A Theology of Butter: BUTTER-OLOGY

by | Apr 6, 2021 | 300SOT

Did you know the ancient Greeks had a word for “butter eater”?

βουτυροφάγος (boutyrophagous). That’s the ancient Greek word for “butter eater.” Maybe you’re a butter eater. I like butter as much as the next guy. But I’ve never really spent much time thinking about butter and the Bible. Few probably have. Is there something butter in the Bible can teach us about God?

Depending on your Bible translation, the amount of butter you find in your Bible will differ: once in the NRSV, two times in the NIV, ESV, and CSB, and NASB, three times in the NKJV and NLT, and a whopping eleven times in the KJV

Bible translations handle butter differently just like countries handle butter differently. Butter is huge here in Canada. Huge as in it comes packages in giant bricks. And the smaller butter sticks in the US are shaped differently depending on which side of the Rockies you live on. But why do Bible translations differ on butter? There’s basically one Hebrew word in question: חֶמְאָה. And it has a pretty wide range of semantic coverage when it comes to dairy products to include sour milk, cream, curds, and butter.  

There’s another closely word (מַחֲמָאָה) that appears just once that means “curd-like” or “like butter.”It appears in Psalm 55:21 when David likens the words of a deceitful friend to being as smooth as butter or curds. But we find the most common word that can be translated as “butter” in Proverbs 30:33, which  could be talking about churned butter when it says: 

For as churning cream produces butter, and as twisting the nose produces blood, so stirring up anger produces strife (NIV). 

And in the book of Job, Job is looking back on the good old days when everything was peachy keen. And he describes his steps or his feet being washed in butter. Or maybe he’s talking about milk curds. Most of the other occurrences seem to refer to the curds. Like curdled milk curds. Which doesn’t sound quite as tasty as cheese curds on poutine, but they must have been good. My point is, If a popular Bible translation doesn’t go with “butter,” they’re probably going with “curds.”

Speaking of versions, the Septuagint—the Greek translation of the Old Testament always translates the word for butter or curds as the familiar-sounding word βούτυρον. Which, according to basically any Greek lexicon means “butter.” Hence, butter eater. βουτυροφάγος.

Isaiah 7:22 could also be referring to butter. In that text, God tells Judah that He is going to use Assyria as the instrument of His judgment. After Assyria gets done with Judah, the demand for food will be so low there will be more than enough milk and butter or curds. Truly, it’s just kind of tough to know if the Bible is using this word to mean butter or curds. There isn’t a ton of literature on this, but one source said that milk curds were much like butter (348). So when a translation says butter, in many cases, it’s probably referring to curds. When your translation says curds, others might say it’s butter. Ultimately, whether a passage is talking about butter or curds, both were a blessing. You can see this clearly in the book of Deuteronomy. In chapter 32, Moses recites this ceremonial song to warn Israel against turning away from the Lord. And this song recounts all the good things God had done for His people and hod how insane it is of Israel to rebel and abandon a God who is so great and caring. But in describing the Lord’s blessing upon Israel, we find butter. Or maybe we find curds. Whatever it is, it’s a blessing.

Here’s what I mean. The Word of God personifies Israel as Jacob, so when it says “him” it means the people of Israel. Deuteronomy 32:13–14 says:

He made him ride on the high places of the land, and he ate the produce of the field, and he suckled him with honey out of the rock, and oil out of the flinty rock. Curds from the herd, and milk from the flock, with fat of lambs, rams of Bashan and goats, with the very finest of the wheat— and you drank foaming wine made from the blood of the grape.

There are our curds in verse 14 (or butter?). And having these curds is among the blessings Israel enjoyed under God’s provision along with healthy herds of livestock and crops and vineyards. But it was rebelling against God and forsaking Him that cost Israel all these blessings. No more curds. No more butter. No more blessing. And butter is a blessing. It’s a blessing from God for us to enjoy. To develop this further, let’s turn to our featured theologian: Martin Luther. 

You know Luther, the Reformer with his Ninety-Five Theses and his beef with the Roman Catholic church and its salvation by works. But what you probably didn’t know was that Luther’s beef with the Catholic Church wasn’t just over justification. It also involved some butter. The church had decreed a butter ban during lent. No butter for you unless you wanted to buy a “Butterbriefe.” You could purchase an indulgence so you could eat butter. But Luther looked at his Bible and was like, “God says we can have butter if we want to have butter.” After all, 1 Cor. 10:26 says: 

For the earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof.

Everything created by God is good. That’s what Paul told Timothy: 

For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer (1 Tim. 4:4–5).

But back to Luther. In 1520 he wrote a document called “Address to the German Nobility” which wasn’t all about butter. But butter was in it. And his point was that traditions of men can try to take away butter, but when it comes to eating butter, “The Apostle says that the Gospel has given us freedom in all such matters.”

Butter is a blessing from God. So are curds for that matter. You are free to be a βουτυροφάγος—a butter eater. But a theology of butter should also lead us to be thankful butter eaters who don’t forsake or abandon the God who gives us so many good things—so many blessings, butter among them. 

Seriously, you may not come across butter much in your Bible reading, but you probably eat it. Every time you eat butter, what better time to turn your heart to God and thank Him for His goodness?

 

Note: This post was not sponsored by Agropur or Natrel Butter. It’s just what we had in the refrigerator.  

 

 

 

Brent Niedergall

Pastor, Grammarian, Runner

Brent Niedergall, MDiv, is Associate Pastor at Victory Baptist Church in Port Coquitlam, British Columbia. He’s gone to war in Afghanistan, felled towering trees, and parsed Greek verbs.

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Brent Niedergall