The Great Cheese Inquisition

Every once in a while when I am studying something in my Bible, I get distracted and go off on an interesting tangent. (Actually, this happens frequently.) The other day as I was looking up references to the Ten Commandments (more on that later, maybe), I came across 1 Samuel 17:18, which in the English Standard Version (ESV) states: Also take these ten cheeses to the commander…

And it suddenly struck me that I had never noticed the word cheese before. (As you may recall, I am a big fan of cheese, so this was a significant discovery for me.) This led me to wonder, how often is cheese mentioned in the Bible?

A simple enough question, though not so simple an answer. There is, for example, the fact that different translations may not always translate the original languages the same way. And even within the same translation, original languages that may be translated as “cheese” in one instance may in fact be translated differently in another instance. Thus began a rather serious tangent. Also known as The Great Cheese Inquisition. (With thanks to for their handy online tools of interrogation.)

First stop, the Cheese of First Samuel.

The Hebrew word used for cheese in 1 Samuel 17:18 is “chalab.” This word is most commonly translated as milk (44 times in mot versions). But it is only translated as cheese this one time in the whole Bible.

Further investigation shows why this translation is different. It’s not only that translators decided that taking ten cheeses made more sense than taking ten milks. There is another word in the original Hebrew that gets lost in translation. The full phrase is “chariyts chalab” – cuts of milk. Hence the interpretation that what David carried to the commanding officers was cheese. It would, after all, be rather difficult to cut milk in its liquid form. (As an aside, the word “chariyts” only appears two other times with the word iron instead of milk and is commonly translated as “harrows of iron.”)

This explained the mysterious 10 cheeses of 1 Samuel, and I learned that this particular usage exists no place else in the Bible, but were there other references to cheese using different Hebrew words? Yes!

The Cheese of Second Samuel.

In 2 Samuel 17:29, when David is fleeing from Absalom, some supporters brought “honey and curds and sheep and cheese from the herd, for David and the people with him to eat, for they said, “The people are hungry and weary and thirsty in the wilderness.”

The Hebrew word translated here as cheese is “shaphah.” This is the only time this Hebrew word appears in the Bible. The meaning is somewhat dubious, but it comes from a root meaning “to scrape off” or “to cleanse.” According to the Targum, which I don’t know too much about except that it is an Aramaic translation and commentary of the Hebrew Bible written a long time ago, the meaning of cheese comes about from the idea of filtering and cleansing from dregs during the process of making the cheese and separating it from the whey.

So that’s two cheeses down, both single appearances.

The Cheese of Job.

Our third and final cheese appears in Job 10:10, “Did you not pour me out like milk and curdle me like cheese?” Here the word translated as cheese is “gĕbinah,” and this, too, is the only place in the Bible this Hebrew word is used. The word is more literally curdled milk. Cottage cheese, anyone?

The Quasi-Cheese: Curds & Butter

A more common word than “cheese” is “curds” or “butter” – both of which are translations of the Hebrew word “chem’ah.” Curds is the more common ESV translation, while the KJV always translates this word as butter. This word appears 10 times in the original Hebrew texts. Another word (machama’ah) is commonly translated as “butter” and used negatively in Psalm 55: “His speech was smooth as butter, yet war was in his heart.”

Interestingly, cheese, curds, nor butter appear in the New Testament.

Closing Cheese Statements

So in summary, the word “cheese” appears just three times in the Old Testament, each time represented by a different Hebrew word. A more common word can be translated as curds. This suggests there was something different about each of these cheeses. To determine exactly what is different, you probably need to be an ancient languages scholar or a master cheesemaker (or both), but that doesn’t prevent me from speculating.

First, David was a shepherd, which probably means that his cheese came from the sheep he tended. Our second cheese expressly states it is a “cheese from the herd,” which is a reference to cattle (and yes, I checked that assumption against the original language). So the second cheese would have been made from the milk of cows or oxen. Our third cheese is more literally curdled milk, and while there is no indication of animal, the picture for me at least is of a softer, moldable cheese. Finally, the curds are the most popular cheese-like item mentioned. This suggests a more common and raw form of cheese, similar to the cheese curds of today.

So there you have it. A blogful of three cheeses and some potential cheese curds. The Great Cheese Inquisition rests its case.

Biblical Hebrew: Week 1

Allow me to tell you what I think I know about the Hebrew alphabet.

