Old Testament Beverages
by Jeffrey W. Hamilton
Throughout the Bible, drunkenness is consistently condemned. We understand that a drunkard cannot inherit the kingdom of God (I Corinthians 6:9-10). Paul warned that carousing and drunkenness are improper behaviors for Christians to engage (Romans 13:13). The warnings are clear enough that few people argue that being down-and-out drunk is acceptable. Many will even admit that it is a sin.
Understanding that drunkenness is wrong is not a problem. The real problem is deciding exactly when a person is drunk. People are reluctant to give up all alcoholic beverages, so they search for a limit where they can engage in some drinking, yet not reach the state of being drunk. So where should the line be drawn? We know that you cannot ask an individual if he is drunk. Almost everyone will argue they are not drunk even as they stagger across the room. The State governments have placed legal limits on the percentage of alcohol that can be found in a person's blood. When you are above that limit, you are too drunk to drive. But can we say that a person below that limit is not drunk at all?
The difficulty really lies in the simple fact that drunkenness is a
matter of degrees. It is nota true / false state, but a question of how
impaired you have become by drinking. Hence, you have people arguing that
a few drinks once in a while is not harmful, so long as a person doesn't
become drunk regularly. Others will argue that casual drinking, such as
a glass of wine with dinner, is acceptable so long as it doesn't move
much beyond a few glasses. Still others take the extreme view and argue
that all alcohol must be avoided. There is only one way to settle this
debate and that is to see what God says about the matter.
Why does alcohol cause so many problems?
"Wine is a mocker, strong drink a brawler, And whoever is intoxicated by it is not wise." (Proverbs 20:1). The word, here translated "intoxicated" refers to someone who is lead astray or deceived. Alcoholic drinks are not what they appear to be to those who use them. In particular, the writer warns that it causes users to be foolishly arrogant (a mocker) and it leads to violent behavior. We know that alcohol is a depressive. It slows down the reaction time of the body and the mind. It deadens the mind's ability to respond. People who drink have no idea how drunk they are because the drink is affecting their judgment. Instead, they will arrogantly claim there is nothing wrong with them. Alcohol is also deceptive because it is progressive. One drink probably doesn't wipe most people out. Many can hide the effects of a couple of drinks. But drunkenness is a matter of degree. A person who consumed one drink is more drunk than a person who abstained. A person with several drinks is more drunk than the person who only drank one drink. It is so easy to deceive yourself into thinking one more drink won't do any harm.
"And these also reel with wine and stagger from strong drink: The priest and the prophet reel with strong drink, They are confused by wine, they stagger from strong drink; They reel while having visions, They totter when rendering judgment" (Isaiah 28:7). The person under the influence of alcohol does not think clearly. His ability to coordinate his limbs is impaired (Proverbs 23:34). He sees things that are not really there (Proverbs 23:33). Is it surprising then that he also makes errors in judgment? This is why we do not permit drunk drivers, drunk pilots, or drunk judges. A person under the influence of alcohol does not make sound decisions.
"Woe to you who make your neighbors drink, Who mix in your venom even to make them drunk so as to look on their nakedness!" (Habakkuk 2:15). People will do things while drunk that they would never do when they are sober. The influence of alcohol causes errors in moral judgments. This is how Noah became the butt of one son's ridicule in Genesis 9:20-23. Though Noah was a righteous man, the influence of alcohol caused him to behave improperly. This is why it is popular to serve alcohol at parties - it breaks down inhibitions, such as shyness, and livens things up by allowing people to act foolishly without regret.
The odd thing is that alcohol is often used to escape depressing circumstances, but it is a depressant. "Who has woe? Who has sorrow? Who has contentions? Who has complaining? Who has wounds without cause? Who has redness of eyes? Those who linger long over wine, those who go to taste mixed wine" (Proverbs 23:29-30). Alcohol causes difficulties in the world because it does not solve problems. It simply deadens the drunk to the weight of his burdens. Yet alcohol plays havoc with a drunkard's emotions. He weeps over the slight things. He becomes angry with little provocation. And rarely does the man remember what he did while drunk; the alcohol suppressed his memory. The depressing effects of alcohol also deadens a person's ability to feel pain. "They struck me, but I did not become ill; They beat me, but I did not know it." (Proverbs 23:35).
