A Little Wine: Is the Bible Contradictory on Wine and Alcohol?

A Little Wine: Is the Bible Contradictory on Wine and Alcohol?
James Patrick Holding


The word wine appears over 200 times in the KJV Bible. Overall, what is the Bible’s opinion of wine, and by extension, alcohol? It is the purpose of this study to decide one way or the other, and our programmatic piece for this essay will be a section of Chapter 13 of the Encyclopedia of Biblical Errancy, which makes the claim that the Bible offers contradictory advice on this subject.

We begin with OT evidence, and with three key words in Hebrew: tiyrowsh this word is translated “wine” in the KJV and “new wine” in some newer versions. It refers to the initial squeezings of juice from the grape, and according to Strong’s, is rarely used of fermented wine. Its newness is confirmed by its application as part of the first fruits dedicated to God (Deut. 14:23) and by its grouping with agricultural products as a victim of drought (Hag. 1:1).

The term itself suggests something non-alcoholic. Only one verse suggests that it may have alcohol, as we shall see below, this is a toss-up. EBE therefore often cites it improperly as “advocating indulgence” of alcohol. Yayin this word is translated “wine” in most versions. Strong’s reports that it comes from a root meaning “to effervesce”. In most contexts we will see that it refers to a clearly alcoholic drink.

Some writers dispute this interpretation, however. Bacchiocchi [Bac.W, 62] argues that yayin “was used to refer to variety of wines,” including the newly pressed juice and fermented, alcoholic wine. He notes that fresh (non-alcoholic) wine before fermenting was called yayin mi-gat, or “wine of the vat,” or from the press, while older and fermented wine was called yayin yashan, or if it was much older, yayin meyushshan or yashan noshan. He therefore concludes that yayin often referred to fresh grape juice.

There are a few problems with Bacchiocchi’s arguments, however. First, the distinction between the various stages of yayin appears only in the rabbinic literature from after the Christian era. No such distinction is found in the OT, and the rabbinic references are between 500-1900 years after the OT references. Unless there is some evidence that the distinctions were made much earlier than the time of the rabbis, Bacchiocchi’s argument cannot hold ground.
Second, since the OT makes no distinction in classes of yayin, Bacchiocchi must generally employ a circular hermenuetic in support of his case: anywhere where yayin is condemned refers to alcoholic wine, but anyplace where it is approved refers to grape juice! We will explore individual cases below.

Finally, it should be noted that according to the rabbinic sources Bacchiocchi uses, the yayin mi-gat was in it’s unfermented stage for only three days. This may be useful in addressing whether, even under the definition given, yayin ever refers to non-alcoholic grape juice in the OT. We shall see that the Bible does permit the consumption of alcoholic yayin, while condemning the use of it to the point of drunkenness.
Shekar this word does not appear often, but is translated in the KJV as “strong drink.” The root of this word comes from a word meaning to be tipsy and is associated with strong alcoholic drink. Strong’s defines it as “an intoxicant, i.e. intensely alcoholic liquor.” It appears to have been a product of dates rather than grapes.

This interpretation is also disputed by Bacchiocchi [227]. He notes briefly, as he does with yayin, places where shekar is forbidden to Nazirites and priests, and where its corrosive effects are listed. Neither of these points equates with an all-time, all-persons, all-amounts condemnation. Second, he cites the argument of Teachout [227] that “wine and strong drink” are a hendiadys, so that they refer to the same thing, and under the assumption that yayin is grape juice, shekar must be also! Obviously this point assumes the earlier points as a basis.
A few other words are used for wine, such as the Chaldean chamar in Daniel. But the above three words constitute the overwhelming majority of usages. Let us now begin with OT references.

Gen. 9:21 and he drank of the wine, and was drunken; and he was uncovered within his tent. Here and Gen. 9:24 are the first mentions of yayin in the Bible. No explicit moral is drawn from this use of wine, though it implicitly suggests that drunkenness leads to trouble.
Gen. 14:18 And Melchizedek king of Salem brought forth bread and wine: and he was the priest of the most high God.

This is the next place yayin is mentioned and no commentary is offered either way. EBE places this in the “supports wine, but not assertively” section, and this is correct as far as it goes. It would probably be better to say “allows” than “supports” as the latter term suggests a direct advocation (“Go out and drink wine!”), which is simply not the case. It does reflect the use of wine (and bread) as one of two ancient staples.
Gen. 19:32 come, let us make our father drink wine, and we will lie with him, that we may preserve seed of our father.

