The Wartburg Project

August 2nd, 2017

31. Did Israelites eat cheese curds like ours? (Isaiah 7)

Answering that question is partly easy, partly hard. The easy part: Did Israelites eat cheese curds? The answer: Yes. The hard part: like ours? The possible answers to that are: yes, no, we don’t know, very likely. (The last answer is probably the best.)

The reason for this dilemma is a principle that is extremely important for Bible translators and Bible readers to remember: Hundreds, more likely thousands, of our translations are not exact matches but only analogies or partial overlaps with the Hebrew terms. One English word almost never lines up as an exact match with one Hebrew word. The words merely overlap to a greater or lesser degree. It may take several English terms to cover the ground covered by one Hebrew word and vice versa. For example, when we lived in Israel, we saw for sale at least four or five different things which we called yogurt, but all of them had different names in Hebrew and Arabic.

When people look at the world that God made and attempt to describe it, they divide it up into categories that make sense to them, but different languages draw the boundaries between categories in different places. For example, we have a category called “blue.” We recognize that the exact boundaries of “blue” are blurry, but we would be quite surprised at the color chips which some people would include or omit from their category which we translate as “blue.” The Hebrew terms which we translate blue, purple, and red are not perfect matches for those terms, but they are the best we can do.

Many, or even most, of our translations for biblical objects like colors, trees, gems, musical instruments, and so on, are only approximations that place us in the right ball park. They do not provide us with a precise picture of the object.

Take musical instruments for example. The Israelites had an instrument called chatsotserah. We translate chatsotserah as trumpet, but without reading study Bibles or commentaries, an English Bible reader will not have the right picture of the priests’ trumpets in his or her mind, because the Israelites’ “trumpet” was a long, straight, metal tube with a small bell and no valves. Our most viable choices for a translation of chatsotserah are trumpet, chatsotserah, or a long straight metal tube with a small bell and no valves. Given these options, trumpet seems to be the best approximation, to give readers the right idea. For further clarification, readers will have to look at descriptions and pictures of the ancient instruments.

Similar issues exist with our translations of harps, lyres, ram’s horns, and drums. These items are discussed elsewhere in our rubrics and FAQs.

In the food category we can consider five items: beer, wine, bread, honey, and cheese.

The two categories of alcoholic beverages in the Bible seem to be grape-based and grain-based. The current archaeological term for the ancient grain-based beverages is beer, not strong drink, which tends to make a person think of distilled or fortified beverages like brandy or whisky. The archaeological and historical evidence suggests that producing distilled alcoholic beverages was not part of the Israelite culture. Some major differences between ancient beer and our beer are that theirs was made from loaves of bread; it did not have hops; it had debris in it, so it was often drunk through straws; and fruit or honey were thrown in to aid fermentation. Contemporary beer-drinkers who sample “beer” made with the ancient recipes and by the ancient processes might say “That is not beer” or “Ancient beer is an acquired taste.” But since beer is the standard archaeological term for these ancient grain-based beverages and beer is the closest approximation to the ancient beverage, beer is the term EHV will use.

Purists would say nothing can properly be called wine unless it is made from grapes, but we, of course, have a proliferation of all kinds of “wine” (cherry, blueberry, dandelion). Without pasteurization or refrigeration, grape juice rather quickly changes from sweet “new wine” to a sour variety of wine. In some translations this is called vinegar, but this term may confuse readers, because there are many kinds of vinegar, and we generally do not drink vinegar but use it for cooking and pickling. So we translate this over-fermented beverage as sour wine, rather than vinegar. Such sour wine was, of course, cheaper and was a basic beverage for the lower classes.

The Hebrew dvash refers to honey made by bees and to sweet fruit syrup, often made from dates. To make it explicit when bee honey is intended, the Hebrew text sometimes adds a term like honey from the comb. EHV usually translates dvash as honey, except in contexts in which it is necessary to specify the other possibility. This is often done by a footnote.