The same passage warns that alcohol is poisonous. "At the last it bites like a serpent and stings like a viper" (Proverbs 23:32). The bites of serpents, such as a rattlesnake, destroys the circulatory system. It literally dissolves red blood cells and causes blood vessels to leak. The poison of vipers affects the nervous system causing signals to be scrambled. The Bible tells us that alcohol causes both effects in the human body. I found this article many years ago which explains the effects of alcohol.
"What is Wrong with a Friendly Glass of Beer?"
I was speaking to a teenager at a high school conference and one fellow came up to me and said, "Now, Doc, I don't drink, and I don't intend to drink, but actually, what is wrong with a friendly glass of beer?"
I said, "Do you know anything about the chemistry of alcohol?"
"No," he said, "I don't."
I said, "Alcohol is one of the greatest blessing God ever gave us."
"Is it? I thought it was just a curse," he said.
"No, it is a great blessing. The two reagents on a chemist's reagents rack which he uses as solvents are alcohol and water. Alcohol dehydrates and it dissolves. It is a marvelous thing. The photographic industry, tinctures, dyes, medicines, all kinds of things make use of alcohol.
There are about 19 kinds of commercial alcohol which brilliant chemists have developed, and we produce them by the tons. The kind of alcohol you drink is one type (ethyl), and the kind you put in your radiator is another kind (methyl). But all alcohols are poisons. In the body, they are going to cause ill effects. The reason is that they dehydrate and they dissolve.
Have you got a little imagination? Let us do a little chemical experiment here in your imagination. Let us take 16 bottles. In the first eight let us put alcohol and in the last eight let us put water. Over here we will see that alcohol dissolves, and here that it hardens.
Take, for example, some kind of fat and put it on water. It will just float around. What if we put fat in alcohol? Shake it up and it will dissolve. Take some resin, put it in alcohol, shake it up and it will dissolve. It goes to the bottom of water and stays. What happens to camphor? It floats on the water. Put it in alcohol and it will dissolve. We have fat, resin, and camphor. They will dissolve in alcohol. Put a green leaf in alcohol and it will take the color out. Now put these things in water and nothing happens. Now shift over here. Put a little bit of bread in alcohol. What will happen? It will get hard. Put a piece of meat in alcohol. What will happen? It will get hard, it dehydrates, it takes the water out of the meat.
Now this dehydrating and dissolving are the characteristics of alcohol which make it a great blessing. But, friends, when it goes down your gullet, it does not know if it is inside or outside. As soon as it gets in there it begins to work in the same way. It is not affected by gastric juices. It is absorbed through the walls of the stomach into the bloodstream and all your nerves and your brain are bathed with it. Every nerve has fatty substance called lipoid and the moment alcohol touches it, what happens? The alcohol dissolves it. When you dissolve the covering and insulation of the nerves, it is just like a telephone exchange with the insulation off. You do not get the message through to the proper source. This is why men stagger. They call for their right leg to act and the left leg gets the message. When alcohol goes into the heart of the nerves, that happens to be like the white of an egg. Alcohol cooks it. Alcohol is a great harm to the human body and mind because of these two properties of dissolving and dehydrating. Furthermore, alcohol is a narcotic, a deterrent of normal body functions. It is poison which adversely affects our judgment and self-control. It is, we believe, a harm to our offspring because it poisons the life-giving cells."
We talked for half an hour; and finally
the teenager said, "Sir, that's the first time I have ever had an intelligent
answer as to why I shouldn't drink beer. Thank God you told us."
"Alcohol is a very effective dissolving agent. It dissolves families, marriages, friendships, jobs, bank accounts, and neurons, but never problems."
alcohol is so bad, why did they drink it during biblical times?
All people drink, but it makes a difference when we consider what they drank. This determination is made difficult because of a strong desire by people to justify drinking. Definitions are often obscured to make a word seem more permissive of drinking. Frequently, the word "wine" is used regardless of the nature of the drink being consumed. In our society, "wine" definitely has alcoholic contents, but as we soon will see the words translated from the Hebrew do not necessarily contain alcohol in all cases.
Fortunately, we do not have
to rely on biased men to define various Hebrew words. The context these
words are used within will frequently give us suitable definitions.
