Brown sheep grazing in a sun-lit forest after the rains

What is the Land Flowing with Milk and Honey?

The phrase "A Land Flowing with Milk and Honey" appears in the bible more than 20 times, always in a very favorable context, as a land rich and nurturing beyond imagination.

"And I am come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land unto a good land and a large, unto a land flowing with milk and honey..." - Exodus 3:8

"Hear therefore, O Israel, and observe to do it; that it may be well with thee, and that ye may increase mightily, as the LORD, the God of thy fathers, hath promised unto thee—a land flowing with milk and honey." - Deuteronomy 6:3

 

Blossoming trees on a grassy, tarraced hillside

 

And then there's Isaiah. 

When he talks about an abundance of milk and honey, in his prophecy about the Assyrian attack on the Holy Land, it's clear that he's referencing this famous idiom, but the context is completely backwards:

"In that day shall the Lord shave with a razor that is hired in the parts beyond the River, even with the king of Assyria, the head and the hair of the feet; and it shall also sweep away the beard. And it shall come to pass in that day, that a man shall rear a young cow, and two sheep; and it shall come to pass, for the abundance of milk that they shall give, he shall eat curd; for curd and honey shall every one eat that is left in the midst of the land. And it shall come to pass in that day, that every place, where there were a thousand vines at a thousand silverlings, shall even be for briers and thorns. With arrows and with bow shall one come thither; because all the land shall become briers and thorns." - Isaiah 7:20-24

 

Fuzzy looking brown sheep looking calmly at camera

 

What kind of milk? What kind of honey?

To understand Isaiah's reference we must first understand these two products in biblical terms: both were naturally occurring and have been forming way before mankind realized it can regulate its manufacturing, and not just gather it when it's available.

When man realized he too can enjoy animal milk, he started to maintain herds, and to figure out the right conditions to make their milk flow abundantly, i.e. lush vegetation. Bees produce honey in order to nourish their next generation, and keep it in hives, hidden deep in the wild, in hollow trees and crevices. They also need to settle in the vicinity of some flowering plants, from which to collect nectar. In other words, the same conditions apply in areas that make both the milk and the honey flow: wild and rich in vegetation.

The Jewish sages from the first few centuries C.E. tell of bee-keeping, but in the Bible it's never mentioned, probably because people haven't figured it out yet. Back then, honey was considered a treat you might stumble upon, a kind of "finders keepers":

"Hast thou found honey? eat so much as is sufficient for thee, lest thou be filled therewith, and vomit it." - Proverbs 25:16

Or after Samson's fight with the lion: 

"And after a while he returned to take her, and he turned aside to see the carcass of the lion; and, behold, there was a swarm of bees in the body of the lion, and honey. And he scraped it out into his hands, and went on, eating as he went, and he came to his father and mother, and gave unto them, and they did eat..." - Judges 14:8-9

These describe honey  as something that does not belong in well-manicured farms and fields but in the wild outdoors.

Bee vs. Date

There is an interesting question here, regarding the source of the honey. In several instances it seems more plausible that the Bible is referring to honey  made from dates, and not bee honey. Opinions differ to this day, both among modern researchers and the ancient sages. Rabbi Akiva for example, was certain that the "flowing honey" belonged to bees, but he had quite an opposition.

Deuteronomy 8:8 counts the seven native crops of the Promised Land: "a land of wheat and barley, and vines and fig-trees and pomegranates; a land of olive-trees and honey." Other than the first two grains, all the rest are fruit, and since these are all cultured crops and we know people weren't keeping any bees at the time, it makes sense the "honey" is also a fruit.

Another example is the report made by the tribal leaders Moses sent out to survey the Promised Land before entering:

"And they told him, and said: ‘We came unto the land whither thou sentest us, and surely it floweth with milk and honey; and this is the fruit of it." - Numbers 13:27

The proximity of the words "honey" and "fruit" may suggest that they are in fact related.

 

 

Ripe yellow dates on a palm tree

 

One of the things I like most about text studies, is that you don't really need to come up with a definitive answer; both versions have value in telling a story. If indeed the "land flowing with milk and honey" was referring to goat milk and date honey, then it's a way of saying the land has both lush wild areas for shepherding AND areas that allow for agriculture. I like this reading very much, and in my personal opinion, the description of the seven crops indeed refers to dates.

However, if it were the case across the board, than why would Isaiah use a symbol of agriculture and prosperity to paint his prophecy of a land that "shall become briers and thorns."?