There are 23 letters in the Hebrew alphabet.  Some people say there are 26.  And immediately we come upon the main lesson of Week 1: In Biblical Hebrew, there is an alternate opinion, spelling, symbol, and/or pronunciation for just about everything.

Of the 23 letters in the Hebrew alphabet, six of them, when they appear at the beginning of a word, have a dot known as a dagesh.  For three of these letters (bet, kof, pey), this dagesh changes the pronunciation.  (These are the three additional letters some scholars consider part of the standard alphabet.)

Five letters in the Hebrew alphabet  (kof, mem, nun, tsadeh, pey), when they appear at the end of a word, have a different symbol known as a “final form.”  Pronunciation does not change.

The Hebrew alphabet contains no vowels.  Three letters (heh, vav, yod) were, at one point in the history of Hebrew, used as both consonants and vowels.  Later, a series of dots and dashes were used to represent vowel sounds, but because the written text was considered sacred, these consonants-used-as-vowels could not be removed, and two of these letters (vav and yod) were simply incorporated into the new vowels.

Hebrew alphabet

From Just for the record, about half the names of these letters are spelled differently than how I learned them. There are also 27 letters here (The 5 final forms are listed and shin is listed as one letter rather than two like I learned.)

There are 12 standard vowel points. Three of these (hireq, tsere, holem) have two forms either with the historical consonant or without.  There are several names for each form.  Of these, one of them (at least as we are going to learn in this particular class) changes sound.  Hireq plene (a.k.a. hireq yod), which is a yod with 2 horizontal dots under it, makes an “ee” sound; hireq (a.k.a. hireq defectiva), which is the two horizontal dots without the yod, makes a short “i” sound.

I could go on for a long time about the intricacies of Hebrew vowel points, but let me shift to one final piece.  in addition to vowel points, there is also something called Shewas (pronounced “shwahs”) represented by two vertical dots under the letter symbol.  There is a vocal shewa that makes a slight grunting sound, and a silent shewa that makes no sound at all, but represents the “closing” or end of a syllable.  I think there’s something else that represents the end of an open syllable (one that ends in a vowel) but I haven’t gotten that far yet.  There are five letters in the Hebrew alphabet (ayin, aleph, heh, het, resh) that do not take regular shewas.  They take composites that contain both a shewa (two vertical dots) and either a patah, segol, or qamatz (which are three of the standard vowel points.)

So in summary, The Hebrew alphabet contains approximately 23 letters, 6 alternate beginnings (3 which change sound), 5 final forms, and 5 that take composite vowel symbols.  There are 12 vowel points, 2 shewas and 3 composite shewas.  There are duplicate sounds, duplicate symbols, and alternate names and pronunciations.  But once you get that down, you’ve got the Hebrew alphabet.

Piece of cake.

There are doubtless many different languages in the world, and none is without meaning, but if I do not know the meaning of the language, I will be a foreigner to the speaker and the speaker a foreigner to me (1 Corinthians 14:10-11).

God’s Letter to Me

I wrote a similar idea on the new resources page, but I keep thinking about it.  And thinking for me is one step short of writing.  Which brings me here.  (Lucky you.) 

One of the habits I try to uphold is to read something Christian every night before I go to bed: the Bible, a devotional, an apologetic or theological book, a Christian biography.  Some nights I read chapters; some nights, a single verse.  It’s a habit I highly recommend.  But it is also a habit I have to be careful of.  Because sometimes I can spend too many nights reading the biographies and devotionals and apologetics, and not enough nights reading the Bible. 

Christian reading is good.  It gives me different perspectives and causes me to think about scripture passages in ways I might not otherwise think of them.  It is also inspiring to read about the lives and struggles and triumphs of some of the leaders of our faith.  But I need to always remember that none of this is a substitute for actually reading the Bible.  Reading only Christian books would be a bit like talking to someone about a mutual friend when there is a letter from that friend sitting unopened on my table.  Why on earth would I do that?  Letters are meant to be read.  And re-read.  (And in this day of electronic communication, probably framed and hung on the wall to be gazed upon with awe.) 

The Bible is God’s letter to me – and to you.  Hearing second-hand perspectives from others can be helpful, but it should never stop us from reading what God has to say directly to us.  We should never leave God’s letter sitting unopened and gathering dust. 

Take some time today to read what He has to say to you.

All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work (2 Timothy 3:16-17).