Hebrew has numerous terms for various shapes and thicknesses of baked goods. Sometimes the context or the description of the process enables us to choose a translation like pancakes or flatbread. Older translations often refer to Israelites making cakes, but since this might made readers think of birthday cakes or something similar, for small baked goods a translation like rolls is less likely to give a wrong impression.

Another issue with grain products is the term grits. Grits are grain that has been cut or crushed. Steel-cut oats are a form of grits. When Americans hear the word grits, most will think of Southern-style, cooked corn grits. The biblical grits were quite different—obviously they were not made from maize corn but made from other grains. They were often roasted. Nevertheless, we use the word grits when it is the appropriate word to describe an Israelite grain product. That doesn’t make EHV a Southern or American translation.

So what about dairy products, which precipitated the question? We tend to think of four major categories: milk, butter, cheese, and yogurt. It is very clear the Hebrews did not draw their boundaries in the same places that we do.

If we offered Israelites a drink of some of our so-called milk, they would likely say, “Milk? That is not milk. That is whey.” (Whey is the thinnish liquid that is left after all the “good stuff” is taken out of the whole milk.) For dairy advocates, the term milk raises the same question that wine does. Can a product made from cashews or almonds properly be called milk, or is that honored title reserved for products from cows, sheep, goats, and camels? Language and life are complicated.

It appears that none of the dairy products mentioned in the Bible is a very close approximation of our butter, which we generally do not eat but use as a spread or an ingredient, but the term butter does appear in many older translations. See the further comments below.

There are five biblical expressions that are approximations of the term cheese. Can we distinguish them?

In 1 Samuel 17:18 we find the term that turns out to be the best approximation of our term cheese: David takes ten blocks of cheese to the commander of his brothers’ unit in the army.  The literal Hebrew expression is ten cuts of milk. So it appears that a cut of milk is the biblical Hebrew term for what we would call block or sliced cheese.

Another biblical term for cheese is gevinah. It probably refers to more solid forms. This is also the modern Hebrew term for cheese.

Job 10:10: “Aren’t you the one who poured me out like milk, who thickened me like a curd of cheese?”  

The progression of the comparison in this verse is from the liquid of the semen to the solid mass of the embryo. Here the term curd of cheese works better than piece of cheese, because that could be understood as a slice.

The Hebrew word that most concerns us here is chemah and its variants.

In 2 Samuel 17:29, David receives a gift of honey, cheese curds, sheep, and cheese from cow’s milk. Here cheese curds is our translation of the word chemah, which traditionally has been translated butter.

This term chemah appears also in the following passages, which will give a fuller picture of the range of dairy products included in chemah. The second term translated cheese is shephoth, which quite possibly is a form of yogurt made from cow’s milk, but since we don’t know, for now we have kept the term cheese. (Incidentally, today the generic Hebrew term for yogurt is yogurt.) Did you notice the other cultural difference lurking here? We generally assume cheese is made from cow’s milk, and we must label it if it is not—for example, goat cheese. For Israelites it was the opposite—they would assume it was sheep or goat cheese unless it was labeled cow cheese. Life and language are complicated.

Proverbs 30:33 is a passage that might seem to support the translation of butter for chemah. It is sometimes translated: “churning milk (or cream) produces butter, and punching a nose brings forth blood,” but it could also be translated “pressing milk produces cheese curds.

 Chemah (or a related word) occurs in five other passages.

Genesis 18:8: Abraham took cheese curds, milk, and the calf that he had prepared and set it before the visitors.

There is no clear indication of the form of cheese here.

Job 20:17: “He will not see the streams, the rivers which flow with honey and cream.”

Here the chemah is as flowing as the honey, so cream is better than curds and more appetizing to most of us than curdled milk.

Psalm 55:21
His flattery is as smooth as butter
His words are more soothing than oil.

Here the comparison requires that the chemah flows like oil, and our idioms of smoothness suggests the translation butter. (A variant form of the root chamah is used here. Perhaps this signifies a distinction from regular chemah.)

Judges 5:25
Sisera asked for water, but Jael gave him milk.

In a bowl fit for a nobleman she presented cheese curds.

