MILK: khalav (Strong’s 2461)
Sounds like: khah-lahv
Milk… it’s the first source of nutrition we all started with. Before pablum, mushy peas and blueberries from a blender, we had milk. And that’s how it’s been throughout all of human history.
Milk, cheese, curds, butter
The first time we come across the word milk in the Bible, it’s during a divine encounter. Abraham was sitting, minding his own business, when he looked and saw three men. Immediately he recognized that they had come from God; he bowed down in front of them and asked God to let them stay. He offered to wash their feet and bring them nourishment, and they agreed and accepted the offer:
So Abraham hurried into the tent to Sarah, and said, “Quickly, prepare three measures of fine flour, knead it, and make bread cakes.” Abraham also ran to the herd, and took a tender and choice calf and gave it to the servant, and he hurried to prepare it. He took curds and milk [w-khalav] and the calf which he had prepared, and set it before them; and he was standing by them under the tree as they ate.
Then they said to him, “Where is your wife Sarah?” And he said, “There, in the tent.” He said, “I will certainly return to you at this time next year; and behold, your wife Sarah will have a son.” And Sarah was listening at the tent door, which was behind him.
Amongst other things, Abraham offered them milk and they offered motherhood. As poetic as that sounds, we shouldn’t put too much emphasis on that; besides water and wine, milk was the only other offering to quench thirst.
Milk was often portrayed as rich and nourishing. It was the basis for butter and curds and cheese:
For the churning of milk [khalav] produces butter, and pressing the nose produces blood; so the churning of anger produces strife.
Milk and milk products were essential to a good diet. When David’s brothers were fighting against the Philistines, their father, Jesse, asked David, the youngest son, to bring bread and ten portions of milk [khalav] (often translated as cheese) to his brothers at the war camp (1 Samuel 17:18). There’s nothing like going to war with a good glass of milk. It would certainly be a better option than wine.
The Bible did make the distinction between wine and milk, and suggested that milk was the healthier choice. When Jacob prophesied about his sons, he said this about Judah:
“His eyes are dull from wine, and his teeth white from milk” [meh-khalav].
In the Ancient Near East (and for many of us today), milk had a positive effect on the body. We know the benefits of calcium for our teeth, bones and muscle growth. Of course the ancient Hebrew people didn’t know the full complexities of nutritional science, but they understood that milk was beneficial to their bodies.
Job, the suffering follower of YHWH, used milk in an interesting analogy of human creation:
Job 10:8-12, 18-19
‘Your hands fashioned and made me altogether, yet would You destroy me? Remember that You have made me as clay; yet would You turn me into dust again?
Did You not pour me out like milk [keh-khalav], and curdle me like cheese, clothe me with skin and flesh, and intertwine me with bones and tendons?
You have granted me life and goodness; and Your care has guarded my spirit….
…Why then did You bring me out of the womb? If only I had died and no eye had seen me! I should have been as though I had not been, brought from womb to tomb.’
Job saw the creation of humans like milk being poured into a container. It was good. But in his suffering Job wondered: why create me out of goodness, only to cause me suffering and anguish. Wouldn’t it be kinder to go from womb to tomb, without all the pain in between?
The Land of Milk and Honey
Milk does a body good (as the old ad told us). Isaiah prophesied that on the day of YHWH’s final judgement, followers of YHWH would have plenty of healthy milk and curds:
Now on that day [day of the LORD] a person may keep alive only a heifer and a pair of sheep; and because of the abundance of the milk [khalav] produced he will eat curds, for everyone who is left within the land will eat curds and honey.
Eating curds and honey in YHWH’s land of milk and honey was a full-circle image of abundance.
The promised land was repeatedly described as a place of milk and honey. Milk, as we have discussed, reflected rich health and wellness. Honey and milk were desirable. Who wouldn’t want to live in such a place? The Hebrew people suffered as slaves to the Egyptians for centuries, so when YHWH offered them a place in a land full of milk and honey, it was as good as offering them gold:
And YHWH said [to Moses], “I have certainly seen the oppression of My people who are in Egypt, and have heard their outcry because of their taskmasters, for I am aware of their sufferings. So I have come down to rescue them from the power of the Egyptians, and to bring them up from that land to a good and spacious land, to a land flowing with milk and honey [khalav u-d’vash], to the place of the Canaanite, the Hittite, the Amorite, the Perizzite, the Hivite, and the Jebusite. And now, behold, the cry of the sons of Israel has come to Me; furthermore, I have seen the oppression with which the Egyptians are oppressing them. And now come, and I will send you to Pharaoh, so that you may bring My people, the sons of Israel, out of Egypt.”
