Milking a Milk Metaphor

19 Jun

Today’s post continues the discussion from the previous couple entries.  If you haven’t read them yet check em’ out:

  1. Two Tales of Two Trees
  2. Pentecost and Two Tales of Two Trees

We’re a bit past the traditional time for Pentecost but I’ll persist once more.  Many of us “laity” in Christianity are familiar with the Acts 2 account of Pentecost, but fewer are aware that it corresponds with the Jewish celebration of Shavuot.  For the Jews, Shavuot is a celebration of the giving of the Torah & the ten commandments.  One interesting part of their tradition is that the holiday meal is composed of primarily dairy dishes.  For the Jewish people the symbolism is quite meaningful.  When the law was first given on Mount Sinai, the people were initially unprepared for the new koshering rules for meat and thus made their first meal after the blessing from the dairy products on hand.

Once I found this it got me thinking about the symbolism of milk in Jewish scriptures.  As I began researching the topic, I found that milk has historically been used as a symbol for the Torah.  Jewish Rabbis usually maintain that Solomon was referring to the Torah when he said “milk and honey are under your tongue” in Song of Solomon.  The Torah is filled with references to Israel as “the land of milk and honey”.  Rabbis have often maintained that the “land of milk and honey” was not only describing a fertile homeland for the Jewish people, but also a land of Torah.  They desired a place where the they would know what God required of them and where they would have the freedom to practice their faith.  The Torah, for them, was that which would nurture and sustain their people as they started a new nation in Israel.

So at this point in my journey through exploring the symbolism of milk as Torah my mind jumped to Hebrews 10 where the writer says: “The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming—not the realities themselves. For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship.”

Sidetrack –> The shadows mentioned in that verse always remind me of the shadows in Plato’s Allegory of the Cave…if you haven’t ever read it, do so.

Back on track –> If we back up to chapter 5 of Hebrews we return again to our metaphor “We have much to say about this, but it is hard to make it clear to you because you no longer try to understand. In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness.” 

So here we have milk being used as a metaphor again, this time in a letter written to Jews who had come to a faith in Christ.  I believe the original readers would have already been quite familiar with the traditional metaphor of milk as Torah.  The language used, with that in mind, takes on a more surprising and challenging meaning.   He extends the metaphor to invoke a picture of infancy or immaturity.

So if we merge the two metaphors of milk as Torah and milk as food for the immature we get this point:  The law, with all of it’s black and white rules and regulations, had a purpose for spiritual training.  There is a turning point though when we reach spiritual maturity.  At that point we are no longer bound to any such religious laws. We gain the freedom to live in a world filled not just with black and white, but one with every color under the sun.  Neither the training period nor the mature existence is innately right or wrong.  But the author does have a bone to pick with some of his readers.  There were (and are) some who went through the tutorials of rules and regulations, but rather than moving on to the freedom provided from a spiritually mature life, they continue to maintain a monochromatic faith.  For an extended biblical dialogue on this concept check out the book of Galatians.  Chapter 2, verse 19 sums up the point nicely: “For through the law I died to the law so that I might live for God.”

Although I mentioned the verses from Acts 2 last week I think it would be appropriate to repeat them again, this time with a new context fresh in our minds:

And when the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance. And there were dwelling at Jerusalem Jews, devout men, out of every nation under heaven. Now when this was noised abroad, the multitude came together, and were confounded, because that every man heard them speak in his own language.

The symbolic transition from law to Spirit, represented by this story, not only has historical significance but also personal significance for each of us.  Many of us, as individuals, have been taught religion in the form of rules and regulations.  For a period of time, they help to build a sense of morality and character.  However, many of us reach a time when lists of do’s and don’ts become inadequate to express our worldview and our relationship with God.  Times like that require a transition; they require an outpouring of the Holy Spirit.  Only then can we operate in a mature and colorful faith.

If you’ve experienced this kind of transition let us know what it looked in your life.  Comment below.


Posted by on June 19, 2011 in Christianity, Emerging Church, Theology


2 responses to “Milking a Milk Metaphor

  1. Monique Thiesen Sawyer

    June 22, 2011 at 4:10 am

    I love this, Jim. I definitely have gone through a spiritual awakening of sorts, which began in college as I was challenged by open-minded theology, literature, and psychology professors at Point Loma Nazarene University. I struggled with my strict evangelical upbringing for years and have come to know such freedom apart from this “law”. One of the many, many things I found very helpful during this transformative period was reading Fowler’s Stages of Faith. I think he describes just what you’re talking about!

    • jimwangerin

      June 23, 2011 at 6:06 am

      Glad you liked the post Monique. I’m a bit jealous of the availability you had to professors while going through that transition. I can imagine how helpful that would be. Stages of Faith sounds interesting…I might need to add it to my reading list.


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