Updated: Jun 19, 2020
Alcohol in the Bible.
Alcohol is one of the most widely used drugs on the planet. It has caused untold misery to those who use it and to society in general. Alcohol adversely affects the mind, the only avenue by which God can communicate with us. Regular alcohol consumption eventually produces loss of memory, good judgment and learning ability. Alcohol consumed during pregnancy may harm foetal development. This study will show that the Bible nowhere sanctions the use of alcohol. Alcohol and drunkeness is used symbolically in the scriptures to represent unrighteousness behaviour
The Temperance Movement
At one time many Christian denominations (Baptist, Methodist, Congregationalist, New School Presbyterian, Salvation Army, some Holiness movements and Seventh-day Adventists) taught total abstinence from alcohol believing that the Bible nowhere condones its use. The Christian Temperance Movement of the 19th century, supported by medical discoveries, insurance company statistics and crime statistics, actually led to prohibition laws which outlawed the “manufacture, sale or transportation” of alcoholic beverages” in the USA. Sadly prohibition came to an end in 1933. Since that time most denominations have abandoned their stand for total abstinence and as a result society suffers all the associated woes which led to the call for prohibition.
The end of Prohibition and the increase in alcohol consumption was due in part to:
(1) The use of alcohol in the Catholic Mass. Many reasoned that if Catholics drank alcohol at church then it couldnʼt be bad.
(2) Superficial Bible study led some to conclude that the Bible permitted alcohol consumption.
(3) Some ministers taught people that how one lives does not really affect oneʼs salvation.
The Bible presents what appear to be contradictory statements regarding the word wine e.g. wine [Gr. oinos] symbolises Christʼs teachings (Mk 14:24) but wine [Gr. oinos] also symbolises false doctrine! (Rev 17:1- 4). God unreservedly forbids wine [yayin].
“[It is] not for kings, O Lemuel, [it is] not for kings to drink wine [Heb. yayin]; nor for princes strong drink: Lest they drink, and forget the law, and pervert the judgment of any of the afflicted..” (Prov 31:4, 5).
“Look not thou upon the wine [Heb yayin] when it is red, when it giveth his colour in the cup, [when] it moveth itself aright. At the last it biteth like a serpent, and stingeth like an adder.” (Prov 23:31-35).
The Bible then presents wine [yayin] as a blessing from God:
“He causeth the grass to grow...And wine [Heb. yayin] [that] maketh glad the heart of man.” (Ps 104:14-15).
“Ho, every one that thirsteth, come ye to the waters, and he that hath no money; come ye, buy, and eat; yea, come, buy wine [Heb. yayin] and milk without money and without price.” Isa 55:1
“Therefore God give thee...plenty of corn and wine [Heb tirosh]:“ Gen 27:28).
Two main positions have arisen in an attempt to resolve such apparent contradictions:
1. The Moderationist View
This claims that a little bit of alohol is allowed as long as you donʼt get drunk. This view holds that the Bible only condemns drinking too much wine.
2. The Prohibitionist View
This claims that the Bible nowhere approves of the use of alcoholic beverages. That the Hebrew and Greek words trans- lated wine can refer to either fermented or unfermented grape juice and that those verses which condemn wine refer to fer- mented grape juice.
Words translated wine or strong drink
The word "wine" in the Bible is translated from several words. The most common are the Hebrew words - Yayin and Tirosh and the Greek word - Oinos.
"Strong drink" is from the Hebrew - Shekar.
We will examine shekar first:
Shekar - Beer
Shekar is translated “strong drink.” (Lev 10:9; Num 6:3; Deut 29:6 etc.). Cuniform records on clay tablets show that the Babylonians made shikaru - beer (Shekar & shikaru are the same thing in two related Semitic languages). The records show that this was beer made from fermented grain so shekar is basically beer. Since the process of distilling alcohol was not developed until around AD500, the “strongest” alcoholic beverage in Bible times contained 14% alcohol by volume (the maximum that can be produced by natural fermentation). “Strong drink” in the Bible does not therefore refer to hard liquor - whiskey, spirits, etc., which at ~40-50% alcohol. Such distilled beverages are well beyond what the Bible calls “strong drink.”
What does the Bible say about shekar?
Of 21 Old Testament texts that mention shekar (beer), 19 strongly condemn it. One special case (Deut 14:22-28) is discussed later. Priests and Nazarites were forbidden to drink any amount (Lev 10:9; Num 6:2-3). God did not provide this drink in the wilderness (Deut 29:5-6).
Samsonʼs mother was forbidden to drink it (Jud 13:3, 4; 1Sam 1:15). Isaiah mentions it eight times, and each reference is strongly negative, for example: Isa 5:11 “Woe unto them that rise up early in the morning, [that] they may follow strong drink; that continue until night, [till] wine inflame them!” Isa 24:9 notes that it would not bring mirth when God cursed the land. Isa 29:9 Beer causes staggering. Isa 28:7 It causes people to err in judgment. Mic 2:11 Corrupt people want corrupt leaders who approve of shekar. Pro 20:1 speaks of rage and brawling as two of its side effects. The New Testament mentions this beverage only once and prohibits its use by John the Baptist.