The land of promise, filled with milk and honey, was celebrated repeatedly. (See: Exodus 3:17, 13:5, 33:3, Numbers 13:27, 14:8, 16:13-14, Deuteronomy 6:3, 26:9, 26:15, 27:3, 31:20, Joshua 5:6, Jeremiah 11:5, 32:22, Ezekiel 20:6, 20:15 and…)
[YHWH:] You shall therefore keep every commandment I am giving you today, so that you may have the strength to go in and possess the land that you are crossing the Jordan to possess, and so that you may live long in the land that YHWH swore to your fathers to give them and their descendants, a land flowing with milk and honey [khalav u-d’vash].
For the land that you are entering to possess is not like the land of Egypt, from which you have come, where you sowed your seed and irrigated on foot, like a vegetable garden. But the land that you are crossing the Jordan to possess is a land of mountains and valleys that drinks in the rain from heaven. It is a land for which YHWH your God cares; the eyes of YHWH your God are always on it, from the beginning to the end of the year.
So if you carefully obey the commandments I am giving you today, to love YHWH your God and to serve Him with all your heart and with all your soul, then I will provide rain for your land in season, the autumn and spring rains, that you may gather your grain, new wine, and oil. And I will provide grass in the fields for your livestock, and you will eat and be satisfied.
But be careful that you are not enticed to turn aside to worship and bow down to other gods, or the anger of YHWH will be kindled against you. He will shut the heavens so that there will be no rain, nor will the land yield its produce, and you will soon perish from the good land that YHWH is giving you.
Milk and honey, and rain and crops, were all avaiable for those who followed YHWH’s commandments. But when they stopped following God and turned and bowed down to other gods, the rain stopped and death would prevail.
According to Ezekiel, when the people turned their back on YHWH and profaned His good graces, they would revert back to wilderness. They would go into exile and their enemies would take take the land and enjoy the goodness that came with it, including the milk:
[YHWH:] …therefore, behold, I am going to give you to the people of the east as a possession, and they will set up their encampments among you and make their dwellings among you; they will eat your fruit and drink your milk [kha’lavek].
In the Song of Solomon, a Bride and a Groom sing to each other. The Bride was described using promised land and Eden imagery. The Groom saw her as a reflection of the beauty of YHWH’s Kingdom:
[Groom to Bride:] “How beautiful is your love, my sister, my bride! How much sweeter is your love than wine, and the fragrance of your oils than that of all kinds of balsam oils!
Your lips drip honey, my bride; honey and milk [d’vash w-khalav] are under your tongue, and the fragrance of your garments is like the fragrance of Lebanon.
A locked garden is my sister, my bride, a locked spring, a sealed fountain.
Your branches are an orchard of pomegranates with delicious fruits, henna with nard plants, Nard and saffron, spice reed and cinnamon, with all the trees of frankincense, Myrrh, and aloes, along with all the finest balsam oils.
You are a garden spring, a well of fresh water, and flowing streams [living waters: mayim khayim] from Lebanon.”
This poem included wine and water and milk… the three thirst quenchers and signs of abundance and goodness. For a poetic punch the author also reversed the usual phrase “milk and honey” (khalav u-d’vash) to “honey and milk” (d’vash w-khalav).
In the book of Joel we are also given drink imagery; wine, water and flowing milk were shared in abundance with YHWH’s people. But those who opposed God would not quench their thirst. They would live in a land of waste and desolate wilderness.
YHWH roars from Zion and utters His voice from Jerusalem, and the heavens and the earth quake. But YHWH is a refuge for His people, and a stronghold for the sons of Israel.
Then you will know that I am YHWH your God, dwelling on Zion, My holy mountain. so Jerusalem will be holy, and strangers will no longer pass through it.
And on that day the mountains will drip with sweet wine, and the hills will flow with milk [khalav], and all the brooks of Judah will flow with water; and a spring will go out from the house of YHWH and water the Valley of Shittim.
Egypt will become a wasteland, and Edom will become a desolate wilderness, because of the violence done to the sons of Judah, in whose land they have shed innocent blood.
But Judah will be inhabited forever, and Jerusalem for all generations. And I will avenge their blood which I have not avenged, for YHWH dwells in Zion.
