4 Dec 2017

The Bible and Assumptions: The Case of “The Land flowing with Milk and Honey”

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Bible, Cool Stuff, Culture, Deuteronomy, Exegesis, Hebrew Bible, Hermeneutics, Jewish Backgrounds

Biblical “milk”

It is always more or less detrimental to the ascertainment of truth to allow our previous conclusions to assume the position of fixed and fundamental truth to which nothing is to be at any time added either in correction or enlargement. On the contrary, we ought rather to act under the conviction that we may be wiser today than yesterday

– Alexander Campbell, 1840

The Bible and Assumptions

Most of us have unexamined and even hidden assumptions about the world, life and how things ought to be. They function as a sort of a priori filter of information that enters into our conscious mind. The unspoken assumption has simply become part of our world, a given, that is never argued for or against. It just “is.”

Bible believing people are not automatically set free from the power of hidden assumptions simply because we believe the Bible. In fact it may be the case that we are even more blind to the power of hidden assumptions in religious world because we consciously assume that WE do not have any.  But just like an unknown gravitational source reveals itself by its effects on everything else so the same is with our own assumptions.

(As a side note it was the evidence of the “effects” of gravity on Uranus, that is Uranus was not precisely where it was supposed to be in its orbit, that led to the postulation that a hidden source was out there that we did not know about. After calculations by mathematician Urbain Le Verrier, astronomers Johann Gottfried Galle and Heinrich Louis d’Arrest essentially pointed their telescope to a spot on September 24, 1846 and found Neptune as the hidden source).

The Bible is God’s word inscripturated. But the Bible was not given to postmodern, English speaking, suburban/urban/rural Americans. It was given in specific historical circumstances that simply cannot be ignored if we actually believe the claim that it is God’s word.

God’s word was, we have to believe providentially, given to people who lived, at minimum, two thousand years ago. And in some cases as much as 3500 years. These Holy Spirit words, by God’s design, were given to people who never heard of America, and never heard of English. Their world was radically different than our own. We often forget this much to our detriment because we make assumptions that are never even thought about much less questioned.

So we often read things into our Bible when we encounter a “familiar” word and we assign to that word the meaning it has for US. Sometimes, it never dawns on us to think that they meant something considerably different than we do. I have learned this through personal experience because of the assumptions that I have made. So Historical context is an absolute MUST in reading the Bible as God in God’s wisdom gave it. God DECIDED, after all, to give the Bible to ancient, pre-modern, Hebrew speakers and thinkers and not to modern English speaking Americans.

Archeologist Nathan MacDonald has provided a fascinating book. This book rooted in deep archeological and textual research sheds light on many biblical passages. MacDonald is an expert on the food of the Ancient Near East

Example: Milk and Honey

We have all heard read the famous phrase to describe the land of promise as “the land flowing with milk and honey” (Deut 6.3; 26.9; etc). I can tell you, with complete honesty, that for a significant portion of my life it never once dawned on me that “milk” was not what I put in my Coca-Puffs/Count Chocula nor that “honey” was not the killer bee stuff. This is a rather harmless example I am using but once we examine it other false cards tumble in.

Long before Moses, there was an ancient Egyptian Tale of Sinuhe, an Egyptian who lived in Palestine. Palestine was long regarded as a verdant area known especially for wine in the ancient world. In the tale, Canaan is described in words that should ring a bell for any Bible reader.

It was a good land called Yaa.
Figs were in it and grapes.
It had more wine than water.
Abundant in with its honey,
plentiful its oil.
All kind of fruit were on its trees.
Barley was there and emmer …

This is an enlightening snippet. It is the Egyptian version of a land “flowing with milk and honey.” The biblical descriptions of the land are not made up. But they also have historical content.

Now I like honey. I have heard that “local honey” is very good for your allergies. And I love milk, especially chocolate. And for a good portion of my life I had no idea that honey is not stuff from bees and milk is not liquid from cows.

