“Shun ‘Religious’ Magic (Ex 23,19b)”

by John Wijngaards, LAWS FOR LIFE Series in the New Leader, 22 April 1973; in Telugu Bharata Mithram, 25 December 1975

“You may not boil a kid in its mother’s milk!” (Exodus 23,19b)

The law forbids that a young goat be boiled in the milk of its mother. It Is one of the shortest laws of Scripture (in Hebrew it eounts only five words) and occurs three times (alsoin Dt. 14, 21 and Ex. 34, 26). Many attempts have been made to understand the precise meaning of this command, which obviously was considered of quite some importance by different Scriptural authors.

St. Augustine and St. Chrysostom thought that the command prohibited the boiling of a young goat “as long as it still needed to be fed by its mother’s milk”. However, the original Hebrew is quite explicit. It does not tolerate such an interpretatlon, It says clearly that the mother’s milk may not be used to boil the kid in. We also have to reject the opinion of the Jewish writer Philo and the Christian patriarch Clement of Alexandria. They thought that boiling a kid in its mother’s milk was simply an ancient custom that had been forbidden because it portrayed some kind of unnatural cruelty. “What should be nutrition for the living animal may not be made gravy for the dead animal.” (Clement of Alexandra) It is hardly likely that the lawgiver should be worried about the way the food is cooked even if the procedure is somewhat rude or primitive.

Boiling the young goat refers to a sacrifice. We know that in the oldest times also the Israelites used to boil sacrificial meat before bringing it to the altar (see I Samuel 13,16). We may presume that the law refers to a very definite and well-known pracrice of sacrificing which even the Israelites would be tempted to follow. Recent studies of Canaanitic sacrifice have thrown much light on the practice presupposed by the law. The available evidence points to it as a superstitious sacrifice brought with the purpose of ensuring fertility. We read in a Ugaritic text: “Over the fire the heroes cook seven times a kid in milk, a little lamb in butter; and over the flame (they cook) seven times their sacrificial victim” (Text 52, 13-15). It was apparently thought that boiling the victim “seven times” and boiling it in its “mother’s milk” would heighten the effectiveness of the sacrifice.

It is this superstitious element that made the sacrificial custom unacceptable for the Israelites. Many other sacrificial customs were taken over wholesale from Canaanitic practice. But a believing Jew knew that the strength of the sacrifice does not lie in externals, in the number of times the meat was boiled, in the juice employed or in other accidental circumstances. No rite could force God to give His favour. Sacrifice is no magic, The sacrificial ceremony expresses the worship and submission of man, but has no power to force God to give fertility. For receiving God’s blessings tbe Israellse had to put his trust and faith in God. He was not allowed to attempt securing blessings by the mechanism of magic.

In spite of the enlightenment we have received from Christ and the experience of so many centuries, people even today are still inclined to seek refuge in superstition or magical rites. Are there not many, even among our Christians, who imagine that God will bless a marriage because the ceremony is conducted at “a. favourable time” ~ When praying to God for some favour, are some not inclined to put their trust rather in external circumstances (for instance the nine days of a Novena) than in a total reliance on God’s goodness? However good the sprinkling with Holy Water may be to signify a dedication to God, has it not at times assumed in the eyes of people a magical effectiveness? We Christians believe in the Sacraments and the meaning of religious rites. But even more than the people of the Old Testament, we should shun everything that smacks of magic and superstition. God reminds us of this when He says: “You may not boil the kid in its mother’s milk.”