The purpose of this study is to explain the meaning and practical significance of the Biblical command, “Thou shalt not seethe (boil) a kid in his mother’s milk”.
The prohibition has been understood by many to mean no more than that the Lord’s people should guard against any violation of natural instinct; cf. Lev. 22. 27, 28. The importance attached to the command, however, suggests that there is more to it than this. The prohibition occurs no less than three times in the Pentateuch, Exod. 23. 19; 34. 26; Deut. 14. 21, and on the second occasion represents the last words of God to Moses at the second giving of the law. What, then, does the saying mean?
One Medieval writer claimed, “There was a custom among the ancient heathen, who, when they had gathered all the crops, used to boil a kid in its mother’s milk, and then, as a magical rite, sprinkle the milk on trees, fields, gardens and orchards, believing that in this way they would render them more fruitful for the coming year.” Until recently, this unsupported statement was given little weight by commentators. The situation has changed, however, as a result of archeological excavations, carried out in 1929, at Ras Shamra near the northern coast of Syria. Ras Shamra is the name given to a mound which marks the site of the ancient city of Ugarit, the culture of which dominated Canaan during the fourteenth century B.C. (a little before the Exodus). Among the many ritual tablets discovered at Ras Shamra was one on which the command is given to boil a kid in (his mother’s) milk! This command is associated with the productivity of the soil and, from what is said on the tablet, the reference is to a magical fertility-rite. It is not difficult to see the meaning of it. There is plenty of evidence to show that in the ancient world the idea was prevalent that milk, like blood, contained the life-principle. One of the best ways therefore of ensuring a good crop was to put life into the soil by sprinkling life-giving milk on it. But there was nothing like making doubly sure. The life-principle in the milk could be made more vital and potent, it was reasoned, by infusing into it new life. The young kid had fresh life, and by boiling it in its mother’s milk the vitalizing power in the milk was seemingly doubled. When therefore it was sprinkled on the soil it was certain (according to ancient belief) to make the crops grow. By means of the prohibition, Israel were adequately forewarned of one of the temptations which they would face after they crossed the Jordan.
That the prohibition refers to such a practice is confirmed by an examination of the contexts in which it occurs. Exodus 34. 26 is a verbal repetition of Exodus 23. 19. In these verses the command appears in close connection with the command to bring the first of the firstfruits to the house of God. Nothing could be more appropriate; the offering of the first-fruits was a conscious recognition on the part of the Israelite that God was responsible for the successful harvest. The two verses can therefore be paraphrased, “Acknowledge God as the only Giver of the fruits of the field and show your gratitude to Him by offering Him the first of the firstfruits. Do not be foolish enough to suppose that the fertility of the soil can be brought about by any Canaanitish magical rite.”
The context in Deuteronomy 14 is slightly different, as is the Hebrew word for “kid”. It is well known that the verse divisions of Scripture are not inspired by God. The verse divisions of the Old Testament are the work of the Israelite scribes. In Deuteronomy 14 they have incorrectly linked the boiling of the kid with the eating of that which died of itself, v. 21. Its proper connection lies, however, with what comes after and not what has gone before. That is, the prohibition is linked with the command to eat one’s tithes in the place which the Lord God would choose. It should be remembered that tithing in Israel served a three-fold purpose: (a) A tenth of all produce was to go to the Levites for their maintenance, Num. 18. 20-24, with a tenth of this going to the priests, vv. 25-28. (b) On coming into the land a second tenth of all produce was to be taken to the place that God chose and was there to be eaten by the owner. Special arrangements were made if the journey was too great to transport the goods, Deut. 14. 22-27. (c) Every third year the Israelite was to lay up his tithe in his own town, where it was to be shared between “the Levite … the stranger, and the fatherless, and the widow”, 14. 28, 29. Requirement (a) was for practical purposes, for the support of the tabernacle/temple personnel. Requirement (c) was for social purposes, as a charitable benefit for the poorer members of the community. Requirement (b), however, was for purely religious purposes, it was “that thou mayest learn to fear the Lord thy God always”, v. 23. In other words, it formed an annual reminder to Israel that their God, and their God alone, was the provider of the fruit of the ground. He gave them their “corn, and wine, and oil”, Hos. 2. 8. Again we cannot fail to observe that the prohibition was in perfect accord with its context.
On each occasion therefore the message of the prohibition was the same. The children of Israel were to recognize God as the only source of their many blessings. They were to put their trust in Him, and not in any Canaanitish fertility rite.
We also need to be constantly reminded that “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father …”, James 1. 17. Our affluence and material prosperity can so easily lead us lightly to esteem and forsake the Lord, Deut. 32. 15 cf. 31. 20. Brethren, let us heed the exhortation of Paul, “be not highminded, nor trust in uncertain riches, but in the living God who giveth us richly all things to enjoy”, 1 Tim. 6. 17.