The Hebrew word yayin is a generic term used to identify all juice from the grape, whether it is fresh, fermented, or something in between. It is used 144 times in the Old Testament, so we will only give a sampling of its use here. "Now that which was prepared for each day was one ox and six choice sheep, also birds were prepared for me; and once in ten days all sorts of wine were furnished in abundance. Yet for all this I did not demand the governor's food allowance, because the servitude was heavy on this people" (Nehemiah 5:18). The word "wine" here comes from the Hebrew word yayin and we see that it was applied to a variety of beverages.
It can be used to refer to the juice of grapes that is still in the fruit. "Gladness and joy are taken away from the fruitful field; In the vineyards also there will be no cries of joy or jubilant shouting, No treader treads out wine in the presses, For I have made the shouting to cease." (Isaiah 16:10, see also Jeremiah 48:33). When people step on grapes in a winepress to release the juice therein, an alcoholic beverage is not released as implied in this translation. The word yayin here obviously refers to fresh grape juice. "You shall plant and cultivate vineyards, but you will neither drink of the wine nor gather the grapes, for the worm will devour them" (Deuteronomy 28:39). God promised the Israelites that they would not enjoy the juice or the grapes themselves because of their disobedience.
One of the means people had to preserve grape juice was to concentrate it into a thick syrup. The high sugar content of the syrup prevented it from readily spoiling. When a person wanted to enjoy a drink, the syrup was mixed with water to reconstitute it. Yayin is sometimes used to refer to this prepared drink. "She has prepared her food, she has mixed her wine; She has also set her table ... Come, eat of my food And drink of the wine I have mixed" (Proverbs 9:2, 5). Again, this no more refers to an intoxicating drink than a jug of powdered drink mix.
Yayin doesn't always refer to non-alcoholic drinks. In a verse we referred to earlier, it says, "Wine is a mocker, strong drink a brawler, And whoever is intoxicated by it is not wise." (Proverbs 20:1). Here the word translated "wine" definitely refers to an intoxicating beverage. The same word can also refer to beverages that have drugs added to it. "Those who linger long over wine, those who go to taste mixed wine" (Proverbs 23:30). "Woe to those who are heroes in drinking wine and valiant men in mixing strong drink" (Isaiah 5:22). Alcohol is able dissolve a variety of chemicals, so intoxicating herbs were sometimes added to the drink to enhance its effects.
Obviously, the type of drink
referred to by yayin varies by the context of its usage. Even
though it is generally translated "wine," you cannot conclude that every
passage using yayin is referring to an intoxicating drink.
Where yayin is a general term, tirosh has a specific meaning. It always refers to fresh, unfermented grape juice. Generally you find tirosh translated as "new wine." "As the new wine is found in the cluster" (Isaiah 65:8). Here tirosh refers to the juice of grapes before they are squeezed. "Your vats will overflow with new wine." (Proverbs 3:10). The juice pouring freely from the presses at harvest is called tirosh. Tirosh never refers to an intoxicating beverage.
means the blood of the grape. In other words, it refers to the freshly
squeezed juice that comes foaming from the vat. "And of the blood
of grapes you drank wine." (Deuteronomy 32:14). Chemer is
pure, unadulterated grape juice. It never refers to intoxicating beverages.
Juice is called dema, which literally means "tears." When fruit is squeezed, it "cries tears." It is only used once in Exodus 22:29.
Fresh juice of any fruit, including grapes, is called asis in the Hebrew. "I would give you spiced wine to drink from the juice of my pomegranates" (Song of Solomon 8:2). Here spiced pomegranate juice is referred to as a "wine." "When the mountains will drip sweet wine and all the hills will be dissolved" (Amos 9:13). Here asis is translated sweet wine or new wine. It refers to God squeezing the hills to produce juice - juice that is fresh squeezed and unfermented. Like tirosh and chemer, asis always refers to fresh juice.
The specific word for concentrated grape juice is sobe. Before it can be used as a beverage, it has to be reconstituted with water. "Your silver has become dross, Your drink diluted with water." (Isaiah 1:22). Here the beverage has had too much water added, making an unappetizing drink. Once the grape juice has been reconstituted, it is possible for it to be used as the medium to ferment an alcoholic drink. "Their liquor gone, They play the harlot continually; Their rulers dearly love shame" (Hosea 4:18). This is the only time sobe is used in the Scriptures in reference to wickedness, so it is assumed that the drink was a cheap fermented beverage made from reconstituted grape juice. Sobe refers to the thickened grape syrup or to the beverage made by reconstituting that syrup. You cannot necessarily assume the reconstituted drink has gone through the additional step of fermentation unless the context indicates it to be so.
