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The first usage that I can find that refers to Israel as a "land flowing with milk and honey" in Exodus 3:8:

וָאֵרֵ֞ד לְהַצִּיל֣וֹ ׀ מִיַּ֣ד מִצְרַ֗יִם וּֽלְהַעֲלֹתוֹ֮ מִן־הָאָ֣רֶץ הַהִוא֒ אֶל־אֶ֤רֶץ טוֹבָה֙ וּרְחָבָ֔ה אֶל־אֶ֛רֶץ זָבַ֥ת חָלָ֖ב וּדְבָ֑שׁ אֶל־מְק֤וֹם הַֽכְּנַעֲנִי֙ וְהַ֣חִתִּ֔י וְהָֽאֱמֹרִי֙ וְהַפְּרִזִּ֔י וְהַחִוִּ֖י וְהַיְבוּסִֽי׃

I came down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land unto a good wide land, unto a land flowing with milk and honey; unto the place of the Canaanite, and the Hittite, and the Amorite, and the Perizzite, and the Hivite, and the Jebusite.

The commentaries that I saw, Seforno and Ramba"n on this verse described this metaphorically. Ramba"n, particularly, relates all the other terms ("good" and "wide") towards describing the "milk and honey" concept. I.e. - the good and wide land has fresh air which is good for the animals to make lots of milk. Also, that the fruits are fat and sweet until the honey flows out from them.

If I recall correctly, some place in the Talmud, this pharse is taken literally, i.e., that there was a flow of milk and honey. I don't recall where this is.

If this is to be a metaphor, why does the Torah use this metaphor rather than stating more directly, something like "a land with good air for the animals and sweet fat fruits" or something similar that's not metaphoric?

Lastly, why focus on these two qualities in particular? The land has many other fine qualities. (Yes, in Ekev it talks about 7 species, iron and copper. But the more dominant phrase that we see is "a land flowing with milk and honey".)

  • "that the fruits are fat and sweet until the honey flows out from them": isn't that literal, then? – msh210 Aug 5 '15 at 20:49
  • @msh210 ALMOST. It depends how you translate "Eretz". If it means the "ground", then, no, it is not literal. – DanF Aug 5 '15 at 21:03
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Kesuvos 111b: (Art Scroll 11b5) has the following:

Rami bar Yechezkel traveled to Bnai Brak. He saw certain goats that were eating under the fig trees, and [fig] honey dripped from the figs while milk dripped from [the udders of] these [goats] and [the two] mixed together [to form a flowing stream]. [Rami bar Yechezkel] said This is a [literal] flowing with milk and honey.

The gemara then quotes Reish Lakish and Rabbah bar bar Chanah as having seen similar sights.

Why is Israel called the land of "Milk and Honey"? explains how this particular metaphor is used because it shows the unusual fertility and richness of the land.

1) Nachmanides Shmos 3:8 writes that the key word in the verse is "flowing." Fruit trees grow in many different terrains, but their produce overflow with nectar only when the land is especially fertile, when the trees are particularly well-nourished.

Similarly, livestock survives in many habitats, but only overflow with milk when they are in particularly fertile pastures.

Thus, a "land flowing with milk and honey" is indicative and symptomatic of a greater good—the fertility of the Promised Land.

2) The Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni Proverbs 8:943) explains that milk symbolizes superior quality, richness of taste, and nourishment. Honey represents sweetness. The goodness of Israel is both nourishing and pleasant.

3) Some point out that honey and milk share a paradoxical quality. Honey is kosher, though it is produced by a non-kosher insect. Milk is kosher, though it comes from a domestic animals such as cows whose meat may not be eaten together with milk.

The goodness of Israel will often times come from places where it is least expected.

Note that the analogy references cows as an example because that is what we normally drink today. It also applies to sheep or goats (which is what are referenced in kesuvos). Rav Hirsch on the expression explains that the significant word is zavas, which implies unnatural flowing.

It is very characteristic that the abundance of produce by zov only occurs in reference to Eretz Yisrael (the land of Israel). In Tanakh, the word zov never means overflowing. It occurs mainly to describe a human pathological condition, and otherwise as a flowing forth caused by miraculous power. It does not seem to describe a land that develops the abundance in accordance with its natural fertility, but a land that only does this under special conditions. Palestine is a hard land which can only blossom and flourish ‘under the continuous special care of God for it, from one end of the year to the other.’ When it gets water, it blossoms luxuriously. But it only gets the water from above.

  • Good research. Rav Hirsch's explanation is esp. interesting and precise. – DanF Aug 5 '15 at 15:00
  • I thought the paradoxical nature of milk is that it's not אבר מן החי. – GFauxPas Aug 5 '15 at 18:11
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    @GFauxPas I just realized that I had answered that question at judaism.stackexchange.com/questions/48408/… Bechoros 6b (ArtScroll 6b2 notes 24, 25, and 27) Part of the reasoning as to why Avraham could serve milk is based on an implication that milk was not considered eiver min hachai (for Ben Noach) that seems to be derived from those notes. – sabbahillel Aug 5 '15 at 19:17
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    see also rav reuven margolios’s HaMikrah v’HaMesorah – rikitikitembo Oct 20 '15 at 8:47
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    @sabbahillel why did you write, "[fig] honey", but your source, Kesuvos 111b, identifies it as date-honey? Also, this same source, Kesuvos 111b, identifies the milk as goat-milk, whereas your other quoted source, I do not know who, appears to have identified it as cow-milk? Can you clarify on these differences? Thanks. – ninamag Mar 5 at 18:45

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