Honey: Exploring Biblical Imagery

In biblical times, honey was prized for its sweetness. Next to fruit based sweeteners (i.e. date palms, grapes), honey was the only sweet foodstuff for people to eat.  Additionally, honey was also esteemed for its medicinal qualities (Proverbs 16:24), and its ability to quickly invigorate the one who ate it (1 Samuel 14:26, 29; 2 Samuel 17:29). Because of these qualities, honey was viewed as a valuable gift (Genesis 43:11; 1 Kings 14:3; Ezekiel 16:13), a commodity for trade (Ezekiel 27:17), and as part of the tithe (2 Chronicles 31:5).  As a side note, honey was prohibited from being offered as a part of Jehovah’s sacrifices (Leviticus 2:11) but was included in those for idols (Ezekiel 16:19).

Positive usages of honey in the Bible build on the aforementioned qualities. God’s word is “sweeter than honey” (Psalms 19:10; 119:103; cf. Proverbs 24:13-14; Ezekiel 3:3; Revelation 10:9-10). Just as honey is sweet on the tongue and good for the body; God’s word is sweeter by far and does more good, not just for the body but for the soul. At least twenty times, God described the great Land of Promise as a, “flowing with milk and honey” (Exodus 3:8, 17; Numbers 13:27; et. al.). The pairing of these two items, “milk and honey,” combine to form a picture of a land of total satisfaction. This also forms the basis of what might be viewed as a stock description for a fertile land of bounteous provisions (cf. Deuteronomy 8:7-8; 2 Kings 18:32).

Ironically, Isaiah reverses this positive symbolism into one of depravation as a result of God’s judgment against Judah (Isaiah 7:10-25). When the sign-child Immanuel was grown, he and all the people would eat “curds and honey” (7:15, 22) because of the devastation that has come upon the land as a result of the nation’s sins. When set against the backdrop of the rest of the prophecy, honey becomes a symbol of depravation and judgment. Honey is also associated with depravation, if not self-denial, in its connection with meager diet of John the Baptist who ate only “locust and wild honey” (Matthew 3:4; Mark 1:6).

Another image associated with honey, used especially by Solomon is the likening of eating honey with pleasurable experiences. He wisely warned that pleasure must be pursed in moderation (ref. Proverbs 25:16, 27; 27:7).  Moreover, he used honey to symbolize sexual pleasure in both the Song of Solomon 4:11, 5:1 and Proverbs 5:3.  Interestingly, it was on the eve of Samson’s wedding that he found honey in the carcass of the lion (Judges 14:8-9; cf. 14:14).  He may be viewing it as an omen of the sexual pleasure that awaited him.

The Bible is full of wonderfully rich imagery and the picturesque descriptions of ‘honey’ rank it as one of the leading examples. The reader can almost “taste” its sweetness, pun intended.

Other articles in the Exploring Biblical Imagery Series: Leaven; The Cup; Gehenna

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