#112. Is the paschal animal to be roasted OR boiled? (Ex 12:8-9 vs Deut 16:7)


The Priestly Passover legislation of Exodus 12:1-11 not only stipulates the preparation of the sacrificial animal prior to its slaughter (#111), but also how it is to be cooked and eaten. “Do not eat any of it raw or cooked in water, but fire-roasted” (12:9).

Yet this is not at all what is relayed in the Passover legislation found in Deuteronomy 16:1-8. There we are told that the paschal lamb or cattle is to be cooked, and what is implied is cooked in water, that is boiled.

Boiling was the typical and normative practice by which sacrificial animals were prepared and eaten (Lev 6:21-28, 8:31; Num 6:19, 1 Sam 2:13-15, etc.). The strict decree to fire-roast the paschal lamb in the Priestly legislation, where elsewhere in the book of Leviticus, also penned by P, meat is boiled, might suggest that fire-roasted represents an older tradition. In fact, it is the language of the whole burnt offering in Leviticus 1; but none of that meat is eaten.

At any rate, the non-cultic language of the Deuteronomic version is just one example of its secularization of the ritual. While the Priestly author is concerned with the proper ritual preparation of the paschal lamb and its consumption, the Deuteronomic  author is more concerned about where this meal gets eaten: “at the place where Yahweh shall chose to tent his name.” See forthcoming #118.

16 thoughts on “#112. Is the paschal animal to be roasted OR boiled? (Ex 12:8-9 vs Deut 16:7)

  1. If you don’t mind, I’d like to hear your thoughts on this issue as it pertains to 2 Chronicles 35:13 where we read about Josiah’s passover (notably in much greater detail than what the writer of 2 Kings 23 gives us). The writer there uses the same word for “cooked” that is found in Deut. 16, but the wording seems to suggest that the passover sacrifice was done over a fire in contrast to the other offerings which were cooked in pots, kettles and pans. Was this a later attempt to harmonize or clarify the two ways this was practiced using Josiah as the ultimate example of the “right” way to do things?

  2. That’s a good question Hymenaeus. I’m not sure if I have an answer to that, but here are my thoughts. I’m familiar with the passage in Chronicles with it’s added specification “with fire.” William Propp in his commentary on Exodus (Anchor Bible series) sees this as an attempt to harmonize the two passages as you suggest. By the 4th century BC when Chronicles was written, the Torah, our Pentateuch, would have been assembled in some form. So the two passages would have been familiar to this author.

    On a larger note, the author of Chronicles displays a similar ideology and sacrificial focus as those of the Aaronid priestly guild who wrote Leviticus and Exodus 12:1-20. So whether the Chronicler was an Aaronid himself or sympathetic to Aaronid concerns, there certainly does seem to be, here as elsewhere, an effort to present the cult in Aaronid terms. That being said, scholars contend that the Aaronid priestly institution so favorably presented in Judah’s monarchical past in the books of Chronicles, but completely absent in the same history recorded in Kings, leads us to conclude that this was a retrojection into the past of Aaronid cultic ideas, which again were most likely important in and to the 4th century Chronicler. If this were the case, then yes he would be presenting Josiah in conformity with Aaronid ritual practices, and thus more pious vis-a-vis ideas of ritual holiness associated with the Aaronid guild. When we get to the contradictions in Chronicles, we will note how the Chronicler’s portrait of, say, Solomon, Jehoshaphat, and Josiah, are more pious than their parallel accounts in Kings. The Chronicler obviously had an agenda, and that would have been aligning the practices of monarchical Judah with his own priestly ideology. So 2 Chr 35 could be seen in this light, as you suggest.

    That said, I have a book on my shelves that I have not yet read, Josiah’s Reforms and the Dynamics of Defilement, Lauren Monroe. I briefly worked with Lauren years ago at Cornell, so I’m anxious to read her work. I believe she argues that some Priestly literature (particularly the Holiness code, Lev 17-26) was available or reworked during Josiah’s reign. We often view Deuteronomy as the exclusive text associated with Josiah, so I think, Monroe is pushing back against this a bit.

  3. It is hard to see why a supreme being who created the entire universe would be bothered by the way meat was cooked or why ‘he’ would want people to sacrifice animals (or children!) and cook meat in a specific way. I wonder why this does not ever seem to occur to believers? And does not the fact that sacrifices to gods were common practice in many ancient communities around the world simply prove that this strange habit is man-made?

  4. But a supreme being, however you define it, has nothing to do with these passages. Rather these texts represent the views, beliefs, and customs of their authors, audiences, and historical worlds.

