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The Land Flowing with Milk and Honey

Categories Old Testament

Bible-BackgroundsExodus chapter three is the first occasion in which the covenant land of the patriarchs, the so-called "Promise Land" is referred to as the Land flowing with milk and honey. Whatever that might suggest in our minds, we should take a look at what it communicated to the Israelite audience. Bruce Wells writes:

This expression evokes the image of a prosperous land. The Egyptian Story of Sinuhe (from the Twelfth Dynasty, early second millennium B.C.) also describes the land of Canaan as prosperous: "It was a wonderful land called Yaa. There were cultivated figs in it and grapes, and more wine than water. Its honey was abundant, and its olive trees numerous. On its trees were all varieties of fruit. There were barley and emmer, and there was no end to all varieties of cattle."1

But the land seems not to have been consistently prosperous; several biblical texts refer to famine in Canaan (Gen. 12:10; 26:1; 43:1). Biblical texts describe the blessing of Yahweh as the determining factor. When he wished for there to be prosperity, there was. Ugaritic texts present a similar perspective: When there was divine blessing—in their case, from Baal—then "the heavens rain oil, / the wadis run with honey."2

Exactly what kind of prosperity does the biblical expression refer to? It probably does not refer to the most common forms of agriculture, such as the cultivation of grains. Rather, the "milk" most likely refers to animal husbandry and the use of animal byproducts for food and clothing. Sheep were important for their wool and meat, but goats may have been more important. They provide twice as much milk as sheep, and their hair and hides could be used for tents, clothing, carpets, and even satchels for holding liquids.3 The "honey" refers to horticulture—the cultivation of fruits and vegetables. "Honey" in Israel is more commonly the syrup from grapes and dates than the substance produced by bees.4

Given the mountainous and arid landscape of much of Canaan, it would be difficult for a society to rely strictly on agricultural crops. Herding and horticulture were essential. Still, to the casual observer, the lush environs of Egypt’s fertile delta appeared far more inviting than Canaan (cf. 16:3; Num. 16:13, where Israelites call Egypt a "land flowing with milk and honey"). One can imagine, however, that a bit of "milk and honey" eaten in freedom would feel luxurious compared to the bondage of slavery. Moreover, parts of Canaan were indeed verdant compared to the nearby desert. (Excerpt from ZIBBCOT, Exodus, by Bruce Wells, Forthcoming)

Given this information we can understand better what the Israelite expectations of the land would be. It is ideal for herdsmen and for horticulture, but the text does not overstate the case—it does not claim to be a verdant, fertile agricultural paradise. One more point of interest is that I was recently reading some ancient texts dealing with afterlife and one Sumerian Text (Gilgamesh, Enkidu and the Netherworld) was addressing what the status was of certain kinds of individuals in the netherworld. When asked about stillborn children, the text offers comfort by indicating that they eat at silver and gold tables feasting on "honey and ghee." This suggests a broad cultural understanding that associated these products with the good life.

1 W. K. Simpson, ed., The Literature of Ancient Egypt: An Anthology of Stories, Instructions, Stelae, Autobiographies, and Poetry, 3rd ed. (New Haven, Conn.: Yale Univ. Press, 2003), 58; see COS, 1.38:79.

2 Smith, "Baal Cycle," 158; see COS, 1.86:271.

3 P. L. King and L. E. Stager, Life in Biblical Israel (Library of Ancient Israel; Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2001), 113–14.

4 Ibid., 104–6.

Bible Backgrounds is a series of weekly blog posts leading up to the fall 2009 release of the Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary: Old Testament. Each post is written by John H. Walton, the general editor for the five volumes. ZIBBCOT is the product of thirty international specialists; their work and expertise will also be represented throughout this series.

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