Beginning in Exodus 3:8*, the land promised to the Israelites is often described as "flowing with milk and honey":

I have come down to deliver them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up from that land to a land that is both good and spacious, to a land flowing with milk and honey, to the region of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites.

What would this have meant to an original reader? What is the background, origin and inspiration for this phrase and (aside from Milk and Honey) what imagery would this have brought to mind for ancient readers?

*Also found in:

Exodus 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.

  • I believe that these were precious commodities in those days, and besides being true, as is obvious, this would have conoted particular value. Commented Feb 25, 2016 at 2:01

5 Answers 5


I think it's helpful to frame answers in parts. So here goes a three-part response:

First, 'flowing' connotes the abundance of something. (This point is a one-liner, because I won't insult anyone's intelligence by expounding on this.)

Second, milk is obtained from domesticated livestock. Livestock survives in many habitats, but only overflow with milk in particularly fertile pastures.

Third, I think it is helpful to point out that 'honey' in this instance is likely a reference to fruit nectar, specifically date honey - not bees' honey. Date palms have been prolific in the Middle East for thousands of years, where the date has remained a staple food source.

Given these three points, I think it is fair to presume that a land 'flowing with milk and honey' would be characterized by being incredibly fertile. This would be a land that could support both farming and ranching (agriculture and livestock). Specific to the region, this land would be able to support large quantities of sheep, goats, cattle ( all potential sources of milk), and date palms (honey).

Therefore, it is my contention that the original hearers of this phrase in this context would have understood 'milk and honey' to be a symbolic reference to the fertility of the land.


PS: It is true that wild bees were prolific in Canaan. Given the imagery, I believe that agricultural potential makes more sense here. Regardless, wild bee honey would still fit with the positive imagery of fertility for its sweetness and worth.


Milk and honey were two things that you didn’t have to work hard for. With milk you put the cows out in the pasture, and the cows eat grass and then if you simply milk the cows twice a day you have milk. And the same for honey, the bees did all the work. So then the expression ‘flowing with milk and honey’ became idiomatic for ‘there’s an abundance there and you don’t even have to work hard to get things to grow.’ That’s the essence of what they said. They said, “We saw the land and, that land flows with milk and honey. It will be easy."

  • (+1) I think that is a very important aspect of the metaphor. Thanks.
    – user10231
    Commented Dec 3, 2016 at 22:53

With all due respect, the posters here have brought their modern experiences into their reasoning instead of putting themselves back in Bible times and in the area that events took place.

First, the milk. In the Land of Israel at that time milk was mostly obtained from goats, who got their sustenance clambering amongst the rocks and thorns on the mountains - the plains being too dry for most of the year to produce any food for them at all. Therefore whilst the milk would certainly be rich and good, to obtain it would be difficult. The goatherd would have a difficult job following and keeping his herd together, fighting off wild beasts, and of course actually milking them.

Second, the honey. Bees were not yet cultivated on a regular basis so the bee-hunter would have a difficult task searching the rocky areas for wild swarms and collecting the precious sweet honey.

So two prized items specifically mentioned to explain that the land could indeed yield wonderful things - but it would always be a dedicated and hard task to gather them. A message true to this day. Only when Jewish pioneers were prepared to work against the odds (droughts, malarial swamps, high infant mortality etc) did the land again bring forth its bounty.

By the way, the Bible confirms this idea that a land flowing with milk and honey is part of a wild state, and does not mean gifts given on a platter. In Isaiah his prophecy speaks of destruction of the land "every place where there had been a thousand grape vines worth a thousand pieces of silver shall be covered in briars and thorns".

And what shall anyone who survives invasion have as sustenance? "... he shall eat cream, for cream and honey shall everyone eat who is left in the [desolated] land" Isaiah 7:21-24

  • p.s. some exciting breaking news concerning the prophet Isaiah thetrumpet.com/… Commented Feb 24, 2018 at 9:56
  • Hi Pamela, welcome to the site. This is a good contribution, +1.
    – user20490
    Commented Feb 24, 2018 at 17:02
  • However I think your answer along with others here are not broad enough. I think about the milk and honey differently due to Isa 7:15 where Messiah eats curds and honey that he may learn to choose the good and refuse the evil. Ps 19:10, the word of God is likened to honey. In the wilderness, Moses fed them with manna which "tasted like wafers mixed with honey"(Exo 16:31). So this points to the Law of moses which tasted like or was a shadow of honey. But the substance(the actual honey not just the taste) of moses ministry and the law could only be realized within the land when Messiah comes.
    – user20490
    Commented Feb 24, 2018 at 17:17

Actually the word Milk' and Honey' is very speculative. Expressively, Milk is a nutrient - naturally rich in white, obtain from particular species of animals, while honey is also the only food that is been produced by insect, the notion is somehow clear, the land flowing with milk means naturally rich with dews of heaven and clear in the eyes of every man, the colour of the milk represent clarity of it richness, that is why when after spying the land, Caleb and Joshua testified that indeed it was as the lord had said, without needing a confirmation from the Canaanites if the was indeed blessed or not. The milk there also mean fatness and clear fertility, which is the land has the natural capacity to produce in and out of season, as the garden of the lord. Imperatively there are some sort of animal species that produces milk, not all animal, same applied to God's specification concerning the promised land, there were many land in face of the earth, but God specified this particular ones as the land flowing with milk and honey. Secondly, the Honey represent sweetness, just as the proverb SAMSON gave the Philistians saying out of the strong came something sweet, Judges 14:18. The honey there represent sweetness, something very pleasant to eat, have or posses, but the bee there, is something strong', that was the giants that occupied the promised land, which when they had spied the land, after seen the giants their heart melted and they prophesied negatively, Num13:27-33. On the other hand God purposely placed giants in those land to protect it till the arrival of his chosen ones.

