Before entering the Promised Land, God instructs Moses to send spies into the region to survey it (Numbers 13:1-2). A representative from each tribe is selected for the mission (Numbers 13:3-16). The operatives return with tangible evidence of the land’s sustenance in the form of an impressive cluster of grapes (Numbers 13:23) and concede that the land is as advertised - it does indeed “flow with milk and honey” (Exodus 3:8; Numbers 13:27).
Thus they told him, and said, “We went in to the land where you sent us; and it certainly does flow with milk and honey, and this is its fruit. (Numbers 13:27 NASB)Like a modern day church building project in which the architect is brought in to bring specs of what is being built to capture the people’s imagination, spies are conscripted to give the people an idea of the land that can be theirs and their descendants (Numbers 13:1-2). Though the contingency agrees that the land is excellent, they return with mixed emotions (Numbers 13:26-29).
Dennis T. Olson (b. 1954) informs:
Moses instructs the twelve tribes to survey the land not only to deduce the military might of its inhabitants but also to observe the fertility of the land (Numbers 13:17-21). The spies reconnoiter the land for forty days and then return to report what they have seen [Numbers 13:25]. The initial spy report has some good news and some bad news. The land is indeed fruitful and “flows with milk and honey” (Numbers 13:27). But the bad news is that the residents of the land and strong and live in fortified cities (Numbers 13:28-29, 31-33). (Olson, Numbers (Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, 78)The Promised Land is described as a land that “does flow with milk and honey” (Numbers 13:27 NASB). Salim J. Munayer (b. 1955) introduces:
References to the Promised Land in the Bible are many...While some quantitatively describe the borders, others are more concerned with describing the land qualitatively. For this reason we often see the land promised by God described as a land flowing with milk and honey (Exodus 3:8, 17, 13:5; Leviticus 20:24-26, 22:4; Numbers 13:27, 14:8; Deuteronomy 6:3, 11:8-12, 26:8-9, 27:2-3, 31:20; Joshua 5:6; Jeremiah 11:5, 32:22; Ezekiel 20:5-6, 15). Typically this phrase is taken to be a description of the land of Canaan, the phrase “milk and honey” as a “metaphor meaning all good things—God’s blessings.” While some try and draw a literal connection between the land of Canaan and flowing milk and honey, most understand it “to be hyperbolically descriptive of the land’s richness.” (Munayer and Lisa Loden, “Theology of the Land: From a Land of Strife to a Land of Reconciliation”, The Land Cries Out: Theology of the Land in the Israeli-Palestinian Context, 252)“Milk and honey” is a common epithet of the land that serves almost as a refrain throughout the biblical text (Exodus 3:8, 17, 13:5, 33:3; Leviticus 20:24; Numbers 13:17, 14:8, 16:13-14; Deuteronomy 6:3, 11:9, 26:9, 15, 31:20; Joshua 5:6; Jeremiah 11:5; Ezekiel 20:6; Sirach 46:8; Baruch 1:20; II Esdras 2:19; Jubilees 1:7; cf. II Kings 18:32; Job 20:17; Sibylline Oracles 3.6222).
The expression accentuates the goodness of the land with most interpreters focusing on its fertility. W.H. Bellinger, Jr. (b. 1949) comments:
“Flowing with milk and honey” is a common description of the fertility of the land [Exodus 3:8, 17, 13:5, 33:3; Leviticus 20:24; Numbers 13:17, 14:8, 16:13-14; Deuteronomy 6:3, 11:9, 26:9, 15, 31:20; Joshua 5:6; Jeremiah 11:5; Ezekiel 20:6] . The land was not terribly fertile but would have seemed so in comparison to the wilderness. Eryl W. Davies [b. 1953] cites evidence that the phrase is a stock one in the ancient Near East (Numbers, p. 138). (Bellinger, Leviticus, Numbers (Understanding the Bible Commentary Series))The phrase is first heard from the Burning Bush where God uses the expression to promote the land that the Israelites will be taking while speaking to Moses (Exodus 3:8). The Dictionary of Biblical Imagery traces:
“A land flowing with milk and honey,” a phrase that encapsulates the abundant goodness of the Promised Land, first appears in God’s conversation with Moses from the burning bush in Exodus 3:8. It subsequently occurs fourteen times in the Pentateuch [Exodus 3:8, 17, 13:5, 33:3; Leviticus 20:24; Numbers 13:17, 14:8, 16:13-14; Deuteronomy 6:3, 11:9, 26:9, 15, 31:20] , once in Joshua [Joshua 5:6] and several times in Jeremiah and Ezekiel within contexts alluding to Israel’s history [Jeremiah 11:5; Ezekiel 20:6] . (Leland Ryken [b. 1942], James C. Wilhoit [b. 1951] and Tremper Longman III [b. 1952], Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, 488)Though “milk and honey” is used previously, the spies’ report marks the first time the phrase is heard on the lips of the people and not God (Numbers 13:27). The Promised Land is as good as God (and by association Moses) had advertised.