Moses’ poem in Deuteronomy 32 outlined the overarching story of the Hebrew people, up to that point. Jacob (Israel) started off in the wilderness, then was cared for by YHWH and nourished with milk, honey, and produce from the land and animals. But regardless of the nurturing love they received from YHWH, they turned away from Him:
“For YHWH’s portion is His people; Jacob is the allotment of His inheritance.
He found him in a desert land, and in the howling wasteland of a wilderness; He encircled him, He cared for him, He guarded him as the apple of His eye.
As an eagle stirs up its nest, and hovers over its young, He spread His wings, He caught them, He carried them on His pinions. YHWH alone guided him, and there was no foreign god with him.
He had him ride on the high places of the earth, and he ate the produce of the field; and He had him suck honey from the rock, and oil from the flinty rock, curds of the herd, and milk [wa-kha’lev] of the flock, with fat of lambs and rams, the breed of Bashan, and of goats, with the best of the wheat; and you drank wine of the blood of grapes.
But Jeshurun became fat and kicked— you have become fat, thick, and obstinate— then he abandoned God who made him, and rejected the Rock of his salvation.
They made Him jealous with strange gods; with abominations they provoked Him to anger. They sacrificed to demons, who were not God, to gods whom they have not known, new gods who came lately, whom your fathers did not know.
You forgot the Rock who fathered you, and forgot the God who gave you birth.
YHWH saw this, and spurned them because of the provocation by His sons and daughters. Then He said, ‘I will hide My face from them, I will see what their end will be; for they are a perverse generation, sons in whom there is no faithfulness.”
With YHWH came order and light, food and milk; without God there was no nourishment… just a milkless existence in the chaotic wilderness. There was no sweetness and nothing to quench your thirst.
A Mother’s Nourishment
But milk wasn’t just representative of goodness apart from chaos. It also was tied deeply to the wonderful image of motherhood:
“Shall I bring to the point of birth but not give delivery?” says YHWH. “Or shall I who gives delivery shut the womb?” says your God.
Be joyful with Jerusalem and rejoice for her, all who love her. Be exceedingly glad with her, all who mourn over her, so that you may nurse and be satisfied with her comforting breasts; so that you may drink fully and be delighted with the abundance of her glory.
For this is what YHWH says: “I will extend peace to her like a river, and the wealth of nations like a flowing stream; you will nurse and be carried on her arm, and bounced upon her knees. As a mother comforts her son, so will I comfort you, and you will be consoled over Jerusalem.”
The milk of a mother brings comfort. Nursing is a warm and tender moment, and that moment is understood by all humans and mammals alike. There was a sacredness to the moment between a nursing mother and the suckling infant, which prompted this Hebrew law:
“You are not to boil a young goat in the milk [ba-kha’lev] of its mother.”
Although cooking practises don’t usually concern themselves with moral truisms, the idea of cooking a young goat in the milk his mother once provided him, leaves a bad taste in our mouths (pardon the pun). Humans are innately drawn to the beautiful and compassionate image of mother and child, so the idea of using a mother’s milk to boil her child was repulsive… enough so that it became a strict law in Hebrew food practises. Motherhood, milk, comfort and compassion are strongly linked together in the Bible, and it’s hard to separate them.
There’s an interesting, and violent, story in the time of Judges. The Israelites were fighting with the Canaanites. They defeated the Canaanites in battle and Sisera, the Commander of their army, fled. He sought refuge with Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite, a non-Israelite. (See Judges 4:19-21).
Jael received him into her tent and when he asked for water, she gave him milk, and afterwards, hid him in a rug. In a sense, she became like a surrogate mother to Sisera, giving him milk, tucking him in, and offering protection. But while Sisera was sleeping she took a hammer and a tent peg and drove it through his head. With milk as a substitute for comfort, it’s not surprising that Jael used it to lure Sisera.
After the defeat, the prophetess Deborah sang a song of victory and celebrated Jael’s actions:
“Most blessed of women is Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite; most blessed is she of women in the tent.
He asked for water, she gave him milk [khalav] in a magnificent bowl she brought him curds.
She reached out her hand for the tent peg, and her right hand for the workmen’s hammer. Then she struck Sisera, she smashed his head; and she shattered and pierced his temple.
Between her feet he bowed, he fell, he lay; between her feet he bowed, he fell; where he bowed, there he fell dead.”