Here is another picture, the land flowing with milk and honey can be classified as a land plenteous in gold and silver, a land rich in green grasses for keeping their herds, a land fertile for farming, a land blessed and easy to make one rich, that why God told them in Deut 8:12-13 saying, less when you have eaten and are satisfied, and build goodly houses you forget your God. Why God included honey there was because it was a delight-some land, and a place one would like to live, but the bee that produces the honey are the giant that occupied the land placed by God to safeguard it from devourers. So preeminently God was actually telling them that they would have to encounter the 'bee' which was those (giants). The bee hunters can tell more about their encounter, they had to be well equipped to hunt for the honey, on the side of the Israelites, the weapon God expected them to have is faith and courage in him. It is of a vital importance to know that before the 'honey' is the bee. The problem with the Israelites then was that they all set their mind on the milk and honey living the bee' aside, with aspiration on how to dominate the land without working for it, it will interest us to know that work is part of God's plan for mankind, but they thought it was to be given to them on the platers of gold, that was why they kept complaining, the word complain in Hebrew tongue means remaining, so they complained and remained. So the milk and honey are the goodness of the land, which the bees are the occupants of the land.

Thirdly is about specifications, there are some species of animals that produces milk, such as cow, goats, sheep, etc. And honey can only be produced by bees. Now i want o combine it with the specification of God, primarily God told them about milk and honey which represent the uniqueness of the land. He added, the land of Canaanites, Hittite, Amorite, perizzites, Hivite, and Jebusite, Ex3:8. Milk is also used to express the word of God, so invariably when they will call upon the name of the Lord in these land God will hear them, because is the land he had chosen for his people.

  • Welcome to BHSE! Make sure you take our Tour. (See "?", upper right). Thanks Commented Nov 15, 2019 at 21:15

What does “milk and honey” refer to?

Exodus 3:8 (NASB)

8 "So I have come down to deliver them from the [a]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, to the place of the Canaanite and the Hittite and the Amorite and the Perizzite and the Hivite and the Jebusite."


Even today in the middle east, with its warm climate and plentiful of flowers has suitable conditions for beekeeping . So the reference to the land of Canaan as flowing with milk and honey ,imply that honey production was plentiful from those times. During a military campaign, Jonathan the son of King Saul, when the army entered the forest ,they found honey flowing on the ground. Obviously the bees nested in the hollows of the trees, bees also make their nests in hollow cavities on mountain rocks.

From Google.

The Israeli Honey Production and Marketing Board says the trade can be traced back to 1882 in this Land of Milk and Honey. As of this year, there are 529 beekeepers keeping an eye on some 120,000 hives around the country. The bees produce approximately 35 kilograms of honey per hive annually.


Recently discovered beehives from ancient Israel 3,000 years ago appear to be the oldest evidence for beekeeping ever found, scientists reported.

Archaeologists identified the remains of honeybees — including workers, drones, pupae, and larvae — inside about 30 clay cylinders thought to have been used as beehives at the site of Tel Rehov in the Jordan valley in northern Israel. This is the first such discovery from ancient times.

1 Samuel 14:25-27 (NET Bible)

25" Now the whole army entered the forest and there was honey on the ground. 26 When the army entered the forest, they saw the honey flowing, but no one ate any of it, for the army was afraid of the oath. 27 But Jonathan had not heard about the oath his father had made the army take. He extended the end of his staff that was in his hand and dipped it in the honeycomb. When he ate it, his eyes gleamed."


The fact that David was a shepherd and on one occasion, his father Jesse asked him to take supplies to his brothers in the army, as well as ten portions of cheese to their commanding officer, indicates that sheep herding and milk production was abundant in those days.

1 Samuel 17:17-18 (NET Bible)

17 "Jesse said to his son David, “Take your brothers this ephah of roasted grain and these ten loaves of bread; go quickly to the camp to your brothers. 18 Also take these ten portions of cheese to their commanding officer. Find out how your brothers are doing and bring back their pledge that they received the goods."

Sheep Farming in Israel

https://www.dairyschool.co.il › sheep-farming-in-israel

Sheep farming in Israel is some of the most productive in the world, with carefully developed breeds of sheep that produce high quantities of milk. This success is perhaps no surprise when you consider the history of sheep farming in Israel. In the Old Testament, Abel, the second son of Adam and Eve, became a shepherd.

Many other important Biblical figures, including Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Rachel, and King David, kept flocks of goats and sheep. For early Jews, sheep provided wool, meat, and milk. Because flocks of sheep were transportable, shepherding was an ideal occupation for Jews as they travelled in search of a permanent homeland.


When God delivered the Israelites from their bondage in the land of Egypt, he promised to bring them to a good a spacious land flowing with milk and honey. This indicates that milk and honey production was abundant in Biblical times in the land of Canaan.

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