T. Furman Hewitt, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary
Prepared for the North Carolina Dept. of Human Resources
Pages 11-30 reprinted with permission.
I. Attitudes Toward Alcoholic Beverages in the Bible
The Production and Use of Wine and Beer in the Near East
The use of wine and beer as a beverage was widely practiced in the Near Eastern world. Although beer is not mentioned in the Bible, the brewing of that product was known from Egypt to Mesopotamia for at least 3,000 years before Christ. Both written records and implements for the straining of beer recovered in excavations attest to its use.
Wine is mentioned in the Bible, and its use is assumed. Indeed, the Egyptian “Tale of Sinuhe,” which describes Palestine as having “more wine than water”, indicates that the quantity of wine produced from the vineyards of Palestine and Syria has long been famous. (1) As they do even now, grapes grew in abundance in Palestine–note the reaction of the Israelites to the large clusters of grapes which they found when spying out the land during the Exodus (Num. 13:21-27). Grapes harvested in August or September in connection with the Feast of Boothes (Deut. 16:13), were pressed by foot or heavy stones in wine vats, a series of pits connected by channels hewn in solid rock. An example of a wine vat system can be seen today on “The Garden Tomb” grounds in Jerusalem. The treading of the grapes was a joyous time (d. Is. 16:10; Jer. 25:30). It is possible that three of the Psalms (8, 81, and 84) were specifically used at the vintage time; the term “Gittath” in the superscription may derive from the Hebrew term for “wine press” (gath), and thus be the name of a tune sung at vintage. (2)
Fermentation of the grape juice began in the lower vat rather quickly after pressing. The wine was then transferred to jars or new wineskins (Jer. 13: 12; Mark 2:22) with a vent left for the escape of gases resulting from the fermentation process (cf. Job 32:18-19). The clear references to the fermentation process means that a product with some alcoholic content was being considered, not plain grape juice. Although there are several Hebrew and Greek words used to refer to “wine” or “strong drink,” there is little doubt that they refer to wine as we know it, that is, a product with about 10-12% alcohol.
The Use of Wine Among the Hebrews
The most obvious thing one can say is that the production, buying, selling and drinking of wine was an accepted occurrence for the biblical writers. There are over 220 references to wine or strong drink in the Old Testament alone, most of which speak matter-of-factly of the beverage as a staple in the average person’s diet along with wheat and oil (cf. II Chr. 32:28; – Gen. 27:28; Is. 36:17; etc.). Archaeologists have recovered many potsherds that served as receipts in the buying and selling of wine in large quantities.
In this setting, one can clearly discern two attitudes toward the use of wine that, while not necessarily mutually exclusive, can be profitably distinguished as forerunners of the tension sometimes felt in our own society:
1. Wine as the gift of God.
Thou dost cause the grass to grow for the cattle,
And plants for man to cultivate,
That he may bring forth food from the earth,
And wine (yayin) to gladden the heart of man,
Oil to make his face shine,
And bread to strengthen man’s heart. (Psalm 104:14-15) (3)
These words of the Psalmist characterize a strand of thought in which wine is considered along with other produce from the earth as one of God’s gifts to mankind. So closely is wine linked to the care of God the Creator that its availability could be regarded as one of the signs of the Day of the Lord, that is, the age when God’s will would be perfectly realized on earth. In that day, wrote Amos, “the mountains shall drip sweet wine (asis),” the people of Israel will rebuild ruined cities, “they shall plant vineyards and drink their wine (yayin), and they shall make gardens and eat their fruit” (Am. 9:13-14). The fourth century prophet Joel looked forward to vats overflowing with wine (tirosh) and oil, to mountains dripping sweet wine (JI. 2:24-; 3:18), while an apocalyptic section of Isaiah anticipated “a feast of fat things, a feast of wine” (25:6), and a time when “foreigners will not drink your wine (tirosh) for which you have labored” (6:28; cf. Jer. 31:12).
