylonians, Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Persians, Mongols, Mamluks, Ottomans, Jordanians, and the British–to name only some of the major invaders and occupiers. Dayan and his generals were mindful of the shadows they were casting on history as they broke through the gates of the Haram al-Sharif to inspect the grounds. They found a typical Arab garden, liberally planted with trees and flowers and surrounded by religious offices and schools–a vivid contrast to the stony city outside the walls. At the southern end of the sanctuary, which covers thirty-five acres, lies the vast and airy Al-Aqsa mosque, where pigeons fly freely in a forest of marble columns. Near the center of the Haram, rising above the trees like a blue-and-gold crown, is the Dome of the Rock, the oldest building in Islam and perhaps the most beautiful. Here the Arab love of mystical geometry and intricate ornament has been given its greatest expression. The structure, which is eight-sided, may be imagined as three rectangles encompassing a circle. Hushed, sombre, but almost overwhelmingly sensual, the chamber imbues one with a sense of religious awe that few holy places in the world can match. A dozen pillars of marble and porphyry support the great inner dome. Below it, a wooden balustrade surrounds the Rock. There is an oblong imprint in the Rock which is said to be the footprint made by Muhammad when he leaped onto his winged steed, al-Burg, and went up into Heaven with the angel Gabriel.
After inspecting the Haram, Dayan descended to the Western Wall, where he stood with his soldiers, many of whom were openly sobbing. As long as the Old City had been in Jordanian hands, Jews were not allowed to pray at the Wall; and now Dayan himself wrote a prayer and stuck it into crevices between the great stones, as Jews had done for centuries after the destruction of the Temple. It read, “May peace descend on the whole house of Israel.” As the first step in achieving that peace, Dayan ordered the Israeli flag to be taken down from the Dome.
The capture of the Old City came at a great price–hundreds of casualties among the Israeli troops, and many more among the Arabs–but it proved to be a decisive turning point in relations between Israel and its neighbors. The political consequences are still being debated, and will be addressed in the Final Status talks that are yet to begin with the Palestinians, who want to share Jerusalem as the capital of two countries. Dayan believed that the capture of the West Bank and the Sinai were useful only insofar as they could be traded for peace. Jerusalem, however, was a more complicated issue. Within days of the conquest, an Arab neighborhood was leveled to make a plaza in front of the Western Wall. Despite this action, Dayan sought to preserve some of the Arab character of the Old City. Ten days after the capture of the Temple Mount, Dayan returned to Al-Aqsa and sat on the carpet in his stocking feet with the Waqf, the charitable trust in charge of managing the Mount. There, on his own authority, Dayan made a momentous gesture. He told the Waqf directors that, while all of Jerusalem now belonged to Israel, day-to-day control over the Haram al-Sharif would remain in their hands. Jews would be allowed to visit the Mount but forbidden to pray. Since then, the Temple Mount has been an Islamic island in an increasingly Jewish, and increasingly Orthodox, city– and, as such, it has become a flashpoint for religious extremists of both faiths.
The taking of Jerusalem had an electrifying effect in another realm, one that few of Israel’s secular leaders had anticipated. From the moment that footage of weeping Israeli paratroopers standing at the Western Wall was televised around the world, millions of Jews and fundamentalist Christians saw the victory as the divine fulfillment of prophecy, one that had been expected since the establishment of the State of Israel, in 1948. For them, the Jewish possession of the Temple Mount meant that the clock of the apocalypse had begun to tick.
Gershon Salomon, who as a young officer was partially crippled in 1958 when an Israeli tank rolled over him during a battle on the Golan Heights, has become one of the most well-known advocates of removing the mosques in order to rebuild the Temple right away. He recalls being on the Mount on liberation day in 1967 and thinking, “God brought us back onto the Temple Mount to say to all the world, Not only do I continue my relationship with Israel, and Jews continue to be my Chosen People, but I now open up to the fulfillment of my End Time plans.” That is why Dayan’s order to strike the Israeli flag from the Dome of the Rock came as a stunning betrayal. “I cried tears of pain and sorrow and sadness,” recalls Salomon, who thereupon founded the Temple Mount and Land of Israel Faithful Movement, which is based in Jerusalem and boasts a worldwide membership of more than fifteen thousand. “I decided I had to start a godly campaign for the reliberation of the Temple Mount. I would give the rest of my life to correct that sinful, terrible mistake and act which was done by Moshe Dayan.”
