Thursday, August 11, 2011

A Land of Milk and Honey

A land flowing with milk and honey–Eretz zavat chalav u’dvash--is one of the most famous descriptions of the Promised Land. While the rabbis expound that the milk is only that which flows from kosher animals (most prominently goats) and that honey refers not to the product of bees but to the sticky honey of figs and dates--it is a strange description. Has anyone ever seen a land literally flowing with either milk or honey?

However, from the perspective of the sages, this was a literal description of the Land of Israel:

Rami ben Ezekiel once...saw goats grazing under fig-trees while honey was flowing from the figs, and milk ran from them [the goats], and these mingled with each other. “This is indeed,” he remarked, “flowing with milk and honey”... Rabbi Jacob ben Dostai related:...Once I rose up early in the morning and waded up to my ankles in honey from the figs (Ketubot 111b–112a).

Descriptions such as these are difficult to fathom, so it is important to try to understand the meaning of their words.

“Milk and honey” is clearly a poetic metaphor for the physical wealth of the land. In order for there to be an abundance of milk, rich pastures are necessary on which herds can graze. Additionally, for there to be flowing honey from dates and figs, the trees must be laden with fruit and grown in great numbers, since each fruit is itself quite small. Even if one were to interpret dvash as bee’s honey, this too would be a sign of the fertility of the land, since bees need the nectar of many flowers to make their honey.

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