Some scholars have attempted to isolate the expression to a particular source as posited by the Documentary Hypothesis. George Buchanan Gray (1865-1922) delineates:
A land flowing with milk and honey... [occurs at] Numbers 14:8, 16:13 (exceptionally of Egypt), Exodus 3:8, 17, 13:5, 33:8 (all...passages from J), 7 times in D, once in H (Leviticus 20:24), and also in Jeremiah 11:5, 32:22, Ezekiel 20:6, 15. Thomas Kelly Cheyne [1841-1915] (in Encyclopaedia Biblica 2104) suggests that the phrase, already conventional in the time of JE, was derived from ancient poetry, and had a mythological origin. (Gray, Deuteronomy (International Critical Commentary), 145)Horst Dietrich Preuss (1927-1993) analyzes:
The promised land is readily characterized as the “land flowing with milk and honey,” not in the references to the promises of the land in the ancestral narratives but rather in the narratives of the Moses group and then in ensuing texts (Exodus 3:8, 17 J; Exodus 13:5, 33:2ff. [early Deuteronomic]; Leviticus 20:24; Numbers 13:27 P; Numbers 14:8 P; Numbers 16:13ff J; Deuteronomy 6:3, 11:9, 26:9, 15, 27:3, 31:20, 34:4; Joshua 5:6; Jeremiah 11:5, 32:22; and Ezekiel 20:6, 15). The lack of this expression in the ancestral stories points to the probable original separation of the tradition of the promise of the land to the ancestors from the tradition of the land to the Moses group. With the distinguishing feature of “land flowing with milk and honey,” the land is not portrayed as a land of the gods or painted with the colors of paradise; rather, it is described as an inhabitable land, and perhaps from the view of wandering nomads as an ideal land, so that in Numbers 16:13ff even Egypt can have this description. In Isaiah 7:15, by contrast, “milk and honey” appear as (poor?) nourishment from the viewpoint of the farmers who use the land. In addition to the promise of the land of the fathers, there is then the promise of the land to the Moses group that builds a bridge reaching unto the conquest. However, those who were rebellious, doubting, and not fully obedient to YHWH were denied entrance into the land (Numbers 13:22-33, 14:30-34, 20:12,24, 26:64ff, 32:11). Since these emphases occur especially in the Priestly and also in the Deuteronomic texts (Deuteronomy 1:35, 39ff, 2:14), the question arises as to whether this “wilderness” treats a situation analogous to the sojourn in the exile when many could not or would not trust anymore in YHWH’s guidance. (Preuss, Old Testament Theology, Volume 1 (Old Testament Library), 120)There are parallels to the expression “milk and honey” in other cultures. Eugene A. Carpenter (1943-2012) reveals:
This phrase...is closely paralleled in Ugaritc poetry. “The heavens fat did rain, The wadis flow with honey!” Milk and fat are mentioned as a blessed feature of the world ordered by Enki, who determined Sumer’s destiny. This hyperbolic metaphorical phrase stresses both the richness of Canaan and the special favor God has bestowed on it as the dwelling place for his people. (John H. Walton [b. 1952], Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy (Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary), 456)Walter Riggans (b. 1953) supports:
This phrase was used by the Greeks for the food of the gods, and, in a text from about 2,000 B.C., the Egyptian Tale of Sinuhe uses it to describe Northern Galilee. But it is overwhelmingly used by the Israelites of the general area of Canaan. (Riggans, Numbers (Daily Study Bible, 108)Milk has a decidedly positive connotation in the Old Testament; its most common usage actually occurs in connection with the idiom “milk and honey” (Exodus 3:8, 17, 13:5, 33:3; Leviticus 20:24; Numbers 13:17, 14:8, 16:13-14; Deuteronomy 6:3, 11:9, 26:9, 15, 31:20; Joshua 5:6; Jeremiah 11:5; Ezekiel 20:6) .
Milk is a figure of profusion in the Old Testament (cf. Genesis 39:12; Isaiah 7:21-22). Due to the lack of refrigeration, milk quickly became curds, which could be sopped up with bread, or churned into butter (Proverbs 30:33). (Woods, and Rogers, Leviticus–Numbers (College Press NIV Commentary), 260)Étan Levine (b. 1934) researches:
Biblical literature abounds with references to milk (or milk products) and honey). These are described as luxury items, gifts, articles of trade, contributions to priests and Levites, and high-energy foods used by those who camp in the wilderness. (Levine, Heaven and Earth, Law and Love: Studies in Biblical Thought, 47)Ronald L. Eisenberg (b. 1945) inventories:
When poetically depicting God’s gracious generosity toward the Israelites in his farewell address, Moses included “curd of kine” [butter, cream, and yogurt] and “milk of flocks” (Deuteronomy 32:14). In Song of Songs (Song of Solomon 4:11), the lover describes the sweetness of his beloved as having “milk and honey...under your tongue.” In his vision of the Messianic Age, the prophet Joel (Joel 4:18) stated that “the mountains shall drip with wine, the [Judean] hills shall flow with milk.”...Most dairy products during the biblical period were produced from the milk of sheep and goats, since there were relatively few cattle. As an important source of dietary liquid in a region where water was scarce and often contaminated, milk and dairy products were popular offerings by pagan peoples to their gods or king. The prohibition against “boiling a kind in its mother’s milk”—which is repeated three times in the Torah (Exodus 23:19, 34:26; Deuteronomy 14:21) and is the basis for the separation of meat and milk—...may thus be the divine rejection of an ancient Canaanite religious practice. (Eisenberg, Jewish Traditions (JPS Guide), 688)Honey is also presented favorably in the Hebrew Scriptures. Étan Levine (b. 1934) surveys:
Honey itself is described as being both healthful and pleasurable, a metaphor for diverse delights and benefits such as wisdom, divine guidance, and, along with milk, sexuality. The divinely bestowed manna in the wilderness had the taste of honey (Exodus 16:31), for as a foodstuff, “What is sweeter than honey (Judges 14:18)?” (Levine, Heaven and Earth, Law and Love: Studies in Biblical Thought, 46)The honey in question may be different than most contemporary readers envision. John Goldingay (b. 1942) clarifies:
The usual English phrase is “flowing with milk and honey” [Exodus 3:8, 17, 13:5, 33:3; Leviticus 20:24; Numbers 13:17, 14:8, 16:13-14; Deuteronomy 6:3, 11:9, 26:9, 15, 31:20; Joshua 5:6; Jeremiah 11:5; Ezekiel 20:6], but the “honey” is not bees’ honey but syrup made from fruit such as figs, the main source of sweetness in the Middle East. (Goldingay, Numbers and Deuteronomy for Everyone, 36)Robert Alter (b. 1935) concurs:
The honey in question is probably not bee’s honey, for apiculture was not practiced in this early period, but rather a sweet syrup extracted from dates. The milk would most likely have been goat’s milk and not cow’s milk. In any case, these two synecdoches for agriculture and animal husbandry respectively become a fixed bounty of the promised land. (Alter, The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary, 320)Clyde M. Woods (b. 1936) and Justin M. Rogers (b 1982) investigate:
“Honey” usually includes, in addition to bee-honey, “grape-honey,” a thick grape substance...Baruch A. Levine [b. 1930] states that the term simply means “sweetness,” and can apply broadly (his translation, “sap;” Numbers, p. 356)...R.K. Harrison [1920-2003] notes that honey could perhaps be used as a euphemism for a potent alcoholic mixture (Numbers, p. 211). However, it is unlikely that the euphemism applies here: for the combination of milk and honey is a common figure indicating abundance. (Woods, and Rogers, Leviticus–Numbers (College Press NIV Commentary), 257, 260)Walter Riggans (b. 1953) deduces:
It could be wild-bee or date honey, but either way the two substances were moist and sweet and in plentiful supply---symbols of peace and plenty. Not what might be expected from an area called “parched” [“Negev”; Numbers 13:17, 22,29]! (Riggans, Numbers (Daily Study Bible), 108)Counter-intuitively and contrary to popular belief, milk and honey may not have been staples of the Israelite diet. Nathan MacDonald (b. 1975) resolves:
Milk and honey features prominently in the descriptions of the Promised Land [Exodus 3:8, 17, 13:5, 33:3; Leviticus 20:24; Numbers 13:17, 14:8, 16:13-14; Deuteronomy 6:3, 11:9, 26:9, 15, 31:20; Joshua 5:6; Jeremiah 11:5; Ezekiel 20:6]. Yet, outside of the stereotypical phrase, milk and honey do not appear often in the Old Testament and may not have been important in the diets of most Israelites. (MacDonald, What Did the Ancient Israelites Eat?: Diet in Biblical Times, 11)There is debate over the exact meaning of the pairing “milk and honey” (Numbers 13:27). Many have seen the foodstuffs as representative terms encompassing a spectrum, one phrase assessing the goodness of the land.
Sarah Malena (b. 1974) and David Miano (b. 1966) research:
The pairing of “milk and honey” evokes an image of fertility, but it is more than the fertility of flocks and groves. Ben Sira lists milk and honey among the basic necessities of life [Sirach 39:26], while the Song of Songs employs the two words in images of luxury and indulgence [Song of Solomon 4:11, 6:1]. William H.C. Propp [b. 1957]’s musings on the subject reveal the nuances of parental nourishment and comfort. And in the frequent reiteration of the divine promise one perceives the connotation of security and longevity. (Malena and Miano, Milk and Honey: Essays on Ancient Israel and the Bible in Appreciation of the Judaic Studies Program at the University of California, San Diego, ix)
Others have seen milk and honey as representatives of larger, overarching categories. The Dictionary of Biblical Imagery examines:
Why did milk and honey become the favored pair of items for the evocative epithet, when other options existed? Since the Bible does not itself explicate the epithet, we are left to surmise. Next to bread, milk was the most important staple in the diet of the Hebrews. A land that produced an abundance of milk had to be rich in pasturage, so by extension a picture of successful farming enters one’s imagination. Honey, valued for its sweetness rather than as a necessity of life, was rare enough to rank as a luxury. As images of desirability and abundance, therefore, these two images combine to form a picture of total satisfaction. The image of “flowing” suggests a rich fullness that surpasses all need and sets up a contrast with the arid wilderness. Perhaps they are even an example of Hebrew merism (naming opposites to cover everything between as well), suggesting the whole spectrum of food, from the necessary to the luxurious. (Leland Ryken [b. 1942], James C. Wilhoit [b. 1951] and Tremper Longman III [b. 1952], Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, 488)Bruce Wells (b. 1968) inquires:
Exactly what kind of prosperity does the biblical expression refer to? It probably does not refer to the most common forms of agriculture, such as the cultivation of grains. Rather, the “milk” likely refers to animal husbandry and the use of animal byproducts for food and clothing. Sheep were important for their wool and meat, but goats may have been more important. They provide twice as much milk as sheep, and their hair and hides could be used for tents, clothing carpets, and even satchels for holding liquids. The “honey” refers to horticulture—the cultivation of fruits and vegetables. (John H. Walton [b. 1952], Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy (Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary), 174)Étan Levine (b. 1934) counters:
Contrary to popular interpretation, biblical diction paired “milk and honey” not because of their gastronomical affinity but because both are products of identical topographical and economic conditions. In biblical Palestine as elsewhere, both milk and honey are not products of fertile, cultivated farmlands, but of uncultivated grazing areas. The flocks and herds feed on wild growth, on land unsuitable for agriculture. And it is there, amidst the thickets, bushes and wild flowers, that honey is also found. (Levine, Heaven and Earth, Law and Love: Studies in Biblical Thought, 46)Some have seen the two elements as indicative of the distinct geography of the northern and southern portions of Israel. The Zondervan Dictionary of Biblical Imagery speculates:
Milk...appears in the frequently mentioned formula used to describe the Promised Land, “a land flowing with milk and honey” (Exodus 3:8, 3:17, 13:5, 33:3, et al.). As the Israelite spies spent years in a trackless wilderness, the description certainly provided an inviting picture of the Promised Land. But it may also be a descriptor that honors the distinct differences between the northern and southern sections of Canaan. Because the north receives more rain, there is considerably more vegetation that provides flowers for the bees to use in making honey. In contrast the south receives considerably less rain, so we find agriculture giving way to the pastoral life and the goat’s milk that was a staple in the Israelite diet. Thus the diverse nature of the Promised Land is captured in this expression by naming two important commodities associated with it subregions. (John A. Beck [b. 1956], Zondervan Dictionary of Biblical Imagery)This proposition seems unlikely as the later division between the southern and northern kingdoms was unwanted. At this point, an image of solidarity was preferable if not necessary; an advancing army must be unified.
