Just imagine the opulence, the bounty and joy of a land flowing with the richness of milk and honey. This is a vision that has accompanied Jews and Christians through the ages as it calls forth the abundance of blessings that God pours on His people and land.
“What is sweeter than honey?” (Judges 14:18) reinforces the idea that something extravagant, a special treat, is indeed waiting for those who walk in the ways of the Lord and are willing to follow Him to the Promised Land.
But wait, when Israel wandered into the Land, milk and honey did not flow. Back in those days, milk and honey were not produced from cultivated flocks or rich farmlands. Back then flocks of goat and sheep were led into the “wilderness” (midbar) to graze on lands unsuitable for agriculture. And it was here, among the bushes and wildflowers, that honey might be found (but don’t forget what the wise King Solomon said. “When you find honey, eat just enough – too much of it, and you will vomit” Prov. 25:16).
Milk and honey are paired together because they were both found in uncultivated, wilderness regions. Read the following verses to get a better understanding what it means to live in a land flowing with milk and honey.
Observe therefore all the commands I am giving you today, so that you may have the strength to go in and take over the land that you are crossing the Jordan to possess, and so that you may live long in the land the Lord swore to your ancestors to give to them and their descendants, a land flowing with milk and honey. The land you are entering to take over is not like the land of Egypt, from which you have come, where you planted your seed and irrigated it by foot as in a vegetable garden. But the land you are crossing the Jordan to take possession of is a land of mountains and valleys that drinks rain from heaven. It is a land the Lord your God cares for; the eyes of the Lord your God are continually on it from the beginning of the year to its end (Deut. 11:8-12).
After comparing the cultivated, fertile lands of Egypt to the uncertainty of the land flowing with milk and honey, there comes a stern warning that if the people will not obey the Lord, the rains will cease, and “the land will not produce her fruit” (vs. 16ff). Some speculate the “honey” is referring date honey harvested from wild desert palm trees, thus the reference here to “fruit.”
So the point about milk and honey is that they are not cultivated and will not always be available. The land will flow with the goodness of milk and honey because the people are dependent on God for the provisions needed to settle in a difficult land. The people can be sustained in a difficult land by the grace of God. But they need to take care to walk in the Lord’s ways, which includes caring for the land He has given them. Tearing down trees and ruining the sensitive balance of nature, especially in desert lands, will quickly destroy the sweetness of the earth. Bees are especially valuable and vulnerable.
We can find another clue to the true meaning of milk and honey in a portion from Samson’s famous riddle: “Out of the hard there came forth sweet” (Judges 14:14).
The real meaning of milk and honey can also be seen in the Messianic verse of a young Immanuel who will eat “curds and honey” (Isaiah 7:15). Again, this is often misunderstood to mean “plentiful,” but is actually speaking about the destruction and devastation that is coming and “those who are left in the land will eat curds (milk) and honey” (vs 21ff) because these are the only things that will be left in the wilderness.
We often romanticize this period of Israel’s desert wanderings longing for the abundance we imagine the tribes enjoyed as they settled in the Promised Land. But the children of Israel were nomads, and their life in the land was hard, like most of the soil in Israel today. Even so, I have no doubt that the promise of milk and honey will surely continue to be associated with wellbeing, abundance, and joy in our modern culture. But Scriptures are trying to teach us that we ought to be longing for something else. For a time when we can stand in awe and wonder at the God of Israel who provides for His children with milk, and honey, even in the dry places, and turns the bitter sweet.
Originally posted at israeltoday.co.il