 

Dry yellow thorns mixed with star-shaped, bluish thorns

Forest vs. Civilization

If we go with bee honey, this makes more sense: Isaiah is talking about the destruction of civilizations as a result of the Assyrian invasion, and the subsequent takeover of wild vegetation. Other prophets have used this image as well:

"... And Jerusalem shall become heaps, and the mountain of the house as the high places of a forest." - Micah 3:12

"And I will lay waste her vines and her fig-trees, whereof she hath said: ‘These are my hire that my lovers have given me’; And I will make them a forest, and the beasts of the field shall eat them." - Hosea 2:14

And also in a historic depiction in the Book of Maccabees, when the Jewish rebels discover what had happened to their temple:

"There they found the sanctuary deserted, the altar desecrated, the gates burnt down, and vegetation growing in the courts as it might in a wood or on some mountain, while the storerooms were in ruins." - 1 Maccabees 4:38

We see that as far as these prophets were concerned, a forest (the place we know to be flowing with animal milk and bee honey) is really a symbol of great destruction and the doom of civilization.

How does that settle with the magnificent descriptions of the Promised Land?

Let's take a closer look at the story of the tribal leaders Moses sent into the land to survey it. The report, as we have just seen, was full of amazement: finally, a green, lush land after 40 years of scarce desert thorns. But along with that came great fear: 

"The land, through which we have passed to spy it out, is a land that eateth up the inhabitants thereof; and all the people that we saw in it are men of great stature." - Numbers 13:32

Where did this creepy "land that eats up its inhabitants" come from? Actually it may well be a direct description, since we know the forests at the time were crawling with predators.

 

"...And there came forth two she-bears out of the wood, and tore forty and two children of them." - 2 Kings 2:24

An impressive male lion looking alert

"My heritage is become unto me as a lion in the forest..." - Jeremiah 12:8

A wild boar with a bird on its back walking through tall grass

"The boar out of the wood doth ravage it…" - Psalms 80:13

Forest dwelling animals - bears, lions and boars - would occasionally come out to hunt, and a number of famous biblical figures have encountered them. The tribal leaders sent by Moses may have heard or even seen these animals, and felt as if the land might literally devour them, and that only giants might have a chance to survive in such a wild territory, a land flowing with milk and honey.

We must remember that in those days, the fertile valleys were already inhabited by pagans, so the area available for the Israelites to settle was the rough, wild mountain range. Eventually they established a flourishing agricultural society up there, and pushed the predators away.

 

Following the destruction, the Assyrians brought over foreigners, to settle the deserted Israelite cities:

"And the king of Assyria brought men from Babylon, and from Cuthah, and from Avva, and from Hamath and Sepharvaim, and placed them in the cities of Samaria instead of the children of Israel; and they possessed Samaria, and dwelt in the cities thereof. And so it was, at the beginning of their dwelling there, that they feared not the LORD; therefore the LORD sent lions among them, which killed some of them." - 2 Kings 17:24-25

After the Assyrians destroyed the towns and fields, and the land reverted to "briers and thorns", the predators returned and were able to pick off the occasional newcomer. No wonder Isaiah said in his vision that "With arrows and with bow shall one come thither" - for fear of the roaming predators.

And so, according to Isaiah, the land flowing with milk and honey is also the land that devours its inhabitants.

 

Dry thorns standing proudly in a clearing, surrounded by wild vegetation

  

Thick, mysterious-looking woods

A Note on Egypt

Another strange use of "a land flowing with milk and honey" appears during the long years in the desert, when the people complain to Moses:

"...is it a small thing that thou hast brought us up out of a land flowing with milk and honey, to kill us in the wilderness..." - Numbers 16:13

They are claiming that he has taken them AWAY from a land flowing with milk and honey, i.e. a land full of thick wild woods, but as we all know, Egypt, with its Nile and its delta, was the very embodiment of agriculture. 

The answer lies in the instructions Josef gave his brothers, when they came down from the famine-stricken Canaan to seek refuge in Egypt:

 "... when Pharaoh shall call you, and shall say: What is your occupation? that ye shall say: Thy servants have been keepers of cattle from our youth even until now, both we, and our fathers; that ye may dwell in the land of Goshen; for every shepherd is an abomination unto the Egyptians." - Genesis 46:33-34

The Egyptians hated shepherds because of the damage their animals cause their fields, so it followed that the historically herd-owning Israelites would be allotted a place like Goshen - a distant piece of land, away from the fields, that would have plenty of natural vegetation for the animals; a land flowing with milk and honey.

 

Final Thoughts

The phrase "A Land Flowing with Milk and Honey" describes areas that are untended by man and covered in wild vegetation. So long as the Israelites made their living off of animal husbandry, it signified the promise of a rich, comfortable life. But once the forests were cleared and the people settled and started working the land, it became a dire warning.

 

 

Young goat with white-brown coat and pale blue eyes looking curiously at the camera with grass in its mouth

Mosaic of a white pelican feeding its young on Calvary Hill, 11th Station of the Cross

Calvary Hill Mosaics

(Click on any image to enlarge)

The church of the Holy Sepulcher is one of the most unique and impressive sites in Israel, with an appeal transcends any religious definitions. Most Christian denominations mark this place as the site of Jesus' crucifixion, burial and resurrection, but even non-Christians find themselves marveling at the Escher-esque architecture and colorful stories from its long history.

