The land of milk and honey

Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

The descendants of Noah settled on the eastern banks of the Mediterranean and over time their descendants grew and prospered throughout the region. Noah’s son Shem was given the land Eastwards from modern Lebanon, Syria and the Euphrates waterway all the way to Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) and the city of Sumer which was established 6,000 years ago. The descendants of Noah’s son Japheth travelled north and settled in areas around the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, and as far as the Greek Islands. The descendants of his son Ham were the Hamites who occupied the southern Canaan coastal lands from which the Philistines, now known as the Palestinians, emerged. Abraham, the Yahweh-anointed father of the Hebrew nation was born in Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) around 2000BCE, or a bit earlier, (4,000+ years ago). Abraham was a descendant of Shem rather than Ham but, under God’s instruction (Genesis 12) he took his family to Canaan, the coastal strip of land that the descendants of Ham, including the Philistines, lived. Abraham brought with them a different God with a different set of laws to that which was observed in Canaan.

I am reminded that the Bible of the Israelites has quite a section in their Laws regarding the do’s and don’ts of eating animals. This memory was triggered during an email conversation with an old workmate of mine who had headed off several years ago to seek fame and fortune in the bright lights of London. I have to say he has done quite well for himself actually and is now a professional pig walker. Well primarily a dog-walker but he did do a pig-gig for a bit of variety. Pigs must have become something of a trend amongst the unlanded London gentry. He was sort of like a personal trainer, but for the pigs of the wealthy of London rather than for the wealthy themselves in their gym of preference. Still, it’s a rung on the ladder to mixing with the rich and famous.

Now before you throw in your job and buy a one-way ticket to London, I have to warn you that it may not, in reality, be quite as glamorous a career as it first looks. Upon inspection of the ‘first day on the job” photos that he proudly sent, I noticed his tools of the trade included a strong lead, a trowel, and a plastic bag. I suspect, given the weight and centre of gravity of the pig, that the job involves the pig dragging him all over the manor so that he can scoop up pig poop whenever the pig feels the inclination to poop. The wealthy of London may think owning a pig is all jolly hockey sticks, but one cannot have one’s pig manure lying around the estate.

The trowel may also be required to repair lawns and gardens as he goes. A neighbour of mine decided to grow a couple of Christmas hams a year or two back, they got out of his property and rotary-hoed my lawn in a very short time. They are destructive little beggars. Anyway, our email conversation about his latest career development led to the speculation of how it might taste with a couple of poached eggs on the side. That, for some reason, (our emails always take odd and unexpected twists) led to a discussion on the unique practices of some Jewish people he knew. Oh how we laughed at the irrational phobias of the Israelites, like denying themselves of bacon sandwiches and cutting off the ends of their cocks just as Moses had been instructed on the mountain: ” by the way, Moe, when I wrote up the DNA formula for my Chosen Ones I accidentally left a bit of surplus skin on the end of  your knob; I am sorry about that, but would you mind tidying up that little flaw every time a boy is born?”

But before I condemn an entire race for what appears to be an irrational fear of enjoying the delights of a plate of crispy fried streaky bacon with eggs and tomatoes, I should actually check up on their rulebook to understand the full story. And it’s all in Leviticus 11. Sort of like the Israelite Ministry of Health’s “Good Eating Manual”. And to my surprise it’s not just pigs that are targeted.

Sons of Israel can only eat animals with both a divided hoof and which also chew cud’. (Just one or the other doesn’t work, its got to be both criteria). Chewing cud is a double processing of food and I applaud the ancients for recognising the health science benefits of maximising nutrient extraction by cud chewers. The cloven hoof criteria is a little more difficult to understand. And beasts that walk on paws as well as beasts that crawl along the ground are also off the menu.

So forbidden meats included camel, rabbit, hyrax (like a rabbit with short ears) and pig. Also, lions and snakes, I presume, and horses whose hooves be not cloven. I would have thought that Moses was angling towards saying you can only eat herbivores and not carnivores, which I would understand. But excuse me? Rabbit pie is not kosher? May I ask why? ‘Rabbits eat their own dung………’ Oh……point taken.

Now, not that I have ever eaten a camel, but I know it is a cud-chewing, two-toed herbivore so I think camels get a very rough technical red card just because having two toes and respective toenails is not, strictly speaking, a cloven hoof. But you can see Moses’ point in getting the camels on the no-eating list. Imagine him wandering past one of his little tribes as he is planning his next big march to the Promised Land to see them all sitting around watching a camel roasting on a spit. “oy yoy yoy, if you keep eating the camels it’s going to take us literally months to cross this bloody desert.”

