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Bees and the land of milk and honey

by Piet van der Lugt

When the LORD calls Moses from the burning bush and gives him the assignment to guide His people out of Egypt, then He also sets the course for what will be the final destination of the journey: a land flowing with milk and honey. In this Beet Hamidrash a study about honey and the peculiar people which produce the honey: the bees.

A special country

At the calling of Moses the LORD describes even twice the final destination of the journey of Israel through the wilderness as ‘a land flowing with milk and honey’ (Ex. 3:8, 17). In four of the five books of the Torah (written during the journey through the wilderness) we read over five times the expression ‘a land flowing with milk and honey’. What a prospect to go to a land with such an abundant bounty, for that is the meaning of the description. There will be so much vegetation that cattle will render a bounty of milk. Besides so many flowers will blossom that the land will overflow with honey. That so special country has undergone a tremendous change by the influence of man. Of the outstretched forests hardly anything is left and also because of that the entire water-balance is changed drastically. Irrigation was not necessary in the days of Moses as we can read in Deut. 11:10 and 11, where the LORD indicates the difference with Egypt: “For the land, whither thou goest in to possess it, is not as the land of Egypt, from whence ye came out, where thou sowedst thy seed, and wateredst it with thy foot, as a garden of herbs; But the land, whither ye go to possess it, is a land of hills and valleys, and drinketh water of the rain of heaven.”

It is because of the sin of unbelief and disobedience that all of it is changed. And this situation continues until this very day, for – with all due respect – the irrigation in the land of Canaan today is the method of Egypt, the method of man and not of the LORD. But it will become as it was originally again, yes the land will become like the garden of Eden (Ezech. 36:35). The condition: a believing and obedient people!

Milk and honey

What is so special about milk and honey is that both are produced by animals. When we study the situation in the Promised Land then it is not man, but the LORD, Who takes care that these important products come about. The vegetation where the herds grazed, grew there by nature. Later we see a rising conflict between cattle-breeding and agriculture. More and more land was snatched from the shepherds.

The bounty of honey was also the result of the bountiful flower vegetation because of which the bees could produce plenty of honey. When in Isa. 7:15 it speaks about the eating of butter and honey it means, that thorns and thistles (as result of the judgement, vs. 17-25) will overgrow the fields and the cattle and the bees will have all the space they want, resulting in an abundance of milk and honey. The characteristic of the Promised Land was that the inhabitants lived on what was produced by (the body of) someone else. One had only to milk the cows and harvest the honey. It was living by grace! In the same way we may live by the amazing grace and salvation brought about by the body of the Lord Jesus (Luke 22:19; Rom. 7:4; Col. 1:22).

Milk, but especially honey, is often used as a type of the Word of God: “As newborn babes, desire the sincere milk of the Word, that ye may grow thereby: if so be ye have tasted that the Lord is gracious.” (1 Pet. 2:2,3)

“More to be desired are they (the statutes of the Lord) . . . sweeter also than honey and the honeycomb” (Psalm 19:10)

Honey

Before we said that milk and honey come about through the body of an animal. There is, however, a difference. Of the food which a cow or other animal eats, a part is converted into milk. But the coming into being of honey it is different. The bees collect nectar out of the flowers which they visit. This sweet fluid which consists of 80 percent water and 20 percent sugar, is sucked from the flower and stocked in the honey-stomach. When the bee comes in her home, she gives the fluid to another bee, who stocks it in the honey-comb. Out of the body of the bee certain enzymes are added to the nectar. By sucking up the honey and throwing it up again and again, the water evaporates ( also because of the temperature in the hive) and honey comes into being. The proportion then is: 80 percent sugar and 20 percent water. The bees know exactly when the nectar has become honey, as they taste and smell the sugar percentage. When the processing is ready, the bees shut the cells of the comb in which the honey is with an airtight lid of wax. This is the sealing of the honey. Hereby the stock for the winter is secured. If necessary the lid is gnawed open and the honey thinned down with water so it can be used. Remarkably also the Word of God is sometimes sealed! (Dan. 12:4 and 9). The word ‘honey’ we find more than fifty times in the Bible and is the translation of the Hebrew word . . . ‘debasj’ When we look at the word . . . ‘dabar’, which means ‘word’, we find a certain kinship in the same two letters . . .

