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Land of Milk and Honey

Manna was the perfect food for wilderness travel. It didn’t need cultivation, refrigeration or preservation. It was free. It could be eaten as porridge or bread. Manna was healthful. Every morning it blanketed the ground like a dewy nutritional snow. It had a mild taste that hinted of coriander and honey. It was Israel’s desert food for forty years. It was the last food the older generation would ever eat.

English: A Land Flowing with Milk and Honey, i...

English: A Land Flowing with Milk and Honey, illustration from Henry Davenport Northrop’s 1894 “Treasures of the Bible” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When the younger generation entered the Promised Land, “the manna in the wilderness”[1] ceased. The miracle food was no longer needed because the people ate from fields, trees, vines and gardens in the land.  God called Canaan a land flowing with milk and honey.[2] It was a “ribbon of fertile land between Desert and Sea.”[3] Canaan had adequate water, excellent pastures, plentiful fruit trees and vineyards…great affluence of all sorts of good things…for the necessity and delight of human life.”[4]

Shepherd and author Phillip Keller wrote, “In the Scriptures the picture portrayed of the Promised Land, to which God tried so hard to lead Israel from Egypt, was that of a land flowing with milk and honey. Not only is this figurative language but also essentially scientific terminology. In agricultural terms we speak of a milk flow and a honey flow. By this we mean the peak season of spring and summer when pastures are at their most productive stages. The livestock that feed on the forage and the bees that visit the blossoms are said to be producing a corresponding flow of milk or honey. So a land flowing with milk and honey is a land of rich, green, luxuriant pastures.”[5]

Milk

Others who saw the land firsthand support Phillip Keller’s description. “And Lot lifted his eyes and saw all the plain of Jordan, that it was well watered everywhere…like the garden of the LORD” (Genesis 13:10). Also Dathan and Abiram said it was an “inheritance of fields and vineyards” (Numbers 16:13-14). The ancient Israelites must have taken possession of the land with joy because they recognized its suitability for farming and herding. Herds were important in that economy. Animals provided meat, milk, leather, and fabric.

Goats were the hardiest of the herd animals and gave  considerably more milk than sheep. Milk “was regarded as a substantial food for all ages,” and “as a food it ranked next in importance to bread.”[6] Preparing milk, butter and cheese became an important part of women’s work in Canaan. They made a popular soured milk called leben, similar to yogurt or kefir. They “churned” butter by shaking and swinging leather bags of milk until the butter solidified. Women made cheese curds, similar to cottage cheese, by squeezing moisture out of salted leben. In making hard cheese, they shaped curds into cakes and dried them in the sun. The sun-dried cheese is likely what David carried to his brothers’ encampment (1 Samuel 17:18). Sarah and Abraham prepared a meal for the LORD that included roast beef, unleavened bread, milk and butter (Genesis 18:8). The LORD and His companions probably dipped bread into the soft butter, and drank leben with the beef.

Honey

The Israelites ate bread often topped with curds and honey. It was as basic as a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Isaiah wrote that as a child Immanuel would eat curds and honey (Isaiah 7:15), and in a time of trouble Israel would revert to a simple diet of curds and honey (verses 21-22). A diet of milk and honey was appropriate for weaning a child, for treating illness, and for a time of dearth. Honey had medicinal and grooming uses. It disinfected wounds, killed bacterial infections, and eased sore throats. Women made lotions and cosmetics with honey because of its astringent and softening qualities.

Honey was the primary sweetener for baking and for making fermented drinks. Women made honey cakes for religious purposes (Jeremiah 44:19; 7:18) and for celebrations. “Tradition says that when King David made his triumphant entry into Jerusalem with the Ark, the treats he brought with him were honey cakes. And he distributed to all the multitude of Israel, both men and women, to everyone a ring-shaped cake of bread and a date cake and a raisin cake.”[7]

Initially the Israelites depended on wild honey from hives in trees and caves…and other interesting places. Samson found a cache of honey in the carcass of a lion, prompting his riddle for wedding guests (Judges 14:8). In time honey production became a business.

In the Jordan Valley, archeologists uncovered a 3000-year-old city, Tel Rehov, the “oldest known commercial bee-keeping city in the world.”[8] It is believed to have housed two million bees in cylindrical hives made of straw and clay. Bits of preserved bee DNA indicate the bees were imported from Turkey. It is thought that the Turkish bees were less aggressive and produced more honey than the wild bees of Canaan.

Land of Milk and Honey Today

Looking at Israel today, we might wonder how much has changed since Israel first walked into the land. More than half the nation today is desert. Israel’s success in providing food for its citizens and exporting agricultural products depends on extensive irrigation. Judged by its efforts and exports—avocados, mangoes, persimmons, dates, grapes, plums, melons, citrus, olives, herbs, cotton, sunflower seed—Israel retains a reputation for agricultural productivity.

In checking out a website about Israel today, I found a farm restaurant called Eretz Zavat Chalav u’Dvash (Land of Milk and Honey). Although it’s not far from the Ben-Gurion Airport, it is portrayed as a garden with birds, fish pond and grazing sheep.

The owner, Aharon Markovich, believes that “rare is better.” He raises sheep rather than goats, even though sheep produce only half the amount of milk that goats produce. So sheep’s milk is better for making cheese. The Land of Milk and Honey dairy produces forty different kinds of original cheeses, using such ingredients as wine, fig leaves, rosemary, and bay leaves. The morning buffet serves food the ancients would have enjoyed: flavored cheese balls, breads, salad, roasted peppers, marinated eggplant and spicy carrots.

 Sounds delicious.—Mary Hendren 


[1] John 6:48

[2] Numbers 13:27, 14:8; Deuteronomy 6:3, 11:9 (and many more examples!)

[3] Halley’s Bible Handbook, p. 36

[4] Gill’s Online Bible Commentary,  note on Exodus 3:8

[5] A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23,  Phillip Keller, p. 54

[6] Bible History Online, Manners and Customs: Dairy Products

[8] Los Angeles Times, June 8, 2010, “Ancient Bees Found in Israel Hailed from Turkey”

About womenfromthebook

Mine is a life-long interest in the women of the Bible, and I enjoy exploring the world in which they lived, and discovering the challenges that they faced. I have enough curiosity about them to last the rest of my life.

One response »

  1. Lenna Slaughter

    When God calls the promised land “a land flowing with milk and honey”, it leads me to believe that these must be perfect foods for human consumption. That is why I don’t agree with those who say that consumption of natural, raw milk and/or honey is bad for us. Certainly, man’s meddling with them has not been good. I feel they will be important foods in the coming kingdom. Thanks for your informative article.

    Reply

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