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In the Pentateuch there are at least three repetitions of the following prohibition:

Exodus 23:19b (ESV)
You shall not boil a young goat in its mother's milk.

Exodus 34:26b (ESV)
You shall not boil a young goat in its mother's milk.

Deuteronomy 14:21b (ESV)
You shall not boil a young goat in its mother's milk.

Why was that considered bad? And why was it bad enough to be repeated so many times?

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I don't think this is a hermeneutical question. It could be asked on Mi Yodeya or Christianity but here it's off-topic. –  dancek Oct 6 '11 at 22:47
    
Reword it something like: What hermeneutic principles would be used to understand why it is wrong...Oh.... I can do that. ;-) –  Bob Jones Oct 24 '11 at 17:31
    
I sort of know that the context is though shall not kill a little cow in its mother's milk. The way you ask, make it look silly. What's wrong with killing a kid in its mothers' milk. Well, killing a kid alone is already very wrong don't you think? Jews don't eat cheeseburgers because of this. They also don't know why. I've read books written by the jews and the conclusion is because we don't know why it shows that we have faith. Again you should corroborate that. –  Jim Thio Nov 19 '11 at 13:57
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@JimThio, I think you're conflating two ideas. This question is about cooking a kid in its mother's milk, which is prohibited in torah (three times). It's not about slaughter (killing). There is also a prohibition against killing a cow and its young on the same day, but that isn't about cooking. –  Gone Quiet Nov 27 '11 at 0:26
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@Jim: Your English is correct, but it doesn't map to Hebrew. Turns out there is an answer over at Judaism.SE that explains in Hebrew the word that gets translated to "kid" in English could mean any "young animal". I believe it excludes humans. –  Jon Ericson Feb 17 '12 at 17:42

6 Answers 6

RJ Rushdoony in his Institutes of Biblical Law vol 1 Pg 300 says:

The Ras Shamra tablets indicate that such seething was a Canaanite sacred ritual. It would appear that the fertility cults believed that they could either stimulate or destroy fertility at will, since it was under their control.

It is speculated that this law was implemented as an act of consecration.

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RJ Rushdoony in his Institutes of Biblical Law vol 1 Pg 300 says "The Ras Shamra tablets indicate that such seething was a Canaanite sacred ritual. It would appear that the fertility cults believed that they could either stimulate or destroy fertility at will, since it was under their control." –  David Boswell Oct 4 '11 at 20:37
    
@DavidBoswell: Thanks for the source. I went ahead and added it to the answer. RLH: If we could find a source for the speculation, the answer would be even better. By any chance, have you run across it again? –  Jon Ericson Feb 15 '13 at 17:23
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Jacob Milgrom deconstructs that theory here: maxwellinstitute.byu.edu/publications/books/… –  Mike Bull Feb 17 '13 at 10:55

In the 1950s, a guy named Ras Shamra unearthed tablets which may describe a Ugaritic pagan ritual of a kid being cooked in milk. You can read all about Ras Shamra's discoveries in this PDF document (info on this topic on p.5).

In the above article and in countless others I've read, this ritual is described as historical fact and assumed without any reservation.

In this great article by Jacob Milgrom, the actual significance of Shamra's discovery is addressed:

In one of its mythological tablets, the following line appears: tb[hg]d bhlb annh bhmat, which was translated as "Coo[k a ki]d in milk, a lamb in butter." This text, it should be noted, being broken, requires reconstruction. The reconstruction is, at best, an educated guess — undoubtedly influenced by our biblical prohibition. However, this reconstruction was accepted at once by virtually every interpreter, and it became a dogma of scholarship that Maimonides' intuition concerning the practice as a pagan rite was correct. A notable early skeptic was Gordon, who suggested that "tb[h]" could mean "slaughter." Other objections posed by Loewenstamm and reinforced by Haran have once and for all vitiated the reconstruction. The objections are as follows:

(1) The broken passage must now be read differently:

tb.[g]d, which indicates that the dividing mark between the two words follows tb, thereby leaving no room for adding the letter h. Thus the reconstruction tb[h]," must be rejected.

(2) Moreover, even were the reconstruction correct, tbh does not mean "cook," but "slaughter."

(3) The probability is that the term annh, contained in the next clause, corresponding to Akkadian ananihu, which means "garden" or "plant," does not refer to an animal but to an herb.

(4) It therefore follows that [g]d — presuming the correctness of the reconstruction — cannot mean "kid" but, since it must correspond in meaning to the parallel word annh, also connotes a plant. Hence, tb[h] — keeping in mind that the reading is speculative — cannot mean "slaughter," a term hardly appropriate for a plant.

(5) Finally, there is nothing in the text which states that the kid was cooked in the milk of its mother, in which case it has absolutely nothing to do with our biblical prohibition!

In sum, the Ugaritic text in question is a broken one, its suggested reconstruction is palpably wrong, its clearer portion has been misconstrued, and a key word of the biblical prohibition, "mother," is not there. In recent memory, nothing matches this example of the hazards in interpreting broken texts on the basis of a purported biblical echo. Thus, the cultic theory cannot be grounded in Ugaritic practice and, without any support, biblical or extrabiblical, it must be abandoned.