Not so remarkable, for if with the help of a concordance you look in your Bible for the word ‘honey’, then you find the same sweet, strengthening and wholesome characteristics, which mark the Word of God. It is therefore evident as far as I can see that the honey, which is mentioned in the Bible, is the product of bees and not of dates or figs as is presumed by some.

Different bees

Now to the bees, which the Lord has equipped so remarkably to produce honey among others. Insects, which are in many people’s interest and certainly also are mentioned in the media during the last months, in connection with the remarkable high death-rate of hives of bees.

Bees who produce honey live in a community. We call them social bees. There are about twenty thousand different species of bees in the world, who differ in size of a few millimetres to even four centimetres. In comparison a very small group of this large number are social bees. The others are solitary bees. So they live alone. In the Netherlands there are solitary bees, such as leaf-cutter bees, mason-bees, etc. which are often to be found in little holes in the ground or a wall. One female-bee lays a number of eggs there and takes care that the larva coming out have enough food. When they are full-grown, they also get to work as singles, though at a certain moment there is a meeting between a male- and a female-bee for the fertilization.

These bees are also important for the fertilization of the crops, flowers, bushes and trees, but this is the end of their usefulness for men.

The social bees are not only important for the pollination, but also produce all kinds of products, which are wholesome for men. It concerns the honey-bee, the apis mellifera.

Though we do not read so much about bees in the Bible, we all know the story of Samson, who took honey out of the body of the lion he killed. A swarm of wild bees had chosen the (dehydrated) body as a new home. By ‘wild’ bees I mean bees who are not ‘managed’ by man. However, there are no tamed bees. So in fact all bees are wild, as we as human beings cannot subject them to our will. But we can try to guide their behaviour and that way profit as much as possible from their useful activities.

Bees in the Bible

Besides the story of Samson we read very early on in the Bible about what was done with bee-products, in particular honey. The first time we read about this is with Jacob in Gen. 43:11. For the gift of the viceroy of Egypt a ‘little honey’ is mentioned. The Egyptians occupied themselves already at a very early stage with bee-culture (apiculture). Their bees lived in cylinders of earthenware, so that the honey could be harvested easily. The old Egyptians already used bee-poison in their medical science.

Only recently bee-hives have been found in Israel in the Bet She’an valley from the time of Solomon. So also in his time there were bee-keepers.

The word ‘bees’, besides in the story of Samson, we find only three times more in the Bible: in Deut. 1:44; Psalm 118:12 and Isa. 7:18. In all these verses the bees are used as a picture of enemies of Israel or of individual believers. Bees, when they are threatened, can attack en masse. In a situation like that there is only one thing to do: run. Unfortunately bees have the reputation that they sting. They can do so, but they only do so when threatened. Bees are often mistaken for wasps, who might sting sooner. Wasps, however, are yellow with black stripes and bees are light- to dark-brown with black stripes.

Deborah

The Hebrew word for ‘bee’ deborah (identical to the name Deborah) has a remarkable kinship to the Hebrew dabar, which means ‘word’ We find in it the same letters d b r .

In the plural, deborim, we see the similarity even clearer with debarim (words). What is so special about that? By studying the life of the honey-bee I have come to see that the bee in image and actions is very closely connected with the Word. Especially as the fact that the Hebrew ‘dabar’ not only means ‘word’, but also ‘deed’. Bees are an example of Word and deed coming together or rather the Word being transformed into action.

The Creator

The whole Bible declares to us, that everything we see (and do not see) is made by God the Creator. The first book of the Bible begins with that declaration (the creation of heaven and earth) and the last book of the Bible confirms it: “Thou art worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honour and power; for thou hast created all things, and for thy pleasure they are and were created.” (Rev. 4:11) In John 1 we read that the Word, the Son of God, is the One through Whom all things have come into being. This means that the Son is the Executor of the creation work of the Triune God.

As the typical characteristics of an architect or painter can be found in his creations, we see in creation images of the Son and of all kinds of spiritual matters. Or, speaking with the words of Romans 1:20:”. . . being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead;” However, when we have the great privilege of knowing Him and His Word, there are many more spiritual truths to discover about Him in creation. In my personal opinion the bee, of all animals, is the creature in which the most precious images and examples can be found.