  5. I think Jo was being rhetorical in that first sentence, just for the record :-) The ancient Jewish animal sacrifices were something that bothered me as a Christian, but I shrugged and reluctantly assumed that God knew best. I should have asked myself that last question — isn’t it interesting that so many “pagan” cultures practiced sacrifices too?

    Now I suspect that the issue of roasted or boiled just has more to do with how the priests at a given point in time preferred their meat portions!

  6. Jo,

    I’ll bet if you Google around, you’ll find any number of both Christian and Jewish interpretations (read: guesses) as to why the meat had to be prepared in a certain way and what significance that held. They do, indeed, give it thought.

    As for the fact that it was a common practice among other groups, I would bet that many would say these other groups were just perverting the correct way to go about it. They might say that every culture understood the need for sacrifice to a god of some kind and this was “written on their hearts” and all points to the need for the perfect sacrifice, Jesus Christ.

    Interestingly, some of the sentiment you express about why in the world a supreme being would care about stuff like how animal sacrifices were prepared seems to be expressed in the way the writer of Luke/Acts “recounts” Paul’s speech at the Areopagus (Acts 17:22-34). Of course, that writer had very little to say about substitutionary sacrifice and appears to have been more concerned with repentance. As Dr DiMattei pointed out, the different texts represent different views, beliefs and customs of their authors, audiences and historical worlds. These are often contrary to the views expressed in our day which have undergone numerous forms of systematization under the assumption that “the Bible” should be regarded as a single, monolithic document.


    I know your remark about the priests’ preference for flame broiled or boiled was in jest, but I tend to think there may have been some cultic significance to the preparation. Given what we see elsewhere about whole burnt offerings, the thinking was probably that the smell of the flame-broiled meat would rise up to the gods and be a pleasant smell and make them forget about how they wanted to smite people and such. On the other hand, boiling the meat probably had a more practical purpose in that it was the easiest way to prepare it for a ritual with many participants. IIRC, this was the preferred method for Greek sanctuaries for that very reason and they later just appended some significance to the practice.

  7. S di Mattei and KW: Thank you for your interesting comments. I am no academic when it comes to religious matters but have become interested in what makes people believe the extraordinary things that they do and feel that a study of various disciplines including anthropology and the recent advances in neuroscience, aided by new technology may be the way to find the answer. I recently read ‘The God Part of the Brain’ by Matthew (?) Alper – popular non-fiction but fascinating nevertheless in its assertion that religion/supernatural beliefs may be ‘hard-wired’ into the brain during evolution (some of us presumably have a missing gene and never accept such beliefs). Experiments with birds have demonstrated what might be called ‘superstitious behaviour’ such as performing certain movements in the apparent belief that on a previous occasion they yielded a reward, when in fact randomly-delivered food coincided with such a behaviour. Thus, it might be that in humans, an ox being roasted (or boiled?) coincided with rain during a drought, prompting the superstitious belief that it was the cooking that caused the rain. The Aztecs threw children off mountains in desperation as their civilisation fell apart and human sacrifice to the gods was part of many religions. As far as the many, many Jewish laws concerning the killing and offering of animals to god(s) were concerned and the dietary laws, it seems to me that the more (sometimes justifiably) paranoid a minority become, the more obsessive they can become about the rituals and rites they perform. The writer Bashevis Singer wrote about Eastern European jews during the pogroms pestering their rabbi for guidance over every triviality of their lives. I imagine that what start as common-sense ideas about hygiene etc become imbued with religious significance over time. Regarding the strikingly similar characteristics of religious observance in different communities in difference parts of the world in peoples who would have had no contact with each other (dance, music, cave art, religious beliefs) from the Australian aboriginees to the tribesmen of the Kalahari, it seems that such behaviour is part of our evolution.

  8. Paul, In this case I’m really just reproducing the work of my more knowledgeable colleagues. The present contradiction rests on a particular understanding of the Hebrew bšl—which appears in Deut 16:7 (“you shall bšl”) and Ex 12:9 (“do not eat it bšl, in water”)—whether bšl exclusively means to boil. It would seem that my predecessors have concluded it does by looking at similar passages (Lev 6:21-28, 8:31; Num 6:19, 1 Sam 2:13-15, etc.). I actually did hesitate to post this one, but it appears so often in the scholarly literature I felt obliged.

  9. I am not certain that I agree with the idea of boiling food in the desert as the normal way of desert people preparing their meat dishes. Just because they are cooking in pots does not imply water, but it implies keeping the meat clean while cooking it.

