This is a further look at a topic started in a previous post. We were considering the biblical phrase “a land flowing with milk and honey”. A history of the English phrase can be found in Michael Macrone book Brush Up Your Bible!:
“Though the medieval British diet must have differed considerably from the ancient Israelites’, the phrase “land of milk and honey” is one of the earliest biblical expressions to have made its way into English (ca. A.D. 1000), via Aelfric’s rendering of Numbers 16: 13. “Flowing with milk and honey,” however, had to wait for Wyclif’s 1382 translation of Ezekiel (20: 6). The phrase had apparently embedded itself in English speech by the time William Tyndale used it in translating the present passage, for he claimed never to have glanced at Wyclif or any other English version of the Bible.”
However, the meaning of the original hebrew phrase is much more difficult to grasp; in particular the meaning of the hebrew word for honey. Here are a few comments by the experts.
Nahum Sarna says this:
” … Honey in the Bible (Heb. devash) is predominantly the thick, sweet syrup produced from dates … While the date itself is never mentioned, the inclusion of honey among the seven characteristic products of the land listed in Deut. 8:8 indicates that, like all the others, it too derives from the soil.” (JPS commentary on Exodus 3:8)
If it means dates then why isn’t the word for dates used? By the way it’s not that dates are never mentioned in the whole bible (see 2 Samuel 6:19) just in this particular phrase. Also wild bee honey would still be a product of a bountiful land.
Baruch Levine makes this assessment:
” … this depiction projects a land with plentiful, milk-producing herds and flocks and abounding in fruit trees, especially date palm.” (JPS commentary on Lev. 20:24)
Again, if it meant fruit of the land, then why not mention fruit trees or a particular fruit, such as, for example, happens in Exodus 15:27.
Jacob Milgrom (who passed away this week) makes this note:
‘ … Hebrew devash, “honey”, stems from wild bees or dates, most likely the latter; compare Joel 4:18, where milk and fruit juice (must) are parallel (cf. also Gen. 43:11; Deut. 8:8). The figure may be metaphoric: “fruits pure as milk and sweet as honey.” ‘ (JPS commentary on Num. 13:27)
Interesting, but again I don’t buy it, this can’t be how the phrase was meant in the previous earlier references and the Joel reference seems a bit spurious.
The scientific article I refer to in the previous post, says this:
“The Bible commonly refers to Israel as “a land flowing with milk and honey,” but in only two cases does this description clearly refer to bee honey, both in relation to wild bees (Judg. 14:8-9 and 1 Sam. 14:25-29).”
This sentence is awkward, the two references given are not in fact directly linked to the phrase ‘a land flowing with milk and honey’, but they do have the word ‘honey’. In addition I can’t see how Deut 32:13 and Ps. 81:17 can be anything other than references to wild bee honey.
Perhaps the strongest evidence for the domestication of bees in the biblical texts is from Job 20:17:
“Let him not enjoy the streams, The rivers of honey, the brooks of cream.” (JPS)
Both the fact that cream isn’t a naturally occurring product and the shear abundance/volume of honey suggests to me human honey production is in mind. How about also 2 Samuel 17: 28-29:
“… presented … wheat, barley, flour, parched grain, beans, lentils, parched grain, honey, curds, a flock, and cheese from the herd for David and the troops with him to eat. ” (JPS)
Again seems likely to me that honey here is a product of trade, but also available in quantities that suggest production from domestication, as likewise do Jer 41:8 and Ezek 27:17.