In response to the OP's question:

In all likelihood, the law speaks to a sensitivity toward animals and a disgust at the moral callousness of a person who boils an animal in its mother's milk. This prohibition is not unlike Deuteronomy 22:6:

If you come across a bird’s nest beside the road, either in a tree or on the ground, and the mother is sitting on the young or on the eggs, do not take the mother with the young. (NIV)

Similarly in Leviticus 22:8:

Do not slaughter a cow or a sheep and its young on the same day. (NIV)

See the continuation of Milgrom's article for a survey of many possible explanations and his own.

Lastly, if you don't find any of the aforementioned answers compelling that's okay because many biblical prohibitions are hard or impossible to explain e.g.: the dietary restrictions, ritual purity and impurity, sacrificial rites and countless others.

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To me the idea is disgusting. No particular reason--it just feels wrong. Chicken in omelettes disgust me too even though the odds are very much against the chicken being the one who laid the eggs. Another, somewhat related abhorrent practice is feeding an animal food (meat and bone meal) derived from the same species. Milgrom suggests that the reason for the prohibition is that the practice illicitly mingles life with death. That seems correct to me. –  Jon Ericson Oct 5 '11 at 19:04
    
If you kill kids and it's mother you kill 2 generation at once. The cows might go extinct. –  Jim Thio Oct 15 '13 at 2:14

In sensus plenior (a Christian hermeneutic in which Jesus is always the answer) dietary restrictions become easy to understand:

The reasoning for the answer will follow this outline with example to make the point:

  1. They are changed indicating that the underlying ante-type has been fulfilled.
  2. The dietary laws have no moral component literally, they are pictures that teach a moral concept.
  3. Mixing is a picture of the cross, the command not to mix indicates that only Jesus can reconcile Law and Grace.

God's morality does not change, so when a law is changed, it means it has no moral aspect to it.

"The law, having a shadow of the good things coming" Heb 10.1 tells us that the shadow of the law, not the law itself needs to be examined, mindful that the pashat never loses it's meaning. The practicing Jew during that time was bound to practice it, because they were called by God to be His witnesses. The prophets played the same role within Israel, and were often called to play out, prophecies.

Drash:

All of the laws which prohibit mixing are one picture which teaches that we are not to mix law and grace, flesh and spirit. God's nature is that He is both Holy and Love (law and grace). But in his revelation to man, we cannot understand either if they are mixed. If a judge gives mercy we say there is no justice. Mercy and justice were recombined in God's revelation of himself at the cross. Christ is the firmament between the waters. He is the evening and morning star between the Holiness of Day and the Grace of night. He is the God-Man who is Spirit and flesh.

The dietary law was changed to indicate that picture was fulfilled in Christ.

The lobster which is an abomination was not a moral abomination, it was a picture of those who snatch the believer (clean fish) from the water (word) and drag them to the earth (flesh). This is a picture of those who cause a little one to sin. The underlying meaning of the picture is an abomination. see Mt 18:6.

The clean animal ruminates on the word of God and it produces a separated walk (split hoof). The unclean animals (understood by SP as the Pharisees) have a 'holy' walk, but it is based in their own laws rather than those of God. The scribes meditated upon the word, but it produced no holiness. The pig is indiscriminate what it eats. The dog returns to it's vomit, consuming the old word that they rejected when they received the new word in repentance.

Concerning boiling a calf in it's mother's milk:

Milk is in the class of 'oils' representing 'spirit' and meat is flesh. The spirit is what gives life and is an aspect of Holiness, since all flesh dies but is not dead yet, it is under grace.

Boiling represents tribulation. So boiling a calf in it's mother's milk is a picture of Christ in tribulation reconciling Holiness and Love, law and grace. Only he can do that, so it is prohibited for us to do that.

It is repeated three times as a hint pointing toward it's fulfillment at the cross. (3 days in the grave). Hints are called Remez in Midrash and sensus plenior.

In the pashat (literal), prohibiting the action helped separate the Hebrews from the pagan practices of their neighbors.

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It would really help me to follow the argument if you (a) focused mostly on the text in question (the prohibition against lobsters is interesting, but a distraction here) and (b) included references to other people who interpret the passage the way you do. It seems your answer turns on the idea that mixing prohibitions are symbolic of not mixing law and grace or flesh and spirit. Do you have a place to point us to see that with you? Is there a list of symbols available to the average reader to use as a "cheat sheet"? –  Jon Ericson Oct 24 '11 at 18:40
    
Are you wanting an expert on the subject or references to experts who are not here? Conformance to a 'normal' or a 'variety'? Deja view all over again ;-) –  Bob Jones Oct 24 '11 at 23:20
    
I added the reference and reformatted to make the association more clear. The lobster example demonstrates that the dietary law could change because the ante-type had come. –  Bob Jones Oct 24 '11 at 23:32
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I don't have a problem with "different", but I do have a problem with asserting things that are not evident. Take "Boiling represents tribulation." Sure it can be a symbol for tribulation, but it can also mean a step in preparing food. Taken as a symbol, it could mean "purification" or "change" or "reducing" or whatever. Its fine if you don't or can't give us a clue where the interpretation comes from, but you can't expect us to understand what you are saying. (And introducing new symbols makes everything exponentially more confusing.) –  Jon Ericson Oct 24 '11 at 23:32
    