Forces had been let loose in the religious world that would prove difficult to contain. Galvanized by the Israeli victory, Jewish immigrants flooded into Israel. This influx seemed to be another sign that the Messiah was soon to come, since the “ingathering” of Jews in the Land of Israel was a precondition of redemption, according to the Scripture. New voices of prophecy drew thousands of Jews, even those who had been quite secular, into messianic cults of the ultra-Orthodox.
The Six-Day War spurred a rise of fundamentalism in the Arab world as well. Radical Islam had a ready explanation for its sudden, crushing defeat: the moral decay of modern, secular Arab society. The confusion and despair caused by the loss of Jerusalem fueled a new religious extremism, and Haram al-Sharif became a symbol of Islamic religious and political aspirations. Yasir Arafat began to employ images of the Dome almost as if it were the capitol building of the future Palestinian state.
In 1967 the Knesset passed a law guaranteeing each religion access to its holy sites, but the law said nothing about the conflict posed by sites that are sacred to more than one religion. The following year the Israeli Supreme Court, in a ruling that has been upheld several times, decreed that Jews do have the right to pray on the Mount, leaving the government in the uncomfortable position of enforcing a ban based only on its need to maintain public order. To this day, Jews and Christians can go on the Mount as tourists, but if they appear to be praying they are subject to removal or arrest.
After the war, the Israeli Minister for Religious Affairs, Zerah Wahrhaftig, said that the Temple Mount had been the property of Israel ever since King David purchased the site from Araunah the Jebusite in 1000 B.C., but that Jews should not take any steps to reclaim it, because only the Messiah could build the Third Temple. This position was endorsed by many Jews, particularly the ultra-Orthodox, many of whom even opposed the establishment of the State of Israel. In their theology, the rebuilding of the nation, the ingathering of Jews from exile, and the re-establishment of the Temple were all matters for the Messiah to handle. For mankind to undertake such things amounted to “forcing the End.” That was the work of Satan.
There were many prominent Jews, however, who believed that they were already living in the End Time–the recapture of Jerusalem was evidence enough– and that Jews must now do their part to prepare the way for the appearance of the Messiah. Soon after the Six-Day War was over, Shlomo Goren, who later became the Chief Rabbi of Israel, led a group of fifty followers onto the Mount, where they fought off Muslim guards and Israeli police and conducted a prayer service. A week later, the Chief Rabbinate ordered that signs be placed in front of the gates saying that no Jews should set foot on the Temple Mount. The reasoning was that, because Jews are ritually impure, they might accidentally step on the place where the Holy of Holies once stood. Such a desecration is punishable by death at the hand of God. This was supposed to put the Temple Mount theologically off limits–at least, until the advent of the red heifer.
Despite this proscription, there have been several serious attempts to blow up the Muslim holy places. Both Israeli and Islamic authorities are so concerned about the intentions of Gershon Salomon and other Temple fanatics that every confrontation has the potential to rage out of control. In 1990, Salomon led a group of his followers to the Mount in order to lay a “cornerstone” for the Third Temple. As many as five thousand Muslims, many of them schoolchildren, gathered to defend the site. The Israeli authorities, which had failed to reinforce a police garrison on the Mount, dispatched paramilitary border guards to control the situation. An armed assault by the guards left at least seventeen Muslims dead and hundreds wounded. In September, 1996, the government of the Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyabu, authorized the opening of a tunnel that runs beside the Mount, so that tourists could view the monumental Herodian walls at the base. Ensuing riots by Muslims and a forceful response by Israeli troops left eighty people dead. The toll from these incidents and others is just one measure of the cost of fundamentalism in a region that increasingly finds itself drawn and quartered by religious extremists. The mystical concept of sacred space that shrouds the Temple Mount–and, beyond that, Jerusalem and Israel itself–has for centuries served as an impenetrable barrier to peace.
