Sometimes the Bible verses that seem strangest actually are the most intuitive. Take Deuteronomy 14:21: “Do not cook a young goat in its mother’s milk.” This is an obscure saying that seems exotic to our modern ears. Most of us don’t eat goat nor have a gallon of goat’s milk in the refrigerator. And we’ve never had any thought or inclination to cook a goat on the grill on the back deck, much less in a cauldron of goat’s milk. So, if we ever do find ourselves reading Deuteronomy 14, which is about as likely as reading the index to an encyclopedia, we would glance over it quickly.
This text, however, reveals the heart of Israel’s covenant relationship with God. The book of Deuteronomy is essentially the constitution and bylaws of Israel’s society. It is a blueprint for how they are to live together in their post-Egyptian existence. No society can develop without laws and Israel was no exception. In this constitution of Israel, we find guidance for how they are to structure their economy, maintain social and sexual relations, deal with foreign allies and enemies, and act as stewards of the land God has given them.
This seemingly arcane command actually reveals God’s command for basic kindness to animals. A baby goat, the kid, is dependent on its mother for milk for life. Nothing could be more cruel than to cook the kid in that which was intended to sustain its life. Israel wasn’t prohibited from eating meat in general, or baby goats in particular. However, they were prohibited from abject cruelty. Their communal life as humans was not utterly detached from their lives shared with the earth’s animals.
I will not argue that the book of Deuteronomy should become the law of modern- day America. It’s 3000 years old, written for a small nation just beginning a new life following 400 years of bondage. Ancient Israel is not modern America. Yet, there are some core revelations of God’s desires for society that are etched into Israel’s law. One of those core revelations is the simple and direct prohibition to animal cruelty.
There are about 40 companies in the U.S. that control nearly all poultry production. According to the National Chicken Council, the average slaughter weight for chicken in 1925 was 2.5 pounds and in 2020 it was 7.6 pounds. What has happened? Steroids, cages, antibiotics. The chickens live in cages with almost no room to move. The cages are flooded with artificial light to manipulate the appetite of the birds, prompting excessive eating. Eventually the birds become so heavy their bone structure and cardio-vascular system can’t sustain them. 1,2 Matthew Scully’s expose of this industry Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy is a painful revelation of how our society treats animals.
Modern interpreters of the Bible often ridicule ancient Israel’s deuteronomic laws for their perceived legalism and barbarism. It’s easy to sit as armchair critics of ancient cultures because most of us are removed from the realities of our food system. Perhaps we should open our eyes to our society’s cruel treatment of animals sustained by an industry that lures us with an Edenic apple of low prices: “Eve saw that it was pleasing to the eye [and on sale].” This industry enables us to buy whole chickens at $3.00 a pound at the grocery store, instead of $6.00 a pound for free range chickens that have some semblance of life as the Creator intended.
Earth Day isn’t a part of the Christian liturgical calendar but perhaps it should be. It can be a time when the church repents for its failures to care for animals and for turning a blind eye to a vast industrial complex dripping in cruelty. It can be a time when the church dares to reassert itself as stewards of creation and educate its people about the industrial complex that provides our meats—poultry, beef, and pork. When a society is driven by producing a profit with no regard to the people or animals it exploits along the way, the prophets must call it out. When more and more state governments are criminalizing whistle blowers for taking photos or talking about what happens in slaughter houses, the prophets must speak up.
“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were unwilling” (Jesus,
as recorded in Mt 23:37).
1. Sandra Richter, Stewards of Eden: What Scripture Says About The Environment And Why It Matters (Downers Grove, Il: InterVarsity Press, 2020), pp37-39.
2 Macala Wright, “Understanding the True Costs of Humanely Raised, Quality Meat,” January 15, 2021, Accessed March 28, 2021, https://maca.la/2021/01/costs-of-humanely-raised-quality-meat/.