Apparently, wine was for the Hebrews a symbol of that which was joyous and good. “Wine gladdens life,” wrote the author of Ecclesiastes. “Eat your bread with enjoyment, and drink your wine with a merry heart; for God has already approved what you do” (Ec. 10:19; 9:7). Proverbs, another representative of Israel’s Wisdom literature, portrayed wine (yayin) as an ingredient in the lavish feast which Wisdom offers to entice the simple (Prov. 9:2,5). The writer of the Song of Solomon went so far as to compare love with wine–though love got higher marks (S. of S. 1:2, 4; 4:10).
As one of God’s good gifts, wine had an accepted part in Israel’s cultic life. Wine (yayin) was offered at the daily burnt offering along with a lamb, flour, and oil (Ex. 29:40; cf. Num. 28:7-14); it was also offered as part of the offering of first fruits after the barley harvest in April (Lev. 23:13) and again at the festival of Weeks, the wheat harvest, later known as Pentecost (Lev. 23:18). At the harvest festival the individual worshipper feasted “before the Lord” on “oxen, or sheep or wine and strong drink, whatever your appetite craves” (Dt. 14:26). Even the Passover ritual eventually employed the use of ritual cups of wine in addition to bitter herbs, unleavened bread and lamb.(4) Wine, along with flour, oil and incense were kept in the temple (I Chron. 9:29); it was also considered part of the offering regularly given for the personal use and support of the priestly tribe of Levi (Dt. 18:4).
The use of wine was, in short, an accepted part of Israel’s daily life and religious observance. Bread and wine were convenient shorthand symbols for their daily diet (cf. Lam. 2:12; Gen. 27:37; I Sam. 16:20; etc.), so that prosperity and success, God’s favor or the lack thereof, could be described in terms of enjoying the product of one’s vineyard (Mic. 6:15; Is. 24:7, 11; Dt. 28:39; etc.). As the writer of Proverbs put it: “Honor the Lord with…the first fruits of all your produce; then your barns will be filled with plenty and your vats will be bursting with wine (tirosh)” (Prov. 3:9-10).
2. Warnings Against Drunkenness.
In spite of an obvious tendency to rejoice in the good gift of wine, the Hebrews were aware of the ugly side of the use of that product. The words of Jesus ben Sirach in the second century B.C. express the dilemma:
Wine drunk in season and temperately is rejoicing of heart and gladness of soul.
Wine drunk to excess is bitterness of soul, with provocation and stumbling.
(Ecclesiasticus 31:28-29. Emphasis added)
The oft-quoted words of Proverbs 20:1 “Wine (yayin) is a mocker, strong drink (shekar) a brawler; and whoever is led astray by it is not wise” point to a keen sensitivity to the dangers inherent in the use of wine. From Noah’s shameless drunkenness (Gen. 9:20 ff.) to Isaiah’s warning’s against those who consume wine and strong drink (shekar) from dawn to dusk (Is. 5:11-12; 28:7), the biblical writers do not shirk from naming the dreadful results of excess. Drunkenness is blamed for the incest between Lot and his daughters (Gen. 19:20-38) as well as being linked with those who “acquit the guilty for a bribe, and deprive the innocent of his right” (Is. 5:22).
We can understand why the Nazirites and Rechabites identified the drinking of wine as one of the corrupting influences of Canaanite culture (which was agricultural) and vowed to abstain from the use of wine as one of their attempts to reinstate what they interpreted as the older, simpler nomadic way of life (Num. 6:3; Am. 2:12; Jer. 35). No wonder, too, that laws eventually developed forbidding the use of wine by priests actively serving at the altar (Lev. 10:9). Israel had seen too much of prophets and priests reeling, staggering, confused, erring in vision, and stumbling in giving judgment (Is. 28:7-8).
While strong drink (shekar) and wine (yayin) are said by the wise men to be useful as an opiate for the distressed and poor, kings should forego such drinks “lest they drink and forget what has been decreed, and pervert the rights of the afflicted” (Prov. 31:4-7). In this latter case, at least, the argument against drinking goes beyond individual morality to a concern for the welfare of the entire community (i.e., the rights of all the dispossessed), the same point also made in Isaiah 5:22 and Hosea 4:11 and 7:5.
The writer of Proverbs warns that drunkenness and financial responsibility are incompatible (Prov. 20:1; 21:17), and reminds us poignantly of the tragic circumstances of the drunk in his stupor. His mind beset by “strange things,” the drunkard does not even “feel” the blows of his attackers. The wine which goes down smoothly ends up biting like a serpent (Prov. 23:29-35).