Others have seen the land as evoking paradise. Salim J. Munayer (b. 1955) argues:
More than simply indicating fertile soil, in the context of the biblical world, milk and honey were also used to describe the otherworldly richness of paradise. Indeed, in many ancient Near Eastern traditions, “the image of an ideal place flowing with milk and honey has long been associated with paradise.” Even in Islam we find traces of this association; for example the paradise described by Allah in the Qur’an is depicted as “the eternal garden of joy...[and it] possesses not only rivers of pure water and wine, but ‘rivers of fresh milk’ and ‘rivers of pure honey.’”...Given the context from which it arose and what we have learned about merism phrases, there is reason to doubt the mention of a land flowing with milk and honey is making a reference to an earthly place at all. The land of Canaan already had certain very specific and known elements associated with it—the famous Seven Species of Deuteronomy 8:8, where Canaan is described as “a land with wheat and barley, vines and fig tress [sic], pomegranates, olive oil and honey.”...It makes more sense to think of this phrase as a literary, poetic description of an idyllic paradise, rather than a specific location on earth. There are radical implications to this interpretation when applied to all the many places in the Scriptures where we find this phrase [Exodus 3:8, 17, 13:5, 33:3; Leviticus 20:24; Numbers 13:17, 14:8, 16:13-14; Deuteronomy 6:3, 11:9, 26:9, 15, 31:20; Joshua 5:6; Jeremiah 11:5; Ezekiel 20:6]. However, when we remember the universal nature of God’s promise, it is clear: The land flowing with milk and honey is not Canaan or Egypt or any other terrestrial place; it is a future return to the garden as the fulfillment of God’s promises. (Munayer and Lisa Loden, “Theology of the Land: From a Land of Strife to a Land of Reconciliation”, The Land Cries Out: Theology of the Land in the Israeli-Palestinian Context, 252-53)There has also been discussion as to whether Canaan’s land is as arable as the spies’ depiction (Numbers 13:25-27). Later pilgrims could not help but notice discrepancy.
Lester I. Vogel (b. 1948) documents:
Confronted with the reality of Ottoman Palestine, it was easy to turn from the present to the past, as Clara E. Waters [1834-1916] had done. Likewise, it was easier to explain the reality in sweeping, universal terms. Nathaniel Clark Burt [1825-1874] saw Palestine’s condition as epitomizing the geography of the world in its diversity, thereby affording the former peoples of the country a chance to be representative of humanity and to produce “a revelation with wide, varied, universal adaptations.” To Burt, the Holy Land was dreary and desolate, especially in the context of the biblical passage that advertised the land as luxuriantly flowing with milk and honey [Exodus 3:8; Numbers 13:27]. But Burt imagined that the land had been good in ages past, that “it requires little observation and reflection, on the part of the traveler in Palestine, to perceive that the country possesses great natural capabilities and must, at a former period, have sustained an immense population.” When Burt recalled that the land’s present condition fulfilled scriptural prediction exactly, he showed more interest in the spectacle of the land’s desolation than he did in evidences of prosperity. (Vogel, To See A Promised Land: Americans and the Holy Land in the Nineteenth Century, 74)There is ancient support for a fertile Canaan. Bruce Wells (b. 1968) presents:
The expression evokes the image of a prosperous land [Exodus 3:8, 17, 13:5, 33:3; Leviticus 20:24; Numbers 13:17, 14:8, 16:13-14; Deuteronomy 6:3, 11:9, 26:9, 15, 31:20; Joshua 5:6; Jeremiah 11:5; Ezekiel 20:6]. The Egyptian Story of Sinuhe (from the Twelfth Dynasty, early second millennium B.C.) also describes the land of Canaan as prosperous: “It was a wonderful land called Yaa. There were cultivated figs in it and grapes, and more wine than water. Its honey was abundant, and its olive trees numerous. On its trees were all varieties of fruit. There was barley and emmer, and there was no end to all the varieties of cattle.” But the land seems not to have been consistently prosperous; several biblical texts refer to famine in Canaan (Genesis 12:10, 26:1, 43:1). Biblical texts describe the blessing of Yahweh as the determining factor. When he wished for there to be prosperity, there was. Ugaritic texts present a similar perspective: When there was divine blessing—in their case, from Baal—then “the heavens rain oil/the wadis run with honey.” (John H. Walton [b. 1952], Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy (Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary), 174)The rabbinic writing also corroborates the biblical witness. Fred Rosner (b. 1935) apprises:
The Bible repeatedly asserts that Israel is “a land flowing with milk and honey” (Exodus 3:8, 3:17, 13:5, 33:3; Leviticus 20:24; Numbers 13:27, 14:8, 16:13, 16:14; Deuteronomy 6:3, 11:9, 26:9, 26:15, 27:3, 31:20; Joshua 5:6; Jeremiah 11:5, 32:22; Ezekiel 20:6, 20:15). This divine blessing is depicted in the Talmud (Ketubot 11b) where it states that Rabbi ben Ezekiel [220-299] once paid a visit to Bnei Berak where he saw goats grazing under fig trees and honey was flowing from the figs and milk ran from the goats and the honey and milk mingled with each other. Rabbah bar Bar Hannah said: “I saw the flow of the milk and honey in all the land of Israel and the total area was equal to the land extending from the Be Mikse to the Fort of Tulbanke, an area of twenty-two parasangs in length and six parasangs in breadth.” Here and elsewhere (Megillah 6a), Resh Lakish [third century CE] said that he saw the flow of milk and honey at Sepphoris and it extended over an area of sixteen by sixteen miles. (Rosner, Medicine in the Bible and the Talmud: Selections from Classical Jewish Sources, 115)Jacob Neusner (b. 1932) bolsters:
R. Ammi bar Ezekiel visited Bene Beraq. He saw goats grazing under fig trees, with honey flowing from the figs, and milk running from the goats, and the honey and the milk mingled. He said, “That is in line with ‘a land flowing with milk and honey’ (Exodus 3:8; Numbers 13:27).” Said R. Jacob b. Dosetai, “From Lud to Ono is three Roman miles. Once I got up early at down [sic] and I walked up to my ankles in fig honey.” Said R Simeon b. Laqish [third century CE], “I personally saw the flood of milk and honey of Sepphoris, and it extended over sixteen square miles.” Said Rabbah bar bar Hannah, “I personally saw the flood of milk and honey of the entirety of the Land of Israel, and it extended from Be Mikse to the Fort of Tulbanqi, twenty-two parasangs long, six parasangs wide.” (Neusner, Theological Dictionary of Rabbinic Judaism, Part One: Principal Theological Categories, 113)While the Bible lauds the Promised Land it also acknowledges its shortcomings. Eugene Korn (b. 1947) recalls:
While the Bible describes the Land of Israel as “a land of milk and honey” (Deuteronomy 31:20) and “a good land, a land with streams and springs and fountains issuing from plain and hill; a land of wheat and barley, of vines, figs, and pomegranates; a land of olive trees and honey (Deuteronomy 8:7-8), Scripture also points out on numerous occasions that this land forces its inhabitants to recognize God by increasing the Jewish people’s dependency on God and on fulfilling the covenant. (Korn, The Jewish Connection to Israel, the Promised Land: A Brief Introduction for Christians, 8)Comparatively speaking, Canaan fits the bill as the land is undoubtedly an upgrade over the wilderness in which the Israelites are presently residing. Stephen Buchmann (b. 1952) appraises:
To people living in a harsh desert climate, a lush green landscape must have fit their idea of paradise. The pastures of this rich, well-watered paradise would be dotted with contented cows grazing on succulent grass and producing fresh, wholesome milk; the meadows would be filled with wildflowers buzzing with bees as they collected nectar and pollen to transform into golden honey. It’s no mystery why milk and honey became symbols for the Jews of a blessed land [Exodus 3:8, 17, 13:5, 33:3; Leviticus 20:24; Numbers 13:17, 14:8, 16:13-14; Deuteronomy 6:3, 11:9, 26:9, 15, 31:20; Joshua 5:6; Jeremiah 11:5; Ezekiel 20:6]. (Buchmann, Letters from the Hive: An Intimate History of Bees, Honey, and Humankind, 124)Étan Levine (b. 1934) recognizes:
To the homeless Israelites who were poised to take it, the Holy Land was perceived as being a “very, very good land” [Numbers 14:7], a “blessed land” [Deuteronomy 33:13], for realistically speaking, one could hardly expect a different reaction from a horde of landless wanderers! It is also true that no less than fifteen times in the Pentateuch and five times thereafter, the Promised Land is described as “a land flowing with milk and honey” [Exodus 3:8, 17, 13:5, 33:3; Leviticus 20:24; Numbers 13:17, 14:8, 16:13-14; Deuteronomy 6:3, 11:9, 26:9, 15, 31:20; Joshua 5:6; Jeremiah 11:5; Ezekiel 20:6]. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that biblical exegetes, from the ancient commentators to modern scholars, have understood this phrase as an obvious metaphor extolling the lush fecundity of the land assigned to the People of Israel. (Levine, Heaven and Earth, Law and Love: Studies in Biblical Thought, 46)David J. Lorenzo (b. 1961) compares:
The characteristics of the Promised Land would be the obverse of those of Egypt and the wilderness, representing a transcendence of both. Unlike Egypt, the Promised Land would be the Hebrews’ own. Rather than working as slaves, they would live as a free people. And unlike the wilderness, it would be a rich land, one “flowing with milk and honey” [Exodus 3:8, 17, 13:5, 33:3; Leviticus 20:24; Numbers 13:17, 14:8, 16:13-14; Deuteronomy 6:3, 11:9, 26:9, 15, 31:20; Joshua 5:6; Jeremiah 11:5; Ezekiel 20:6]. There the Hebrews would have no need of Yahweh’s provision of material food in the form of manna, nor spiritual food in the form of Moses’ leadership. They would be free and self-determining within the boundaries of the Covenant. (Lorenzo, Tradition and the Rhetoric of Right: Popular Political Argument in the Aurobindo Movement, 157)Margaret Feinberg (b. 1976) praises:
Nearly two dozen references throughout the Old Testament describe the Promised Land as a place “flowing with milk and honey” [Exodus 3:8, 17, 13:5, 33:3; Leviticus 20:24; Numbers 13:17, 14:8, 16:13-14; Deuteronomy 6:3, 11:9, 26:9, 15, 31:20; Joshua 5:6; Jeremiah 11:5; Ezekiel 20:6]...The promise that the land would overflow with “milk” suggests abundant pastureland for goats and cows while the mention of “honey” implies that the land was abounding in flowers and grass. Such a detailed portrait of a promise reveals something about the outrageously generous heart of God. He didn’t just want to end slavery for his people. He wanted to bring them out of the land entirely and into a new place that overflowed with provision. (Feinberg, Scouting the Divine: My Search for God in Wine, Wool, and Wild Honey)Whatever the specific connotation “milk and honey” indicates, generally speaking, the land is good. Timothy R. Ashley (b. 1947) assesses:
These verses [Numbers 13:27-29] are probably a summary of the spies’ report. The general report was that the land was very good: it flows with milk and honey (zābat-hālāb ûdebaš hî). Although Numbers 13:27ff concentrate on the report to Moses (they recounted it to him, Numbers 13:27), the text makes clear that the report was in the hearing of the whole congregation (Numbers 13:26). (Ashley, The Book of Numbers (New International Commentary on the Old Testament), 239)The idiom “milk and honey” serves as a powerful, concise slogan to motivate the people (Numbers 13:27). Stephen K. Sherwood (b. 1943) acknowledges:
The familiar image of a land flowing not with water but with milk and honey has a strong rhetorical effect. (Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy (Berit Olam: Studies in Hebrew Narrative & Poetry), 78)Jonathan Kirsch (b. 1949) remarks:
Moses...had not been elected by anyone except an unheard and unseen God, and so far God has not deigned to speak to anyone other than Moses and his brother. Yet Moses had urged them out of the relative safety and comfort of Egypt into an empty and threatening wilderness, all on a vague promise that someday they would reach a distant land of “milk and honey” [Exodus 3:8, 17, 13:5, 33:3; Leviticus 20:24; Numbers 13:17, 14:8, 16:13-14; Deuteronomy 6:3, 11:9, 26:9, 15, 31:20]. Such rhetoric had surely been heard before among the poor and oppressed, and history assures us that it would be heard again and again through the centuries. (Kirsch, Moses: A Life, 219)The phrasing provides concrete imagery of a better place. Robert Alter (b. 1935) envisions:
Beyond well-watered Egypt and the burning desert where uncanny fires flare, the new Israelite nation is repeatedly told of a third space, a land flowing not with water but, hyperbolically, with milk and honey [Exodus 3:8, 17, 13:5, 33:3; Leviticus 20:24; Numbers 13:17, 14:8, 16:13-14; Deuteronomy 6:3, 11:9, 26:9, 15, 31:20; Joshua 5:6; Jeremiah 11:5; Ezekiel 20:6]. This utopian space will be beyond reach for forty years, and in a sense it can never be fully attained. When the twelve spies enter it on a reconnaissance mission in Numbers, they confirm its fabulous fecundity [Numbers 13:25-27], but ten of twelve also deem it unconquerable [Numbers 13:31-33], calling it “a land that consumes its inhabitants” [Numbers 13:32]. As the biblical story continues through Numbers and Deuteronomy and ultimately on to the history of the kingdoms of Judah and Israel the land flowing with milk and honey will begin to seem something like the Land of Cockaigne of medieval European folklore, a dream of delighted, unimpeded fulfillment beyond the grating actualities of real historical time. (Alter, The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary, 303)Despite its prominence in the Old Testament (Exodus 3:8, 17, 13:5, 33:3; Leviticus 20:24; Numbers 13:17, 14:8, 16:13-14; Deuteronomy 6:3, 11:9, 26:9, 15, 31:20; Joshua 5:6; Jeremiah 11:5; Ezekiel 20:6), the phrase “milk and honey” does not recur in the New Testament.
Dominic Janes notes:
J. Duncan M. Derrett [1922-2012] (1984) points out that the ‘land of milk and honey’ (Exodus 3:8-17 and Exodus 13:5) vanishes from the Christian tradition even as allegory. (Janes, God and Gold in Late Antiquity, 153).The Promised Land gives the enslaved and later wandering Israelites a concept of a better future residence that provides a beacon of hope. It serves much the same function that heaven does to contemporary believers.
