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Bible Encyclopedias

Kitto's Popular Cyclopedia of Biblial Literature


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Milk, and the preparations from it, butter and cheese, are often mentioned in Scripture. Milk, in its fresh state, appears to have been used very largely among the Hebrews, as is usual among people who have much cattle, and yet make but sparing use of their flesh for food. The proportion which fresh milk held in the dietary of the Hebrews, must not, however, be measured by the comparative frequency with which the word occurs; because, in the greater number of examples, it is employed figuratively, to denote great abundance, and in many instances it is used as a general term for all or any of the preparations from it.

In its figurative use, the word occurs sometimes simply as the sign of abundance (;; , etc.); but more frequently in combination with honey—'milk and honey' being a phrase which occurs about twenty times in Scripture. Thus a rich and fertile soil is described as a 'land flowing with milk and honey:' which, although usually said of Palestine, is also applied to other fruitful countries, as Egypt (). Hence its use to denote the food of children. Milk is also constantly employed as a symbol of the elementary parts or rudiments of doctrine (; ); and from its purity and simplicity, it is also made to symbolize the unadulterated word of God (; comp. ).

In reading of milk in Scripture, the milk of cows naturally presents itself to the mind of the European reader; but in Western Asia, and especially among the pastoral and semi-pastoral people, not only cows, but goats, sheep, and camels, are made to give their milk for the sustenance of man. That this was also the case among the Hebrews, may be clearly inferred even from the slight intimations which the Scriptures afford. Thus we read of 'butter of kine, and milk of sheep' (); and in , the emphatic intimation, 'Thou shalt have goats' milk for food,' seems to imply that this was considered the best for use in the simple state. 'Thirty milch camels' were among the cattle which Jacob presented to his brother Esau (), implying the use of camels' milk.

The Hebrew word for curdled milk is always translated 'butter' in the Authorized Version. It seems to mean both butter and curdled milk, but most generally the latter; and the context will, in most cases, suggest the distinction, which has been neglected by our translators. It was this curdled milk, highly esteemed as a refreshment in the East, that Abraham set before the angels (), and which Jael gave to Sisera, instead of the water which he asked (). In this state milk acquires a slightly inebriating power, if kept long enough. , where it is rendered 'butter,' is the only text in which the word is coupled with 'honey,' and there it is a sign of scarcity, not of plenty, as when honey is coupled with fresh milk. It means that there being no fruit or grain, the remnant would have to live on milk and honey; and, perhaps, that milk itself would be so scarce, that it would be needful to use it with economy; and hence to curdle it, as fresh milk cannot be preserved for chary use. Although, however, this word properly denotes curdled milk, it seems also to be sometimes used for milk in general (;; ).

The most striking Scriptural allusion to milk is that which forbids a kid to be seethed in its mother's milk, and its importance is attested by its being thrice repeated (;; ). There is, perhaps, no precept of Scripture which has been more variously interpreted than this. It is probable that the prohibition refers not to a common act of cookery, but to an idolatrous or magical rite. Maimonides urges this opinion. He says, 'Flesh eaten with milk, or in milk, appears to me to have been prohibited, not only because it affords gross nourishment, but because it savored of idolatry, some of the idolaters probably doing it in their worship, or at their festivals.' This is confirmed by an extract which Cudworth gives from an ancient Karaïte commentary on the Pentateuch 'It was a custom of the ancient heathen, when they had gathered in all their fruits, to take a kid, and boil it in the dam's milk, and then in a magical way to go about and besprinkle with it all their trees, and fields, and gardens, and orchards, thinking that by this means they should make them fructify, and bring forth more abundantly the following year.' Some such rite as this is supposed to be the one interdicted by the prohibition.

Butter is not often mentioned in Scripture, and even less frequently than our version would suggest. Indeed, it may be doubted whether it denotes butter in any place besides , 'butter of kine,' and , 'the churning of milk bringeth forth butter,' as all the other texts will apply better to curdled milk than to butter. Butter was, however, doubtless much in use among the Hebrews, and we may be sure that it was prepared in the same manner as at this day among the Arabs and Syrians. The milk is put into a large copper pan over a slow fire, and a little leben or sour milk (the same as the curdled milk mentioned above), or a portion of the dried entrails of a lamb, is thrown into it. The milk then separates, and is put into a goatskin bag, which is tied to one of the tent poles, and constantly moved, backwards and forwards for two hours. The buttery substance then coagulates, the water is pressed out, and the butter put into another skin. In two days the butter is again placed over the fire, with the addition of a quantity of burgul (wheat boiled with leaven, and dried in the sun), and allowed to boil for some time, during which it is carefully skimmed. It is then found that the burgul has precipitated all the foreign substances, and that the butter remains quite clear at the top. This is the process used by the Bedouins, and it is also the one employed by the settled people of Syria and Arabia. The chief difference is, that in making butter and cheese the townspeople employ the milk of cows and buffaloes, whereas the Bedouins, who do not keep these animals, use that of sheep and goats. The butter is generally white, of the color and consistence of lard, and is not much relished by English travelers. It is eaten with bread in large quantities by those who can afford it, not spread out thinly over the surface, as with us, but taken in mass with the separate morsels of bread [CHEESE].





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Bibliography Information
Kitto, John, ed. Entry for 'Milk'. "Kitto's Popular Cyclopedia of Biblial Literature".

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