Images in the community

When we are going to look for images in the world of the bees, than it is remarkable that in the community of the bees there are three individuals, being the queen, the drone and the worker-bee. These three cannot do without each other and form a unity together. In a bee home there is only one queen, from April till August there are about 500 drones and besides (May/June) about 30.000 worker-bees. The queen does nothing else than lay eggs. She has to be fed by worker-bees. Without worker-bees she dies. The drones are necessary to fertilise young queens and so in fact the queen cannot do without the drones. the drones on the other hand cannot do without the worker-bees, as they feed them. At last the worker-bees cannot do without the queen and drones as without them no new bees would be added and the community would perish.

I believe that this unique trinity within the bee community, can be seen as an image of the Triune God. The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit form an inseparable unity where each Person has a unique place and task at the same time.

The Queen

A better designation for ‘queen’ is mother, as she is the mother of all bees born in the community. The indication colony is maybe because of the thought that a queen is in command. The reality of a mother with sons and daughters strengthens the image even more. Because of this I speak of community. The mother is the only perfect female in the community. She can lay fertilised or unfertilised eggs and in high season that means more than thousand a day!

As we already saw, the mother is fed, as she herself cannot gather food. Moreover she has no time for this, as she lays one egg a minute. Therefore there are worker –bees around her, who feed her and take care of her. They are called the court-state. It concerns twelve young worker-bees who, because of their special age, are able to supply the mother with queen’s jelly (a super feed). Why are there twelve worker-bees who are constantly close to her? I believe that we can recognize an image of the Lord Jesus in this, Who chose twelve disciples who were very close to Him (Luke 6:12-16), but maybe also of the twelve tribes of Israel, who in the near future will be united with Him around His holy mountain. (Ezek. 20:40; 48).

The drone

The drones, who are in principal only present in the community in the summer, are perfect males who are necessary to fertilise young mothers. When a young queen is born she is in season within seven days and is going several times for nuptial flight within a fortnight. During each flight she is impregnated by one drone high up on the air. During the fertilisation the drone dies. The semen she receives that way from different drones is stored in a miniscule seed follicle and is sufficient for the fertilisation of eggs during the rest for her life of about three or four years. That means that more than a hundred-thousand eggs can be fertilised by it. Is not that a miracle? The drone is born out of an unfertilised egg! This is called virgin birth. The drone has a mother, no father, yet a grandfather. He is a perfect male who, coming out of an unfertilised egg, is able to fertilise. Here my mind stops!

Here too we see an image of the Lord Jesus Who, being born from the virgin Mary, has a mother, no father and yet a grandfather (Luke 1:34 and 35) and has produced much fruit.

The worker-bee

The greater part of the community consists of worker-bees. I prefer this description as you could think of males for worker-bees, while it concerns females. Worker-bees are imperfect females. Their ovaries are not fully developed and so cannot lay fertilised eggs. The worker –bees are the bees who perform all actions necessary to keep up the community. They cannot produce life like the queen and drone as they cannot lay fertilised eggs. Sometimes they lay unfertilised eggs in emergencies from which drones are born. When no fertilised eggs are layed, the community perishes, as only from these eggs worker-bees and sometimes new queens are born.

The worker-bee is an image of the believing man who cannot produce life by himself and whose fruitfulness is only from God.

From egg to bee

The queen usually lays fertilised and sometimes unfertilised eggs. After three days a larva comes out of this egg. This is fed by worker-bees of a certain age and has grown in to 500 times its weight and is full-grown in six days. Then the larva spins itself in and the cell in which she is, is shut by worker-bees with an air-permeable wax-lid. Then the pupating starts, like a caterpillar and in this case the larva becomes a bee. For a queen it takes seven days, for a worker-bee twelve and for a drone fifteen days. This pupating withdraws itself from the human eye and is a great miracle.

It is the image of the re-birth of which the Bible speaks in different places when it is about the individual man, Israel and the coming of the Kingdom of God. (John 3:3-10; Tit. 3:5; Math. 19:28).

In short, the bee-community overflows with images and examples to the honour and glory of her Creator!