Milk and honey are both familiar food items that we still eat today, and for most Europeans and Americans they are very ordinary and common components of modern diet. However, for the ancient Israelites milk and honey held very different roles within their diet. Bee honey was very desirable but not eaten regularly. Milk, on the other hand, was a central part of everyday food, yet it required considerable labor to procure and process. As a result, milk and honey were also strongly symbolic in biblical texts.
Did you know…?
- Milk was a very important part of the diet for Israelites, which is why keeping flocks of sheep and goats was so common.
- In the Bible, we only see dairy products mentioned as part of a meal when a guest or nonfamily member is participating.
- Beekeeping was practiced in Iron Age Israel at Tel Rehov, but biblical texts only mention wild bee honey.
- The food God feeds to Israelites is often described as tasting like honey.
- Milk and honey are physical and metaphorical images of abundance in biblical literature; together the two items symbolize all foods.
Did Israelites really eat milk and honey?
In ancient Israel, milk was mainly procured from herds of sheep and goats rather than from cattle, which were primarily used for ploughing. Sheep and goat bones are found in abundance across excavations showing that the majority of ancient Israelites depended on these animals for their milk, wool, and dung for fueling fires and ovens. Milk could be processed into other products like cheese and butter (
In the archaeological record, many beehives have been excavated at an Iron Age settlement called Tel Rehov, in the Bet She’an Valley of Israel. Although biblical texts do not mention bee keeping, it would seem that the techniques were known to the Israelites, just as they were in ancient Egypt and other ancient Near Eastern cultures. In biblical texts, honey is found in beehives in rocks (
Why is milk and honey used to describe the promised land?
At first, it seems to most modern readers that milk and honey are not the most obvious choices of foods to describe the promised land. However, as a pair, the two contrasting food items evoke a single idea. They are the two extremes of food: milk was the basic but necessary food everyone could rely on from their flocks, while honey was an incredibly sweet food that was associated with divine words and wisdom. The two together represent the single idea of all food ranging from the everyday to the divine, the bare necessities to the highly desirable. Effectively, a land that is described as “flowing,” or that “bursts forth,” with milk and honey is one that contains an abundance of all foods.