The comforting milk of motherhood lured Sisera into a false sense of security, and he fell at her feet. Life-giving milk brought about his death. At the end of Deborah’s poem (Judges 5:28-31) she spoke of Sisera’s own mother wondering where he was. Certainly he was diving the spoils and taking pleasure with Israel’s women, like they were commodities of war… two women to be raped for every soldier. But that would not be the case. Jael, like a mother, protected the women, and all future women, from Sisera.
Milk in Exile
Exile is a recurring theme in the Bible and even though the times and locations differ, exile always returned to the same imagery: a move from comfort to chaos and from successful city to confused wilderness. When Jerusalem was attacked by the Babylonians and destroyed, its people were exiled to Babylon. The comfort that they once experienced was stripped from them:
Even jackals offer the breast, they nurse their young; but the daughter of my people has proved herself cruel, like ostriches in the wilderness.
The tongue of the infant clings to the roof of its mouth because of thirst; the children ask for bread, but no one breaks it for them.
Those who used to eat delicacies are made to tremble in the streets; those who were raised in crimson clothing embrace garbage heaps. For the wrongdoing of the daughter of my people is greater than the sin of Sodom, which was overthrown as in a moment, and no hands were turned toward her.
Her consecrated ones were purer than snow, they shined more than milk [meh-khalav]; they were more ruddy in body than pearls of coral, their form was like lapis lazuli.
[But now] their appearance is darker than soot, they are not recognized in the streets; their skin is shriveled on their bones, it is dry, it has become like wood.
Better off are those killed by the sword than those killed by hunger; for they waste away, stricken by the lack of the produce of the field.
Once a milk-fed nation, now their mouths were dry from thirst. This was the devastation of God’s people in exile. There have been many exiles and separations from God, but YHWH always promised to bring His family back home, redeemed and renewed:
“Whereas you have been forsaken and hated with no one passing through, I will make you an object of pride forever, a joy from generation to generation.
You will also suck the milk [kha’lev] of nations, and suck the breast of kings; then you will know that I, YHWH, am your Saviour and your Redeemer, the Mighty One of Jacob.
Instead of bronze I will bring gold, and instead of iron I will bring silver, and instead of wood, bronze, and instead of stones, iron.
And I will make peace your administrators, and righteousness your overseers. Violence will not be heard again in your land, nor devastation or destruction within your borders; but you will call your walls salvation, and your gates praise.
No longer will you have the sun for light by day, nor will the moon give you light for brightness; but you will have YHWH as an everlasting light, and your God as your glory.
Your sun will no longer set, nor will your moon wane; for you will have YHWH as an everlasting light, and the days of your mourning will be over.”
New Testament: Spiritual Milk
The focus on milk in the New Testament was metaphorical. Isaiah 28 was undoubtedly a primary source for Paul emphasis on spiritual milk:
“To whom would He teach knowledge, and to whom would He interpret the message? Those just weaned from milk [meh-khalav]? Those just taken from the breast?”
We all start with milk in our lives and then move onto solid foods. Paul used this imagery to suggest the growth of spiritual nourishment:
Hebrews 5:12-14 (see also 1 Corinthians 3:2)
For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you have need again for someone to teach you the elementary principles of the actual words of God, and you have come to need milk [Greek: galaktos] and not solid food. For everyone who partakes only of milk [Greek: galaktos] is unacquainted with the word of righteousness, for he is an infant. But solid food is for the mature, who because of practice have their senses trained to distinguish between good and evil.
Peter took the milk metaphor in a slightly different direction. He did not focus on milk being for infants and adults needing solid food; instead Peter focused on the pureness of milk and equating it to the pureness of God’s Word:
1 Peter 2:1-3
Therefore, rid yourselves of all malice and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander, and like newborn babies, long for the pure milk [Greek: gala] of the word, so that by it you may grow in respect to salvation, if you have tasted the kindness of the Lord.
Like milk, if you taste the Word, you understand God’s kindness and comfort. Milk comforts like God comforts, and His comfort and compassion is offered freely to everyone:
“You there! Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you who have no money come, buy and eat. Come, buy wine and milk [w-khalav] without money and without cost.
Why do you spend money for what is not bread, and your wages for what does not satisfy?
Listen carefully to Me, and eat what is good, and delight yourself in abundance.
Incline your ear and come to Me. Listen, that you may live; and I will make an everlasting covenant with you, according to the faithful mercies shown to David.”
Come and drink from the comforting abundance that YHWH offers. It’s free, and yours for the taking!
Next week: Revisiting COURAGE