An Old Testament scholar looks at what the Bible says about drinking alcohol.
It’s true that we often find references to people drinking alcohol in the Bible and that Scripture speaks of alcoholic beverages, but we need to be careful not to read too much into such texts. When our English Old Testaments refer to alcohol, they generally use the words wine or strong drink. Any study of the Bible’s attitude must allow for the different Hebrew words translated into these English terms.
The term strong drink presents no major translation problems because only one Hebrew word, shekar, lies behind it. But even so, the translation strong drink is more general than it ought to be.
Modern readers may well think of strong drink as distilled liquor. But that’s not what the Bible means by the term shekar. Since the process of distilling alcohol didn’t develop until around AD 500, long after the Bible was written, the strongest alcoholic beverage people could make in Bible times contained only 14 per cent alcohol by volume, approximately the maximum produced by natural fermentation.
If distilled alcohol is not what the Bible means by shekar, what does it mean?
Here is where ancient languages related to Hebrew can be helpful. Documents written in cuneiform script on clay tablets tell us that the Babylonians had an alcoholic beverage they called shikaru. (Notice how similar this Babylonian word is to the Hebrew shekar.)
Some of these clay tablets tell how shikaru was made so we can easily determine what beverage they are describing. From grain, the Babylonians made a mash that was allowed to ferment.
These tablets are talking about making beer. Since Bible texts that use the word shekar are referring to the same drink, they are talking about beer as well.
This is something extremely relevant to our modern society. Here are Bible texts talking about beer--the same substance that’s so widely advertised on TV and consumed.
Bible’s Point of View
And what view does the Bible take of this beverage? A very dim and negative one indeed. Of 21 Old Testament texts that mention shekar (beer), 19 strongly condemn it. The other two texts present special cases (we’ll discuss one of these later.)
The New Testament mentions this same beverage only once and prohibits its use by John the Baptist as he grew up.
To give something of the picture these 19 Old Testament texts convey, let’s look at what some of them say about shekar. Leviticus 10:9 prohibits its use by a priest in ministry. Numbers 6:2, 3 forbids Nazarites from drinking it.
In Judges 13:3, 4 an angel warns Samson’s mother-to-be not to drink it during her pregnancy. In Deuteronomy 29:5, 6 God tells the Israelites that He did not provide this drink for them in their wilderness wanderings.
There’s also the interesting story of Hannah, mother of Samuel. She went to the tabernacle at Shiloh and in praying so earnestly and animatedly for a child, that she was accused by the priest of being drunk with shekar. This she denied (see 1 Samuel 1:15.)
The prophets of Judah in the eighth century BC were especially vigorous in their condemnation of strong drink, or beer. Isaiah mentions it eight times, and in each instance is strongly negative. A woe is pronounced upon those who drink it (Isaiah 5:11). He points out that beer causes staggering (Isaiah 29:9) and that false priests and prophets were two groups who especially staggered from its effects (Isaiah 28:7). Proverbs 20:1 speaks of rage and brawling as two of its side effects.
Alcohol as an Offering
Thus we see an almost universal condemnation of beer in the Old Testament. But what about Deuteronomy 14:22-28? This passage doesn’t seem to fit the pattern; it seems to indicate that Israelites could actually pay part of their tithe in beer. Some have seen in this a modern licence for beer-drinking.
First, we should carefully note that Deuteronomy 14 is dealing with a special use, under special circumstances. The chapter takes up the subject of the tithe in verses 22 and 23. In a later section, it speaks about what might be called “delayed tithe.” It is here that beer occurs as part of the “delayed tithe.”
Deuteronomy 14 identifies the tithe as certain foods and drinks that the Israelite was to take to the sanctuary. When the tithe was paid regularly and on time, the products offered were to include newborn lambs and calves, freshly pressed oil, new unfermented wine or grape juice (tirosh), and grain. All these were fresh products that came from the harvest of the new agricultural year.
But what was the Israelite to do if for some reason he couldn’t get to the sanctuary with these fresh products? He was to make a substitution, and it is this substitution that verses 24-26 describe.
Verse 24 presents the problem: that of an Israelite who was not able to get to the sanctuary on time. Verse 25 presents the intermediate solution: he was to convert his tithe into silver and retain the money until he was able to go to the sanctuary.
Verse 26 gives the final step in presenting the delayed tithe. When he arrived at the sanctuary, the Israelite was to purchase some of the same agricultural products he should have brought earlier and eat the tithe meal before the LORD.
But the products he purchased for the tithe meal must be mature to show, symbolically, that the tithe presentation was late. Thus he did not present a lamb; he purchased a mature sheep for presentation. He did not present a calf, but a mature ox. Instead of fresh grape juice (tirosh) he presented yayin, wine that had fermented with the passing of time. And he did not present grain; he presented beer that had been made from grain.