Any fermented drink made from fruits or grains is called shekar. This would include naturally brewed beers. Hence, some translations use the word "beer" instead of "strong drink" in many verses. The reason is that today we call whiskey and vodka strong drinks. In the days of the Old Testament much milder drinks, such as beers and aged wines, were considered strong drinks.
The use of shekar as a beverage was always condemned. It was well understood that people under the influence of such drinks could become violent (Proverbs 20:1). Priests were not allowed to drink shekar while on duty (Leviticus 10:9). "Woe to those who rise early in the morning that they may pursue strong drink, Who stay up late in the evening that wine may inflame them!" (Isaiah 5:11).
There are only two passages where the use of shekar is not condemned. Both deal with offering shekar as a drink offering to God (Numbers 28:7-8; Deuteronomy 14:26). In Numbers 28:7-8, the offering was burnt and I suspect that shekar was used because the alcoholic content allowed it readily to burn. The passage in Deuteronomy 14:26 gives the impression that strong drink, along with whatever else was purchased, was consumed by the family making the sacrifice. However, recall that strong drink was specifically forbidden to the priests on duty and the meal was to be shared with the Levites (Deuteronomy 14:27). It seems likely that strong drink was used as a starter fluid for the sacrifice, but it was not necessarily consumed in the meal.
There is an interesting passage in I Samuel 1 that supports this point. Elkanah and his wives went yearly to sacrifice to God. "This man went up from his city yearly to worship and sacrifice to the LORD of hosts in Shiloh. Also the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, the priests of the LORD, were there. And whenever the time came for Elkanah to make an offering, he would give portions to Peninnah his wife and to all her sons and daughters. But to Hannah he would give a double portion, for he loved Hannah, although the LORD had closed her womb" (I Samuel 1:3-5). The sharing of the sacrifice indicates it is the type of offering described in Numbers 28:7-8 and Deuteronomy 14:26-27. "So Hannah arose after they had finished eating and drinking in Shiloh" (I Samuel 1:9). She went to the tabernacle to pray and while there the high priest, Eli, accused her of being drunk. Notice Hannah's answer: "No, my lord, I am a woman of sorrowful spirit. I have drunk neither wine nor intoxicating drink, but have poured out my soul before the LORD" (I Samuel 1:15). Therefore, it would be false to conclude that shekar was necessarily used for consumption in the sacrifices.
Were most grape drinks fermented?
A common argument for the consumption of alcoholic beverages is that the ancients did not have the means to prevent grape juice from fermenting. Therefore they conclude that only rarely did they consume non-alcoholic beverages.
Actually, without a controlled environment grape juice is much more likely to become vinegar than wine. Wine must be purposely made. Grape juice left to itself spoils into vinegar. "The simplest [way to make vinegar] is to leave an open, 3/4 filled bottle of wine in a warm place for a couple of weeks."2 "Making vinegar is so easy it can be done by accident. We could even say that most of it is made without our cooperation or awareness."3
There were several methods of preservation used in biblical times. Preserving fruit, boiling the juice to the consistency of syrup, filtration, refrigeration and fumigation.
one method to keep fresh grapes was to cut clusters of grapes, leaving the grapes on the cut vine and sealing cut to keep the fruit from drying out. Columella, in On Agriculture, stated,"In order that the grapes may remain green for as much as a year, you will keep them in the following manner. When you have cut from the vine grapes ... immediately treat their pedicles with hard pitch; then fill a new earthenware pan with the driest possible chaff, which has been sifted that it may be free from dust, and put the grapes upon it. Then cover it with another pan and daub it around with clay mixed with chaaff, and then, after arranging the pans in a very dry loft, cover them with dry chaff."4 Pliny, in Natural History, said, "Some grapes will last all through the winter if the clusters are hung by a string from the ceiling, and others will keep merely in their own natural vior by being stood in earthenware jares with casks put over them, and packed round with fermenting grape-skins."5
Drinks can then be obtained by squeezing the perserved fruits. "One may press out a cluster of grapes and pronounce the kiddush over the juice, since the juice of the grape is considered wine in connection with the law of the Nazarite."6 This is one way the drink for the Lord's Supper was prepared. "Bring as an offering the holy bread; and, having pressed three clusters from the vine into a cup, communicate with me, as the Lord Jesus showed us how to offer up when he rose from the dead on the third day."7 This doesn't prove that preserved fruit was squeezed, but it does show that fresh grape juice was used in the Lord's Supper.
