“Honey” in the Bible is not date paste (and why this matters)

Is this not where “honey” comes from in the Bible?

Several times now I’ve heard the claim that the “honey” mentioned in the Bible is not actually the sweet food produced by bees from flower nectar, but rather a paste or syrup made from dates or grapes.  (To give just one example, an online recipe for a [great-looking] Date Honey Nut Cake says, “Biblical scholars believe that the honey repeatedly mentioned in the Torah likely came from dates and other fruits, not bees.”)  Ancient Palestine was not conducive to bee hives or beekeeping, this interpretation holds, so we should actually think of something like date paste when we come across biblical statements such as Jacob’s instructions to his sons as they were returning to buy food from Joseph in Egypt:  “Put some of the best products of the land in your bags and take them down to the man as a gift—a little balm and a little honey, some spices and myrrh, some pistachio nuts and almonds.”

This interpretation should not be difficult to check against the biblical text.  If we find references to things like bees and honeycombs in connection with honey, then it is not correct.  Biblical honey does come from bees.  But if we find no such references, just mentions of “honey” along with dried goods such as nuts, as in the case above, then maybe the interpretation is correct.  What do we find?

•  When Samson walked past the carcass of a lion he had killed earlier, “in it he saw a swarm of bees and some honey. He scooped out the honey with his hands and ate as he went along.”

•  When Saul was leading the Israelites against the Philistines, his “entire army entered the woods, and there was honey on the ground. . . . Jonathan . . . reached out the end of the staff that was in his hand and dipped it into the honeycomb.”

• In Psalm 19, David says that the decrees of the Lord are “sweeter than honey, than honey from the honeycomb.”

•  The bridegroom in Song of Songs says, “I have eaten my honeycomb and my honey.”

References such as these show that the “honey” described in the Bible can indeed be the sweet food produced by bees.

Now it is not necessarily the case that every single reference to honey in the Bible is to this food.  There are other references to “honey” in association with agricultural produce that suggest that something more like date paste or grape syrup may be in view, even though the Hebrew word is the same.  These include the episode in Numbers where the spies sent into Canaan bring back a huge grape cluster and exclaim, “We went into the land to which you sent us, and it does flow with milk and honey! Here is its fruit.”  Similarly, when Moses speaks in Deuteronomy of Canaan as “a land with wheat and barley, vines and fig trees, pomegranates, olive oil and honey,” or when Chronicles describes the Israelites giving “the firstfruits of their grain, new wine, olive oil and honey and all that the fields produced,” this sounds more like agriculture than beekeeping.

But many obvious references in the biblical text such as the ones cited above certainly rule out the claim that ancient Palestine was not conducive to bee hives. And so whenever we see “honey” mentioned in the Bible, we do not need to consider this to be a reference to something like date paste or grape syrup. It is most likely honey from bees that is meant.

Now why does this matter?  Simply because the mileage this claim has been getting is another marker of the decline of biblical literacy in our day.  Only a generation or two ago, anyone who tried to advance this claim would have been immediately answered by crowds of knowledgeable Bible readers—ordinary readers, not even pastors or seminary professors—who would have recalled the Bible’s many references to bees and honeycombs and recognized that at least some of the honey described in the Scriptures does indeed come from bees.  But in our day many are accepting this claim uncritically, not knowing any better because they simply haven’t read or remembered that much of the Bible.

This makes me wonder:  what other claims are being successfully advanced these days that a basic familiarity with the Bible would lead us to question?  And is something much more significant than the nature of honey at stake in some of these questionable claims?

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is an an ordained minister, a writer, and a biblical scholar. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the New International Version (NIV) that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He was also a consultant to Tyndale House for the Immerse Bible, an edition of the New Living Translation (NLT) that similarly presents the Scriptures in their natural literary forms, without chapters and verses or section headings. He has a B.A. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

11 thoughts on ““Honey” in the Bible is not date paste (and why this matters)”

  1. Chris,

    Your post makes me think of the line in “We Are The World,” (sung, but not written, by Willie Nelson) that goes, “As God has shown us by turning stone to bread…” Perhaps I am missing something obvious from the OT, but my guess is that the line was supposed to be a reference to Satan’s temptation of Jesus… only (of course), Jesus elected NOT to turn stone into bread! Did no one notice that at the time?


    1. No, I don’t think you’re missing anything. I don’t recall God turning stone or anything else into bread anywhere in the Bible, just bringing water out of rock. God miraculously multiplies food and sends it in the form of manna, quail, etc. But turning stone into bread was something that Jesus precisely did not do. So unless the authors of the song were doing something intentionally ironic, it’s a popular misunderstanding that basic familiarity with the biblical text would once again dispel.

  2. Thank you for your insight on this topic, something I have wondered about for quite some time now- and still do, for that matter. How much of this could be attributed to the “lost in translation” factor? I have seen translations of the original scripture refer to “syrup” as well. Have you ever had the chance to see the original writings?

    1. Actually, I work from the original languages as a rule. The word “honey” in English Bibles always translates the same Hebrew word (debash). So the issue isn’t really translating it “honey” when bees and honeycomb are in the context, as if something other than bee honey were in view, but not translating it as “date paste” or “grape syrup” when interpreters think these other things are in view instead. I’ve never seen an English Bible use the term “syrup” in place of “honey” for debash; what specific translations have you seen do this?

      1. I’ve only seen syrup referred to in other people’s opinions, but never in Biblical translations. Your view has thus far been the most insightful and thorough.

  3. Thanks for this explanation! Out of curiosity, when working from original texts, you reference bees and honeycomb. Are they also reliably translated from the same original languages as well, maintaining the proper context with /debash/?

    1. Yes, you can be confident that the references to bees and honeycombs in the Bible on which I base my argument that the honey being referenced comes from bees, and is not date paste, are the standard words for those things, attested by cognates and verified by their contexts.

  4. The Hebrew word for date honey is ‘silan’ (so I see on Internet sites) but I have checked every reference to honey from Genesis to Judges and found the Hebrew word used in each case is ‘debash’ which is simply the Hebrew word for honey. I haven’t checked further except that according to Young’s Analytical Concordance every OT reference to honey is ‘debash’ and ‘silan’ is never used.

  5. Great article! To help make the double negatives in the 9th paragraph easier to read, could perhaps be re-worded as “But many obvious references in the biblical text such as the ones cited above certainly rule out the claim that ancient Palestine was not conducive to bee hives. So whenever we see “honey” mentioned in the Bible, it is probably honey from bees that is meant, and not necessarily a reference to something like date paste or grape syrup.”

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