As we have seen, the words “wine” and “strong drink” in the English text actually translate several different Hebrew words. That fact led to the hypothesis, popular in the 19th century, that the Bible actually speaks of two wines: fermented and unfermented, one praised as a gift of God and the other condemned. As early as 1887, Alvah Hovey, writing in the Baptist Quarterly Review, dismissed that theory by clearly demonstrating that the same words could be used in both an approving as well as a disapproving way. In spite of his support for abstinence, Hovey feared that “bad arguments injure even a good cause,” and he worked to set the record straight. (5)
To sum up, let us remember that the issue for the Hebrews was drunkenness, not drinking as such. To be sure, our circumstances are not the same as theirs. For a variety of reasons, some might wish to advocate total abstinence in a way never anticipated by the Hebrews, but that does not justify an attempt to read a particular theory about the alcoholic content of wine into the scripture.
The Use of Wine by Jesus and the Early Church
The New Testament clearly reflects the Old Testament’s affirmation of the drinking of wine as a normal, accepted activity while at the same time warning of its potential misuse. Abstinence is not demanded, but drunkenness is condemned.
1. Wine as an Accepted Part of Daily Life
It is clear that neither Paul nor Jesus before him preached total abstinence. For medicinal purposes, Paul could prescribe “a little wine for your stomach’s sake…” (I Tim. 5:23; cf. Prov. 31:6f). Jesus did not preach against the use of wine; rather, He shared a significant meal with His disciples at which the common cup of wine became a symbol of the Kingdom of God (Mt. 26:29).
So far was Jesus from being a total abstainer that Luke (Lk. 7:33-35) reports Jesus as distinguishing between himself and John the Baptist at the point of “eating” and “drinking wine (oinos).” John, a Nazirite, did not drink wine, but Jesus did. This difference between Jesus’ and John’s drinking practices was seized upon by Jesus’ enemies; to slander him, they accused Jesus of being “a glutten and a drunkard (oinopotes).” There is, of course, no evidence that the charge was true. The Pharisees were simply trying to exploit the popularity of the aescetic John in order to discredit Jesus; the cynicism of the argument and the baseness of the motives behind the argument are illustrated in 7:33 when Jesus points out that John’s aesceticism had also been rejected as proof of demon possession. Clearly, neither drinking nor non-drinking was the real issue with the Pharisees–nor was it an issue with Jesus. The story does give further proof that Jesus drank wine, however; the slanderous charge would have been pointless if Jesus had been known as an abstainer.
John 2:1-11 tells the story of the first of Jesus’ Messianic “signs,” the turning of water into wine (oinos) at the wedding feast in Cana. Even those who argue that the story should not be taken at face value as an historic incident (6) would have to admit that, at the least, the story shows the early Church as easily conceiving of Jesus’ fitting into the merriment and conviviality of a wedding feast with its attendant drinking of wine. Certainly, no negative connotation to wine-drinking is implied in the story, and it may even reflect the Old Testament view that wine is the creation of God.
The last meal that Jesus shared with His disciples included sharing a cup of wine. While the text (Mk. 14:23-25) does not use the term “wine,” such is clearly implied by the term “fruit of the vine” in v. 25, the comparison of the content to Jesus’ blood in v.24, and the lamentable fact that some later Christians got drunk at the “love feast” modeled that last meal (cf. I Cor. 11:21).
2. Warnings Against the Abuse of Wine
Just as the Old Testament writers portrayed drunkenness as leading to sexual immorality (Jl. 3:3), turning one away from God (Is. 5:12), and resulting in a blunted conscience and weakness of will (Is. 28:7; Hos. 4:11), so the New Testament writers issued their warning against the abuse of wine.