The prose account mentions only milk to drink, so if this poetic couplet is synonymous parallelism, the chemah is liquid enough to be drunk. If that is the case, the translation should be changed to curdled milk. But many of our readers might find cheese curds more appealing than curdled milk, so this maybe is a toss-up. 

Ezekiel 34:3: The bad shepherds eat the curds, wear the wool, and slaughter the fattened ones—but they do not shepherd the flock.

Here the word translated curds is literally fat. It is not the fat off the meat, but the fat in the milk. (With a slight change of the Hebrew vowels, this verse could be literally translated they eat the milk.) Since they are eating the milk, it must be in solid form, as the blocks of milk were in the passage cited above. If we elsewhere translate solid forms of chemah as cheese curds, using the simple term curds here will distinguish the two Hebrew terms. Some translations use the more literal rendering fat in this verse. This brings out another problem. In the Bible, fat is the best of foods, worthy of being offered to the Lord. Because of the feeling against fat food in some parts of our culture, EHV generally translates fat food with something like rich food or the best food.

Isaiah 7:15 Immanuel eats cheese curds and honey. This is the passage that raised the question.

So what do we conclude?

So how does chemah compare to the cheese curds most familiar to us? Sometimes it is more liquid and more like yogurt. If it has been dried for a long time, it is probably harder and more crumbly, to the degree we might not call it cheese curds any more. We expect cheese curds to be fresh and squeaky.

Why do we sometimes use cheese curds as a translation for chemah instead of the short form curds? Curds would be fine in many contexts, since most (but not all) curds are curdled milk, but cheese curds may sometimes be clearer for some hearers for a number of reasons. It is more specific for hearers who are aware of other kinds of curds, such as bean curd tofu. (British curds, for example, are made with eggs and butter and flavored with fruit.) It is also clearer for people who are not familiar with curds as part of their food vocabulary (more people than Wisconsinites might think). The addition of cheese to the translation immediately signals the category to the person who is listening to a read text. Most important, cheese curds is a standard term on menus, packaging, and advertising from Quebec to California. The first time I searched the term buy cheese curds I got hundreds, even thousands of offers. When I searched buy curds, I got many offers to buy cards. But Google is a fast learner—from then on it could also find curds when I searched that term. We are confident EHV readers will quickly pick up new terms because they understand that words are used many ways, and we can’t confine them to our pigeon holes. They will understand that language is so horribly (or should we say so marvelously) complex, that every term has many nuances to different people in different places, but if readers pay attention they will pick these up.

Cheese curds, for example, may conjure up different pictures to different people. Quebec is second to Wisconsin in producing cheese curds, and there the term cheese curds is used in recipes for poutine, the popular way of serving cheese curds in French-speaking areas—a pile of French fries, topped by white cheese curds, drenched with gravy. No, cheese curds are not just breaded, fried, orange, cheddar cheese clumps. Fried cheese curds are kind of a Wisconsin thing (though catching on elsewhere)—cheese curds are not. In fact, since the terms cheese curds and fried cheese are sometimes distinguished, technically fried cheese curds are no longer cheese curds. Sorry, Culvers J. As long as readers know what cheese curds look like when they are the raw ingredient, the term will give readers the right picture whether they eat them battered and fried, or drenched in gravy. If they don’t know what curds look like, the added word cheese will help them understand. Life and language are complicated, and we have to be open-minded and alert to figure them out.

Cheese curds is a standard term in contemporary usage, and our practice is to use the best contemporary terms even when they are only analogous, not exact matches. Making more precise matches is the work for the study aids.

This principle of analogy also applies to terms of doctrinal significance. The Lord is a jealous God, but his jealousy is not identical to ours. The Bible often uses terms to describe God that are only analogous to the application of the same terms to humans. In these cases, explaining the points of similarity and difference in the analogy has doctrinal implications. The analogy between ancient dairy products and our dairy products does not, but we still try to get the closest match-up, leaving it to the thoughtfulness and good will of our readers and hearers and to the various study aids to elaborate on the points of comparison.

Who would have thought simple daily food could be so complicated!