HONEY AND OTHER SWEETENERS
The "honey" mentioned many times throughout the Bible can refer to bee's honey--wild
or cultured--or to a sweet syrup made from dates or grapes. Jews who took a vow to
abstain from bee's honey were still permitted date "honey."
Honey first appears in Genesis 43: 11 and last in Revelation 10: 9. In Exodus 3: 8,
the land of Canaan promised to the Hebrews is called "a land flowing with milk and
honey." The notorious difficulty of collecting wild honey for the table without getting
stung may be inferred from Deuteronomy 1: 44 in which the pursuing Amorites are compared
to bees: "and chased you as bees do."
A similar reference appears in Psalms 118: 12: "They compassed me about like bees."
Still, the Hebrews revered bees, and another popular "food-name" for daughters was
Deborah-- the bee."
God showed Jacob where to "suck honey out of the rock," as noted in Deuteronomy 32:
13. "Honey from the rock" also appears in Psalms 81: 16. King Saul's son Jonathan's
"eyes were enlightened" when he ate wild honey (1 Samuel 14: 27).
Samson found a swarm of bees inside the carcass of a dead lion (Judges 14: 8). He
took some of their honey home to his father and mother, "but he told them not that
he had taken the honey out of the body of the lion" (Judges 14: 9). He later used
this incident to confound his friends with a riddle"
"Out of the eater came forth food,
And out of the strong came forth sweetness."
(Judges 14: 14)
The manner in which his erstwhile companions entices Samson's wife to cajole the answer
out of him and blab it to them caused a great deal of trouble, which you can read
about in Judges 14: 15-20.
Jereboam's wife took "A cruse [jar] of honey," as part of her provisions on a journey
to Shiloh to see Ahijah the prophet (1 Kings 14: 3). Job speaks of "flowing streams
of honey and butter." In Psalms 19: 10, the ordinances of God are spoken of as "sweeter than honey and the droppings of the honeycomb, and Psalms 119: 103 states that
they are "sweeter than honey to thy mouth." In 2 Chronicles 31: 5, the Hebrews include
honey in their tithes.
However, not all references to honey in the Bible are positive. A cautionary exhortation
in Proverbs 5: 3-4 says that:
"The lips of a strange woman drop honey,"
"in the end she is as bitter as wormwood."
Proverbs 27: 7 says:
"The full soul loatheth a honeycomb;
but to the hungry soul every bitter thing is sweet."
A variety of opinions about honey are expressed in the Book of Proverbs. Proverbs
24: 13 gives it a glowing recommendation:
"My son, eat thou honey, for it is good:
and the droppings of the honeycomb,
which are sweet to thy taste."
Proverbs 16: 24 says that the honeycomb is:
"Sweet to the soul, and health to the bones."
However, in Proverbs 25 there are two warnings more consistent with what we understand
about the hazards of eating simple sugars today:
"Hast thou found honey? Eat so much as is
sufficient for thee.
Lest thou be filled therewith, and vomit it."
(Proverbs 25: 16)
"It is not good to eat much honey."
(Proverbs 25: 27)
Honey was specifically excluded from any meal-offering to the Lord (Leviticus 2: 11)
The time-honoured association of honey with romantic love is evident in Song of Solomon
"Thy lips my bride, drop as the honeycomb:
Honey and milk are under thy tongue."
Isaiah prophesies of the Messiah:
"Butter and honey shall he eat."
(Isaiah 7: 15)
When John the Baptist lived in the wilderness of Judea: "his food was wild honey."
(Matthew 3: 4).
Some believe that the "locusts" John ate with his wild honey were actually the sweet
pods of the carob tree, which are also called locust--and in m modern times--St.
John's Bread. These sticky, sweet pods were used widely as animal feed, and probably
were the "husks" fed to swine tended by the Prodigal Son (Matthew 15: 16).
However, inn the dietary laws of Leviticus 11, four kinds of locusts and grasshoppers
are considered as "clean" for eating, and insect locusts would have been perfectly
"kosher" for John to eat. In Bible times, locusts were sold as food by Judean shopkeepers, and some modern Middle Eastern and North African Jews still eat them. Daniel
Cutler includes a recipe for locust soup in his "The Bible Cookbook."5 Locusts are also eaten today by Bedouin nomads.
By the time of the prophet Ezekiel, agriculture was well established in Palestine,
especially in the highlands, and honey was an important commodity (Ezekiel 27: 17).
"Manna" given by God to Moses's wandering band of Hebrews (Exodus 16: 14-36) during
their 40 years in the desert was said to taste like wafers made with honey. The exact
constitution of manna is unknown. One theory holds that manna was a sweet secretion
from insects feeding on tamarisk trees. The insects secrete excess carbohydrate in
the form of "honeydew manna," whose particles resemble hoarfrost (Exodus 16: 14).
This substance contains 3 basic sugars plus pectin. Jesus referred to the "bread
from heaven," but to HImself as the "true bread out of heaven."
Cane sugar was known in Biblical Palestine, but fortunately for the Hebrews' health,
it was an astronomically expensive import (Jeremiah 6: 20) from (most likely) India,
and therefore not a significant part of their diet.