When Paul listed those common sins the Christian was to avoid, drunkenness appears as one of the feared and prohibited items (Rom. 13:13; I Cor. 6:10; Gal. 5:21). Drunkenness, which is sufficiently serious to exclude one from the Kingdom of God (I Cor. 6:10), was so dangerous that Paul advised the Corinthian church to forego association with drunkards as well as robbers or idolaters (I Cor. 5: 11) as a way of purifying the Church. Paul was aghast that drunken revelry had even invaded the worship of the Church at its love feasts (I Cor. 11:21; d. II Pt. 2:13), and he appealed for greater sensitivity to the needs of the poor and hungry in the Church as well as the requirements of worshipful decorum. Surely, back of Paul’s concern was a feeling that drunkenness was too similar to practices in the cult of Dionysus (a popular fertility religion in Greece) and, therefore, not appropriate to a Christian celebration. Christian fullness of the Spirit (cf. Eph. 5:18) was to be contrasted to the “orgiastic enthusiasm” of Greek religions, not emulate it! (7)
“Do not get drunk with wine (oinos), for that is debauchery,” warned the author of Ephesians (5:18). Christians should not be like those whose sleep at night is brought on by a drunken stupor (I Th. 5:7). Older women in the Church are urged to “teach what is good” by word as well as deed; this means that they should not be “slanderers or slaves to wine (oinos)” (Tit. 2:3). The Pastoral Epistles most specifically warn against excessive drinking by leaders in the Church. I Timothy 3:3 and Titus 1:7 stipulate that a bishop must be temperate, orderly, and not given to lingering long beside his wine (paroinos). Deacons, likewise, are not to be “addicted to too much wine” (I Tim. 3:8).
Paul’s advice about the disciplining of drunkards and other wayward church members in I Corinthians 5:9-13 seems, to some, rather severe on the surface. Excommunication for the sins listed there is sometimes questioned in terms of its effectiveness and tendency to drive folk forever out of the reach of the Church. Paul, on the other hand, was taking seriously the needs of the fledgling community of believers in Corinth that might be endangered by the presence of such individuals. “A little leaven leavens the whole hump” (5:6).
Perhaps the severity of Paul’s advice is softened when we remember that the lower alcoholic content of wine (l0-12%) as opposed to the distilled liquors of today (35-50%), the customary use of wine as a meal time beverage, and the practice of diluting the wine with water meant that in the first century one would have to “work harder” at drinking enough to become drunk.
Thomas Price agrees with Douglas Jackson, the author of Stumbling Block, that drunkenness is condemned in the Bible because those who became intoxicated chose to become intoxicated. This is quite different from the modern concept of alcoholism, which is defined as “loss of control” over when one will drink or how much. In this view, choosing to become intoxicated is beyond the reach of a person addicted to alcohol.(8) Price’s statement is not meant to deprive the 20th century alcohol abuser of his or her responsibility, and the statement that intoxication is not a matter of choice may be questioned. Nevertheless, we do understand more about the dynamics of alcoholism today and, therefore, might be a bit more understanding than prior generations. Because of this new insight, some might consider altering Paul’s methods even while sharing his redemptive intentions.
Additional passages that deal specifically with drinking could be listed, but they would merely reinforce the point that the New Testament, like the Old Testament, is more concerned with faith and its fruits than with alcohol or wine as such. Focusing on man’s relationship to God and the requirement to live in responsible love with one’s neighbor, Jesus and the early Church could accept the use of wine as a food item as well as an ingredient in religious and social celebration. At the same time, and without exception, excessive drinking and drunkenness was condemned.
As a consequence, those who wish to “proof text” the Bible on this issue are in a dilemma, for those on both sides of the issue of drinking can find–if they read selectively enough–some portion of scripture which seems to support their position.
As an illustration of the difficulty we encounter when we read the Bible selectively, let us look at a passage which seems, on the face of it, to forbid drinking:
It is right not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that makes your brother stumble (Rom. 14:21; cf. I Cor. 8:1-13).
On the one hand, this text could be used to shore up an “example” theory of Christian morality. That is, one should not eat meat offered to idols or drink wine because one never knows when this may be setting an example for a “weak” brother (I Cor. 8:10) who might be destroyed in following another’s example. The point made by Paul was that eating meat offered to idols, while morally neutral in itself, could convey to a less discerning person the false notion that a committed Christian was now worshipping in a pagan temple (where the “meat offered to idols” was sold to the public) and thus be made to think that this new “faith was either of no consequence or could be easily blended with traditional paganism.