The next several mentions of wine appear in the context of Lot’s daughters making him intentionally drunk for their own purposes. Once again a lesson is drawn implicitly which speaks against wine consumption to the point of drunkeness; there is no comment on consumption prior to that point. Gen. 27:25, 28 and he said, bring it near to me, and I will eat of my son’s venison, that my soul may bless thee. And he brought it near to him, and he did eat: and he brought him wine, and he drank….Therefore God give thee of the dew of heaven, and the fatness of the earth, and plenty of corn and wine…

The first “wine” here is yayin, but the second is not this word is tiyrowsh, which as we have noted, is likely non-alcoholic. This word is used for the next mention of wine (“new wine” in the NIV) in Gen. 27:37 as well. Gen. 49:10-11 has an interesting reference to yayin:
The sceptre shall not depart from Judah, nor a lawgiver from between his feet, until Shiloh come; and unto him shall the gathering of the people be.

Binding his foal unto the vine, and his ass’s colt unto the choice vine; he washed his garments in wine, and his clothes in the blood of grapes:
Bacchiocchi [Bac.W, 69] argues that yayin here means grape juice, for we have a poetical parallelism in which yayin is called “the blood of the grapes”, which he takes to be grape juice. However, it is hard to see why alcoholic yayin would not be referred to this way as well, and no reason is given as to why it cannot be. (As an added note, Sarna’s commentary on Genesis notes that there is some evidence that Judah was involved in a cloth-dying industry, so that what is in view here anyway is not consumption at all, nor “washing of clothes” as such.)

The next mention of yayin (Ex. 29:40) refers to its use in a drink offering. It is mentioned several times in this context over the next few books (we will not repeat these cites below), and this relates to one of Bacchiocchi’s key arguments for yayin being non-alcoholic. He refers to Lev. 2:11 [Bac.W, 88]:

No meat offering, which ye shall bring unto the LORD, shall be made with leaven: for ye shall burn no leaven, nor any honey, in any offering of the LORD made by fire.
Bacchicocchi argues that “leaven” (chametz in the first case, se’or in the second) means “anything leavened or fermented” or “any ferment” and thus, fermented wine could not have been poured out as an offering. He notes the inconsistent efforts of medieval rabbis to explain this in terms of yayin elsewhere being a fermented drink, and concludes that yayin must be grape juice at times.

There is some support for Bacchiocchi’s position here. Though these words are never used with reference to wine in the Bible, Budd and Milgrom in their commentaries on Leviticus [61, 188] note that the Akkadian word-equivalent is used to refer to bread, beer, and vinegar, so it is quite possible that fermented drink would be out of the picture for this offering. However, Milgrom also notes the answer: that the offering where yayin was involved was not burned, but was poured out on the ground. The yayin therefore could be fermented and not violate any of the strictures.

Finally there is a problem in Bacchiocchi’s effort to note that other items used for offerings, such as flour, oil and animals, “were all natural products,” whereas wine was not. Cakes and wafers were also used for offerings, as was leavened bread in certain cases (Lev. 7:13), and they were not “natural”. Lev. 10:9 Do not drink wine nor strong drink, thou, nor thy sons with thee, when ye go into the tabernacle of the congregation, lest ye die: it shall be a statute for ever throughout your generations: EBE mentions this as an “against” passage, but fails to note the context. In this passage a directive is given specifically to Aaron and his descendants not to consume wine or “strong drink” before ministering at the tabernacle. This is a prohibition on alcohol at a specific time and for specific persons only.

This is also the first appearance in the Bible of the term “strong drink” (shekar). At any event, contrary to EBE and others, this verse does not advocate teetotalling for all persons or at all times. Numbers 6:3 He shall separate himself from wine and strong drink, and shall drink no vinegar of wine, or vinegar of strong drink, neither shall he drink any liquor of grapes, nor eat moist grapes, or dried. EBE cites this verse in favor of teetotalling, but is wrong again. This verse refers again to a specific group, the Nazirites, and forbids the entire range of alcoholic products to them — yayin, shekar, and “liquor”, or mishrah, which appears only here in the OT — unless a specific ceremony is offered (6:20).


