Ki Tavo: Milk and Honey

September 2, 2012 at 10:44 pm | Posted in Ki Tavo | 1 Comment

I can understand why the Israelites complain for 40 years in the wilderness. They have to put up with a severely restricted diet, hundreds of new rules to follow, no intercourse with native people or their gods, and the recurring threat of their own god’s next creative punishment. Then, when they finally enter Canaan, they still have to conquer it and subjugate the resident population–with no professional army, no chariots, and no horses. In the end, they will get their own land. But is it worth it?

Moses reminds the people ten times that the place God has promised them is a land flowing with milk and honey. The phrase appears three times in this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo (“When you come”—into the land). The Israelites are camped on the east bank of the Jordan, and Moses is describing two more rituals they must enact after they cross over.  The first one is the annual pilgrimage to bring the first fruits of the year to the temple.  This is the only ritual in which Moses gives the people lines to recite, including these two sentences:

And [God] brought us to this place, and gave to us this land, a land of zavat chalav and devash . (Deuteronomy/Devarim 26:9)

Look down here from the stronghold of holiness, from the heavens, and bless Your people Israel, and the earth that You gave to us, as You swore to our fathers, a land of zavat chalav and devash. (Deuteronomy 26:15)

zavat = flowing, oozing, trickling (also used for  water seeping from rocks, and  for genital discharges)

chalav = milk (from the breast) or liquid yogurt (a popular drink in biblical times)

devash = honey or fruit syrup

The second ritual Moses prescribes is to set up two stones inscribed with Moses’ instructions, then stand on two hills to recite lists of blessings for obeying God and curses for disobeying. (See my blog “Ki Tavo: Cursing Yourself”.)

You will inscribe on them all the words of this torah, when you cross over, in order that you may come into the land that God, your god, is giving to you, a land of flowing milk and honey, as God, the god of your fathers, spoke to you. (Deuteronomy 27:3)

Torah = instructions, teaching; the first five books of the Hebrew bible; the entire Hebrew bible

Taking possession of  a land of flowing milk and honey is the reward for obeying the instructions, the Torah. And every year, after they harvest their first fruits, the Israelites must publicly express their gratitude  for living in a land of flowing milk and honey. Clearly “flowing milk and honey” describes something desirable. But what does this idiom mean?

The most literal explanation is offered in the Talmud, where several rabbis describe seeing nanny goats dripping milk as they grazed under fig trees oozing syrup (Talmud Bavli, Ketubot 111b). Later commentary often explains the idiom as referring to a land that is good for both raising livestock (which produce milk) and growing fruits (which produce syrup). An alternative explanation is that valleys are fertile everywhere, but in Canaan even the hills provided food, because their lush vegetation supported wild goats (for milk) and wild bees (for honey).

Midrash Rabbah, a collection of commentary from the same time as the Talmud (about 200-500 C.E.) considers “milk and honey” a description of the Torah, claiming that the words of the Torah are as pure as milk, sweeter than honey, and as healthy for a person as milk and honey together.

The Talmud also describes milk and honey as intoxicating. In several different tractates, it elaborates on the rule in Leviticus/Vayikra 10:9 that when priests are on duty in the Tent of Meeting (or later, in the temple) they must not drink any wine or other intoxicant. According to the Talmud, a priest is guilty if he eats preserved figs or drinks honey or milk before enters the temple.

In the Song of Songs, milk and honey are connected with sexual intoxication:

Comb-honey drips from your lips, my bride,

Honey and milk are under your tongue … (Song of Songs/Shir Hashirim 4:11)

I ate my honeycomb with my honey,

I drank my wine with my milk.

Eat, friends, drink!

And become drunk with love! (Song of Songs 5:1)

Living in the “promised land” and reading the Torah are sensual activities, like drinking liquid yogurt with honey. Milk also indicates fertility, and honey is a luxury, one of the choice products that Jacob sent to Egypt. Perhaps, just as the land’s abundant fertility is indicated by the description “flowing milk and honey”, the Torah is also fertile to the point of luxury.

Personally, I cannot agree with the Midrash Rabbah that the Torah is uniformly pure and sweet. Some passages are gruesome. Some passages require a public execution in situations where I would consider killing the person an unforgivable murder.

Nevertheless, the more I study the Torah and mull over various commentaries and write up my own reactions, both in this blog and in my Torah monologues, the more I find that the Torah is indeed fertile ground, flowing over with important insights, oozing poetry, nourishing my soul and sweetening my days.

To paraphrase a line from this week’s Torah portion, I am grateful to God for bringing me to this place, and giving me this Torah, a sacred text of flowing milk and honey.

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1 Comment »

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  1. I love the details, the richness, and the willingness to look at various interpretations!


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