Actually, when I think about it, there may be a truth spoken in jest. Whatever the reason, while I am not going to die in a ditch over the right to eat camel meat, a cloven hoof is one of those skinny little pointy hooves designed for agility in scrambling around rocks rather than the type of footwear needed to usefully transport a heavy load like a human across a desert. Sort of like the difference between ice skates and snowshoes. 

So maybe Leviticus is saying exactly that, don’t eat the animals we need to carry us, our tents and tabernacles across the desert: the camels, donkeys, horses and elephants. Especially when you consider the gestation of a pregnant camel is thirteen months and it takes about seven years for a male to reach maturity (female three years) and you can get fifty years work from a camel. Whereas by contrast sheep have a gestation of less than five months, reach maturity between five and twelve months, goats about the same; bulls reach maturity at twelve months and cows eighteen months. The original fast-food option.

Makes sense, it’s nothing to do with being unclean, just practical farm and transport management. Don’t eat the bloody camels, it takes too long to get another one to replace it. The lesson has been learned after the Moses desert crossing and now we know why it took forty years to get from Egypt to Israel instead of the eleven days that google maps said it would have taken by the direct route.

As for seafood, the sons of Israel may only eat that which has both fins and scales. So that rules out oysters, crayfish, prawns and crabs. Bugger. Well, I suppose in our hearts we know crustaceans are the bottom feeders of the sea, scouring the seabed for food amongst the turds of all the fish that swim above them.

Also banned are insects with four legs with the exception of a few permitted species like grasshoppers and locusts; well, that was never going to be an issue for me.

There is also a list of forbidden birds including eagles, kites and gulls. (So can’t a chap even have a seagull sandwich now?) And even if it is a clean food source but it dies (presumably of natural causes rather than being butchered by an Israelite) then it becomes unclean.

I certainly don’t argue with most of their forbidden foods on the list. Carnivorous animals that eat dead, rotten food or raw, still-functioning organs, including livers, bladders and intestines, are obviously full of nasty parasites that are quite inappropriate for the delicate human digestion system. Although I am starting to wonder what a roast camel might taste like.

Gulls and hawks are scavenging birds, with roadkill being a particular favourite and I certainly wouldn’t want to re-digest anything that they originally digested. And yes, yes we know shellfish can contain high levels of toxicity, and true enough, the crab-cakes you get at a Jewish deli are in fact made out of pulverised flesh of a fish that has fins and scales, which is a bit deceitful but probably no less so than the prawn sticks I get at a Chinese takeaway. Personally, I am prepared to take the chance when it comes to Bluff oysters and Taupo prawns, albeit I accept that I may live to regret it. I certainly regretted it the day I didn’t quite cook the prawns well enough. That was the most violently ill I have ever been in my life. I still break out in a sweat remembering it. It was not a case of fearing I might die, but rather praying that I would. And yet I still can’t resist a plate of garlic prawns. And if anyone suggests that salt and pepper squid may have neither gills nor scales, I just don’t want to know. Fingers in ears, eyes shut tight.

But what is the problem with pigs? Are they saying those cute little farmyard animals are indiscriminate eaters? They do have a divided hoof so is their only crime not chewing their cud? Seems harsh. Well, as it turns out, I have just finished a book about some rather unpleasant criminal types in southern Italy who decided to throw an unsuspecting (and innocent as it turns out) chap who they believed to be a snitch, to the pigs on a farm, comfortable in the knowledge that by morning there would be nothing left of the chap but his teeth in a pond of pig shit.

So pigs, as I learn, are classified as omnivores. They eat anything and everything.  I had recently taken a moral high ground and now only eat free-range pig meat. But now that I think about it, allowing them to wander about freely probably just increases the odds that the free ranging pig I am about to eat has already recently eaten a dead hedgehog, a plastic coke bottle, a trowel, a bag of its own shit and a professional pig-walker. No amount of smoking of the beast actually makes eating them sound any better. I think the Israelites have got this one dead right.