In each case, the delayed tithe meal consisted of things chosen to correspond to, and show the development of the original agricultural product. Although not readily apparent, this actually involved an interest penalty since the ox would cost more than a calf, and the sheep more than a lamb.
Tirosh and Yayin
References to wine in the Scriptures consist of two main words--tirosh, which usually refers to grape juice in its unfermented state, the way it comes from the press as a new agricultural product, and yayin, a word with less clear meanings.
In 30 of the 38 references to tirosh in the Old Testament it is paired with grain and oil, or oil alone, as products of the harvest used for tithe and taxes, etc. Three texts (Micah 6:15; Isaiah 62:8; 65:8) refer to tirosh as the product of the grape; four texts (Proverbs 3:10; Joel 2:24; Micah 6:15; Hosea 9:2) speak of tirosh as produced by pressing.
Only one text (Hosea 4:11) suggests that tirosh may produce intoxication--and this text may actually be referring to early fermentation or to the practice of mixing new and old (fermented) wine.
Thus tirosh appears to refer almost exclusively to unfermented wine or grape juice. But yayin, the other main word that the Bible uses for wine, clearly means fermented wine in most cases.
Downside of Alcohol
The Old Testament uses the word yayin some 140 times. But before dealing with specific texts, let’s get a general overview of its use in the Bible. By my count, the Bible presents yayin in a negative light 60 times; in about 60 more cases it simply mentions it without making any value judgment, and in only 17 references does it possibly say something positive about it. Thus yayin, fermented wine, is spoken of negatively much more often than it is positively.
On the negative side are the stories in which fermented wine produces bad results. Not many (if any) historical narratives in the Old Testament mention a beneficial outcome from the use of wine, but several end disastrously: the drunkenness of Noah, Lot, Nabal, Amnon, Belshazzar and Ahasuerus for example.
Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea, Joel and Habbakuk are among the Bible prophets who point out the ill effects, both physical and moral, produced by intoxication.
Proverbs 23:29-35 describes wine’s immediate physical effects (red eyes and blurred vision), its immediate social effects (strife and wounds), as well as the long-term results (woe and sorrow).
Elsewhere, the book of Proverbs refers to wine as producing poverty (21:17) and violence (4:17). Isaiah adds that it deceives the mind (28:7), inflames a person, and leads to forgetfulness of God (5:11, 12).
Upside to Alcohol
Those texts that point to certain useful functions of wine cannot be overlooked, but they must be placed in perspective. Three texts (Psalm 104:15; Ecclesiastes 9:7; 10:19) mention that wine can make the heart glad and bring cheer. This indicates an awareness of the immediate physiological effects.
Ecclesiastes 9:7 and 10:19 might superficially appear to give approval for indulging in alcohol. It’s part of a description of the author’s search for those things that bring meaning in life. It’s pointing out that humans should be content with the common things of life--including, among other things, wine.
However, the book ends with the author’s finding a greater good to provide meaning in life--that humans should fear God and keep His commandments.
At least seven other Bible texts that appear to speak favourably of yayin do so merely by means of comparison; they are not speaking directly about wine itself.
For example, the Song of Solomon uses a comparison with wine four times (1:2, 4; 4:10; 7:9) to bring out the beloved’s beauty. Hosea 14:7 uses the fragrance of wine from Lebanon as a point of comparison. Proverbs 9:5, 6 uses wine figuratively in talking about the “banquet of life” that wisdom provides. Amos 9:14 and Zechariah 10:7 use the merriment that wine creates as a figure of how God’s people will rejoice at the time of His final victory.
Wine was also used as a drink offering in the temple service, just as we have seen that beer was used in the presentation of delayed tithe. These drink offerings were poured out beside the altar; they were not drunk by the priests.
Thus most of the texts that mention wine favourably actually use it figuratively in comparisons. A few speak of its immediate physiological effects. But by far the majority describe its detrimental results--such as wicked acts committed in connection with drinking wine. Isaiah, for example, associates wine with the taking of bribes (Isaiah 5:22, 23). Amos combines wine with profaning sacred things (Amos 2:8).
In summary, the writers of the Old Testament raise four indictments against alcohol. They recognise its immediate adverse physical effects. They recognise its long-term moral effects. They identify particular instances of such behaviour and connect them with specific persons. Finally, because of its effects, they prohibit certain classes and specific individuals from drinking any wine.
How should we personally relate to alcohol? After evaluating the evidence, the most reasonable conclusion is complete abstinence from alcohol, in any form.
by William H. Shea, from Signs of the Times, Vol 107, No 12, 12/92, pp. 37-41.
Last revised: 12 Dec 2012.