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 BlueLetterBible.com 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.

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