Nadav Shragai, a reporter for the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz and the author of a 1995 book, “The Temple Mount Conflict,” estimates that there are about a thousand active supporters of the most radical Temple Mount movements. No doubt they are heavily infiltrated by Israeli intelligence, which has long worried that a successful strike at the mosques would spark a holy war. These activists are a feature of a larger upheaval in Israeli society, caused by a stunning rise of religious conservatism and a muscular political involvement of religious Jews in Israeli politics. “Jewish fundamentalism of the nationalist branch is mostly the product of the Six Day War,” Emmanuel Sivan, a professor of Islamic Studies at Hebrew University, says. “The fact is that until ’67 the national religious camp was a very moderate Zionist movement. It has turned extremist because of this apocalyptic vision.”
Among Christians, there was a similar burst of fundamentalist fervor following the Six-Day War, and unexpected alliances were made between Evangelical Christians and Jews. Many Americans (forty-six per cent, according to one poll) believe that the establishment of the nation of Israel is the fulfillment of prophecy, and this accounts in part for the unshakable support that Israel has received from the Christian right. “I know people who fell on their knees and cried out to God when they heard that Jerusalem was back in Jewish hands,” says David Parsons, who is an attorney with the International Christian Embassy, in Jerusalem. “It forced Christians to rethink their views toward Israel, toward Jerusalem, toward prophecy.” The “embassy” is actually an organization that promotes Jewish causes and raises money for such things as helping Jews immigrate to Israel. Christians have also helped to fund some of the radical Temple activists, including Gershon Salomon.
In Christian theology, the holiness of the Temple was supposed to have been replaced by the divinity of Christ. Jesus directly challenged Temple life by overthrowing the money changers’ tables and driving out the venders of sacrificial animals. In doing so, he committed an offense against the status quo that may have led to his crucifixion. Many Christians believe that the Jews killed Christ, and that God then allowed the Temple to be destroyed as a judgment against them.
The motives behind the modern embrace of Israel by the Christian right are not always clear. In Genesis 15:18, God gives the land of Israel to the Jews, and for most fundamentalist Christians that settles the matter. But Jews also play a tragic role in Evangelical eschatology. When Jews speak of their Messiah, Evangelicals interpret that to mean the false Messiah, or the Antichrist. It is the Antichrist, Evangelicals believe, who will occupy the Third Temple. The Prophet Jeremiah foretold the tribulation, or “time of Jacob’s trouble,” by which he meant the devastation of Israel. The nation will be finished off in the apocalyptic meeting between Christ and the Antichrist at Armageddon, which is also known as Megiddo, an archeological ruin in northern Israel. Those Jews who survive this catastrophe–only a hundred and forty-four thousand, according to some interpretations of the Scripture–will finally turn to Jesus as the true Messiah. Such refrains are frequently heard in Evangelical churches and on religious television channels, where Temple fever burns.
Most Evangelicals believe that the establishment of the State of Israel and the capture of Jerusalem have cleared the way for these final events. “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,” the Reverend Jerry Falwell, another notable defender of the nation of Israel, says. “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.” However, Christians, like Jews, disagree among themselves about what role they should play in this scenario. Falwell does not endorse attempts to force the End. “I am not one who believes, as some Christian Zionists do, that we are here to help usher in the Kingdom, build the Temple, bring in the red heifer, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera,” he says. Although Falwell maintains that “God is under no obligation to rapture the Church today,” he believes that “all the prophecies are fulfilled”–including the ability, through Cable News Network, to communicate instantly throughout the world. “That is all necessary during the tribulation,” he says. “For example, two witnesses will be slain on the streets of Jerusalem– some believe Moses and Elijah, but no one knows–and the Scripture says that every eye shall behold. And three days I later they shall rise from the dead, rise up from the streets of Jerusalem. While all the enemies of these witnesses are | rejoicing, in a huge global party, the whole world will watch as they stand up alive, resurrected from the dead. That couldn’t have happened when I was a child.” Because of these portents, Falwell believes that the Antichrist may be alive now. “He will portray himself as Christ and that will necessitate his being a Jew.”