Deut 14:22-28 seems to indicate that Israelites could actually pay part of their tithe in shekar (beer)?
Deut 14:22-28 deals with delayed tithe. If for some reason an Israelite could not get to the sanctuary on time with the regular tithe offerings of lamb, calf, fresh oil or unfermented grape juice they could buy the same produce later. However the products purchased when late must be mature to show symbolically that the tithe was late. Instead of a lamb, a mature sheep. Not a calf, but a mature ox. Not fresh grape juice (tirosh) but yayin, aged fermented wine. Not grain but beer made from grain. These late payment items actually involved an interest penalty since the ox would cost more than a calf, a sheep more than a lamb.
The special circumstances of delayed tithe, the symbolic substitution of beer for the earlier grain, can by no means be taken as a license for unrestricted recreational use of beer - either then or now. Especially when beer is elsewhere condemned in the Old Testament.
We see a universal condemnation of beer consumption in the Old Testament, irrespective of the amount consumed. This raises an issue. If beer is forbidden because of its effects, and those effects are due to the alcohol content, then shouldnʼt we expect the Bible to condemn other alcoholic beverages, including fermented wine?
Until quite recently, the word “wine” had more than one meaning:
“...in loose language the juice of the grape whether fermented or not.” Funk & Wagnallʼs New Standard Dictionary of the English Language (1955).
Websterʼs dictionary defined “must” as “new wine pressed from the grape, but not fermented.” Websterʼs first dictionary (1828).
We cannot therefore assume that the word “wine” in English translations always refers to fermented grape juice, especially when, as will be shown, the Hebrew and Greek words for wine can also refer to fermented or unfermented grape juice.
“Wine” in the Bible is translated from several words, the most common being:
Tirosh - Grape juice, unfermented. Yayin - Grape juice, fermented or unfermented.
Oinos - Grape juice fermented or unfermented.
Tirosh is often translated “new wine,” and appears to refer exclusively to unfermented grape juice as found “in the cluster.”
Isa 65:8 “Thus saith the LORD, As the new wine [tirosh] is found IN THE CLUSTER, and [one] saith, Destroy it not; for a blessing [is] in it: so will I do for my servantsʼ sakes, that I may not destroy them all.” (cf. Jud 9:13).
What does the Bible say about tirosh?
In 30 of the 38 references to tirosh in the Old Testament it is linked with grain and oil as products of the harvest used for tithe offerings and taxes (Num 18:12). Three texts (Mic 6:15; Isa 62:8; 65:8) refer to tirosh as the product of the grape; four texts (Prov 3:10; Joel 2:24; Mic 6:15; Hos 9:2) show that tirosh is produced by pressing. Tirosh is a blessing and found in the clusters on the vine (Jug 9:13; Isa 65:8). Only one text (Hos 4:11) suggests that tirosh may produce intoxication but this probably refers to the practice of mixing old fermented wine with new wine.
This is the most common word for wine in the Old Testament. Yayin is found in the Old Testament some 140 times. Yayin can refer to unfermented OR fermented grape juice.
In several passages in the Old Testament yayin clearly refers to unfermented grape juice, as trodden out of the grape harvest:
Isa 16:10 “...the treaders shall TREAD OUT no wine [yayin] in [their] presses; I have made [their vintage] shouting to cease..”
Gen 49:11 “...he washed his garments in wine [yayin], and his clothes in the BLOOD OF GRAPES:”
Jer 40:10, 12 “... GATHER YE WINE [yayin], and summer fruits, and oil, and put [them] in your vessels...GATHERED WINE [yayin] and summer fruits very much.” Neh 13:15 “...treading wine presses on the sabbath, and bringing in sheaves, and lading asses; as also wine [yayin], grapes, and figs, and all [manner of] burdens...”
Lam 2:12 “...Where [is] corn and wine...”
The fact that God gives “wine [yayin] to gladden the heart of man, oil to make his face shine, and bread to strengthen manʼs heart” (Ps104:14,15) indicates that yayin, like oil and bread, can refer to a healthful gift from God.
“Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine [yayin] and milk without money and without price.” That yayin and milk are here paired together as symbols of good appears to sanction the consumption of yayin. As shown this may mean unfermented yayin.
Jewish commentaries state that Yayin can refer to UNFERMENTED grape juice:
“Fresh wine BEFORE FERMENTING was called ʻYAYIN migatʼ (wine of the vat; Sanh 70a).” The Jewish Encyclopedia.
“One may press out a cluster of grapes and pronounce the Kiddush over the juice, since the juice of the grape is considered wine [YAYIN] in connection with the laws of the Nazirite.” The Halakot Gedalot, the earliest Jewish compendium of the Talmud.
What does the Bible say about Yayin?
The Bible presents yayin in a negative light about 60 times; in about 60 more cases it simply mentions it without making any value judgment, and in 17 it may refer to something good. Yayin is thus spoken of negatively much more often than it is positively. This indicates that yayin usually used to refer to fermented wine.
