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As a child when I heard of God leading his people from Egypt to “a land flowing with milk and honey,” I pictured them finding urns and urns of both, freely flowing like waterfalls amidst beautiful, lush gardens.
It’s a very poetic description, and one that’s repeated throughout the Old Testament (Exodus 3:8; Numbers 14:8; Deuteronomy 31:20; Ezekiel 20:15).
As Latter-day Saints, we have additional scripture that mentions this imagery. Nephi’s family is led to a land they call “Bountiful, because of its much fruit and wild honey” (1 Ne. 17:5) and later Nephi uses “milk and honey” as an example of a most desirable treasure, given by the Lord without our having to buy it (2 Ne. 26:25).
The Jaredites also mention the importance of the honey bee, which they called “deseret” (Ether 2:3) and in the Doctrine and Covenants Christ himself speaks of giving his followers “greater riches, even a land of promise, a land flowing with milk and honey…” (D & C 38:18).
Rabbi Menachem Posner suggests that biblical honey is understood to be fruit nectar– specifically date honey– not bees’ honey. Other scholars maintain the source of the honey is indeed bees. But all agree that this description describes a land that is so fertile and well-nourished that it produces sweet honey and fruit so superior that the nectar virtually overflows. And, in particularly fertile pastures, livestock could be said to do the same—to overflow with milk.
This vast, rich Promised Land sounds a bit like heaven itself, doesn’t it? And it awaits God’s chosen people. But, unlike the childhood notion I had, that it was simply there for the taking, there is more to the story.
First of all, milk does not flow into urns of its own accord. Livestock must be fed and cared for, and the animals must be milked by the labor of those tending the goats or cattle. Even if the animals produce abundantly, humans must work for this gift.
Likewise, with bees, honey has to be collected, and carefully so. Even if this is the “honey” of fruit, orchards must be planted, pruned, tended, and harvested. Honey does not find its way into our kitchens on its own.
In the case of the Israelites going into their fruitful new home, there would be far more work than the farming of livestock and bees; they first had to vanquish numerous enemies: Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites. So, while flowing milk and honey may await, there was much to overcome as these local people, large in number and large in stature, were well prepared to fight for their land.
When Moses sent spies into the area, though they returned with doubts about Israel being victorious in a battle there, they were all in accord that this was a land flowing with milk and honey. They came back with grapes so heavy that they had to be hoisted on a pole and carried by two men. (Numbers 13:23) They also brought figs and pomegranates, further evidence of the bounties there.
So many of the blessings we want in this life are available, but only on conditions of obedience and, usually, a good measure of hard work. To dream of ease and comfort, with chocolate rivers flowing by and candies floating through the air within our grasp, is not how God plans to reward us. He offers a glorious future, truly a “Promised Land” to all, but only if we’re willing to humbly follow, repent, forgive, serve, and demonstrate genuine discipleship.
Often these traits can be acquired only through hardship and trial. How marvelous would it be if we could just take wisdom like a pill, swallow it down and be done with it? But that’s not God’s plan. Faith, wisdom, love, sacrifice, and a hundred other Godlike qualities are the byproduct of exertions on our part. Like honey or milk, we must work for them.
As you examine your life and see your own areas of weakness, the adversity you’re dealing with and the struggles you may have ahead, it would be easy to decide you’re in a rocky spot without much hope for improvement. But that’s not God’s view. He is there to show us how to conquer our difficulties. He wants us to turn to him for help. Along the way we grow in ways we simply wouldn’t have, had our lives been lazy and indulgent.
So really, we are living in a land of milk and honey, it’s just that some of us expected it to land in our drinking glasses with no effort on our part. What if we look at our lives as vehicles to grant us the sweetness and fullness of life by partnering with God and making Him our focus? Maybe the very challenge you’re regretting is the vehicle to greater understanding and growth than you ever imagined. Maybe we just need faith enough to fight the Canaanites.
This kind of irony—that good that can come from bad—is not just wishful thinking. It’s also built into this metaphor. Rabbi Posner points 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 cow whose meat may not be eaten together with milk.” What a fitting object lesson, a nugget hidden within the story, only visible to those who search a little deeper: Goodness can often come from places least expected.