In a class at our church on how to get more out of our Bible reading, we spent several weeks on the interpretation the Old Testament law, with special attention to the Book of the Covenant (Exodus 21–23). A class favorite was Exodus 23:19: “You shall not boil a young goat in its mother’s milk.” This law, which is repeated in Exodus 34:26 and Deuteronomy 14:21, seems strange to say the least. Why would anyone boil a goat in its mother’s milk? Why was God so concerned about this practice that he forbade it three times in the Mosaic law?
A Timeless Principle
It’s crucial to remember historical-cultural context when interpreting the law. We are thousands of years removed from the unfamiliar world of ancient Israel. What seems bizarre about their legal code likely made perfect sense in the ancient near east. The better that we can understand Israel’s context, the better that we can understand their law, discern the underlying principle in each precept, and apply God’s wisdom today. Lest we forget, “all Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable” (2 Tim. 3:16), including the God-breathed prohibition against boiling young goats in their mother’s milk.
Unfortunately, there’s not much in the rest of the Old Testament or in ancient near eastern scholarship that sheds light on Exodus 23:19. We can surmise that some of the surrounding Canaanite nations boiled young goats in their mother’s milk as part of a pagan ceremony. Some commentators point to evidence that ancient peoples sprinkled this milk around their crops in the superstitious belief that they would become more fertile. By way of application, Christians shouldn’t engage in religious syncretism, importing practices from other religions; we should avoid superstition and trust in God.
Whether or not Israel was being warned against a Canaanite ritual, there is more that we can say about Exodus 23:19, 34:26, and Deuteronomy 14:21. There is something inherently wrong about the practice: a mother’s milk was given to nourish her younglings, not to destroy them. Such a practice perverts the natural order by using the life force of the mother to bring the death of a kid. Clement of Alexandria comments, “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” (Stromateis 2.18.94). On the history of interpretation, Brevard Childs recommends Marcus Moritz Kalisch, who traces the history and notes, “it appears cruel indeed, and hard-hearted almost to mockery, to seethe the young animal in that very milk, which nature has destined for its own nourishment.” The principle is this: Don’t take that which God intended for life and nourishment and use it for death and destruction.
Is God Concerned for Young Goats?
Taking our cues from Paul, we can conclude that it’s not for young goats that God is concerned. In 1 Corinthians 9:8–10, Paul argues that Christian ministers have a right to be paid for their work. To support his argument, the Apostle cites Deuteronomy 25:4: “it is written in the Law of Moses, ‘You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain.’” At first, one may wonder what this has to do with paying pastors. But Paul asks, “Is it for oxen that God is concerned?” The law was given, Paul concludes, not to protect the rights of animals, but to demonstrate the principle that the one who works (e.g., the pastor) ought to share in the blessings of the work.
According to Paul, Deuteronomy 25:4 “was written for our sake”: God inspired a law about oxen to protect the rights of his apostles and pastors over a millenia later. Likewise, Exodus 23:19 was written for our sake as Christians in the twenty-first century. Is it for young goats that God is concerned? “Does he not certainly speak for our sake?” (1 Cor. 9:10). God is teaching us that what he has given for life and nourishment should not be used to cause death and destruction.
Don’t take that which God intended for nourishment and use it for destruction.
For example, Exodus 23:19 applies to human mothers (and fathers) whose parental authority and strength were given to protect and nourish their children, but can easily be used to cause harm. It’s why Colossians 3:21 warns, “Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged,” and Ephesians 6:4 repeats, “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” Every day, young children are boiled in their parents’ milk: wounded and scarred by harsh words and abusive hands.
The Church Our Mother
Exodus 23:19 is especially applicable to the church. Since the church is the bride of Christ, it lends itself to feminine metaphors. And since its role is to nourish spiritual children to maturity in Christ, it’s been called the Mother of Christians throughout church history. Augustine wrote, “you begin to have him for your father, when you have been born by the church as your Mother” (Sermon to Catechumens on the Creed, 1). Calvin likewise wrote, “To those to whom he is a Father, the Church must also be a mother.” (Institutes 4.1.1).
The Church as the Mother of Christians has been given “the pure spiritual milk” (1 Pet. 2:2) of the word to nourish Christ’s “little ones” (Mt. 10:42) from spiritual childhood “to mature manhood” (Eph. 4:14). The milk of the word must be preached “with complete patience and teaching” (2 Tim. 4:2). When we preach the word in a way that is harsh, haughty, driving, divisive, mean-spirited, manipulative, or shame-based, we boil the flock in the milk of Mother Church (see the article “Shepherding the Flock of God”).
Our Mother the Church has been given the milk of the word to nourish Christ’s little ones, not to boil them.
Paul makes clear that authority in the church is given for nourishment, not destruction: “that when I come I may not have to be severe in my use of the authority that the Lord has given me for building up and not for tearing down” (2 Cor. 13:10). We refer to severe criticism and reprimand as “roasting” (e.g., a comedy “roast”). But in the church, discipline should be life-giving and redemptive, even for the “goats” in the congregation: stubborn and immature Christians who would be easy to boil, but need to be born with in patience.
Abuses of authority, especially in the church, are a great evil: “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea” (Mk. 9:42). Don’t take that which God intended for building up and use it for tearing down. Don’t boil a young goat in its mother’s milk.