Milk is designated by two Hebrew words of distinct signification.
1. חָלָב (chalab', fat, i.e., rich; Gr. γάλα) denotes new or sweet milk. This, in its fresh state, appears to have been used very largely among the Hebrews, as is customary among people who have many cattle; and yet make but sparing use of their flesh for food (see Job 21:24; Jg 4:19). It is not a mere adjunct in cookery, or restricted to the use of the young, although it is naturally the characteristic food of childhood, both from its simple and nutritive qualities (1Pe 2:2), and particularly as contrasted with meat (1Co 3:2; Heb 5:12); but beyond this it is regarded as substantial food adapted alike to all ages and classes. Hence it is enumerated among "the principal things for the whole use of a man's life" (Ecclus. 39:26). It frequently occurs in connection with honey, as a delicacy (Ex 3:8; Ex 13:5; Jos 5:6; Jer 11:5; comp. Dio Chrvs. 35:p. 434; Strabo, 15, page 715). 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 maybe clearly inferred even from the slight intimations which the Scriptures afford. Thus we read of "butter of kine, and milk of sheep" (De 32:14); and in Pr 27:27, 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 (comp. Pliny, 28:33; see Russell's Aleppo, 2:12; Sonnini, Trav. 1:329 sq.; Bochart, Hieroz. 1:717 sq.). "Thirty milk camels" were among the cattle which Jacob presented to his brother Esau (Ge 32:15). implying the use of camels' milk.
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 (Ex 23:19; Ex 34:26; De 14:21). The following are the most remarkable views respecting it:
(1.) That it prohibits the eating of the foetus of the goat as a delicacy: but there is not the least evidence that the Jews were ever attached to this disgusting luxury.
(2.) That it prevents the kid being killed till it is eight days old, when, it is said, it might subsist without the milk of its mother.
(3.) This ground is admitted by those who deduce a further reason from the fact that a kid was not, until the eighth day, fit for sacrifice. But there appears no good reason why a kid should be described as "in its mother's milk," in those days, more than in any other days of the period during which it is suckled.
(4.) Others, therefore, maintain that the eating of a sucking kid is altogether and absolutely prohibited. But a goat suckles its kid for three months, and it is not likely that the Jews were so long forbidden the use of it for food. No food is forbidden but as unclean, and a kid ceased to be unclean on the eighth day, when it was fit for sacrifice; and what was fit for sacrifice could not be unfit for food.
(5.) That the prohibition was meant to prevent the dam and kid from being slain at the same time. But this is forbidden with reference to the goat and other animals in express terms, and there seems to be no reason why it should be repeated in this remarkable form with reference to the goat only.
(6.) Others understand it literally, as a precept designed to encourage humane feelings. But, as Michaelis asks, how came the Israelites to hit upon the strange whim of boiling a kid in milk, and just in the milk of its own mother?
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(7.) Still, understanding the text literally, it is possible that this was not a common act of cookery, but an idolatrous or magical rite. Maimonides, in his More Nebochim, urges this opinion, and adduces the fact that in two of the above passages the practice is spoken of in immediate connection with the three great annual feasts (Ex 23:17,19; Ex 34:23,26), although he admits that he "had not yet been able to find it in the Zabian books." This opinion is confirmed by an extract which Cudworth (Discourses concerning the True Notion of the Lord's Supper, page 30) gives from an ancient Karaite commentary on the Pentateuch; it has been supported by Spencer (De Legibus Hebr. 2:9, § 2), and has been advocated by Le Clerc, Dathe, and other able writers; it is also corroborated by the addition in the Samaritan copy, and in some degree by the Targum.
(8.) Michaelis, however, advances a quite new opinion of his own. He takes it for granted that בָּשִׁל, rendered "seethe," may signify to roast as well as to boil, which is hardly disputable; that the kid's mother is not here limited to the real mother, but applies to any goat that has kidded; that חָלָב here denotes not milk, but butter; and that the precept is not restricted to kids, but extends not only to lambs (which is generally granted), but to all other not forbidden animals. Having erected these props, Michaelis builds upon them the conjecture that the motive of the precept was to endear to the Israelites the land of Canaan, which abounded in oil, and to make them forget their Egyptian butter. Moses, therefore, to prevent their having any longing desire to return to that country, enjoins them to use oil in cooking their victuals, as well as in seasoning their sacrifices (Mosaisches Recht, part 4, page 210). This is ingenious, but it is open to objection. The postulates cannot readily be granted, and, if granted, the conclusion deduced from them is scarcely just, seeing that, as Geddes remarks, "there was no need nor temptation for the Israelites to return to Egypt on account of its butter, when they possessed a country that flowed with milk and honey" (Critical Remarks, page 257). SEE KID.
In its figurative use, milk occurs sometimes simply as the sign of abundance (Ge 49:12; Eze 25:4; Joe 3:18, 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 (Nu 16:13). This figure is by no means peculiar to the Hebrews, but is frequently met with in classical writers. A beautiful example occurs in Euripides (Bacch. 142). 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 (1Co 3:2; Heb 5:12-13); and, from its purity and simplicity, it is also made to symbolize the unadulterated Word of God (1Pe 2:2; comp. Isa 55:1).
The term rendered "milk out" in Isa 66:11, is מָצִוֹ, matsats', which occurs only in that passage, and apparently signifies to suck or draw out something sweet with relish, as milk from the breast; it is put as a symbol of abundant satisfaction.
2. חֶמאָה, chemah', from חָמָה, to coagulate),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 (where it is called lebben, see Russell's Aleppo, 1:150; Burckhardt, Trav. 2:697, 727; Robinson, 2:405; 3:574), that Abraham set before the angels (Ge 18:8); and it was the same that Jael gave to Sisera, instead of the water which he asked (Jg 5:25), as Josephus particularly notes (γάλα διαφθορὸς ἤδη, Ant. 5:5, 4); it was produced from one of the goat-skin bottles which are still used for the purpose by the Bedouins (Jg 4:19; comp. Burckhardt's Notes, 1:45). As it would keep for a considerable time, it was particularly adapted to the use of travellers (2
Samuel 17:29). In this state milk acquires a slightly inebriating power, if kept long enough. Isa 7:22 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 (De 32:14; Job 20:15; Isa 7:15). SEE BUTTER; SEE CHEESE.
Lebben is still extensively used in the East: at certain seasons of the year the poor almost live upon it, while the upper classes eat it with salad or meat (Russell, 1:118). It is still offered in hospitality to the passing stranger (Robinson, Bib. Res. 1:571; 2:70, 211) — so freely, indeed, that in some parts of Arabia it would be regarded as a scandal if money were received in return (Burckhardt's Arabia, 1:120; 2:106). The method now pursued in its preparation is to boil the milk over a slow fire, adding to it a small piece of old lebben or some other acid in order to make it coagulate (Russell, Aleppo, 1:118, 370; Burckhardt, Arabia, 1:60). See Foo).