 

Inside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher with light coming in from above

Upon entering the church, one immediately encounters the structure that covers Calvary Hill, the modest limestone mound on top of which Jesus was crucified. Atop the winding flight of stairs lie three (out of the fourteen) Stations of the Cross - stops along the path of that fateful day. This essay will focus on the intricate mosaics covering the ceiling of the 11th station, a small Catholic chapel dedicated to Jesus' nailing to the cross.

The mosaics were the creation of Antonio Barluzzi (1884–1960), an Italian Franciscan monk and architect, known as "the Architect of the Holy Land". Throughout the 1930's he designed many of the Catholic churches in the most important holy locations, always striving to connect with ancient relics found on site and stay true to their style. Here he based all of his work on this exceptional medallion, which has survived from the Crusader period (it is very rare to find such ancient ceilings still in tact).

Crusader ceiling mosaic with the inscription "Ascensio" on Calvary Hill, 11th Station of the Cross

The arch leading into the chapel is decorated with two verses in Latin, taken not from the New Testament but from the Old, as if saying: if you want to understand what happened here, you must start at the very beginning. The first verse, where the words Ovis (lamb) and Occisionem (slaughter) can be seen, is taken from Isaiah 53:7 : "He was led as a lamb to the slaughter". The second, including the words Dolores Nostros (our suffering) is Isaiah 53:4 : "Surely He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; Yet we esteemed Him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted."

These two verses stress that the drama here arises not from victimization by some enemy but from voluntary self sacrifice. This is in accordance with the Nostra Aetate, the Vatican's declaration from 1965 on the relation of the Catholic Church with non-Christian religions, stating among other things that the Jews should not be condemned for their role in bringing about the death of Jesus.

Calvary Hill Mosaics

Calvary Hill Mosaics

The arch leads to the first vaulted ceiling, depicting the four Old Testament prophets who have hinted at the eventual coming of Jesus, with quotes from their books that relate strongly to the topics of this chapel, the nailing in particular and the theme of sacrifice in general.

Calvary Hill mosaics

This is Isaiah, closest to the arch that bears his words, with a quote mentioning the word Oblatus (an offering). This is a different section from the same verse as the arch (53:7) : "He was oppressed and He was afflicted, yet He opened not His mouth.

Calvary Hill mosaics

Zechariah appears with a quote from his book, including the words aspicient ad me - look at me. "Then they will look on Me whom they pierced."  (12:10). The original reading is that the nation has paid a hefty price, and the Christian reading is that it was Jesus who paid.

Mosaic of Prophet Daniel on the dome of Calvary Hill, 11th Station of the Cross

Daniel's apocalyptic book was very popular during the 2nd Temple period. The quote, the most prominent word of which is Christus (Christ), is taken from his Seventy Weeks prophecy, describing the coming of the Messiah and the rebuilding of Jerusalem (9:26) : "And after the sixty-two weeks Messiah shall be cut off". In his consecration speech in 335AD, the great Eusebius quoted this prophecy, stating that this very church was the "new Jerusalem" it was foreseeing.

Calvary Hill Mosaics

King David is depicted here as one of the prophets, quoting Psalms 22:16 : "They pierced My hands and My feet". Easily identifiable are the words manus (hands) and pedes (feet). This is a lion, all tied up and surrounded with a pack of hungry dogs.

The four prophets are surrounded with circles, portraying relevant stories from the Old Testament, all springing from the roots of a rich, fruit laden vine (representing wine, a recurring symbol for Christ). 

The large mosaic on the wall (below to the left) depicts the Binding of Isaac. Like Jesus, this boy is lying quietly, allowing his own sacrifice. This story has always symbolized the boundless love between the Lord and mankind, but here the Lord wished to spare Abraham the pain of losing his beloved son for this love, and provided a ram to take his place - thus distinguishing Judaism from the pagan world at the time, in which child sacrifice was commonplace.

This connects us to the mosaic in the far end of the chapel (below to the right), showing Jesus, looking very similar to Isaac, being bound (with nails this time) to the cross. Note the small thorn bush in the back - but this time there is no ram caught in it. God does not spare himself the pain of sacrificing his own beloved son for his love of mankind.

Also in this mosaic we see Mary, mother of Jesus, standing in black above him. The woman crying over him is Mary Magdalene, who can always be identified by her unruly red hair, bursting out of her head cover, hinting at her strong personality and emotions.