"By boiling, the juice of the richest grapes loses all its aptitude for fermentation, and may afterwards be preserved for years without undergoing any further change."1 Boiling accomplished two things. First, it destroyed any bacteria in the grape juice that might cause spoilage. Second, by increasing the concentration of sugar in the product, bacteria and molds are inhibited from growing. For similar reasons, honey, corn syrup, and maple syrup do not readily spoil even though they are not refrigerated. Columella, a writer in the first century, said it was common in both Italy and Greece to boil wine. Pliny, who lived between 62 and 113 A.D., wrote that Opimiam wine had the consistency of honey. This particular product had been in production for more than two centuries. Virgil, a historian who lived between B.C. 70 and 19, instructed his readers to boil the juice of grapes down to or 1/3 of its original volume to make wine keep.
Columella also recorded several methods for boiling, such as: "If there is plenty of wood, it is better to boil the must and clear off all the scum with the dregs; if this is done a tenth part will be lost, but the rest keeps good forever."8 Such practice continued for centuries up into the 1800's. Dr. A. Russel, in Natural History of Aleppo, wrote: "The inspissated juice of the grape, sapa vini, called here dibbs, is brought to the city in skins, and sold in the public markets; it has much the appearance of coarse honey, is of sweet taste, and in great use among the people of all sorts."9 Henry Homes recorded, "Simple grape-juice, without the addition of any earth to neutralize the acidity, is boiled from four to five hours, so as to reduce it one-fourth the quantity put in. After the boiling, for preserving it cool, and that it be less liable to ferment, it is put into earthen instead of wooden vessels, closely tied over with skin to exclude air. It ordinarily has not a particle of intoxicating quality, being used freely by both Mohammedans and Christians. Some which I have had on hand for two years has undergone no change."10
This is the reason the Jewish Mishna teaches the Jews to water down their wine. It wasn't to cut the alcoholic content. The Jews of that day commonly kept their wine in syrup form. In addition to the Mishna, there are other historical records which gives instructions for reconstituting the syrup depending on the kind of wine being used. Hesiod, who lived in the eighth century B.C., said that in the summer months it was best to use one part wine to three parts water. Hippocrates, the famous doctor who lived from B.C. 460 to 377, said to use one part Thracian wine to twenty parts water. Either Hesiod liked his reconstituted wine strong or Thracian wine was thicker than other syrups. In some regions public water houses were built where citizens could get hot, cold, or lukewarm water to mix with their wine syrup, depending on the type of drink they desired. These water houses were called "thermopoliums" and several have been found in the buried city of Pompeii.
Jars filled with unfermented grape juice were exposed to sulphur dioxide fumes and then sealed. The sulphur absorbs any free oxygen, thus preventing the yeast from multiplying. T. S. Carr in Roman Antiquities, stated "the application of the fumarium to the mellowing wines was borrowed from the Asiatics; and thus exhalation would go on until the wine was reduced to the state of syrup."9 In other words, many of the techniques were used in combinations to prevent grape juice from turning.
The filtration method aims to separate the albumen of the grapes, a layer next to the skin and seeds, from the pulp of the grape. The albumen is where the gluten (or yeast) is naturally present in grape juice. Without the gluten, fermentation could not take place. Plutarch, who lived between 46 and 120 A.D. said, "Wine is rendered feeble in strength when it is frequently filtered. The strength or spirit thus being excluded, the wine neither inflames the brain nor infests the mind and passions, and is much more pleasant to drink." Pliny, whom we mentioned before, said, "The most useful wine was all its force or strength broken by the filter." Notice that non-alcoholic beverages were valued more than the alcoholic variety.