Several references in Numbers and Deuteronomy hereafter refer to wine (and once, shekar — Num. 28:7) again as an offering. Deut. 7:13 refers to tiyrowsh and is therefore cited by EBE improperly as advocating alcoholic indulgence. Deut. 14:26 And thou shalt bestow that money for whatsoever thy soul lusteth after, for oxen, or for sheep, or for wine, or for strong drink, or for whatsoever thy soul desireth: and thou shalt eat there before the LORD thy God, and thou shalt rejoice, thou, and thine household…

This verse mentions both yayin and shekar, and clearly permits its use — whatever it is — within a celebratory religious context. EBE classes this with verses that “advocate indulging” — if by “indulging” one means merely drinking, and “advocating” only allowing, this is correct, but if one means it in the sense of “feel free to get smashed” then there is no allowance for such an interpretation. Bacchiocchi [Bac.W, 228] cites Teachout’s argument that since intoxicants were forbidden to priests on duty (Lev. 10:9) on pain of death, it would be inconsistent “for God to command the use of these same intoxicants by the worshippers in one of their infrequent appearances before Him, especially when they were in the company of those priests.”

But the command is not directed towards use of intoxicants; the command is to lay aside money for the purchase of goods, of which the wine and strong drink are just one of several listed, along with food and “whatsoever thy soul desireth.” This no more allows intoxication that the permission to buy oxen or sheep allows gluttony or overeating, or food fights for that matter. Indeed the warning of Lev. 10:9, within the didactic context of ancient law codes, serves as warning enough to avoid intoxication. Tigay (Deut. commentary, 143) adds the relevant note that in this time period, total abstinence was regarded as a sign of mourning!

Bacchiocchi’s alternate proposal, that shekar may simply be a sweet drink of some kind, fails on the point that it elsewhere is regarded as having intoxicating properties (see below). Moreover, though it could be valued for its sweetness, and even if sweetness does reduce in correspondence with the level of alcohol [229], this does not mean we are free to define it in black-and-white terms as either sweet or alcoholic, but not both. (Cf. Is. 24:9)
Deut. 29:6 Ye have not eaten bread, neither have ye drunk wine or strong drink: that ye might know that I am the LORD your God.

Here again yayin and shekar are both mentioned. Some might read this as advocating teetollatry, but if it does it also advocates not eating bread. The verse is made with reference to God’s provision of manna for 40 years during the Exodus, and that the Israelites during that time had no need for man-made provisions. A couple of references in Joshua speak of people carrying wine bottles, but say nothing about wine consumption directly. Both wine and strong drink are referred to in Judges as prohibited to Samson and his mother as part of the Nazirite vow process.

Yayin is mentioned as a staple in Judg. 19:19, with no moral directive one way or the other in view. Tiyrowsh is mentioned in Judges 9:13 thusly: “And the vine said unto them, Should I leave my wine, which cheereth God and man, and go to be promoted over the trees?” This is a vine speaking in a parable of talking plants; EBE cites this in the “advocating indulgence” department, but it is hard to see how this is the case, other than that it reflects the idea that wine can change mood positively, according to the vine, at least, who is hardly an authority on such matters and is indeed quite likely biased and boasting!
1 Sam. 1:14-15 And Eli said unto her, How long wilt thou be drunken? put away thy wine from thee. And Hannah answered and said, No, my lord, I am a woman of a sorrowful spirit: I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but have poured out my soul before the LORD.
Here we have an implication from Eli at least that there is error in both yayin and shekar when it results in drunkenness. Samuel mentions Nabal’s consumption of yayin (1 Sam. 25:37), and notes that David gives to each person in Israel a cake of bread, some meat, and a flagon of wine (2 Sam. 26:39). In 2 Sam. 13:28, Absalom suggests killing Amnon once he is “merry” with yayin once it has been consumed to the point his mood is altered. Someone brings yayin to David and his men in 2 Sam. 16:1-2, along with bread, for the sake of sustenance. Once again mere consumption is not condemned, but intoxication is seen to get one in trouble.

Kings only mentions the juice of the new harvest, the tiyrowsh, as an agricultural product (2 Kings 18:32). Chronicles repeats some of the wine references in Samuel. It adds that yayin was given as a provision by Hirum of Tyre to Solomon’s workers, along with barley, wheat, and oil, and another man (1 Chr. 27:27) is mentioned as having a yayin cellar. Tiyrowsh is mentioned also as an agricultural product. Ezra mentions wine twice, as a provision along with salt and oil, using the Chaldean word chamar. Nehemiah mentions wine several times, as something drunk by the Persian king, and both yayin and tiyrowsh are mentioned along with corn, bread and oil as a staple or agricultural product. Bacchiocchi [Bac.W, 68] cites Neh. 13:15 as a supposed example of yayin meaning non-alcoholic grape juice:

In those days saw I in Judah some treading wine presses on the Sabbath, and bringing in sheaves, and lading asses; as also wine, grapes, and figs, and all manner of burdens, which they brought into Jerusalem on the Sabbath day: and I testified against them in the day wherein they sold victuals. Bacchiocchi reasons that yayin here is “probably” the pressed grape juice, “since it is mentioned together with the treading of wine presses on the Sabbath.” It is hard to see a logical link here. There is no cause-effect relationship between the two phrases; this no more makes the yayin non-alcoholic that the mention of sheaves would indicate that the burdens could not include fully-made bread.