According to Clyde Lott, the intent of many Evangelical Christians who are helping Israel today is to speed along the time when they will be raptured into Heaven, leaving behind a world in chaos and flames. “It’s very sad, but I would say the interest in the Christian world is to see the Temple rebuilt from the Anti-christ perspective, for the rapture of the Church, and that’s a very selfish point of view,” Lott says. “The very people that are advocating this are the ones that are very anti-Semitic in their feelings.” Although Evangelical theology forecasts the destruction of the Jews in the Last Days, Lott believes that Jews are God’s Chosen People and that the Bible clearly states that God favors those who help Israel. |
The Christian right in the United States has proved to be both a powerful political lobby for Israel and a substantial source of financial support. Earlier this year, when Prime Minister Netanyahu came to this country, Jerry Falwel1 received him, while the White House did not. Most Israelis understand the subtext of this alliance, but they are loath to disclaim it. “Basically, we’re a doormat for them to get to their own eschatological culmination,” Rabbi Richman says. “It’s a pretty, scary thing, because the whole rapture thing that is popular in some Evangelical circles, which calls for a fulfillment of the hard times for Jacob, is essentially an invitation to genocide.”
Richman and Lott disavow any association with Salomon or with other extremists who would destroy the mosques. They say they don’t know how the Temple will be built, or when. Lott sees his own mission as part of a divine promise God made to Israel (in Isaiah 30:23) that one day its land would be restored and cattle would graze “in large pastures” there. “In God’s timing, we know that all Bible prophecy will be fulfilled, and, if God chooses to use the Numbers 19 red heifer from that standpoint, that’s up to God,” Lott says. “Our calling is simply to begin the actual bringing in of the red cow, and at the same time begin to work, as much as Christian people possibly can, with the Jewish people for this restoration.”
Richman spent his childhood in Massachusetts, and he knew very little about the Deep South or Pentecostalism. On Richman’s first trip to Mississippi, in 1994, Lott booked the community center in Canton for a town meeting about the red heifer. Richman was nervous. More than three hundred people showed up, filling all the available chairs and standing against the back wall and the sides of the room. Many of them had never seen an Orthodox Jew. “I look the part,” Richman admits. He wears a curly beard and rose-tinted oval glasses. Dangling below the hem of his suit jacket are blue zizith–the ritual fringes that are meant to remind Orthodox Jews of the Lord’s commandments. One man in the audience pointed to the knitted kipa on Richman’s head and asked, in apparent seriousness, if he wore it to hide his horns.
Richman found the audience surprisingly warm and well versed in the Bible, however, even in obscure passages that had to do with the building of the Temple. Soon after that, he and Lott began the first of a series of barnstorming tours through EvangelicaI churches, mainly in the Deep South. Lott would introduce Richman, who would speak about the Temple, and then an offering would be taken up to support their work.”The services are–shall I say– interactive'” Richman says. “It’s not like someone gives an address and everyone sits there like statues. People call out and say ‘Amen.’ Sometimes the preacher would try to quiet them down, and I’d say, ‘No, let everyone be themselves.’ The people are a lot warmer and less jaded than people in the North. I found a lot of openness and interest in what I had to say. I found that we share many of the same values–the family, and what they call ‘holiness,’ and a mode of worship that emphasizes joy.”
For Christians, building the Temple is important only in that it raises the curtain on the apocalypse. Richman explains that the Temple is critical to Jews: “We have this concept that we have six hundred and thirteen commandments to fulfill, and one-third of those commandments are dependent in some way on the Temple for their fulfillment.” Many of these Temple laws involve the sacrifice of animals. For Jews in the ancient world, animal sacrifice was a means of achieving the purity that was essential in relating to God. A person can be defiled by even indirect contact with death–for instance, through the ground itself, which harbors the dead. Therefore, no one who walks on the ground is sufficiently holy to enter the Temple precincts. So the absence of a red heifer made the rebuilding of the Temple a moot point for Orthodox Jews–and therefore for Christians as well.