On the other hand, we must admit that Paul could also be quoted in terms of his rejection of all legalistic restraints on his life. Paul felt free, for example, to violate Jewish tradition by dining with Gentiles and eating meat that had been offered to idols. The only restraint he felt was not to the law, but to the needs of another human being–the weaker brother. Even that obligation may have had limits. I Corinthians 10:29, “why should my liberty be determined by another man’s scruples,” may be interpreted as Paul’s wrestling with the other side of his obligation to the weak (cf. 10:28-29), that is, his obligation to himself. Is Paul suggesting that there might be times when the “scruples” of another are not a sign of weakness, but an effort on the part of the overscrupulous “to beat his liberal brother over the head” and “curb Christian liberty”? William Baird thinks that it is precisely these “fastidious brethren” of whom Paul complains, and he cites Jean Hering to the effect that “just as the strong cannot judge the weak, so Paul forbids ‘the weak to judge the strong.’ (9)
It is one of the ironies of history that Paul’s statement about eating meat or drinking wine (Rom. 14:1) has been made into an absolute rule on the grounds that we never “know” when we might be influencing a weaker brother. In the words of Arnold Come, “This is the kind of legalistic reduction of Christian faith and ‘quenching of the Spirit’ that Paul fought against with all his might.” Under Christ, Paul felt free to be all things to all men, to be “under the law” in one setting and “outside the law” in another (I Cor. 9:19-23). Only Paul’s love of Christ and desire to add to the “glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31) determined his action. He insisted on freedom–not license to do as he pleased, but freedom from the shackles of law, freedom to respond creatively to new situations as they arose. (10)
The struggle for freedom was not easily won in the early Church. I Timothy 4:1-4 warns against those who depart from the faith, who forbid marriage and enjoin abstinence from foods which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected with thanksgiving.
This warning against a legalistic element in the Church is echoed by Paul in Colossians 2:16-23 when he points to the ineffective “air of wisdom” of those who promote “self-abasement and severity to the body.” The Christian, reminds Paul, has died to human “regulations” such as: “Do not handle. Do not taste. Do not touch.” “Therefore, let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food or drink or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a sabbath.” The weaker brother, the legalist within the Christian fellowship, must be cared for, but Paul implies that he must not be allowed to erect his moralistic fences in such a way as to restrict the freedom of the Christian community as a whole.
It would be extraordinarily difficult, therefore, to arrive at a rule for drinking wine based on Romans 14:21 and I Corinthians 10:27-31 which would be valid under any and all circumstances. Paul indicates that there is more than one choice when he says:
- So whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God (I Cor. 10:31; cf. Rom. 14:6)
Either style has the potential for being “to the glory of God” if done out of loving concern for the neighbor.
On the one hand, wrote Paul, we are not to pass judgment on our brothers and sisters, for both those who eat and those who abstain from eating certain foods do so in honor of their Lord (Rom. 14:20). Everything is “clean,” that is, allowable to the believer; therefore, despising another for his or her choice is an arrogant usurpation of God’ prerogative (Rom. 14:3-4). On the other hand, such freedom should not be deliberately used to cause another to stumble, for the strong (those aware of their freedom and able to control themselves) have an obligation to the weak just as Christ adapted himself to the needs of the human race (Rom. 15:1-3; Phil. 2:5-8). Consequently, the believer is called to walk that ill-defined but narrow and necessary line between personal freedom and responsibility to the neighbor.
II. Helpful Biblical and Theological Principles
We have seen that the Bible does not answer the question of the use of drugs (specifically wine) in a kind of proof-text fashion, though it does give clear and unequivocal warning about the dangers of excess. But what about the modern question of whether or not one should drink/take drugs at all? Is it enough merely to note that moderate drinking was allowed in the biblical world? Are there some biblical principles or insights, not associated in their original context with drinking, which might also help us?
Differences Between the Ancient World and Ours
Before we list and discuss these principles, we must be candid enough to note some differences between the biblical world and ours that may make some difference in the way we then interpret certain texts or principles.