There are many gentiles who believe we should not actually be eating any meat at all; that our diet should be entirely plant-based for our health and for the climate. I am not sure they are thinking clearly. Grass eating animals, ruminants, need special intestinal systems to process a 100% plant-based diet. The ruminant stomach has four components: rumen, reticulum, omasum and abomasum. Only then do the small and large intestines get a look in. Then they have to eat for eight hours a day just to get enough energy to be able to do the same thing tomorrow, getting fatter each day without thinking about it. But the humans brain actually uses 20% of our energy intake just to deal with all the challenges we set ourselves in the evolution of our civilisation. Therefore, we need a much more efficient system of getting our energy, which is to let animals spend all day eating grass and concentrating that energy into their flesh then we eat some of that. But we also eat fruit and vegetables which makes us omnivores. We are omnivores because chimpanzees are omnivores, and we inherited their digestive system. I am not sure why that is but it is nature and vegans interfere with nature at their peril. However carnivorous animals like the cat and dog families do not eat any vegetables, fruits, or dairy products. But they also don’t think much or do much with their lives, they are just carnivores because that gives them more time to laze around and not have stand in a paddock eating for eight hours. Apart from dolphins which are also carnivore but that is seafood, not landfood and possibly the reason they are also smart and spend a lot of time and energy swimming and surfing. I think dolphins have the best gig but that may be because I am a Pisces. 

And I am reliably informed that the Israelites chop the skin off the end of their cocks to stop the irritating sand getting under their foreskin. Even back in the Biblical, desert-crossing days I would have thought wearing undies and peeing downwind might have been a less dramatic way of solving the problem. 

Speaking of the Israelites, has there ever, through history, been a more troubled piece of earth than the strip of land on the east coast of the Mediterranean Sea between Turkey to the north and Egypt to the south?

Abraham had a son Isaac with his wife Sarah (plus many more illegitimates by concubines), Isaac married Rebekah and had two sons Esau and Jacob. Esau moved away to Seir (Gen. 36:6) as the land could not support both his and Jacob’s families. Jacob had twelve sons including Joseph by his second wife Rachel. Through jealousy of Joseph’s favoured status with Jacob, his brothers sold him into slavery, and he eventually arrived in Egypt. Some years after the selling of Joseph as a slave, Jacob took his family to Egypt due to famine in Canaan. Genesis 46:27 and Exodus 1:1 named those who went with Jacob and state their total number. With his eleven sons and their families they totalled 70 people.

Egypt was emerging as a strong civilisation as so many farmers from other parts of Africa had progressively migrated to the very fertile land in the Nile valley. There they met Joseph again. Joseph had prospered in Egypt and was now very influential with the Pharaoh himself as a dream interpreter. Around 1400BC a Hebrew called Moses, under the instruction and with the assistance of the God known to the Israelites as Yahweh, persuaded the Pharaoh to let him lead the Hebrews out of slavery in Egypt (Exodus 12:41).

The assistance of Yahweh was in the form of temporarily creating a powerful wind to hold back the water of the Sea of Reeds to allow a crossing and to safeguard them from the chasing Egyptians whose Pharaoh had apparently had a change of heart about freeing them. Yahweh guided them through the wilderness by way of a “cloud” hovering over them during the day and that cloud becoming a pillar of light for night travel. (Exodus 13:21). Periodically the “cloud” would land beside the tent of meeting and God would meet with the leaders of the Hebrews. (Exodus 33: 7-11).

Exodus 12:41 said the Israelites were in Egypt 430 years. They would have left Egypt with Moses around 1400BC and, according to Exodus 12:37 there were 600,000 Hebrew men plus their families. 600,000 men would have had a similar number of women in the same age, totalling 1.2 million adults plus children. That is an impressive growth rate from the eleven breeding pairs arriving in Egypt. Over 400 years it would require each breeding pair to produce an average of six children through to breeding age, ignoring for the moment the close relationships and the inevitable high death rate of slaves before they reached breeding age. It is also a very impressive logistical feat to move over a million ex slaves on such a march.

In the wilderness food was clearly a major concern for such a large population. Yahweh was also responsible for an aerial drop of a bread substance, six days a week for forty years to feed the travelling Israelites in the desert. The bread or dough appears to have arrived frozen: “in the morning there was a coating of dew all-round the camp. When the coating of dew lifted there was a thing delicate, powdery…that, said Moses is the bread Yahweh gives you to eat.” (Exodus 16: 13-15). “And when the sun grew hot, it dissolved” (Exodus 16:21).

