I was listening to a bible podcast recently and heard a discussion around a peculiar law repeated three times in the Torah. The specific law is found in Exod 23:19, 34:26 and Deut 14:21. In each it simply reads:
You must not cook a young goat in its mother’s milk
The commandment is a good demonstration of the maxim that the Bible was written for us not too us. In this case of this particular law, no-one truly knows what it means. What once was clear to the original audience is now lost. The podcast stated the meaning had now been determined due to the comparison of Canaanite practices of kids boiled in their mother’s milk being a sacrifice to their gods. Awesome. I see one of the roles of archaeology being to:
supply cultural, epigraphic, and artifactual materials that provide the background for accurately interpreting the Bible
This sounded like an excellent opportunity to illustrate the point, so I decided to do some digging and flesh out the passage. This then served to underscore a few points. Firstly sources need to be checked and current scholarship consulted. The podcast claim was based on an outdated 50 year old ‘maybe’. Secondly there are times when we do not have access to the information necessary to actually know the why of a passage.
What might the law mean?
In traditional Jewish interpretation the law is taken into the determination of what food combinations are Kosher. The Mishna says
Every [kind of] flesh [of cattle, wild beast, and fowl] is it prohibited to cook in milk,except for the flesh of fish and locusts. And it is prohibited to serve it up onto the table with cheese,
For this reason, Kosher kitchens will both serve and even handle dairy products and meat separately. This might tell us the “what” but really doesn’t address the “why” of the commandment.
There really are no clues textually as to the meaning of the expression. Propp notes there are some additions to the text, for example the Samaritan Pentatuach adds
“for anyone doing this is like a sacrificer of contempt, and it is a provocation to Jacob’s deity’”…[he goes on to note] A host of LXX MSS feature a strikingly similar addition to Deut 14:21, “Don’t boil a kid in its mother’s milk, for anyone doing this, it is as if he sacrifices rats …for it is a sin/provocation (mēnima/miasma) to Jacob’s God.”
But these witnesses shed no light on the injunction; despite the additional material we are none the wiser as to why this law was given and thrice repeated.
A wide range of explanations
I must agree with the commentators who observe that:
The use of this verse to explain Jewish dietary restrictions is far less obscure than its origin, about which we remain unsure.
we do not know the specific purpose (why) for which this command was given. Was it commanded to avoid an idolatrous practice? Because it was cruel? Because it was aimed at preserving the dignity of the parent-child relationship? Or because God wanted his people to avoid indigestion? All of these and more have been ventured as guesses as to why the command was given
What follows is an exploration of some of the reasons suggested over time – starting with the association with idolatry which sounded so good.
- An Association with Idolatry
That boiling a kid in its mother’s milk was an idolatrous practice has a long history starting at least from the Middle Ages:
Maimonides, the mediaeval Jewish scholar, warned us that the rite was connected with fertility-magic, and Driver suggested the same thing, sixty years ago, showing how scholarly acumen is sometimes later vindicated by archaeology. Had we more detailed knowledge of Canaanite religion, it would no doubt explain many a taboo in the law. For instance, the ban on pig was probably ritual, because of its use outside Israel in sacrifice: the ban on donkey almost certainly so, because of its place in Amorite religion (e.g. in covenant sacrifice).
The quotation above assumes the archaeology has now supported this understanding. The discovery of numerous priestly texts at Ras Shamra, the Ugaritic texts, is often referenced as illustrating the meaning of the passage, e.g.:
One of the sacrifices listed on the Ras Shamra tablets refers to the boiling of a kid in its mother’s milk—exactly contrary to the Law of Moses (Exodus 23:19)—and the milk so boiled was then sprinkled on trees and fields at harvest-time, so that the plants would be more fruitful in the next year.