For as long as there have been archeologists, there has been a hunger to excavate the Mount in order to establish the exact location of the First Temple, and also to find some of the treasures it is supposed to harbor. The subsurface of the Mount is interlaced with tunnels and cisterns and legendary secret chambers, which may hide the Ark of the Covenant with the tablets of the Ten Commandments, which have been lost since the destruction of the First Temple. (Lott says that Richman told him that these objects were never actually lost–that they have been stored under the Mount, awaiting the reconstruction of the Temple.) On several occasions, archeologists and Jewish religious leaders have conducted unauthorized digs under the Mount, which have been met with outraged responses on the part of Islamic authorities.
Because no one can say definitively where on the Mount the Temple stood, most observant Jews have obeyed the rabbinical proscription against going onto the Mount; however,it is well known that Herod built up the periphery of the Mount when he enlarged the Temple, and for that reason it is thought by many Jews to be safe to walk on.
Every Tuesday, just as the Al-Aqsa mosque is emptying of worshippers for the noon prayers, Rabbi Yosef Elboim arrives at the Maghariba Gate. A small, wiry man with a white beard and scraggly earlocks, he wears a black frock coat, and a homburg rides insecurely on the back of his head. As Elboim changes from his street shoes into a pair of slippers, guards begin to talk nervously on their walkie-talkies. “Make it quick,” one tells him.
“When I was thirteen, the Six-Day War took place,” Elboim said, as he began his weekly stroll around the perimeter of the Haram al-Sharif. “I heard on the radio that the Temple Mount had been captured, and I was very excited. I was sure that all the government bodies were gathered together with the rabbis, planning how and when to build the Temple. A year later, I woke up to the reality of betrayal. I set about trying to find other people who were interested and who cared.” The Rabbi walked inside a small cordon of security police. Some Arab children in school uniform coming out of an Islamic school looked at him in amazement. There are several groups of Jews who make a point of defying the rabbinical ban against Jews walking on the Temple Mount, but, unlike Elboim, they are not ultra-Orthodox, so his presence here is all the more jarring.
For a while, Elboim continued, he joined forces with Gershon Salomon, but then he formed his own organization, Tnua Lechinun Hamikdash (Movement for Establishment of the Temple). “We started by making holy vessels and ritual garments worn by the priests, so that we could have all this ready for when the time comes,” Elboim said. Now his organization has announced a controversial new project: a home for boys who will become cohanim — members of the priestly caste who ran the Temple. “During the time of the Temple, the ashes of the red heifer were kept in containers, so when the priests saw they were running out of ashes they would use up the old ones and make some more. But today we don’t have any ‘Leftovers.’ So it’s important to take children, even before they are born, and bring them up in a place where there is no chance for them to come into contact with the dead.” During the era of the Second Temple, boy priests were raised in compounds built on solid bedrock, out of the range of any possible gravesites.
Elboim claims that he has already received offers from four families to donate their future children to his effort, but he expects to need at least nineteen, in part so that the boys will have companionship, but also because there are more than seventy blemishes that can disqualify a boy from becoming a priest. He says that a Jewish settlement near Jerusalem is willing to build a special enclosure for the priestly boys so that they will never have to set foot on the ground. There will be an elevated courtyard where they can play. According to Ha’aretz, some of the other people involved with Elboim’s plan are former members of Kach, an outlawed far-right religious party. The boys will not be permitted to leave the compound until their bar mitzvah, at the age of thirteen, at which time, according to tradition, they will become adults and are old enough to slaughter and prepare the ashes of a red heifer. In response to the suggestions that have appeared in the press that such treatment constitutes child abuse, Elboim points out that the boys will not be unattended–they will be able to receive family and visitors, who have undergone purification in a mikvah, or ritual bath, and put on special clothing, and they will be educated and allowed to play with computers. Their lives would be no worse than that of Christian or Buddhist monks, or certain child athletes, Elboim contends. There would be no point in having a red heifer, Elboim believes, without a priestly caste to prepare the sacrifice.
In August, 1996, a surprising development occurred: another red calf was born, this time in Israel, on a farm outside Haifa run by a religious high school. “I had some doubts about it from the very beginning,” says Rabbi Shmaria Shore, whose son came running to him with the news of the birth. “But I saw that she was very red, and I couldn’t see hairs of any other color, so I ended up contacting some rabbinical authorities, and some people from Jerusalem eventually came.” The rabbis examined the calf, which Shore had named Tslil, a name that means a musical note, but which he translated as Melody.
