Based on Strata in Biblical Archaeology Review, May/June 2016
“And I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey” (Exodus 3:8). This promise to bring the Israelites into a good land appears in the Book of Exodus; the Lord speaks it to Moses from the burning bush.
While we know this refers to the land of Israel, what does “flowing with milk and honey” mean? We’ve dissected it before,1 but a new exhibit at the Eretz Israel Museum in Tel Aviv, Israel, It Is the Land of Honey, curated by Irit Ziffer, looks at this question anew—allowing you to step into this ancient land with its abundant supply of milk and honey.
In the Hebrew Bible, milk can refer to actual milk or a milk product, such as yogurt or cheese; honey means the syrup from smashed fruit, such as dates, or bee’s honey. Of the 55 times that honey appears in the Hebrew Bible, only twice does it specify bee’s honey (Judges 14:8–9 and 1 Samuel 14:27)—both of which reference wild bees. Scholars used to believe that the other mentions of honey always referred to fruit honey, which was the common sweetener in ancient times. For example, it makes perfect sense for honey, as the byproduct of fruit, to appear among the list of seven plants native to the land of Israel in Deuteronomy 8:8. After all, there was no evidence for domesticated bees in Israel.
However, recent archaeological discoveries show that the ancient Israelites did indeed keep bees. This coupled with new readings of these Biblical passages have caused many to reevaluate this accepted interpretation. It seems that some of the 53 appearances of honey in the Hebrew Bible once thought to mean fruit honey actually mean bee’s honey.
The industry of beekeeping, particularly at Tel Rehov, is highlighted in the exhibit It Is the Land of Honey. Tel Rehov, a site in the northern Jordan Valley, was excavated by Amihai Mazar of the Hebrew University between 1997 and 2012. Although Tel Rehov is not mentioned in the Bible, it is nevertheless an important archaeological site for understanding the rise and fall of Israel’s United Monarchy.
One of the largest Iron Age sites in Israel, Tel Rehov has yielded discoveries from the tenth and ninth centuries B.C.E., the time alluded to in the Bible as that of David, Solomon and the first kings of the divided kingdoms of Israel and Judah. Among these discoveries was an apiary (beehive installation)—the only such industry ever discovered in an archaeological excavation—with remains of bees imported from Anatolia inside the clay hives.2 The site’s architecture, as well as cult objects, a rich assemblage of pottery, inscriptions and other artifacts, indicate that Rehov was one of the most affluent and impressive cities during the Iron Age IIA in the land of Israel before it was severely destroyed in the ninth century B.C.E., probably during Aramean attacks led by Hazael, king of Damascus.
It Is the Land of Honey will run through October 30, 2016, and is complemented by an illustrated catalog written by Mazar and longtime staff member Nava Panitz-Cohen. It will feature the spectacular discoveries from Rehov—many on display for the first time—including the extraordinary apiary.
This may be the closest you can get to walking through the ancient land of milk and honey!
This Bible History Daily feature is based on Strata: “Ancient Apiary on Display” in Biblical Archaeology Review, May/June 2016.
2. Amihai Mazar and Nava Panitz-Cohen, “To What God?” BAR, July/August 2008; Strata: “Turkish Delight: Ancient Israelites Import Honeybees,” BAR, November/December 2010.
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