However the original translator of the Ugaritic text, Virolleaud, was nowhere near as confident of the reading as many current commentators. There is debate on the restitution of the missing/corrupted text:
There are two main reasons for doubting the Ugaritic parallel to the biblical prohibition, (a) The reading of the Ugaritic text is uncertain. See the reservations of A. Herdner, CTA, p. 98 (n. 9). Virolleaud, who has been followed with great confidence by subsequent writers, noted cautiously that his restitution of the text at the critical point was “simplement conjecturale”;…The Ugaritic text, even if the reading ṭbḫ.gd is accepted, does not specify that the kid is boiled in its mother’s milk, and it does not, therefore, provide precise illumination of the prohibition in Deuteronomy.
Even if the restitution was correct (which is doubted), the translation and link to the Bible was still doubtful. More modern readings do not follow the approach cautiously suggested by Virolleaud:
The rereading of this line by Herdner (1963:98), with further improvement by Dietrich, Loretz and Sanmartín (1976:67), has eliminated the interpretation of this passage, long a cornerstone of Ug.–Biblical parallels, by comparison with the biblical prohibition against cooking a kid in its mother’s milk (Exod 23:19; 34:26; Deut 14:21). The comparison was always difficult
The current reading of the passage in the Ugaritic texts has seen Coriander replace the goat kid:
Over a fire seven times the choristers of fine voice (seethe) coriander in milk,
It seems the Ugaritic text does not provide insights on who to read the biblical commands this time. This has not prevented the view from remaining popular and being often repeated – along with some strange variants for which no evidence exists/is provided. E.g.
This was part of the pagan worship of the hairy goat deity, which was widespread.
discoveries have shown that seething the kid in its mother’s milk is associated with the worship of the Phoenician counterpart of Astar.
of a ritual of boiling a kid in its mother’s milk in order to bring rain for the crops, hence such a practice was forbidden in the Law of Moses
Since mother’s milk (the milk of the goat doe) was what made the goat kids grow big and strong, the folk theory developed that doe’s milk employed in the process of a sacrifice (in this case by boiling rather than by roasting on an altar) would somehow impart strength to the goat flock, making the whole flock more fertile.
It demonstrates the importance of checking up-to-date scholarship rather than recycling old news. The revision to the ancient texts is now over 50 years old.
There is little doubt that serving meat with dairy was common, and, in fact, an ancient Egyptian text set in circa 1960-1928 BC refers to it as a sign of luxury:
Bread was made for me as daily fare, wine as daily provision, cooked meat and roast fowl, beside the wild beasts of the desert, for they hunted for me and laid before me, beside the catch of my (own) hounds. Many … were made for me, and milk in every (kind of) cooking.
However this witness to the practice (and the perceived luxury of it) does not speak to any cultic associations.
It MAY BE that the commandments do refer to pagan worship and therefore have a polemic value. Personally I like this suggestion. It makes sense of the text, fits the frequent concern of the Torah with maintaining the distinction of Israel and has a clear cultural relevance. However at this point there is no evidence to support the claim.
- A Slightly Different Pagan Association
Houstan refers to the work of Keel (which I don’t have) and summarises a slightly different take on the command:
The contextual associations of the relationship between the suckling mother and her offspring are explored by O. Keel, who shows from an array of pictorial evidence from the ancient Near East that the mother animal (cow or goat) with sucking calf or kid is a constant iconographic motif. Its associations suggest that it is the symbol of a goddess who grants fertility. As it is common for such an animal symbol of a deity to be taboo, Keel argues (43–44) that the ultimate origin of the rule lies in the cult of such a mother goddess, at the offering of firstlings. Israelites may not have realized the associations of the taboo and may have understood it more generally as “a symbol of divinely granted fertility and divine care and love” (Keel, 44). It evolves into “an expression of respect for a particularly prominent order of creation, the relationship between mother and child” (Keel, 45) 
It is somewhat difficult to conclude on this proposal. On the one hand the motif of the fertility goddesses are undoubtedly common and persistent – even in allegedly monotheistic Judah in the 9thto 8thcentury where female figures – probably Asherah or a similar deity – appear in 45% of houses excavated in many sites.
Beyond this given there is no evidence for the specifics of Keel’s suggestion, which has a rather unusual approach to the text in any case.