Even though the ancients did not have modern day refrigerators, they knew that juice kept at 45 degrees or less cannot ferment. If the juice is kept cool and still for a period of time, the gluten will settle to the bottom. The liquid can then be skimmed off the top and it will not ferment, even if it is warmed again. Pliny describes a wine called Aigleukos ("Always Sweet"): "They plunge the casks, immediately after they are filled from the vat, into water, until winter has passed away and the wine has acquired the habit of being cold." Marcus Pontius Cato, who lived from B.C. 234 to 149, said, "If you wish to have 'must' all year, put grape juice in an amphora and seal the cork with pitch. Sink it in a fishpond. After 30 days, take it out. It will be grape juice for a whole year." One method employed by the Jews was to pour a small amount of olive oil on top of the juice poured into jars. The jars were then placed in caves. The oil produced an airtight seal and the cool caves allowed large quantities of juice to be stored and sold at later times of the year. It is likely that this was the type of "wine" served at the wedding feast in Cana before they ran out. Jesus' miracle produced fresh grape juice, which explains why the governor of the feast complemented its taste.
Columella also records the process: "That must may remain always as sweet as though it were fresh, so as follows. Before the grape-skins are put under press, take from the vat some of the freshest possible must and put it in a new wine-jar; then daub it over and cover it carefully with pitch, that thus no water may be able to get in. Then sink the whole flagon in a pool of cold, fresh water so that no part of it is above the surface. Then after forty days take it out of the water. The must will then keep sweet for as much as a year." 11
"Some indirect information is provided by James B. Pritchard, who excavated the ancient Gibeon where sixty-three storage wine-vats were found, with a holding capacity of 25,000 gallons. His reconstruction of the process of wine making at Gibeon includes the filtration of the pressed juice into two cylindrical tanks 2 ft. in diameter and 2 ft. deep. After filtering the wine was stored in cool cellars in large jars sealed with olive oil. Pritchard tested a suggestion of a local wine maker that wine would keep from turning into vinegar in the cellar, if it was sealed with olive oil. The excavators stored a jar of wine sealed with a film of olive oil for a month in the cellars of Gibeon. To their delight they found at the end of the month that the wine was perfectly preserved. The reason was that the oil provided a practical barrier preventing the oxidation of the wine.
"The success of the experiment suggests the possibility that the same method could have been used for preserving unfermented grape juice. Freshly pressed grape juice, after being filtered to eliminate glutinous material, could have been stored in cool cellars in jars sealed with olive oil. To some extend this method was used by my father when I was a boy. I recall helping him to filter the grape juice through a thick linen sack and then pouring the juice into bottles which were sealed with a film of oil and a tight cork. The bottles would be stored in a cool cellar. ..."12
Columella again records the process: "That must may remain always as sweet as though it were fresh, so as follows. Before the grape-skins are put under press, take from the vat some of the freshest possible must and put it in a new wine-jar; then daub it over and cover it carefully with pitch, that thus no water may be able to get in. Then sink the whole flagon in a pool of cold, fresh water so that no part of it is above the surface. Then after forty days take it out of the water. The must will then keep sweet for as much as a year."11
Historical records consistently indicate that the best wines were freshest, unfermented juice available. Even the Gentiles preferred the fresh taste over the stored varieties. It is a grave mistake to assume that most people drank fermented grape juice during the ancient times. Unless the context of a passage indicates whether the drink was fermented or not, you cannot make any assumption concerning its alcoholic content. One pattern that is prevalent in the Old Testament is that fermented wine is always spoken of in a negative sense when consumed by people. Unfermented juice is always spoken of in a positive or neutral sense. The very consistency of this pattern is striking, showing that used of alcoholic wines and beers was frowned upon under the Mosaical Law.
Wine in the Old Testament
|Juice still in the cluster or recently squeezed out.||Fresh or unfermented juice||Boiled juice or juice concentrated to syrup||Fermented, intoxicating||Mixed with drugs to enhance effects or mixed with sugars to increase the alcohol content|
|Jeremiah 48:33||Proverbs 9:2, 5||Proverbs
of Solomon 8:2
2. "Making Vinegar from Wine," About.com.
3. "How to Make Vinegar," Vinegar Connoisseurs International.
See New Testament Beverages for a continuation of this discussion.