Bee – Day 7 out of 30 Days [Biblically] Wild

The Bee – דְּבוֹרָה (deborah)

Honey Bee (Apis mellifera) collecting pollen. Image: Gustavo Fotoopa

Possibly the most redolent sound of summer is that of the soft, lazy hum of bees among sun-warmed lavender. Out of all flying insects, it could be argued that bees are the most well loved – or at least well tolerated. I’ve known people renowned for distractedly swatting away flies, wasps and all kinds of insects, sit for (what seems like) hours patiently coaxing a grounded bee to with sugar water or honey.

The recent concerns over declining population has also helped to promote a re-assessment of the bee and our attitudes to it. Tracey Thorn’s recent tweet exemplifies this beautifully.

Tweet from Tracey Thorn (screen shot) 23/05/2019

Bees at work (on an industrial scale!)

Bees (Apis mellifera) are a bit of an anomaly in biblical texts. Although they are mentioned just 4 times, their produce, honey – דְּבַשׁ (debash), occurs 54 times in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) and, in its Greek form – μέλι (meli), a further 4 times in the New Testament. What is also rather strange, noting the numerous times that honey is mentioned, there is no reference to apiculture (beekeeping) in the Bible at all (see for example the reflection of Goodfellow, 2015:82-86). In fact, although apiary was practised in Egypt since the time of the Old Kingdom (2649–2150 BCE), until recently, there was no evidence that beekeeping was practiced in Israel at all until the Hellenistic Period (see Firmage, 1992:1150 and Borowski, 1998:161).

Row of Iron Age clay hives at Tel Rehov excavation, Israel (2007). Image: Tel Rehov Expedition, the Hebrew University.

However, recent excavations of the city of Tel Rehov in the Jordan Valley have uncovered dozens of clay containers dating back 3000 years to Iron Age IIA (980-840 BCE), that are thought to have been beehives. This places it at the time associated with the early monarchy in Israel and when the earliest strata of biblical literature was being produced. If this is the case, they would provide evidence of the oldest known commercial apiary in the world (more images and information here).

The enterprise appears to have been large scale and it is estimated that the site contained around 180 ‘hives’. The hives took the form of clay cylinders, 40 centimetres in diameter and 80 centimetres long. They were laid in top of each other in three rows (see image below). Each hive had a small hole at one end providing the bee access. The other end comprised a lid that could be removed by its a handle. It has been estimated that each hive could have produced, annually, between 3 and 5 kg honey and between 0.5 and 0.7 kg of wax. This meant that the site at Tel Rehov was capable of producing half a ton of honey and up to 70 kg of wax per year (Yamauchi, 2016:46).

Artists impression of the Tel Rehov beehives at work: Image:

The apiary at Tel Rehov helps us to answer one of the puzzles about the repeated use of ‘honey’ in the Hebrew texts – particularly those referring to the land. On 16 different occasions the land is referred to as being ‘a land of milk and honey (דְּבַשׁ – debash)’; for example, Exodus 3:8. The apparent lack of any early forms of apiculture in Israel led scholars to question why the land was associated so directly with honey and to suggest that דְּבַשׁ (debash) possibly denoted other sweet substances rather than ‘honey’ (see, Yamauchi, 2016:45-46).  Borowski (1998: 161) consequently suggested that we should be cautious with too closely identifying  דְּבַשׁ (debash) with bee-honey as it can also be used for “honeydew and its crystallised form (manna), syrup made from dates or other fruit, or anything sweet.” Whilst, debash could well denote a range of sweet products, in the light of Tel Rehov, such caution may be a little overstated. 

Nevertheless, questions still remain. If there was large-scale (and one might plausibly presume small-scale, localised) apicultural activity in biblical Israel, why is there no mention of it in the Bible?

The cleric and naturalist Henry Baker Tristram (1898) travelled through Palestine in the late 19th century and he records that, although ‘domestic apiary’ was evident (1898:325), he observed that, even then:

[T]he greater quantity of the honey sold in the south of Palestine is obtained from wild swarms.

Tristram (1898:323)

The two references in biblical literature that relate to the collection of honey as a foodstuff describe this type of wild-harvesting.

France (1986:23) describes how “savage” wild bees swarm in the “many fissures of rocks that flank the valleys in Bible lands.” Harvesting wild honey, apparently, was not for the fainthearted.

8After a while [Samson] returned to marry [Timnah], and he turned aside to see the carcass of the lion, and there was a swarm of bees in the body of the lion, and honey. 9He scraped it out into his hands, and went on, eating as he went. When he came to his father and mother, he gave some to them, and they ate it. But he did not tell them that he had taken the honey from the carcass of the lion.

Judges 14: 8-9 (NRSV)

25All the troops came upon a honeycomb; and there was honey on the ground. 26When the troops came upon the honeycomb, the honey was dripping out; but they did not put their hands to their mouths, for they feared the oath. 27But Jonathan had not heard his father charge the troops with the oath; so he extended the staff that was in his hand, and dipped the tip of it in the honeycomb, and put his hand to his mouth; and his eyes brightened.