Finally, Yahweh led the Israelites in battle to conquer the lands of Canaan (Deuteronomy 1:29-30). Yahweh demanded singularity of recognition as the God of the Israelites. His first commandment of all the rules for conduct he gave to Moses was: “I am Yahweh, your God, you shall worship no other Gods but me. For I, Yahweh am a jealous God. “ (Exodus 20). However, Yahweh never in the Bible said he was the only Deity, his words in the first commandment indicate there are other Gods although Israelites believe He was referring to pagan idols rather than real Gods.

After 40 years in the desert, the twelve tribes finally arrived back in Canaan, although Moses had not lived to reach his destination. It is never satisfactorily explained why Yahweh led them on a 40-year wander around the wilderness when it was only an 11-day journey from Egypt to Canaan by the most direct route. The reason for detouring across the Sea of Reeds and travelling south into the wilderness was given as avoiding confrontation with the Philistines, (Exodus 13: 17) which, Yahweh was concerned, would encourage the Israelites to return to Egypt. This longer route explains why it would take more than 11 days for the journey; however, 40 years is an extraordinarily long detour. The explanation in Deuteronomy 8:2-3 “Yahweh, your God, led you for forty years in the wilderness, to humble you, to test you and know your innermost heart.” But in Joshua 5:6 it says, “The Israelites had moved about in the wilderness forty years until all the men who were of military age when they left Egypt had died,” It continued that the reason they died was because they disobeyed God.

After 40 years in the wilderness, 601,750 fighting-aged men (plus families) arrived in Canaan (Numbers 26:51), a similar number to that which departed Egypt 40 years earlier and it would appear a reasonable assumption that Yahweh intended that the generation arriving in Canaan would have been raised from a very young age under the laws, guidance and military training of Yahweh.

Despite Yahweh’s original desire to avoid confrontation with the Philistines, there was a great deal of military action, bloodshed, looting and slavery of young women undertaken under Yahweh’s instruction before the Israelites eventually re-established themselves in the land of Canaan forty years after the escape from Egypt. Clearly the new generation of Hebrews had been trained during their decades in the wilderness to wage war on these descendants of Ham. Perhaps Yahweh had not felt the original enslaved Israelites had the necessary military skill and strength of character to conquer Canaan, which is why He avoided initial military conflict with the Philistines when they first escaped Egypt.

But with an army of 600,000 men, the Hebrews began attacking the inhabitants of Canaan beginning with the Midian people. Numbers 31: 1 “Yahweh spoke to Moses and said, ‘exact full vengeance for the sons of Israel on the Midianites. The Israelites captured the Midianite women and children and took all the Midianite herds, flocks and goods as plunder. 10 They burned all the towns where the Midianites had settled, as well as all their camps. 11 They took all the plunder and spoils, including the people and animals, 12 and brought the captives, spoils and plunder to Moses and Eleazar the priest and the Israelite assembly at their camp on the plains of Moab, by the Jordan across from Jericho.’ The Book of numbers details the spoils of war from that battle as: ‘The plunder remaining from the spoils that the soldiers took was 675,000 sheep, 33 72,000 cattle, 34 61,000 donkeys 35 and 32,000 women who had never slept with a man‘ as well as apportioning the share of the spoils that were given to the high priest of the Levites, servants of Yahweh’s tabernacle as a tribute to Yahweh.

The God Yahweh was certainly a God of war, not peace. He brought the Hebrews out of slavery in Egypt to the Promised Land, but it was a most violent intrusion into a land that had been legitimately populated by the descendants of Ham, son of Noah, and the Hebrews have not known peace since they arrived there. The Israelites continued their battles against the residents throughout Canaan until they had established themselves in this Promised Land. The tribes of Israel were allocated their areas of land according to Yahweh’s instruction and continued to live tribal life over the next 3-400 years with neither central government nor central place of worship to Yahweh. The governance was by the tribal Judges (Holy Men) and the military leaders. But it was a life both of integration into Canaanite cities and intermarriage with Canaanites and also constant tribal wars. Many who integrated with the Canaanites abandoned Yahweh and gave their loyalty to the God of the Canaanites, Baal, son of the god Dagon.

In one battle with the Philistines, who had become the most powerful race in the region, the Israelites lost the Ark of the Covenant with the Lord Yahweh. The Philistines slaughtered 30,000 Israelites and claimed the Ark, which they brought back to the temple of Dagon, in Ashdod, which was on the coast of the West Bank. However, the Philistines returned the Ark to the Israelites seven months later when their people had become afflicted with boils and ulcers and other calamities that they attributed to possessing the Ark. The return of the Ark sparked a renewed interest among the Jews in the heritage of Yahweh and the journey from Egypt.