Calvary Hill Mosaics

Mosaic of the nailing of Jesus to the Cross with Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene, on Calvary Hill, 11th Station of the Cross

The adjoining wall is dominated by Mary Magdalene in her grief. Again her hair/emotions cannot be held back, with Mary the mother of Jesus and Mary of Cleopas silent and reserved by her side. The man in red is John, Jesus' favorite disciple, whose beardless face show he must be very young here. According to tradition, the very same man grew up to write (among other things) the Gospel of John and the Book of Revelations, near the end of the 1st century. In the background we see the walled city of Jerusalem, reminding us that this place, now in the heart of the busy city, used to be an empty, wild wasteland.

Mosaic of grieving Mary Magdelene on Calvary Hill

As we advance to the next vaulted ceiling, we also advance in time into the New Testament. In the center there is a decorated circle. Inside are a Christogram, a combination of letters that forms an abbreviation for the name of Jesus Christ (in this case the letters chi (Χ) and rho (Ρ), the first two letters of "Christ" in Greek), and the letters alpha (A) and omega (ω), first and last letters of the Greek alphabet (mentioned in Revelations 22:13 : "I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last." ).

Dome covered in mosaics on Calvary Hill, 11th Station of the Cross

Mosaic of Alpha and Omega with a christogram on Calvary Hill, 11th Station of the Cross

Saint Peter

Mosaic of Saint Peter on Calvary Hill, 11th Station of the Cross

 Saint Paul

Mosaic of Saint Paul on Calvary Hill, 11th Station of the Cross

This fruit laden vine is as rich and plentiful as the one depicted on the previous ceiling, but among the baskets of abundance hide other symbols: the cup of agony (below to the left) and a reed with a vinegar-soaked sponge next to a spear (below to the right), reminding us of the price that was paid. 

In the middle we see that the cross has became the tool by which Christ can redeem the world - an idea dubbed salus mundi. It is surrounded by 12 white doves, representing the apostles of course, but also the dozen tribes, signifying the universal nature of this idea.

Mosaic of vines, fruit and the Cup of Agony on Calvary Hill, 11th Station of the Cross

Mosaic of a Salus Mundi style cross, with a face in the middle and 12 white doves on Calvary Hill, 11th Station of the Cross

Mosaic of vines, fruit, a spear, two whips and a hammer, on Calvary Hill, 11th Station of the Cross

Thus ends the story of this little chapel, which has led us from the first sin and away from heaven's Tree of Life, through prophecies, failures and hopes of redemption, all the way to the cross on Calvary hill - literally a Tree of Death - by which all humanity can to be saved.

Heads of the Church of the Holy Land, waiting to continue marching

A Field Guide to Christian Clerical Clothing

Since my tour-guide school days I have been deeply baffled by all the different colors, textures, styles and symbols of the Christian clergy's garments, knowing full well that there were codes and meaning to every little detail, but never quite figuring them out. I could tell Catholic from Orthodox just fine, but the subtle differences between the headpieces of say, Russians and Greeks, were just lost on me.

This problem was somehow avoidable until this Easter, when I found myself preparing to guide in Jerusalem during the celebrations (which I wrote about here), and realized that I'd be marching with countless people of all denominations in their formal vestments, and I had no idea what almost any of them meant. However, unlike tour-guide school, this time I won't have my teacher there to decipher everything, but instead be myself the source of that information.

After shaking off the horrifying imaginings of clients tapping my shoulder again and again with questions about the people they were seeing, only to be met every time with "uhh, I donno", I took to Google Photos to try and learn, but met with some confusion there as well. It turns out you really need to know what you're looking for, or you can get even more lost. If only I'd had some sort of comprehensive guide to help me make heads or tails of the various garments and denominations....

Well.

When it became clear that there wasn't anything like that, I thought I might as well be the one to make it, and after some revisions and suggestions by my esteemed teacher and colleague Bat-Zion Ziv, I'm happy to make available to anyone interested my Field Guide to the Christian Clerical Clothing of Denominations Found in Israel. The last page also has a section about the heads of the church in the Holy Land, so you can know their names and faces if you happen to run into one of them. I claim no ownership to any of the photos - I only organized them in context. Feel free to print them out and use to deepen your understanding of what you see along your travels in this fascinating land.

Images of priests and monks from different denominations, demonstrating their typical attire

Images of priests and monks from different denominations, demonstrating their typical attire

Images of priests and monks from different denominations, demonstrating their typical attire

Images of the typical attire of Eatern Orthodox Christian priests

Images of nuns from different denominations, demonstrating their typical attire

Images of monks and nuns from different denominations, demonstrating their typical attire, plus images of important Christian figures in Israel

Magdala Center

Magdala Center

One cold winter morning I drove over to Magdala Center by the Sea of Galilee, to finally learn about the exciting findings that were excavated there. I've been hearing about the place for years, but since it only opened for visitors on May 2014, I was itching to find out what the fuss was about. I brought my camera and many, many clothing items, and set out to explore Magdala, led by one of the archaeologists who've been digging there and a nice staff member named Jennifer.

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