1 Samuel 14:25-27 (NRSV

Deuteronomy 32:13 also refers to being fed “honey out of a rock”.

Consumption of wild honey (μέλι ἄγριον) – or honey from wild bees – is also attested in New Testament literature (see for example Mark 1:6). Tristram (1898:324) noted that he found that wild bees were “far more numerous” in the wilderness of Judea, where we are told that John the Baptist was ministering, “than in any other part of Palestine.”

Honey offered to foreign gods? 

Yamauchi (2016:161) suggests that a clay altar, also found on the Tel Rehov site, with four horns and two naked female goddesses, could indicate that honey was offered here to Canaanite deities. If this is the case, he postulates that this might be the reason for “the Hebrew prohibition against including honey in the offerings to the Lord.”

…for you must not turn any leaven or honey into smoke as an offering by fire to the Lord.

Leviticus 12:11 (NRSV)

What about the bee?

Abusir (“the House or Temple of Osiris”): north of Memphis and Saqqara, south of Cairo
John-Andrew Ginsbury, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Heiroglyphs relating to apiculture and kingship. Source:

The proximity of Egypt to Israel (and the relative lack of ancient apiculture to the north) means that it is more than likely that the bee – דְּבוֹרָה (deborah) – referred to by the biblical writers would have been the native Egyptian honeybee (Apis mellifera lamarckii) (see Borowski, 1986:162 and Goodfellow, 2015:86). Crane (1983:39) describes this type as being noted for its “aggression”. This might be why references within the Bible to bees tend to focus on their aggression rather than their produce!

Deuteronomy 1:44 and Psalm 118:12 both use the bee metaphorically to describe the swarming onslaught of the enemy.

The Amorites who lived in that hill country then came out against you and chased you as bees do.

Deuteronomy 1:44

One further metaphorical use in the Hebrew Bible occurs in Isaiah.

 On that day the Lord will whistle for the fly that is at the sources of the streams of Egypt, and for the bee that is in the land of Assyria.

Isaiah 7:18 (NRSV)

Borowski (1986:161) observes that, noting the lack of apiculture in the Mesopotamian region at that time (with only one attempt during the mid 8th century BCE ), the choice of ‘bee’ to signify Assyria is strange (Borowski, 1998:161). This is all the more so because Egypt, also mentioned in this oracle, not only (as we have seen) had a long established tradition of beekeeping, but also used the bee, from very early in its history, as the symbol for the king of Lower Egypt.

The Bee and the Wild Goat

Deborah (centre) in Salomon de Bray’s (1635) painting of Jael, Deborah and Barak

This depiction of the bee, as in some way aggressive (Deut 1:44), is also used in a rather surprising way. One of the earliest biblical female role models is the rather enigmatic figure of Deborah (Judges 4-5). She appears as one of the Judges who oversee the tribes of Israel in the period before the monarchy. She and, her fellow Judge Barak, liberate the Israelites from Canaanite oppression. Although the text is careful not to depict her as leading the Israelite army, it is clear that she is the driving force (and motivator!) of Barak. It is, therefore, not surprising that she should take the name of דְּבוֹרָה (deborah) – the bee. See yesterday’s post on The Wild Goat/Ibex (Day 6) for another women who plays a major part in this story and who also takes the name of an animal!

Further research on ancient apiary

For those interested in bee keeping in ancient Egypt – there is a nicely produced introduction to it on Living on Earth: The Beekeepers of Ancient Egypt

There is also a highly recommended two-part post on the Ancient Blogger site:

I have also just come across a fascinating volume that has just been published and is open access on Issuu:

Hatjina, F. Mavrofridis, G. and Jones, R. (eds.) (2018) Beekeeping in the Mediterranean – From Antiquity to the present. Nea Moudania


Published on Jan 2, 2018
Take part in the Wildlife Trust’s ’30 Days Wild” challenge


Borowski, O. (1998) Every Living Thing: Daily use of animals in ancient Israel. Walnut Creek: Altamira Sage Press.

Crane, E. (1983) The Archaeology of Beekeeping. New York: Cornell University Press.

Firmage, E. (1992) ‘Zoology’ In. Freedman, D.N. (ed.) The Anchor Bible Dictionary: Volume 6: Si-Z. New York: Doubleday. pp. 1109-1167.

France, P. (1986) An Encyclopedia of Bible Animals. London: Croom Helm.

Goodfellow, P. (2015) Flora and Fauna of the Bible: A guide for Bible readers and naturalists. Oxford: John Beaufoy.

Hatjina, F. Mavrofridis, G. and Jones, R. (eds.) (2018) Beekeeping in the Mediterranean – From Antiquity to the present. Nea Moudania

Tristram, H.B. (1898) The natural history of the Bible : being a review of the physical geography, geology, and meteorology of the Holy Land; with a description of every animal and plant mentioned in the Holy Scripture. 9th edn. London: Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge.

Yamauchi, E.M. (2016) ‘Insects’. In. E.M. Yamauchi and M.R. Wilson. (eds.) Dictionary of Daily Life in Biblical and Post-Biblical Antiquity. Volume III: I-N. Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers. pp. 42-60.

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