A Night On Cheese Mountain

With the holidays come all the extra opportunities for festive eating and drinking. Here’s Augustine imagining a cheesy paradise:

Fidelis promissor reddes Verecundo pro rure illo eius Cassiciaco, ubi ab aestu saeculi requievimus in te, amoenitatem sempiterne virentis paradisi tui, quoniam dimisisti ei peccata super terram in monte incaseato, monte tuo, monte uberi (Augustine, Confessions 9.3.5)

You are faithful in your promise—and for the use of his villa in Cassiciacum where we rested in you apart from the strain of this world—you are rewarding Verecundus with the delights of your eternally green garden. You have forgiven his earthly sins on the mountain where there is cheese, your mountain, the mountain of abundance.

The phrase in monte incaseato can strike the reader as odd. Thomas Williams renders it as “the mountain flowing with milk.” Sarah Ruden highlights and amplifies the wordplay with the site of Verecundus’s villa and translates it as “the mountain of Cassiciacum’s choice cheese.” Both Williams and Ruden note that it’s a citation of Ps 68:16-17 (67:16-17) in the Old Latin. Both Williams and J.J. O’Donnell cite Augustine’s explanation of this verse in the Enarrationes in Psalmos 67:22:

Hunc autem montem consequenter dicit “montem Dei, montem uberem, montem incaseatum, vel montem pinguem” … Sed quem montem intellegere debemus “montem Dei, montem uberem, montem incaseatum,” nisi eumdem Dominum Christum … Ipse est mons incaseatus, propter parvulos gratia tamquam lacte nutriendos; nam et ipsum lac, unde fit caseus, miro modo significat gratiam; manat quippe ex abundantia viscerum maternorum, et misericordia delectabili parvulis gratis infunditur.

This mountain is suitably called, “the mountain of God, the mountain of abundance, the mountain where there is cheese,” or “the mountain of fat.” … How ought we to understand this mountain to be anything other than Christ the Lord? … He is the mountain of cheese, since his little ones are fed with grace as with milk … For milk itself from which comes cheese, miraculously symbolizes grace, gushing abundantly from the breasts of mothers and poured forth upon the little ones with delicious compassion.


How did this mountain of cheese get into Augustine’s Psalter? As is so often the case with the interesting, odd, or otherwise noteworthy renderings in the Old Latin or Vulgate Psalms, the cheese was delivered via the Septuagint.

Here are the relevant phrases in the Masoretic text of Ps 68:16-17, with the word in question underlined:

har-ʾĕlōhîm har-bāšān

har gabnūnnîm har-bāšān

hārîm gabnūnnîm

hāhār ḥāmad ʾĕlōhîm lǝšibtô

The word in question here, gabnūnnîm, derives from the root  g.b.n., which occurs sparingly in the Hebrew Bible. It is used in reference to a person with a hunched back (Lev 21:20) and in its form here, the plural of gabnōn, extends that meaning metaphorically to describe the shape of a mountain. Consequently, the NRSV renders gabnūnnîm in Ps 68 as “many-peaked.” Here’s my translation:

mountain of God, mountain of Bashan

humpbacked mountain, mountain of Bashan

humpbacked mountains,

the mountain where God desires to make his dwelling.

However, the root g.b.n. can also refer to curds or cheese—(as it still does in Modern Hebrew, gǝbînâ)—and as the parallelism in Job 10:10 shows:

hălōʾ keḥālāb tattîkēnî

wǝkaggǝbinnâ taqpîʾēnî

Haven’t you poured me out like milk?

And congealed me like cheese?

Faced with gabnūnnîm in Psalm 68, the LXX chose the tasty fermented dairy food:

ὄρος τοῦ θεοῦ, ὄρος πῖον,

ὄρος τετυρωμένον, ὄρος πῖον.

ὄρη τετυρωμένα,

τὸ ὄρος, ὃ εὐδόκησεν ὁ θεὸς κατοικεῖν ἐν αὐτῷ;

God’s mountain, a fertile mountain,

a curdled mountain, a fertile mountain

curdled mountains,

the mountain on which God has chosen to dwell

This is what we see in the Old Latin quoted by Augustine:

montem dei, montem uberem,

mons incaseatum, mons pinguem (Augustine’s text)

mountain of God, mountain of abundance,

mountain where there is cheese, mountain of fat

For comparison, here’s the Old Latin edition of Sabatier:

montem dei, montem uberum.

montem caseatum, montem uberem (Sabatier edition)

mountain of God, mountain of abundance,

cheesy (or curdled) mountain, mountain of abundance

Ever the party-pooper, Jerome leaves no traces of cheese on the mountain in the Vulgate:

mons Dei mons pinguis

mons excelsus mons pinguis

mountain of God, mountain of fat,

high mountain, mountain of fat.


