John Steinbeck’s 1937 short novel, Of Mice and Men, always brings a lump to my throat. It tells the story of two migrant farm workers, George and Lennie, during the Depression. Attempting to summarize it here would be futile. It would also be a crime against great writing. If you’ve never read it, I recommend you do so soon. For now, I quote a brief exchange that occurs in chapter three:
“Lennie drummed on the table with his fingers. “George?”
“George, how long’s it gonna’ be till we get that little place an’ live on the fatta the land, an’ rabbits?”
You’ll have to read it to find out about the rabbits, but George and Lennie sustain themselves with their dream of their own little farm where they’ll live in comparative luxury. Living on the fat of the land is an expression used widely in English literature and is correctly attributed to Pharaoh’s speech to Joseph in the Bible.
…and I will give you the best of the land of Egypt, and you will eat of the fat of the land. (Genesis 45:18)
But this is not the first time in the Bible that the phrase ‘fat of the land’ is used. Many chapters earlier, Isaac evokes it when he blesses his two sons, Jacob and Esau.
And may the Lord give you of the dew of the heavens and of the fat of the land
and an abundance of grain and wine.
…behold your dwelling shall be by the fat of the land and
of the dew of the heaven from above.
What is odd, however, is that in Genesis 45, the Hebrew word for fat is CHeLeV whereas the two usages in Genesis 27 employ the Hebrew word SHeMeN.
fat- SHeMeN fat- CHeLeV
Most English translations translate all three instances as ‘fat of the land’ and they are not wrong. But there are no random uses of words in Scripture so we ought to try understand the difference between CHeLeV and SHeMeN, these two separate words for fat or oil.
CHeLeV, while meaning fat is obviously linked to the word CHaLaV meaning milk. SHeMeN means either fat or more commonly, oil as in this verse.
… bring you pure beaten olive oil for the light, for the lamp to burn always.
The most important difference between oil and milk is that milk is ready and available for instant use. The baby is presented with this marvelous substance called milk. No preparation needed. It is ready for use. Drink it and be nourished.
Oil, however, is only useful once I ignite it. Until I light the oil in a lamp or heater, it will not cast its warm glow. Unlike milk, I can only benefit from oil once I do my part to make its energy useful to me.
Pharaoh offered to take care of Joseph’s brothers fully, requiring nothing from them at all. There is no surer way to lure people into slavery of the mind as well as body than by eliminating their incentive to work and providing for their every need. For this reason, he used the word CHeLeV. By contrast, Isaac promised his sons, Jacob and Esau, economic abundance, but of the SHeMeN kind, like oil. Theirs would be the abundance that would flow from their own industry and effort. This is a far higher category of blessing.
Oil (SHeMeN) as a metaphor of financial survival appears in two other famous events. Both the prophets Elijah (1 Kings 17:12-14) and Elisha (2 Kings 4:2-4) encounter a poverty-stricken widow. Each has little but a small jar of oil (SHeMeN) and each is required to perform an action, thus participating in her own financial redemption.
The small jar of oil as the seed of redemption also finds expression in the eight-day festival of Chanukah which ends on Monday. The tiny jar of uncontaminated oil found in the Temple after the rampaging Greeks departed miraculously burned for eight days. but only when the Maccabees lit the insufficient remnant rather than throwing their hands up in despair.
In ancient Jewish wisdom, the number eight always speaks to a God/People joint venture partnership. Not surprisingly, the Hebrew word for the number eight SHeMoNeH is almost identical to the word, SHeMeN, oil. This means that when it comes to financial deliverance, God will help but only if we do our part also. That is what living on the fat (oil) of the land, really means.
Part of the almost unbearable poignance of the book, “Of Mice and Men” is that Lennie and George don’t want to be taken care of. All they dream of is a little land that they can work to take care of themselves.
“Lennie said quietly, “It ain’t no lie. We’re gonna do it.
Gonna get a little place an’ live on the fatta the lan’.”