Yahweh communicated through the prophets. Samuel, who had ‘heard the voice of God’ since a young person was the acknowledged senior Prophet and Judge of Israel. Samuel preached the return to the laws of the Bible, and, under the instruction of Yahweh, anointed a man named Saul as the first King of Israel under whose rule the twelve tribes could be united. This was 1046 BCE, just over 3,000 years ago. It was the same time that Rome was established as a settlement of farmers and shepherds. There was a level of dissatisfaction with Saul during his reign and conversely much support for David, a military hero and leader following his slaying of Goliath. There was much conflict between Saul and David, although David did marry Saul’s daughter. Saul died in the battle of Gilboa against the Philistines when he fell on his sword rather than be captured. David at the time had led a successful battle against the Amalekites.

At this time Saul’s military commander appointed Saul’s son, Ishbaal as king of Israel. The nation became divided between the House of Saul, which was based in northern Israel, and the House of David, which was based in Judea. They met in battle at Gibeon and David was victorious. As the House of Saul became weaker, Ishbaal’s own men eventually murdered him and delivered his head to David. They were put to death for their treachery.

Under King David, Israel was united, and the Israelites conquered their old enemy, the Philistines and established Jerusalem as David’s city. David was succeeded by his son, Solomon. After Solomon’s death in 925 BC Israel again became divided between Israel and Judea. The Kings of Israel ruled until 721 BC when the Assyrians conquered Northern Israel; the Kingdom of Judea lasted until 605 BC when the Babylonians conquered them, and the temple was destroyed and over subsequent periods to 582 BC the Jews were deported into captivity in Babylon.

In 538 BC the Persians conquered the Babylonians and ruled Judea; then in 332 BC Alexander the Great conquered the Persians and brought Judea under the Greek Empire. Judea was temporarily independent again when the Jewish tribe of the Maccabees staged a successful revolt in 164 BC but then in 63 BC the Romans acquired the state when they conquered the Greek empire. The Romans eventually tired of the regular Jewish insurrections and in 135 AD, they brutally crushed the Jewish state with hundreds of thousands of Jews killed, deported or sold into slavery. The Romans renamed Judea as Palestine (Palaestina) derived from “Philistine”.

It was not until 1948 AD, after the Second World War, that the victorious gentile nations re-created the state of Israel, a state that remains in the state of war with the Palestinians that they had from their arrival out of Egypt 3,500 years earlier.

The latest chapter in this saga of the Jews seeking their promised land occurred in the early 1980’s when it had been confirmed in Israel that a tribe of Jews had been living in Ethiopia since ancient times. This tribe practiced the Jewish faith, they knew of Jerusalem, and they dreamed of one day going to the promised land. They were first discovered by European Jews in 1867 when a French Jewish university lecturer named Joseph Halevy travelled to Ethiopia in 1867 in search of the fabled Ethiopian Jews.  How this tribe came about is lost in time although King Solomon’s infatuation with the Queen of Sheba (Ethiopia) would be the most likely explanation. According to one traditional account, Makeda, the Queen of Sheba, visited Solomon’s court and stayed with him for six months. After she returned to Ethiopia, she bore Solomon a son who she named Menilek. But until the Ethiopians actually met Halevy, they had no idea that Jews were not all black skinned. The discovery did not create any political interest until the 1980’s when Mossad, Israel’s secret service, was instructed to begin a programme of secret extraction of Ethiopian Jews into Israel. It was a complicated diplomatic situation given Israel’s conflicts in the region and the Ethiopians had to find their own way on foot from their village into Sudan where they had to pose as refugees in camps awaiting the Mossad agents, also there under false identities, to arrange their secret extraction to Israel. The story of the Promised Land just keeps getting more interesting. The full story of this mission is detailed in Raffi Berg’s book, “Red Sea Spies” and is well worth the read. 

Today, in the 21st century, this region still presents a volatility that threatens the peace of the entire earth. According to their history book the Bible, a very small tribe of descendants of Abraham, 70 people, left the region of milk and honey during very serious famine, when milk and honey was nowhere to be found, and went to live in Egypt. They returned 400+ years later as an army of 600,000 men plus families and brutally waged war on the tribes that lived there. They established their own nation of Israel with bloodshed, and they have never known peace since.

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