I simply assumed that those words referred to things in my experience rather than asking what they meant to an Israelite (the question of historical context). I am not alone in this. Even biblical scholars have often simply assumed in the past the meaning of these phrases. But archeology has caused large bodies of common assumptions and scholarship older than fifty years to be consigned to the trash heap.

There are at least three words referring to “honey” in the Hebrew Bible; debash, nopet, and ya’ar.  The word honey, most frequently, is not the product of bees in Scripture. Rather it is the syrupy remains of boiling down fruit, sort of like a molasses when sugar cane is boiled.

It is not evident that from the historical and archeological record that Israel kept bees to make what we call honey. There are only two indisputable cases where the word “honey” refers to bees and they are wild (Judges 14 and 1 Sam 14). But the rest of the time honey among the “produce of the field” or “agricultural produce” as we see in 2 Chronicles 31.5.

As soon as the word spread, the people of Israel gave in abundance the first fruits of grain, wine, oil, honey, and of all the produce/agriculture of the field.”

Honey, mentioned by name in the Tale of Sinuhe, is typically an agricultural product in much the same way that wine and olive oil.

And what of milk? C. S. Lewis once lamented those “who think the world began with the dawn of their own consciousness.” That is a rather powerful way of saying to people like me, don’t think the world has always been as you experience.

Archeologist, and Hebrew Bible scholar, Nathan MacDonald has written “although cows are associated with milk production in the modern Western world, this was not their primary association in the ancient Near East.” Using cows for milk was a European cultural innovation. Cows were used primarily for plowing in the ancient world. As Rabbi Nachman said in the Mishnah a “goat is for its milk, an ewe for its fleece … oxen for ploughing.”

Milk is not the stuff I put Hershey’s syrup in to make it drinkable. Rather it comes from primarily goats, though sometimes sheep. But we are still not done overcoming our assumption about “milk.” In the ancient world “milk” is only available for about half of the year when you can “milk” the goat (and sheep). They did not have Safeway to purchase more “milk.”

The “milk” is processed (do not confuse that with modern processing) so it will keep. When the milk is processed, or churned (again more like making butter), it becomes what we call “ghee.”

The “milk” was boiled in ancient Israel and as it sat the milk/ghee fermented (so much for those who only worry about the wine being alcoholic!).

Ancient Israel had what I like to call Wisconsin cheese curds, before Wisconsin existed. They were not pasteurized, a process that did not exist until 1864. Milk in ancient Israel fermented naturally. It is the alcohol, we know now, in the ghee that kept the “milk” from going bad and enabled it to be stored and used throughout the whole year.

When it was time to eat the ghee/milk it would be mixed with water to return them to a fermented, liquid state.

Knowing what “milk” is to the Israelite goes a long way toward understanding the excitement of the man in Song of Songs 4.11 as he declares,

Honey and milk are under your tongue …“(4.11)

Or

I drink wine with my milk” (5.1)

Chocolate milk never quite had the electric punch that is in fermented goat ghee! However kissing his bride is like the effect of an intoxicating beverage (the milk).

Final Thoughts

So with this little exercise we have found that the phrase “land flowing with milk and honey” is actually a very exciting turn of phrase in Scripture. It is not a notion that was invented by Israel but common to the cultures around. And what they meant by milk and honey are quite different than what we typically imagine of those terms.

The Bible is an exciting and yet strange book. It gets more interesting when we recognize that the world then is not the world now. This rather simple example can show us though to always ask the question … what did it mean then.

See Also

If you have found this blog helpful or at least “interesting” then you may also profit from this linked article:

Evel Knievel, the Grand Canyon & Us: The Strange and Deep Gulf to the Bible

Current Helpful Resources

E. Levine, “The Land Flowing with Milk and Honey,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 87 (2000): 43-57

Nathan MacDonald, Not Bread Alone: The Uses of Food in the Old Testament (Oxford University Press, 2008)

_____________, What Did the Ancient Israelites Eat? Diet in Biblical Times (Eerdmans, 2008)

M. Stol, “Milk, Butter and Cheese,” Bulletin of Sumerian Agriculture 7 (1993): 99-113

 

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