“Why is Israel called ‘a land flowing with milk and honey’ in the Bible? Isn’t Israel a barren desert?”
Indeed, Israel is referred to numerous times in the Bible as “a land flowing with milk and honey,” indicating its abundant fertility. The phrase can be understood as both a physical description of the land and a spiritual metaphor.
In the Book of Exodus (3:8), God promises to take the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt to a “good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey.” The Hebrew word for Egypt is mitzrayim, which literally means “narrow places.”
In other words, a life of slavery is constricted and oppressive, while living in freedom in Israel is wide and spacious. A land so fertile that it flows with milk and honey stands in contradiction to the place of oppression.
Perhaps the promise is of nourishing food, or perhaps the promise is for spiritual nourishment. Or perhaps the promise is for both.
But was ancient Israel literally a fertile land? Was there milk and honey in ancient Israel? The biblical references to milk and honey are generally understood as goats’ milk and date honey, although there is archaeological evidence of a bee-keeping industry in ancient Israel as well.
While Israel’s south then and now is desert, Israel also has fertile regions, including the Galilee in central Israel. Today Israel is a world leader in science and technology that makes the best use of limited natural resources, especially fresh water. Amazingly, Israel produces most of its own food and also exports many food products.
But why the pairing of milk and honey? Perhaps because milk is a product of animals and date honey is a product of plants, “milk and honey” together represent completeness and harmony.
Rabbi Julie Zupan is the associate director at Reform Jewish Outreach Boston, which welcomes interfaith couples and individuals exploring Judaism. She is also an instructor for Parenting Through a Jewish Lens, a program of Hebrew College.