Reggie McNeal (b. 1955) relates:
The central act of God in the Old Testament is the Exodus, a divine intervention into human history to liberate his people from oppression and slavery. The decisive act of the New Testament is the divine intervention of God into human history to liberate his people from oppression and slavery...In both cases the deliverance is not just from something but to something. The Hebrew slaves were destined for the Promised Land, a land flowing with milk and honey [Exodus 3:8, 17, 13:5, 33:3; Leviticus 20:24; Numbers 13:17, 14:8, 16:13-14; Deuteronomy 6:3, 11:9, 26:9, 15, 31:20; Joshua 5:6; Jeremiah 11:5; Ezekiel 20:6]. Jesus promised his followers abundant life [John 10:10]. Included in that deal is heaven. (McNeal, The Present Future: Six Tough Questions for the Church, 12-13)John M. Shackleford (b. 1929) correlates:
We can certainly identify with the Israelites wandering in the desert. It symbolizes our own travels through life, searching for the “Promised Land.” The Promised Land, the land of Canaan, is also an important symbol of all our hopes for the future. To me, the Land of Promise is symbolic of the spiritual dimension I look toward as a final goal. If this life on earth is a time of preparation, which I believe to be the case, then the Promised Land is the final goal of that preparation. It is a symbol for heaven, a spiritual dimension of happiness with our creator. (Shackleford, God as Symbol: What Our Beliefs Tell Us, 36)The Promised Land is the future home of the Israelite nation. As few of them have any frame of reference to it, Moses enlists members from each tribe to survey its contents (Numbers 13:3-16). When they come back, the tag line “flowing with milk and honey” captures the imagination and instills resolve that a better home awaits (Numbers 13:27). Contemporary Christians hold a similar belief: There is always hope for a better tomorrow.
Why does God evoke the peculiar combination of “milk and honey” to encapsulate the Promised Land (Exodus 3:8)? Would the epithet have been different for a another group of people? What would the combination of milk and honey look like? What is the modern equivalent of a land “flowing with milk and honey”? What two resources would epitomize your ideal land; what items would use to categorize a land as very good? Where is your land of milk and honey?
The good news is that the land is indeed good (Numbers 13:25-27). But there is a problem. It is not the quality of the region but rather the inhabitants of the land (Numbers 13:28-29). The spies return with both a majority and minority report: Though they agree on the goodness of the land, they disagree on the proper course of action (Numbers 13:25-29).
Katharine Doob Sakenfeld (b. 1940) reports:
The spies return with their report to the leaders and the people. According to Numbers 13:25-29 they are agreed about the marvelous productivity of the land, which they describe as “flowing with milk and honey” (Numbers 13:27); and all are agreed about the strength of the inhabitants and the strong fortification of their towns [Numbers 13:28-29]. They are divided, however, as to the appropriate course of action. Caleb proposes to take the land at once [Numbers 13:30]. The others consider the task impossible and reinforce their conclusion by describing the Israelites as like grasshoppers compared to the huge people who live in that land “that devours its inhabitants” (Numbers 13:33). The image of a devouring land may be intended to dramatize the power of human forces living in Canaan, or it may be a reversal of the earlier claim about the fruitfulness of the area. In any case, the recommendation against proceeding to the land is evident. (Sakenfeld, Numbers: Journeying with God (International Theological Commentary), 85-86)Rolf P. Knierim (b. 1928) and George W. Coats (1936-2006) dissect:
The weight of a spy report falls on the report produced by the mission. The spies return from their mission and make their reports to Moses and the people (Numbers 13:26). The report has two forms: (a) The land flows with milk and honey (Numbers 13:27). It thus corresponds to the promised land from the tradition (→Exodus 3:8). The expression, a way to emphasize the fertility of the land, is a typical epithet for the land and thus points to the position of the tradition about the fertile land in popular lore [Exodus 3:8, 17, 13:5, 33:3; Leviticus 20:24; Numbers 13:17, 14:8, 16:13-14; Deuteronomy 6:3, 11:9, 26:9, 15, 31:20; Joshua 5:6; Jeremiah 11:5; Ezekiel 20:6]. (b) The people are strong and large. The descendants of Anak are there [Numbers 13:28, 33]. The cities are fortified. And the result is a self-description that constitutes a firm example of a frightened resignation. The spies name themselves grasshoppers (Numbers 13:33). The report is thus both good and bad. (Knierim and Coats, Numbers (Forms of the Old Testament Literature), 186)The discrepancy is embodied in two references in the spies’ report (Numbers 13:27, 32). Diane M. Sharon (b. 1948) connects:
The association of “a land flowing with milk and honey” in Numbers 13:27 with its antithesis, a land devouring its settlers in Numbers 13:32, also recalls the Lord’s desire to withdraw from personally leading the people to the ‘land flowing with milk and honey’ ודבש חלב זבת ארץ בדרך אכלך after the debacle of the golden calf, ‘lest I devour you on the way’ פן־ בדרך אכלך (Exodus 33:3). The metaphoric allusion in Exodus 33 to a connection between the land of milk and honey and the death of the people on the way is concretized and made explicit in the narrative of Numbers 13:1-14:45. But just as Moses intercedes successfully on behalf of the people in Exodus 33:12-17, so, too, his intercession in Numbers 14:11-38 mitigates the Lord’s wrath. (Sharon, Patterns of Destiny: Narrative Structures of Foundation and Doom in the Hebrew Bible, 204)Unfortunately the bad news overshadows the good (Numbers 13:25-33). R. Dennis Cole (b. 1950) tracks:
