Hotter Holy Land

Q. I remember the Bible describing the Holy Land as flowing with milk and honey. When I visited there recently, I found it dry and more desert-like. Was the Bible exaggerating?

R.E., Tampa, Florida

A. Here’s a reply from Msgr. Charles Pope: 

Probably not. There is good evidence that the Holy Land as we know it today is somewhat warmer and drier than in biblical times.

For example, in Genesis 13, the region of Sodom and Gomorrah is described as being well-watered and like a rich garden. But the text makes it clear that this was its appearance “before the Lord destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah” (Gn 13:10). Today that region, likely the area around the Dead Sea, is deep desert.

Other areas of the Holy Land seemed to have featured more trees and agriculture in biblical times than today. For example, in 1000 B.C., Solomon is described as being able to harvest prodigious amounts of trees for his building projects. Land-use studies and archeology also provide evidence of the prevalence of crops and forests, which were suited to cooler, wetter climates.

Israel currently has a program attempting to reverse the desertification by planting trees, a program that has received large financial support. This is an attempt to partially reforest Israel.

Your visit may also have been affected by topography and season. Israel has a wet season from October to April and a dry season from June to September, and this affects the greenery a great deal. Further, the region up north around the Sea of Galilee is far more green and lush than the areas south near Bethlehem and Jerusalem.

Therefore, the Promised Land known in biblical times likely did flow with “milk and honey.” This expression speaks to abundant livestock and the rich crop life of an area more green and lush than today.