Not many (if any) stories in the Old Testament mention a good outcome from the use of yayin, but several end disastrously: e.g. the drunkenness of Noah (Gen 9:21); Lot (Gen 19:32-35); Nabal (1 Sam 25:36, 37); Amnon (2Sam 13:28); Belshazzar (Dan 5:1-3); and Ahasuerus (Esth 1:1-10).
Isaiah (51:21) Jeremiah (23:9) Hosea (4:11; 7:5) Joel (1:5) and Habbakuk (2:15) are among the Bible prophets who point out the ill effects of yayin, both physical and moral.
Priests were strictly forbidden to drink yayin when they ministered (Lev 10:9). Note: All Christians are priests (1Pet 2:9; Rev 1:6). Prov 23:29-35 describes fermented yayinʼs immediate physical effects (red eyes and blurred vision), its immediate social effects (strife and wounds, immorality), as well as the long-term results (woe and sorrow). Elsewhere Proverbs refers to yayin as deceiving and mocking (20:1), producing poverty (21:17) and violence (4:17) and leading to forgetting Godʼs law and perverted judgment (31:4-5). Isaiah adds that it deceives the mind (28:7), inflames a person, and leads to forgetting God (5:11, 12). Three texts (Ps 104:15; Ecc 9:7; 10:19) mention that yayin can make the heart glad and bring cheer. Ecc 9:7 and 10:19 appear to approve the consumption of yayin. Ecc 9:7 says “Go, eat your bread with enjoyment, and drink your wine [yayin] with a merry heart; for God has already approved what you do.” RSV.
At least seven other Bible texts which appear to speak favorably of yayin. e.g., the Song of Solomon uses a comparison with wine four times (1:2, 4; 4:10; 7:9) to bring out the belovedʼs beauty. Hos 14:7 uses the fragrance of wine from Lebanon as a comparison. Prov 9:5, 6 uses wine figuratively in talking about the “banquet of life” that wisdom provides. Amos 9:14 and Zech 10:7 use the merriment that wine creates as a figure of how Godʼs people will rejoice at the time of His final victory.
The fact that yayin may refer to unfermented grape juice means that these passages can be harmonized with the Bibleʼs prohibition against fermented yayin.
Yayin 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, but these drink offerings were poured out beside the altar; they were not drunk.
The Hebrew Yayin & Tirosh are translated “oinos” in the Septuagint (Greek Bible), thus... Oinos can refer to fermented OR unfermented grape juice.
There are many examples in secular Greek where oinos is used both ways. Aristotle (384-322 BC.) wrote of a sweet unfermented grape beverage he called wine:
“It has not the effect of wine for it does not intoxicate like ordinary wine.” Marcos Cato, On Agriculture, See note 4.
In the Septuagint, a Greek translation of the Old Testament, “the Hebrew word for grape juice, tirosh,” as Ernest Gordon points out, “ is translated at least 33 times by the Greek word oinos, wine, and the adjective ʻnewʼ is not present. Oinos without qualification, then, can easily mean unfermented wine in the New Testament.”
What view does the Bible give of Oinos?
Whether oinos refers to fermented or unfermented grape juice is determined by the context. Fermented oinos is a symbol of Babylonʼs corrupted doctrine (Rev 17:1-4). Therefore, by way of contrast, the oinos Christ used as a symbol of His uncorrupted doctrine must be the UNFERMENTED (Matt 26:28- 29; Mark 2:22).
Unfermented oinos has medicinal properties (1Tim 5:23). We are not to get drunk on fermented oinos (Eph 5:18).
Because unfermented grape juice is nourishing it is used to represent divine blessing (Gen 27:28; 49:10-11; Deut 33:28; Joel 2:18-19; Jer 31:10-12; Amos 9:13, 14); Godʼs saving grace (Is 55:1); Joy (Ps 104:14-15; 4:7), and the acknowledgment of Godʼs goodness through the use of grape juice as tithe, offerings and libations (Num 18:12; Deut 14:23; Ex 29:40; Lev
Fermented wine, (Alcohol) on the other hand, is used in the Bible to represent apostasy, immorality, corruption, and divine wrath (Is 19:14; Rev 14:10; 16:19; 17:2; 18:3).
The reason for this negative symbolism is that:
alcoholic beverages distort the perception of reality (Is 28:7; Prov 23:33);
impair the capacity to make responsible decisions (Lev 10:9-11);
weaken moral sensitivities and inhibitions (Gen 9:21; 19:32; Hab 2:15; Is 5:11-12);
cause physical sickness (Prov 23:20-21; Hos 7:5; Is 19:14; Ps 60:3);
and disqualify for both civil and religious service (Prov 31:4-5; Lev 10:9-11; Ezek 44:23; 1Tim 3:2-3; Titus 1:7-8).
The foregoing facts indicate that the Biblical approval or disapproval of “wine” is determined not by the amount of wine consumed, but by the nature of the “wine” itself. Positive references to “wine” refer to unfermented grape juice. All the indictments of “wine” refer to alcoholic, intoxicating wine. The latter is condemned irrespective of the quantity used.
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