To Shore’s amazement, the rabbis pronounced Melody a qualified red heifer, despite the fact that he had begun to notice a few stray white hairs around her tail and udder, and her eyebrows, which had started out red, had turned black. Also, the calf would not qualify as a heifer for two years, and by then many other imperfections might come to light. “I decided to play along, in order to downplay it,” he says now. The rabbis carried the news of the miraculous birth back to Jerusalem, and soon a pilgrimage of Orthodox Jews and international press seeking “the Holy Heifer from Haifa” began turning up in the small religious community of Kfar Hasidim, where Melody now resided under armed guard. No red heifer, it was said, had been born in Israel since the destruction of the Temple. “It is written that it is the tenth red heifer that the Messiah will discover, and here we have the tenth heifer,” one of the rabbis said on Israel Radio.
Muslims and a majority of Jews reacted in alarm. A columnist for Ha’aretz called for the cow to be shot immediately and “every molecule” destroyed. “The potential harm from this heifer is far greater than the destructive properties of a regular terrorist bomb,” David Landau wrote. Even Rabbi Shore cautioned that the time had not come to rebuild the Temple. But Melody was creating her own reality. Jewish longing for the Temple, Christian hopes for the rapture, and Muslim paranoia about the destruction of the mosques were being stirred to an apocalyptic boil.
“In any case, she solved the problem herself by growing a white tail,” Rabbi Shore says now. No longer kosher, Melody has rejoined the herd, but she is pregnant, Shore says, by a “reddish” bull.
The Reverend Lott had been suspicious of Melody’s qualifications, but the episode alerted him and Rabbi Richman to the sensational political consequences of their project. Nevertheless, on the eve of the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av, in 1997–coincidentally, the day on which the destruction of both the First and Second Temples is commemorated–Lott, Richman, and a group of West Bank settlers reached an agreement to provide land to raise red cattle. Lott and Richman are partners, but, in the event that Lott is raptured with the Church, Richman and the settlers will assume entire control of the operation. This December, they are planning to ship five hundred pregnant cows to the Jordan Valley. The cattle are being bred in Nebraska, on a three-thousand acre spread devoted to Red Angus. There seems little doubt that a red heifer that meets all the Halakic criteria will soon be born in Israel, possibly early next year. Land that Lott has found is in the occupied West Bank–“some of the most hotly contested land in the world,” he admitted recently to a revival audience in Gulf Shores, Alabama. “It’s going to require feedlots, slaughter-houses — a whole new economy.” He will also ship frozen embryos from Dixie and other donor cows, along with select sperm, to be held in safekeeping until after the tribulation. According to Lott, his efforts will ensure that “in the first one or two or three decades of the millennial reign Israel will be able to go into the tanks, pull out those frozen embryos, and place them in cows. And in one generation, whatever they lost in he tribulation, they will have the very best cows on the face of the earth….She will be able to get the rest of the world back on its feet again, agriculturally, from a livestock point of view.”
Jerusalem makes a cult of holiness, one that fuels the passion and yearning of millions for a personal encounter with God. “In the Old Testament, time and time again it says this is God’s house, this is where God dwells,” says Father Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, a professor of New Testament at the Ecole Biblique et Ecole Archeologique Francaise, in Jerusalem. “The assumption was that God’s power and protection were most efficacious in this place. Hence the importance of pilgrimage to Jerusalem, pilgrimage to the Temple.” For centuries, believers have streamed into the city in order to bathe in this sense of divinity and to marvel at the site that all three religions believe will be the place of the Last Judgment. On that day, both Evangelical Christians and Orthodox Jews expect their Messiah to stride down from the Mount of Olives and burst through the Golden Gate. Many Muslims believe that the Ka’aba–the holiest place in Mecca–will be transported to Jerusalem, and that all the dead will meet again in the streets of the city. As long as such mythologies are taken literally, the struggle for Jerusalem and the Temple Mount will never end. The religious carnage that has marked every era of this maddened city will continue, because whoever controls Jerusalem controls access to the sacred places. It is a way of owning God.
the book of revelation
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