@Jon Gotcha. It is one of the difficulties in presenting sensus plenior. Everything is so tied together that you have to prove every word, which takes away from the main point. This is my interest in linking. Proving that boiling is tribulation is not the point of the question and discussing it here would be a distraction. So I need to experiment with various links. There is no place for an article or a dictionary of types. I could certainly produce one, but having links in every sensus plenior article offsite would be self promotion. –  Bob Jones Oct 24 '11 at 23:38

One of the principles of talmudic reasoning is that there are no unnecessary words in torah -- so since this law is stated three times, we must be able to learn something new from each statement. Tractate Chullin (113-116) explains that there are three prohibitions:

  • cooking meat and milk together
  • eating such a mixture
  • deriving benefit from such a mixture (e.g. by selling it to gentiles, who would be allowed to eat it)

The Wikipedia article on this is pretty good.

As for why this is prohibited, there are some (post-talmud) theories, though they are additional interpretation, not necessarily authoritative. This answer on Mi Yodeya attributes the following interpretation to Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook: once you kill an animal, its mother's milk has no use, and to then take that milk and use it to make the meat extra-tasty is too blatant of a disrespect for animal life.

While we can certainly seek additional meaning like R. Kook's, neither the torah nor the rabbis of the talmud (reporting the oral law) give a reason. That God said so is reason enough for the rabbis; knowing God's reasons is interesting but should not change one's behavior, according to this philosophy.


Please note: This answer was written for a neutral, academic audience and is not intended to be interpreted in the context of any religious belief or doctrine.

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The commingling of life and death was sacrilegious in the Hebrew Bible.

For example, animals that are scavengers (lobster, shrimp, swine, dogs, vultures, lions and tigers, etc.) may thrive by habit on waste (garbage, refuse, scum, and/or other dead and decayed creatures), and thus they are unclean. Such animals could not be used for human consumption or sacrifice. Only those creatures that thrived by habit on exclusively living substances were clean for human consumption or certain sacrifices (chicken, cow, goat, fishes with scales, etc.). Such creatures never thrive by habit on garbage, refuse, scum, and/or other dead and decayed creatures. Clean animals thrive by habit on living material (grass, grains, the algae in water for fishes with scales or even other living fish, etc.).

Touching a dead person or a dead animal (outside of the sacrificial mandates for sin and reconciliation) made one ceremonially unclean, because the commingling of life and death was sacrilegious. When clean animals were sacrificed, they took away sin and/or restored relationship with the Lord. Such sacrificial animals were sacred, because their death led to the Living God (through the removal of sin and broken fellowship).

Milk is the image of life, since milk is the source of newborn life for mammals. Cooking an animal in milk may have added flavor to the meat in ancient times (like cooking sausages in beer in modern times), but the act was sacrilegious in the Hebrew Bible, because in this case life and death were commingled.

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+1, interesting perspective, and seems quite sound to the text. –  Raphael Rosch Aug 23 at 8:28

Jacob Milgrom considers four theories about how the command came about:

  1. Maimonides suggested that it was a reaction to a specific Canaanite practice.

  2. Philo suggested the practice was inhuman for the same reason killing a young animal and its mother on the same day or killing an animal before it's weaned.

  3. Beginning with the work of Émile Durkheim, it has been suggested that the practice symbolized incest and was forbidden in reflection.

  4. Othmar Keel proposed a symbolic meaning that is even more basic: milk is a symbol for life.

Milgrom rejects the first three theories one after another:

  1. There is no real evidence for an existing practice in Canaan of boiling a kid in the mother goat's milk. He argues that the Ugaritic text that has been used to support the theory has been misinterpreted.

  2. The humanitarian theory fails because it (and the other laws associated with the theory) prohibits similatanious killing, but not sequencial killing. Further, not all animals receive the same sort of protection. Cruelty against animals might have been condemned, but not by these laws.

  3. If the symbolic meaning is incest, the law is poorly phrased: it prohibits the young of either gender from being so boiled.

  4. Milgrom finally notes that Keel is on the right track since the nursing mother (animal or human) is associated with life-giving nurture throughout the Ancient Near East (and likely everywhere else), it would have had a place in Israel's monotheism.

    There is a strong connection between the command to Israel and the more general command from the Noahic covenant:

    But you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood. And for your lifeblood I will require a reckoning: from every beast I will require it and from man. From his fellow man I will require a reckoning for the life of man.

    Whoever sheds the blood of man,
       by man shall his blood be shed,
    for God made man in his own image.
    

    —Genesis 9:4-6 (ESV)

Conclusion

Whether or not anyone thought to use this particular culinary technique before the command, the prohibition seems to relate to the separation of life (represented by mother's milk) and death (the act of cooking). More than strictly humanitarian reasons, this symbolic consideration seems to be behind each of the related commands. It also fits with the broad themes of the Torah.

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