The land of Israel has a "nickname" which is derived from Exodus 3:8. It is called "The Land of Milk and Honey". We often associate the phrase milk and honey with the things that are familiar to us. We hear the word milk and think of cows. We hear the word honey and think of the sweet bounty of bees. But if you were to travel about Israel in the days when God spoke these words to the people of Israel (Dt. 11:8-9; 26: 9, 15), you would have a hard time finding cow farms and bee keepers. Goats were (and in many cases still are) the primary source of milk in Israel and the word most of our translations call honey was a sweet jam-like liquid made from dates. These two words poetically describe the two general environments in Israel. The Land of Milk describes the way of life in the southern and eastern regions, and the Land of Honey describes the way of life in the north and west.
There are three main characteristics of the Land of Milk: shepherds with herds, wide open spaces with plenty of room for them to roam, and desert areas such as the Negev (Gen. 13:1), the Wilderness of Paran (Num. 12:16), and the Wilderness of Zin (Num. 27:12-14). There are three main characteristics of the Land of Honey as well: farmers, less or no space to roam, and mountains with lots of water. Life in the Land of Milk is unpredictable because of its low rainfall and sparse population. It is a silent and lonely place. Life there is demanding but with the right know-how one can survive. It drives home the need for community. Life in the Land of Honey though is quite different. The seasons and life-cycles are predictable. Because there are many villages and cities in this area, it is noisy and congested. Life here is manageable, busy and the community is at the center of it all.
When you are reading Bible stories, it is always a good idea to keep in mind whether the story takes place in the Land of Milk or the Land of Honey. Putting these stories within their regional context helps to drive home their meaning. When you read about the Red Sea, wadis and cisterns (Gen. 37:18-24), Abraham, Isaac, Jacob or Moses and Mount Sinai (Ex. 19:1-2), think about the Land of Milk. Relationships are critical here since the environment can be so severe, so relationships are usually a central factor in these stories. When you read about The Sea of Galilee (Mt. 4:18), mountains, terrace gardens (Lk. 8:5), the prophets and Jesus, or Mount Zion (1 Ki. 8:1), think of the Land of Honey. The busy way of life here can be stressful and distracting. Many of the “honey” stories have to do with value, priorities and maintaining a steadfast faith. Even though it is a modern country in every sense of the word, the land of the Israel brings the ancient world of the Bible to life. It is still possible to see all the attributes of the Land of Milk and Honey in action today. Bedouin still roam with their herds across the Negev in the Land of Milk. The Land of Honey is still bustling in the cities of Tiberias, Tel Aviv, and Jerusalem.
“But Ann”, you may ask, “Is the land and its regions anything more than just a nice geography lesson?” Yes! The land is also a great metaphor for life. We have days when our life feels as sparse and severe as the Land of Milk. We have days when our life is as busy and productive as the Land of Honey. Both attributes of the land were promised to the people of Israel and both attributes are to be found in life. God is active in both of them and provides in every situation. Though it is a harsh environment, the Land of Milk is successfully navigated by shepherds. This aspect reminds us that the Lord is the Good Shepherd who guides us through our Land of Milk times (Ps. 23; Jn. 7:12; 10:14). Though busy, the Land of Honey is well-watered and gardens are abundant there. It teaches us that the Lord is our Gardener who manages the branches of His vine- that’s us! (Jn. 15:1-5) and determines if the fruit we are bearing is good (Lk. 6:43-45). It is good for us to remember that God promised His people a land that included both of these environments so both will be a part of life and we will experience God working in both of them. Which one do you find yourself in today? Where do you see God at work?
Ann H. LeFevre, M. Div.
https://www.annhlefevre.com; Olivetreeann@mail.com; https://www.linkedin.com/in/annhlefevre; https://www.facebook.com/ann.h.lefevre