- The first difference is one often cited, but actually is not particularly relevant. Wine drinking in the biblical world is often “excused” for health reasons on the grounds that “they had a poor water supply in those days,” a condition no longer
true in the civilized western world where “pure” water (chemically treated) is readily available. As a matter of fact, the water’ supply in the Near East is not materially different today (except in a few metropolitan areas) than it was 2,000 years
ago. That wine is not required to cope with this impure water is demonstrated by the fact that the Muslim community has survived quite well in the area for over 1,200 years-and Muslims do not drink wine!
- A more genuine difference between the biblical world and ours is the customary way in which wine came to be drunk in the Near East–it was drunk “mixed” or diluted with water.(11) Robert H. Stein has clearly demonstrated the practice of mixing wine
and water among the Greeks, the Jews of the rabbinic period, and the early Church Fathers.(12) Stein illustrates how among the Greeks wine was poured into large bowls where, according to Greek philosophers and dramatists, it was mixed with water
at a ratio as high as 3:1. Stein illustrates the same Jewish practice from II Maccabees 15:39 (“It is harmful to drink wine alone. . .while wine mixed with water is sweet…”) and the Talmud, where the tractate Pesahim directs the wine for the Passover
ritual to be mixed three parts of water to one part of wine. The Talmudic reference implies that the wine of Jesus’ Last Supper–held at Passover season and filled with Passover images–was also diluted with water. From the Early Church Fathers we
have the testimony of Hippolytus, Justin Martyr, Cyprian, and Clement of Alexandria, all of whom refer to wine mixed with water at the Church’s eucharistic or Lord’s Supper observances.
- Clearly, to speak of drinking in the biblical world, where drinking wine mixed with water was often the norm, may be far different from speaking of drinking in today’s society where distilled spirits have an alcoholic concentration three to five times
higher than unmixed wine and many times higher than mixed wine. Stein’s conclusion illustrates the point:
- To consume the amount of alcohol that is in two martinis by drinking wine containing three parts water to one part wine, one would have to drink over twenty-two glasses. In other words, it is possible to become intoxicated from wine mixed with three
parts of water, but one’s drinking would probably affect the bladder long before it affected the mind. (13)
- A third difference between our society and the biblical world is the degree of urbanization and mechanization. This means that errors in judgment or decline in reaction time, which may not be apparent to the drinker and certainly not appear as drunkenness,
are magnified by the size and speed of the machinery we operate. There are very good reasons, for example, why airplane pilots are not permitted to drink any alcoholic beverage or take any drug which might affect perception or reaction time within
a specified period several hours before take-off. In like manner, the ability to drive a car may be impaired even if the legal levels of intoxication have not been reached. Driving a donkey was not so delicate a task!
Helpful Biblical Principles
Having noted some of the differences that complicate a comparison of attitudes toward drinking in the biblical world and in ours, we turn now to some biblical insights which, though not related to a discussion of drinking in their original contexts, may shed valuable light on our own situation. Remembering that the use of alcoholic beverages in the first century is not necessarily determinative for the twentieth century United States because of radical social differences, we still must consider the possibility that there are valid principles that cut across differences of time and culture.
- The first principle which must be affirmed is the goodness of the created order. The writer of the creation account in Genesis spoke of God’s calling forth vegetation, plants and fruit trees, “and God saw that it was good” (Gen. 1:12; cf. 2:9).
The Psalmist certainly pointed to this side of God in that great hymn to God the Creator, Psalm 104. Referring to God’s creation of the heavens (v.2), the sea (v. 6-7), the mountains (v.8), springs (v.lO), grass and plants (v.14), the Psalmist says it was so that man may “cultivate,” “may bring forth food from the earth, and wine to gladden the heart of man” (v.l5). Wine, at least, was seen as good because it was part of a larger good, the created world declared “good” by its creator.
The biblical doctrine of creation means, in the words of Langdon Gilkey, “since all that is comes from God’s will as its sole source, nothing in existence can be intrinsically evil.” All that God has created is essentially good and has a “capacity by nature to be directed and transformed by God’s recreative power.” (14)
On this basis, one might be tempted to affirm, without further question, the goodness of alcohol and other drugs as part of God’s created order. There is another side to this, however! Biblical writers, and the theologians who have interpreted them, have also pointed to the fallenness, the disruption and corruption of God’s creation. If God’s good creation does not produce as God intended, if gardens produce thorns and drugs produce addicts, one is forced to ask why.