    Just a note about cooking. לבשל, or “to cook” indicates to cook IN A FIRE. It retains that meaning today. You may put the food in a vessel and put the vessel in a fire and use the same term. It would appear, based on the language, that the primary method was to cook meat in the fire, and not in water. It doesn’t make a lot of sense for a desert culture to do boiling, and with the exception of Ezekiel, we don’t find the root word רתח (boil), probably for that reason.

    Nor does there seem to be any tradition concerning the boiling of meat that exists as far as I have discovered.

    This was especially true with sacrifices, which have some sanctity, and do not come directly onto the fire unless they are to be destroyed (the leftovers were always described in this way, or some sin offerings that were not to be eaten). After all, what Kohain wants a mouth full of ashes?! For the same reason that they ate roasted eggs rather than hard-boiled ones was, again, due to the lack of water. The keilim, or vessels that were used for the sacrificial process would then be destroyed, since they have a level of sanctity (unless they were metal, then tovelling them was adequate). The clay would be reused since a reassembled item would not retain it’s earlier sanctity.

    The quotes you cited (I just reviewed them in Hebrew) do not seem to support the idea that boiling was common, but that cooking in pots were common.

    There is a halackic discussion of the tumah of wet keilim (if the pot contained liquid, and meat were inside of it, and that liquid touched a Kohen as it was being removed, it is possible that he would no longer be pure/tahor, and would not be able to eat the any sanctified food), in Berachot 52a/b which enforces the tradition that meat was cooked dry, and not in water due to practical (desert people) and religious (tamai/tahor) reasons.

  10. And to reply to Jo M. as to why God would care? I think this was an OCD deity who passed it onto those who worshipped Him! (Or an OCD people that created such a deity in their own image, more likely).

  11. EG, this is great! As I responded to another one of my readers, I basically reproduced this contradiction because it appears in the scholarly literature so often. I don’t really have a dog in the debate over whether bshl means to boil or not. And it does seem to be debated in the literature. The passage in 1 Sam 2:12-14 speaks of the priest drawing out with a fork his portion of meat from the pot, as if it were being boiled in the pot. I think this is the line of reasoning used here. On the other hand, I recall a passage, but forget where (Samuel or Deut?), where it is explicitly stated that the Levites’ portion is the boiled shoulder. Do you recall anything about that? This will be a later contradiction because the Aaronids’ portion is never the shoulder… I think.

  12. 1Sam 9:24 mentions a shoulder, and Deut. 18:3 mention a shoulder, but neither mention any boiling. the 1Sam 2:12-14 speaks of how they would take a 3-pronged fork, stick it in a כיור (a shallow cooking pan, not a deep pot), and pull out what meat they would.

  13. I wonder if meat was cooked as it was (and still is by aboriginal communities in Australia) by wrapping it in leaves, burying it underground and piling hot ashes on top? The meat steams in its own juice, no water needed, and does not get burnt or dusty with ash.

  14. E Gross: Maybe a people who were simply paranoid (and with good reason!), rather than OCD. When one looks at the extreme violence and tribalism of the times, the astonishishing number of fussy regulations for food preparation and ritual slaughter seem an indication of stress resulting in a wish to maximize the chances of appeasing god(s) by complicated rituals.

  15. Sacrificial offerings (say, bringing a bird to be cooked in a kinor) were treated a lot differently than personal eating (roasting it over a spit). And yes, I would agree that appeasing the supernatural was important. The fragrance, the blood, the cooked fats, and all of the other parts that were offered to the heavens. Some offerings would permit only the priestly caste to eat them, and some were communal. For the priests, extra care was required, since they only got to work barely a handful of days in their entire lifetime, and becoming tamei would be a deal breaker!

    As far as cooking on leaves, keep in mind that in a desert environment, there are not a lot of big-leaf plants here (I live in Israel). There are a lot of sabras (wild cacti) so perhaps they got inventive. (And found a way to not get hurt picking them!) Date palm branches might work (we order the nicer ones from Egypt).

    Because of the lack of wood (even today, 99% of all homes are stone), ovens were communal, so a single clay/stone oven would be shared be several families. Slap a hunk of wet dough on the inside and in a few minutes you got yourself some bread. No refrigerators either, so if you kill it, you better share it. You kill a pesach, it is almost impossible for a single family to eat it all by themselves. (My wife and I ordered and shared a shoulder of a lamb and brought home leftovers). So eating was certainly a communal event.

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