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

A view of Jaffa Gate and the Tower of David, all lit up with art installations that resemble a garden, at the Jerusalem Light Festival

Jerusalem Light Festival 2015

The Jerusalem light festival (a.k.a "Light in Jerusalem") is celebrated every June since 2009.

Every night for a whole week, parts of the Old city are turned into a glowing garden, with installations by local and international artists, street performers, music, all free of charge, and of course, stalls selling snacks and all manner of glowy  things.

This is a compilation of photos I took that night - click on the images to see a pop up of a large version.

This year I had the perfect chance - I was ascending to Jerusalem anyway for a full day of study in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher (more on that in a future entry), so I recruited a good friend and we stayed in town until darkness set in. 

At 8pm sharp we exited the church to find that even though it wasn't quite dark yet, the Muristan fountain in the Christian quarter was already lit.

There was some wonderful music playing, and the view was completely different from every angle you looked.

Jerusalem Light Festival

Along the alleys2013-03-02-11.34.43.jpg there were glowing lines, denoting the different trails leading through the installations. In the photo above you can see we were on the blue trail, but soon left it to find the information center at Jaffa gate.

Before we actually got there though, we were stopped by some wonderful jellyfish.

 

Jerusalem Light Festival

Jerusalem Light Festival

Jerusalem Light Festival

When we got there, the place was swarming with crowds, and set up like a somewhat psychedelic Alice in Wonderland garden.

Jerusalem Light Festival

Jerusalem Light Festival

We picked up some maps and decided to follow the green trail. 

Jerusalem Light Festival

Jerusalem Light Festival

The green trail hugged the outer walls, and after climbing along for a while I turned around to look back to see this view.

Jerusalem Light Festival

Jerusalem Light Festival

There was a French installation here, called Fish Forest.  

I admit that to my clearly un-artistic eyes, it looked a bit more like fish shish-kebabs.

Then we arrived at the Field of Light Flowers, an Israeli piece that kept reacting to the music, and everything else was forgotten...

Jerusalem Light Festival

Along the trail there was also this Singaporean bench called C/Ͻ, where strangers could sit together and enjoy the changing colors.

We finally arrived at Damascus Gate, and sat down to enjoy the exhibition of drawings on the subject of gates. The work was done by children of all ages from schools around the country, and  projected on a most lovely canvass.

Jerusalem Light Festival

Jerusalem Light Festival

Jerusalem Light Festival

Jerusalem Light Festival

Also... Yes, this happened too.

Jerusalem Light Festival

From the gate we cut straight through the alleys of the Muslim quarter, to rejoin the blue trail inside the Cardo, where we saw this exhibition of shadow sculptures.

Jerusalem Light Festival

The Cardo kept going with two more installments: "Sea Level" by Brazillian artists, and the Japanese/French "Daydream".

Jerusalem Light Festival

Jerusalem Light Festival

I took a quick detour through the main plaza of the Jewish quarter, to check out the giant Pendulum (Netherlands) placed outside "The Ruin" synagogue. Click on the video to see it in action.

Jerusalem Light Festival

It was getting late so we decided to head out, picking up the white trail. Near Zion Gate we saw a live sand animation show...

Jerusalem Light Festival

... And another light & movement show, called Light Trickeries, performed by Pyromania Group.

Here we saw another favorite of mine: Dialogue in Color, by Israeli artists, so fitting to the region we live in.

Jerusalem Light Festival

The ramparts of David's Citadel were covered with a French installation, called Variations.

Jerusalem Light Festival

... And that was my experience in the Jerusalem Light Festival 2015. There were many more installations I didn't even visit and many I didn't photograph, lots of people, lots of music and lots of light. 

What a wonderful way to infuse these old, old stones with new life, color and joy.

Jerusalem Light Festival