"A LAND FLOWING with milk and honey" is an ancient promise. A century and a half ago, Joseph Smith and his Latter-day Saints, took the promise literally and left New York in search of that land in the Western wilderness.

"The Grand Beehive," a show of 100 objects that Utah, opened this weekend at the Renwick Gallery (17th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW). The exhibit closes Nov. 8. Better yet is the book which accompanies the exhibit. Its brilliant essay by Hal Cannon, organizer of the exhibit with David Pendell, tells secrets of the beehive I never imagined. Brent Herridge's photographs are excellent. It is published by University of Utah Press ($9.50).

The objects are a tawdry lot. Like much architecture, they photograph better than they are. Lloyd Herman, director of the Renwick, left behind in Utah some of the less portable ones included in the earlier Salt Lake Art Center exhibit, or visible in the Utah land and city scape:

The beehive gravestones are not with us -- nor the great bed Ralph Ramsey carved with beehive finials, eagles, five animal heads, a monster face and numerous leaves of one sort or another. Not for us the stained glass beehives. We have been denied the mammoth 22-foot-high, 60-round beehive, protected by an eagle and shield, with the legend "Hotel Utah" surmounting the whole thing. Its blazing colored bulbs can be seen for miles around.

But we have not spared the beehive cake made of wood, dough, gouache, acrylic and wire, 3-feet high and 4-feet wide, by Bonnie Sucec, inspired by the real cakes of Mrs. Backer's pastry shop in Salt Lake; the highway markers with the numbers painted on hives; the beehive badges for cops to conventioneers; the neon Beehive delicatessen and bakery sign; the fire-alarm pedestal; the Shoshone buckskin and glass-beaded purse by Wallace and Hazel Zundel; and the sleezy polyester quilt by Bud King. All these, are in the Renwick show. My sympathy to Val Lewton, who had to install th show.

A few of the pieces are not that bad: a 1927 double weave wool blanket from the Utah Woolen Mills; beehvie and plant doors by John and Diane Shaw of clay, metal and oak; "Utah Shell Game," three stoneware beehives with an exploding rocket (a protest against a missile site); a fine collection of honey jars, including a handsome Secession-style one; salt and pepper shakers; and one antique velvet and silk quilt.

How the members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and through them, the citizens of Utah became stung by the beehive motif is an interesting story, related by Hal Cannon in the catalogue. He does not make the obvious reference -- that the beehive is an unmistakable phallic symbol, perhaps an effort to super-impose a male domination on the bee's matriarchal society.

The Morman teachings compared the beehive to the Kingdom of God, leading the Mormons to believe in a communal life. "The United Order" enthroned Brigham Young as the king bee. Somewhere along the line, the Mormons managed to forget that the beehive is ruled by a queen bee.

Cannon traces the beehives, called "skep," back to Virgil. Aristotle speculated on bee procreation but dismissed his correct hypothesis involving the queen bee as unbelievable. He concluded bees were likely inpendent creations of the Almightly. The Hindus use honey to anoint the appropriate parts in a Hindu fertility rite, and the tongue in rituals to make speech persuasive. In Europe beehives were adorned with charms to keep the bees from leaving, and ribbons for celebrations. Ritual announcements were made to the hives, especially of death in the family.

According to Cannon, the Book of Mormon records that its tribe carried with them to America "desert," which Joseph Smith translated as "honey bee." "The word 'deseret' was further mysterious because it is the only word in the Book of Mormon which survives from the ancient and holy language of Adam."

Smith and his Latter-day Saints, according to Cannon, took much of their "organization, ritual and symbol" from the Masons. Some of the masonic motifs -- the all seeing eye, the square and compass and the sunstones -- frightened the non-Morman neighbors. But the beehive was a homey and unthreatening symbol. Most Morman business in the early years of the settlement identified themselves with the hive on all their signs and advertisements. When Smith was martyred with his brother in 1844, a bee house was placed over their graves.

Today, Utah buzzes with beehives -- on guitars, in Navajo sand paintings, in crafts, paintings and sculpture. But Cannon believes that its very popularity has weakened its emotional power as a symbol.

The Utah Designer Craftsmen, several stores and numerous historical and folk-art groups contributed to the exhibition.