Moses describes three rituals the Israelites must perform after they have crossed the Jordan and taken the land of Canaan in this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo (“When you come”). For all three, Moses reminds the people that they will be living in “a land flowing with milk and honey”.
First he prescribes Shavuot, the annual pilgrimage to bring the first fruits of the year to the priests at the temple. Each farmer must bring a basket of fruits, give the basket to a priest, and recite a short history of the Israelites from the arrival in Egypt to the arrival in Canaan. (See my post Ki Tavo: A Perishing Aramean.) The recitation ends:
“And [God] brought us to this place and gave to us this land, a land zavat chalav udevash. And now behold! I bring the first fruits of the soil that you have given to me, God.” (Deuteronomy/Devarim 26:9-10)
zavat (זָבַת) = flowing, oozing.
chalav (חָלָב) = milk, drinkable yogurt.
udevash (וּדְבָשׁ) = and honey, fruit syrup.
Through this formula, each donor expresses appreciation to God for the bountiful land.
The second ritual takes place every three years, when all farmers must set aside a tenth of their harvest and give it to the people in their towns who have no farms to feed them. When they have done so, they must recite this declaration to God:
I have rooted out from the house what is to be consecrated, and also I have given it to the Levite and to the resident alien, to the orphan and to the widow, as in all the commands that you commanded me. I did not transgress your commands and I did not forget. … Look down from your holy home, from the heavens, and bless Your people Israel and the soil that you have given to us as you swore to our forefathers, a land of zavat chalav udevash. (Deuteronomy 26:13-15)
The second recitation alludes to the reason why God “gave” the Israelites in a land of milk and honey: because they obeyed God’s commands. (God’s gift consists of helping the Israelites attack the inhabitants of Canaan, win a series of battles, and kill or subjugate the people. See my post Re-eih: Ownership.)
The third ritual that Moses prescribes takes place neither at the temple nor in the towns, but at twin hills near the town of Shekhem. As soon as they have crossed the Jordan, the Israelites must erect large stones on Mount Eyval and coat them with limewash, which hardens into a smooth white surface. (See my post Ki Tavo: Carved in Stone.) Then they must build an altar, make an offering, and write on the standing stones.
And you shall write on them all the words of this teaching when you cross over in order to come into the land the God, your God, is giving you, a land zavat chalav udevash, as God, God of your forefathers, spoke to you. (Deuteronomy 27:3)
Because God “gives” them such a bountiful land, the Israelites must record God’s teaching (torah) on the hilltop.
Next Moses describes the ritual. Half of the tribes must stand for the blessing on nearby Mount Gezerim, and the other half must stand for the curse on Mount Eyval. Then the Levites shout out the prescribed curses for disobeying God, and after each one all the people must say “Amen”. (See my post Ki Tavo: Cursing Yourself.)
What does it mean to say that a land is flowing with milk and honey? And why does Moses keep bringing it up?
What does it mean?
The most literal explanation of zavat chalav udevash was offered in the Talmud, Ketubot 111b, where several rabbis describe seeing nanny goats dripping milk as they grazed under fig trees oozing syrup. Later commentary explained 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 was that valleys are farmed everywhere, but in Canaan even the uncultivated hills provide food, because their vegetation produces herbage for wild goats (making milk) and flowers for wild bees (making honey).1
At least in years with enough rain. Earlier in the book of Deuteronomy, Moses (speaking for God) tells the Israelites:
And observe all the commands that I command you today, so that you will be strong and enter and possess the land that you are crossing into to possess. And so that your days will be long on the soil that God swore to your forefathers to give to them and to their descendants, a land zavat chalav udevash. For the land that you are entering to possess is not like the land of Egypt that you left, where you sowed seeds and your watered them by foot, like a vegetable garden. But the land that you are crossing into to possess is a land of hills and valleys, [a land that] drinks water from rain of the heavens. … And it will be, if you really listen to my commands that I command you today, to love God, your God, and to serve [God] with all your heart and with all your soul, then I will give rain to your land … (Deuteronomy 11:8-11, 11:13-14)
Canaan will be a land “flowing with milk and honey” as long as its new occupants, the Israelites, love and serve God, so that God provides rain to make the vegetation grow and bloom.
It occurred to me that milk also indicates fertility, and honey or syrup is a luxury, one of the choice products of Canaan that Jacob sends as a gift to Egypt.2 The basket of first fruits that a person bring to the priests may also contain the delicacy of fruit syrups.
Why does Moses keep bringing it up?
The phrase zavat chalav udevash, “flowing with milk and honey”, appears fifteen times in Exodus through Deuteronomy. The first occurrence is when Moses stands at the burning bush on Mount Sinai. God tells him:
“And I have come down to rescue [my people] from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up from that land to a good and spacious land, to a land zavat chalav udevash, to the place of the Canaanites and the Hittites and the Amorites and the Perizzites and the Chivites and the Jebusites.” (Exodus/Shemot 3:8)
The good news is that the land flows with good things to eat. The bad news is that the land is already inhabited by six other peoples. The next two references in Exodus mention the current inhabitants first, then sweeten the picture by calling the land “zavat chalav udevash”.3
This promise does not keep the Israelites from complaining about the uncertain food and water supply on the journey from Egypt to the border of Canaan, and suggesting that they give up and return to Egypt.4 Since the carrot is not enough, Moses adds a stick, handing down warnings that the Israelites must obey God if they want God to help them move into the land zavat chalav udevash.5
Eventually the next generation of Israelites does cross the Jordan, and conquers much of Canaan under the leadership of Joshua and, presumably, with the help of God. Thus the rituals Moses lays out in this week’s Torah portion include gratitude for possession of a land zavat chalav udevash.
Today we, too, must obey the rules in order to have land that is “flowing with milk and honey”. We have imperiled our whole planet through air pollution, and the global climate change that has already begun threatens to scorch areas that we used until now to produce food for our immense world population. We must obey the rules inherent in nature, starting now.
Already in our lifetimes the flow of milk and honey will diminish. The milk of fertility will dry up, and the honey of luxury will become scarce. We will have to develop new lands to recover at least part of the abundance that came to us as a gift—for we have not loved nor served our earth.
- Nogah Hareuveni, Ecology in the Bible, Neot Kedumim, 1974, p. 11, cited in The Torah: A Modern Commentary, ed. W. Gunther Plaut, Union of American Hebrew Congregations, New York, 1981.
- Genesis 43:11.
- Exodus 3:17, 13:5.
- The Israelites complain about the journey at least five times in Exodus 14:11-12, 15:22-24, 16:2-3, 17:1-4, and 32:1. Each time they are afraid they will die without reaching the land God promised, so they would have been better off staying in Egypt. They complain about the food and water on journey to Canaan at least six times in Numbers 11:1, 11:4-6, 13:31-14:4, 16:12-14, 20:1-5, and 21:4-5.
- Numbers 13:27-14:10 and 14:22-35; Deuteronomy 6:3 and 11:8-9.