by Father Mike Stubbs
Milk sweetened with a bit of sugar sounds like a tasty drink.
In the early church, this was offered to the newly baptized as part of the ceremony. The purpose in doing so was not merely to give refreshment to the newly baptized, but to symbolize that they had spiritually arrived in the promised land flowing with milk and honey.
That is the proverbial way of describing Canaan, the new home of the Israelites. And that is how Sunday’s first reading, Dt 6: 2-6, describes it. Moses is reminding the people of Israel of God’s promise to them: “in keeping with the promise of the Lord, the God of your fathers, to give you a land flowing with milk and honey.”
This phrase, “a land flowing with milk and honey,” appears several times in the Bible. It clearly suggests material prosperity and abundance. But what specifically does it mean?
The phrase is a figure of speech called synecdoche. In synecdoche, a part is used to represent the whole. For example, if the captain of a ship calls for “all hands” to assemble on deck, he means that all the sailors aboard should assemble on deck, and not just their hands. He wants the whole person.
Similarly, when an army commander talks about boots on the ground, he means the whole soldier, not just their boots. The part represents the whole in synecdoche.
Milk is an important product of raising livestock. In the phrase “milk and honey,” the word “milk” represents the entire livestock industry. There are other products besides milk, such as meat, leather, wool in the case of sheep and goats. But the part represents the whole.
Similarly, the word “honey” represents crop production. The honey in question does not come from bees, but rather from the date palm. It is a syrup made from dates. The land of Canaan produced many other crops as well — wheat, barley, grapes. But the naming of honey represents them all. The part stands for the whole.
In other words, “a land flowing with milk and honey” means a land rich with livestock and crops. It means agricultural prosperity. That is what God was promising to the Israelite people.
God makes this promise as part of a covenant with Israel. They are to keep the statutes and commandments that God has enjoined on them. If they do that, they will enjoy long life, grow and prosper.
Through our baptism, we have spiritually arrived in the promised land. It is not the land of Canaan, but the church, the community of faith. And once again, God assures us of long life — not in this world, but eternally in heaven.
There, we will enjoy, not material prosperity, but spiritual riches. That is the “milk and honey” that will flow for us in abundance.