The essential question regarding the land was whether it was good (hătôbâ) or bad (’im-rā‘a). When the scouts returned, they described the land as good, describing it as flowing with milk and honey [Numbers 13:27], a key phrase used throughout the Old Testament to characterize the quality and productivity of the Promised Land [Exodus 3:8, 17, 13:5, 33:3; Leviticus 20:24; Numbers 13:17, 14:8, 16:13-14; Deuteronomy 6:3, 11:9, 26:9, 15, 31:20; Joshua 5:6; Jeremiah 11:5; Ezekiel 20:6]. The tenor of the report, however, suddenly shifted from one of prospective prosperity to one of foreboding fear as the majority of the scouts announced the seeming insurmountability of the people and their heavily fortified cities (Numbers 13:28-29). This fear turned to rebellion when they described the land in terms of death, hence evil or bad, and described a potential return to Egypt as “good” (Numbers 13:31-14:4). (Cole, Numbers (New American Commentary), 210)David L. Stubbs (b. 1964) laments:
The scouts return and give their report. They show the people the fruit of the land [Numbers 13:23], and their first words are that the land indeed “flows with milk adn honey” (Numbers 13:27)—that is, excellent for grazing milk-giving animals and filled with bees: a perfect land for people like the Israelites. But their concern and anxiety quickly overshadow their initial positive vision, as is apparent in their lengthy rehearsal of the inhabitants of the land—a traditional list of the peoples who lived in Canaan [Numbers 13:28-29]. (Stubbs, Numbers (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible), 128-29)Modern psychological assessments of Moses have often concurred with the negative majority report, depicting the Promised Land as the leader’s unattainable conquest. Robert A. Paul analyzes:
If, as the midrashic tradition holds, the longing for Egypt was a longing for “incestuous unions”...then these scenes could be analyzed as representing a longing for the mother in whom the nurturant and erotic functions are as yet undifferentiated. Cast out from incestuous Egypt by virtue of the guilt incurred through rebellious patricide, Moses pursues the unattainable chimera of the “promised land flowing with milk and honey,” which will always remain out of reach [Exodus 3:8, 17, 13:5, 33:3; Leviticus 20:24; Numbers 13:17, 14:8, 16:13-14; Deuteronomy 6:3, 11:9, 26:9, 15, 31:20] . (Paul, Moses and Civilization: The Meaning Behind Sigmund Freud [1856-1939]’s Myth, 105)A subtle, yet critical, clue to the spies’ bias is concealed in their opening statement. Richard N. Boyce (b. 1955) notices:
Their report starts out well enough, though they show some confusion as to who has sent them (“you” the congregation, versus “You,” God; Numbers 13:27). (Boyce, Leviticus and Numbers (Westminster Biblical Companion), 159)It is God, not the congregation, who has sent the spies to investigate the land (Numbers 13:1-2). Concurrently, it will be God, not the congregation, who will secure the land. Omitting or forgetting God’s involvement in their mission is telling.
Further, God’s promise is the land, not a life of ease in the Promised Land. The promise is opportunity.
David M. Gunn (b. 1942) considers:
Yahweh is the “God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” [Exodus 3:6]; he has heard their cry, seen their suffering, and will deliver them out of Egypt into land flowing with milk and honey (Exodus 3:6-8, 15-17). Yahweh has seen suffering, affliction and oppression. But if he acts out of simple compassion, we are not told so. Nor is the emphasis of the speech upon the alleviation of the suffering (though the alleviation of course is implied). Rather the keynote is the covenantal promise of land, a land of milk and honey, and so perhaps a land in which to flourish. (David J.A. Clines [b. 1938], Gunn and Alan J. Hauser [b. 1945], Art and Meaning: Rhetoric in Biblical Literature, “The ‘Hardening of Pharaoh’s Heart”: Plot, Character and Theology in Exodus 1-14”, 82)Acquiring the land will take effort. Calvin Miller (1936-2012) empathizes:
For generations God told Israel he would give them Canaan, a land flowing with milk and honey [Exodus 3:8, 17, 13:5, 33:3; Leviticus 20:24; Numbers 13:17, 14:8, 16:13-14; Deuteronomy 6:3, 11:9, 26:9, 15, 31:20; Joshua 5:6; Jeremiah 11:5; Ezekiel 20:6]. It sounded good until they went to pick up the gift and discovered people were already living in Canaan. So the gift required a great deal of effort from Israel. It is in this same sense that God gives us eternal life, only to have us discover that we must work out our own salvation (Philippians 2:12) and faithfully discipline ourselves to make our lives really count for God. (Miller, Fruit of the Spirit: Faithfulness: Cultivating Spirit-Given Character)The Israelites’ greatest obstacle will not be the land’s inhabitants, regardless of their size. Richard N. Boyce (b. 1955) concludes:
God knows the greatest threat to this mission is not the people and the walled cities of this land of milk and honey, no matter how well “fortified” (Numbers 13:19). No, the greatest threat to the forward motion of this story is the fear ever welling up in the hearts of these travelers. God’s people were and still are more proficient at sitting and wailing, than at marching and praising. (Boyce, Leviticus and Numbers (Westminster Biblical Companion), 156)Despite the consensus that the land is suitable, the negative report represents the majority opinion (Numbers 13:25-33). Consequently, the spies’ report ultimately reveals more about themselves than the land. The Israelites choose to focus on the heavily fortified armies rather than the heavenly promised land. As is often the case, the bad news proves easier to believe. The spies’ report serves as a reminder that nothing must overshadow the good news of God.
How would you have received the spies’ report (Numbers 13:25-33); what stands out to you? What more could the Israelites have asked for? Have you ever forgotten to factor God into your life’s equation? When have you struggled to characterize something as either inherently good or evil? When has bad news overshadowed the good?
“Time spent on reconnaissance is seldom wasted.” - Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington (1769-1852), Victor of Waterloo