The imagery of uninhabited land full of processed or manufactured food can be found in several places in the Hebrew Bible, most notably the repeated reference to Canaan as “the land flowing with milk and honey,” but also visions of the hills flowing with sweet wine (Amos 9:13) and mountains flowing with milk (Joel 3:18). The utopian vision of a mountain with food ready to hand has a long life. Harry McClintock’s famous 1928 recording of the “The Big Rock Candy Mountain” describes hens who lay soft-boiled eggs, revels in the “the little streams of alcohol” that “come a-trickling down the rocks” and “a lake of stew, and of whiskey too” where “you can paddle all around ‘em in a big canoe.”

As always, whatever mountain you choose to graze on this holiday season, consume responsibly.

color photograph of large wheels of cheese; a tower on the left side; shelves of wheels on the right

Thomas M. Bolin is Professor of Religious Studies & Classical Studies at St. Norbert College in Wisconsin. 

Translating Ecclesiastes

This is the first of what we hope will be many guest posts by Tom Bolin

This past weekend, Sententiae Antiquae posted a passage from the Septuagint (LXX) and Vulgate of the biblical book of Ecclesiastes (3:9-15). The passage occurs immediately after the well-known poem (and popular folk song) of 3:1-8.

Ecclesiastes has long been known as the biblical book most liked by people who don’t like the Bible. Its direct questioning of divine justice and human purpose has challenged readers practically from the time it was composed (most likely in the 3rd-2nd centuries BCE). Some of those readers have responded to these challenges by creative interpretations which read obvious statements from the book in a symbolic or otherwise non-literal fashion. For example, the Midrash Rabbah, commenting on Eccl 2:24 states simply that:

כָּל אֲכִילָה וּשְׁתִיָּה שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר בַּמְּגִלָּה הַזֹּאת, בְּתוֹרָה וּבְמַעֲשִׂים טוֹבִים הַכָּתוּב מְדַבֵּר 

kāl ʾăkîlâ ûšǝtiyyâ šenneʾĕmar bammǝgillâ hazzōʾt, bǝtôrâ ûbǝmaʿăśîm ṭôbîm hakkātûb mǝdabbēr.

“Everything that is said in this scroll about eating and drinking is intended to refer to Torah and good works” 

But both the LXX and Vulgate do such expurgation in their translations. For example:

Eccl 1:18a

כִּי בְּרֹב חָכְמָה רָב־כָּעַס וְיוֹסִיף דַּעַת יוֹסִיף מַכְאוֹב

kî bǝrōb ḥākǝmâ rāb-kāʿas wǝyôsîp daʿat yôsîp makʾôb 

For in much wisdom is much anger, and the one who increases knowledge increases suffering.

ὅτι ἐν πλήθει σοφίας πλῆθος γνώσεως, καὶ ὁ προστιθεὶς γνῶσιν προσθήσει ἄλγημα. 

For in much wisdom is much knowledge, and the one increasing knowledge increases suffering. 

Eccl 2:20

 וְסַבּוֹתִי אֲנִי לְיַאֵשׁ אֶת־לִבִּי עַל כָּל־הֶעָמָל שֶׁעָמַלְתִּי תַּחַת הַשָּׁמֶשׁ

wǝsabbôtî ʾănî lǝyaʾēš ʾet-libbî ʿal kāl-heʿāmāl šeʿāmaltî taḥat haššāmeš

I turned and my heart despaired over all of the toil at which I had toiled under the sun.

καὶ ἐπέστρεψα ἐγὼ τοῦ ἀποτάξασθαι τῇ καρδίᾳ μου ἐπὶ παντὶ τῷ μόχθῳ, ᾧ ἐμόχθησα ὑπὸ τὸν ἥλιον

And I turned and renounced in my heart all the toil that I had toiled under the sun. 

In his translation and commentary on the biblical book, Jerome follows the LXX here: 

Et conversus sum ego ut renuntiarem cordi meo in omni labore meo quo laboravi sub sole.

Eccl 10:1b

‏זְבוּבֵי מָוֶת יַבְאִישׁ יַבִּיעַ  שֶׁמֶן רוֹקֵחַ יָקָר מֵחָכְמָה מִכָּבוֹד‏ סִכְלוּת מְעָט

zǝbûbê māwet yabʾîš yabbîaʿ‏ šemen rôqēaḥ yāqār mēḥākǝmâ mikkābôd‎‏ siklût mǝʿāṭ

Dead flies make the ointment give off a stench. Wisdom and honor are outweighed by a little folly. 


Μυῖαι θανατοῦσαι σαπριοῦσιν σκευασίαν ἐλαίου ἡδύσματος· τίμιον ὀλίγον σοφίας ὑπὲρ δόξαν ἀφροσύνης μεγάλης. 

Dead flies rot the aromatic oil. A little wisdom is more honorable than the glory of great folly. 

The historical importance of the Septuagint, first as a complex engagement of Hebrew texts with Greek language, and later as the appropriated canon of the “Old Testament” for Christians, is worth the attention of anyone interested in Hellenistic and Roman era Greek texts. Anyone interested can find the LXX text online. A clear, concise, and engaging place to start learning about the LXX is Timothy Michael Law’s When God Spoke Greek.

Book of Ecclesiastes