The Odes of Solomon, considered to be the earliest Christian hymnbook, contains more than forty odes (lyric poems intended to be sung). In this post I will examine one of these odes which is entitled “The Cup of Milk.” This ode is listed as number 19 in The Earliest Christian Hymnbook: The Odes of Solomon (2009) translated by James H. Charlesworth. The text for “The Cup of Milk” as cited in this post is taken from this book.
The Cup of Milk (Ode 19)
The cup of milk was offered to me.
And I drank it in the sweetness of the Lord’s kindness
In the first stanza of Ode 19, the Odist may be thinking of God’s Word when he says “the cup of milk was offered to me.” It is not uncommon for a Jew to refer to God’s Word as milk, as Paul and Peter themselves do in 1 Corinthians 3:2 and 1 Peter 2:2. And by drinking the milk, the Odist is showing the trustworthiness of the Word. We can rely on the Word; we can drink it, for it is God’s Word. However, in the second stanza, the Odist tells us that the cup of milk offered to him is actually the Messiah:
The Son is the cup.
And the Father is He who was milked.
And the Holy Spirit is She who milked Him.
Thus, what the Odist is most likely saying is that the Son—who is often portrayed as the Word in the Odes—is “the cup of milk” which he drank (an expression that seems to have been borrowed from the Eucharist). Who offered the cup or the Son to the Odist? From stanzas 2 to 5, we know that the cup of milk (i.e., the Son) came from the breasts of the Father and that it was the Holy Spirit who milked the Father. That is, it was the Holy Spirit who drew the Son out of the Father’s breasts and gave him to the world.
Because His Breast were full;
And it was undesirable that His milk should be
released without purpose.
The Holy Spirit opened Her bosom,
And mixed the milk of the two breasts of the Father.
Then She gave the mixture to the generation without
And those who have received (it) are in the perfection of the right hand.
So, it was the Holy Spirit who offered the Son to the Odist. And the Odist did not reject this offer; but rather, he received it “in the sweetness of the Lord’s kindness.” His acceptance of the offer only intensifies the claim of scholars that the Odist was “most likely a Jew who came to believe in Jesus’ Messiahship” (Preface, xii). And because he drank the milk, which is another way of saying, because he believed in the Son, he was “in the perfection of the right hand” of God. As the fifth stanza says, “And those who have received (it) are in the perfection of the right hand.” Commenting on the term “right hand,” Richard S. Hess states, “The right hand can be used interchangeably with the hand in poetic texts (Judges 5:26; Psalm 74:11). The hand of God, and especially the right hand, is also understood as a place of salvation, refuge, and protection (Psalm 16:8)” (Baker’s Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology, s.v. “Hand, Right Hand.”). Therefore, having believed in the Son, the Odist is now in the place of salvation, safe and secure. While the name “Jesus” never appears in the entire Odes, no doubt the Son in whom the Odist put his faith was none other than Jesus Christ. And his message that salvation is through faith in the Messiah is consistent with the teaching of the Scriptures.
Based on the above discussion, let’s observe the following points of the ode:
First, the Son, described as the cup of milk, came from the breasts of the Father. The picture that we have here simply teaches the truth that Jesus proceeded from his Father (Jn. 8:42). The imagery also demonstrates the intimate relationship that the Father and Son have with each other. It is fascinating, though, how the Odist depicts the Father in feminine terms as having breasts. James H. Charlesworth thinks that the Odist employs this feminine imagery “most likely to warn against imaging God as a male or a warrior god” (Introduction, xxxiii). In other words, the Odist may want to emphasize God’s loving and gentle character, likening God to a nursing mother who cares for her baby. There is, of course, nothing unusual in the Odist’s use of feminine imagery for God. Some biblical writers have done the same. For instance, in Isaiah 49:15 God is likened to a nursing mother: “Can a woman forget her nursing child, that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you.”
Second, according to stanza 3, when the Father’s “breasts were full,” the Holy Spirit milked the Father. Notice, it was when the Father’s breasts became full with milk that the Spirit milked the Father. The idea of fullness echoes what Paul has written in Galatians 4:4: “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman…” The last six stanzas of the ode focus on the virgin who gave birth to the Son. No one can deny that in these stanzas the Odist is thinking of the biblical tradition that Jesus was born of Virgin Mary. Yes, the Odist penned Ode 19 before the formation of the New Testament canon; and thus as Charlesworth asserts, “we should not expect the Odist, as a poet, to quote from these [New Testament] documents. Yet, scholars have rightly perceived traditions preserved in the New Testament are evident in this Hymnbook” (Introduction, xxvii). The tradition that Jesus was born of a Virgin in Ode 19 is a proof of this.
The womb of the Virgin took (it).
And she received conception and gave birth;
So the Virgin became a mother
With great mercies.
And she labored and bore the Son but without pain,
Because it did not occur without purpose.
And she did not seek a midwife,
Because He allowed her to give life.
She bore with desire as a strong man.
And she bore according to the manifestation,
And she possessed with great power.
And she loved with salvation.
And she guarded with kindness.
And she declared with greatness.
Third, stanza 3 tells us that the releasing of the milk from the Father’s breasts was not without purpose. The Holy Spirit did not take the Son and send him to sinners without purpose. What was the purpose of the giving of the Son to the world? The answer is found in stanza 5—so that those who receive the Son might be saved. And in the Odist’s mind, the Son, the long-awaited Messiah, has already come. Charlesworth mentions that the “beauty of the Odes seems to lie in their spontaneous and joyous affirmation that the long-awaited Messiah has come to God’s people” (Introduction, xvi). As such, the Odes are a means of apologetic response to those who still wait for the first coming of the Messiah.
Finally, Ode 19 clearly acknowledges the existence of the Trinity—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Yet, interestingly the Odist regards the Holy Spirit as feminine, referring to him with the pronoun “she”: “the Holy Spirit is She who milked Him.” Perceiving the Spirit to be feminine was typical though among “Christians who worshipped in Aramaic and Syriac (Introduction, xxxiii).” The KJV, on the other hand, occasionally uses the pronoun “it” to refer to the Holy Spirit (Jn. 1:32; Rom. 8:16 & 26). That the Spirit is sometimes referred to as neuter does not mean, of course, that he is neuter. Someone puts it this way: “while the Holy Spirit is neither male nor female in His essence, He is properly referred to in the masculine by virtue of His relation to creation and biblical revelation. There is absolutely no biblical basis for viewing the Holy Spirit as the ‘female’ member of the Trinity.” Nevertheless, the Odist’s feminine description of the Holy Spirit may be due to his desire to portray the Spirit as gentle, sweet, compassionate, and caring—traits that have universally been considered as feminine. And if this supposition is true, the Odist should be appreciated for his desire to emphasize the aforementioned traits of the Holy Spirit.
Note: Amazing Grace, a part of the series called “Stories behind Favorite Hymns for Ages 3 to 6, is now available through Reformation Heritage Book.