The main feature of Stephen Cook’s interpretation in Reading Deuteronomy is his refusal to interpret the book at face historical value. In other words, the literary time of the text is the days of Moses as the people camp just across the river from the land promised to them. But historical criticism points to an actual date for the compiling of the book in the late monarchy and on into the exilic period.
So he looks at the those laws in Deuteronomy that seem to target Canaanite practices and asks what relevance they have in a post-Canaanite age, when the actual cultures confronting Israel are Assyrian and Babylonian, not Canaanite. Also, the culture of Israel itself has gone off the tracks so that Deuteronomy confronts it from a prophetic stance.
You are children of the Lord your God. Do not cut yourselves or shave your forehead bald for the sake of the dead. For you are a people holy to the Lord your God. He has chosen you to be his people, prized above all others on the face of the earth (14:1-2 NET Bible).
Many commentators say that the cutting and shaving are Canaanite practices. But Cook sees them as indigenous to Israel. They were extreme Israelite funerary practices. The problem with altering your body as a reaction to death is that it links you to the realm of death. The faithful response to death is to mourn for a period and then rejoin the community praising God. But if you retain the marks of mourning in your body, then you stand as a contradiction to the community of praise. You cannot, on the one hand, link your body to the realm of death, and, on the other hand, affirm life with the community of God. (See Psalm 115:17-18).
Leviticus 21:5-6 spelled this out for priests. Deuteronomy democratizes the prohibition by applying it to all Israel. You are the children of God. You are a holy people. You are chosen and prized.
After a section about the acceptable diet for Hebrews, it is again stressed that the Israelites constituted a people holy to God (14: 21). The command against boiling a kid in its mother’s milk is about separating life from the realm of death. The milk is life-giving. The young goat is dead. Humans may consume once-living things. But they must defy the realm of death by not mixing the two realms. The realm of darkness and decay must not encroach on covenant life.
The diet section, 14:3-21 deals with animals destined to die. But from Deuteronomy’s point of view some animals are more “deathful” than others–those that eat carrion, for instance. But it would also include animals not fully drained of blood or the road kill that has taken on the characteristics of a corpse (the most unclean of all things) by beginning to rot. Deuteronomy restricts Israel’s meat diet to domestic grass eaters and a few kinds of wild game and fish. This shows respect for life.
Many misunderstand the unclean animals as though these animals were all disgusting or inferior. Cook points out that the stork was seen as magnificent (Job 39:13) or the raven as under the care of God (Psalm 147:9). The prohibition on eating these animals was supposed to honor their lives. It was not a value judgment.
“Contrary to all misconceptions, Deuteronomy’s dietary rules are nothing more and nothing less than a symbolic construct, a ritual program for forming Israel into a holy community, distinctly hallowing the name of the God of life.”
I am glad I have read Cook’s previous book, The Social Roots of Biblical Yahwism. Otherwise I might assume that Cook thinks this “symbolic construct” was constructed just for Deuteronomy. However, his actual position is that Deuteronomy has roots that we can trace at least as far back as the coup against Queen Athaliah. He assumes that they go back further than that, but that historical methods fall short in trying to find them.
I do not know what his stance is toward an opinion like Avraham Faust’s that some of the dietary laws were originally ethnic identifiers over against the Philistines or Phoenicians.