- Moral model
A moral reading of the law also has a long history. Philo in the first century saw the precept as specifically teaching compassion, not engaging in cruel and unusual behavior. His comments base on goats giving birth around the time of the first fruits feast (consistent with the context of feasts in in Exod 23). Taking a narrower reading than the Mishna (which prohibits any dairy mixing with any bird/animal flesh), Philo wrote:
So that, as there is the greatest abundance of lambs, and kids, and all other kinds of animals, the man who seethes the flesh of any one of them in the milk of its own mother is exhibiting a terrible perversity of disposition, and exhibits himself as wholly destitute of that feeling which, of all others, is the most indispensable to, and most nearly akin to, a rational soul, namely, compassion.
This approach was supported by others:
Some rabbinic interpreters (Philo, Ibn Ezra, Rashbam) understood cooking a kid goat in its mother’s milk (Exod 23:19; 34:26; Deut 14:21) to be a perverse, savage act on the part of those who take delight in creating such an ironic circumstance
A similar thought was suggested by the early Christian writer Clement of Alexandria around the perversity of the practice:
Our physical nature rebels against the thought of making the nourishment of the living a garnish for the dead or the cause of life an accessory to the death of the body
This still finds support today:
may have had no other purpose than the prevention of callousness, by making men think what they were about
The disadvantage of such as explanation is that it is a vague way of achieving the objective. The variety of interpretations makes it obvious that the writer has failed to communicate the point effectively if such variety of meanings is evident. Surely if prevention of cruelty, perversity or hurting the goat’s feelings was at issue a commandment about the manner of killing the young animal would be of greater effect.
- Environmental/Sustainability model
A related reading – though also distinguishable from the anti-cruelty/perversity meaning – focusses on sustainability.
Various explanations of this law have been offered by the commentators, none of them entirely satisfactory…We think, therefore, that the most probable explanation is that the commandment is of the same type as the prohibition against slaughtering a cow and her calf or a ewe and her lamb on the same day (Lev. 22:28), or the taking of a bird together with her young or her eggs in the nest (Deut. 22:6). It is a law, therefore, against excess and also against callousness. If God takes thought for sparrows He teaches His people a respect for His creation
Brucker comes to a similar conclusion as does the JPS commentary which states this reading has some historical support too:
Rashbam, Bekhor Shor, Ibn Ezra, and Abravanel all, in various ways, adduce a humanitarian motivation akin to that cited in the Comment to 22:29. Rashbam further suggests that because festivals were celebrated with feasts of meat, and because goats are generally multiparous and have a high yield of milk, it was customary to slaughter one of the kids of a fresh litter and to cook it in its mother’s milk. The Torah looks upon such a practice as exhibiting insensitivity to the animal’s feelings.
Respect for creation resonates more with a modern audience than an ancient one. While prohibitions against taking the bird with her young might be considered “environmental conservation” today, it was more likely that such provisions were about over exploitation. While related this is not the same thing. The bible gives no direct guidance on preserving species/preventing extinction nor on preserving habitat. In the context of the bible’s formation, such matters were not yet of relevance. Hence while we might derive principles (like representing God on the earth per Gen 1:26 means continuing creation not destroying it), we have little in the way of hard commands.
Once again I suggest that reading the command as a protection of the animal’s feelings, or specific environmental concerns is not readily supported. It is more a reflection of our principles back into the text. Reading the law as a restriction on perversity seems to make more sense than a “green” reading.
Some will find it challenging to accept that we have a law from God the meaning of which is unknown. However it is clear that for an enormous period of time there has been no clear agreed understanding of the text. This may challenge individuals in terms of the implications for how we approach Scripture. The thrice repeated commandment clearly had a meaning for the first audience. Whether that was related to cultic separation – which seems to me to be most likely but unprovable – or an ethical instruction was once known but is now lost. The bible was not written to us, in our language, culture, time and place. This means these areas of knowledge/research can inform our understanding. Sadly sometimes these fields can contribute no more and we are left to apply mere guesses to the meaning of the text.
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Author: Daniel Edgecombe