Esther mentions wine being consumed at Xerxes’ banquet, and making him “merry” to the point that he apparently commits a social gaffe with his wife. In the rest of the book it is mentioned as present at banquets. Surprisingly for its size, Job mentions yayin only three times twice as something Job’s kids were drinking while gathered together, and once referenced in a figure of speech (32:19). Psalms mentions the tiyrowsh as an agri-product (4:7), and uses yayin as part of a figure of speech (60:3 “Thou hast showed thy people hard things: thou hast made us to drink the wine of astonishment.” see also 75:8, 78:65). EBE somehow manages to see 60:3 as in the category of “opposing the consumption of alcohol” though not definitively; how this is the case is not explained and seems to be no more than a case of McKinsey Machination Heremenutics.

In 104:15 yayin is referred to an agri-product that “maketh glad the heart of man.” EBE sees this latter verse as “supporting” drinking, and again, if by this we only mean it is allowed, but not to the point of intoxication, this is correct. The heart may be made glad any number of ways — sweetness, for example, a rare and expensive commodity in the ANE. Ps. 69:12 refers to people who consumed shekar singing mocking songs.
Bacchiocchi [Bac.W, 85] argues that yayin is proven in Psalms to be non-alcoholic, because both it and tiyrowsh (which is generally agreed to be grape juice) are described as gladdening the heart and causing joy (Ps. 104:14-15, 4:7). But again, it is hard to see why both cannot be viewed as sources of delight, for different reasons, or with no reference to intoxication, only flavor. Referring to both bread and grain (as in 104:14-15) as a source of joy would not make bread and grain identical.

Proverbs mentions wine and strong drink a number of times, and it is from these mentions that Bacchiochi pulls his most oft-used arguments. Prov. 3:10 “So shall thy barns be filled with plenty, and thy presses shall burst out with new wine.” Prov. 9:1-5 Wisdom hath builded her house, she hath hewn out her seven pillars: She hath killed her beasts; she hath mingled her wine; she hath also furnished her table. She hath sent forth her maidens: she crieth upon the highest places of the city, Whoso is simple, let him turn in hither: as for him that wanteth understanding, she saith to him, Come, eat of my bread, and drink of the wine which I have mingled.

Prov. 20:1 Wine is a mocker, strong drink is raging: and whosoever is deceived thereby is not wise. Prov. 21:17 He that loveth pleasure shall be a poor man: he that loveth wine and oil shall not be rich. Prov. 23:20-1 Be not among winebibbers; among riotous eaters of flesh: For the drunkard and the glutton shall come to poverty: and drowsiness shall clothe a man with rags.
Prov. 23:29-30 Who hath woe? who hath sorrow? who hath contentions? who hath babbling? who hath wounds without cause? who hath redness of eyes? They that tarry long at the wine; they that go to seek mixed wine.

Prov. 31:4-6 It is not for kings, O Lemuel, it is not for kings to drink wine; nor for princes strong drink: Lest they drink, and forget the law, and pervert the judgment of any of the afflicted. Give strong drink unto him that is ready to perish, and wine unto those that be of heavy hearts.
The first cite uses tiyrowsh and concerns us no further. Several of the cites above refer to yayin and shekar and describe its consequences. Bacchiocchi [Bac.W, 66] notes 23:29-35 and 20:1 in particular as warnings against yayin as (as he sees it) alcoholic (versus non-alcoholic) yayin. But Solomon’s warning is specifically directed at those who “tarry long” at yayin (23:30). The Hebrew behind “tarry long” is ‘achar, meaning to procrastinate or loiter.

The warnings that follow may seem to suggest a more direct condemnation of all alcohol:
Prov. 23:31-5 Look not thou upon the wine 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. Thine eyes shall behold strange women, and thine heart shall utter perverse things. Yea, thou shalt be as he that lieth down in the midst of the sea, or as he that lieth upon the top of a mast. They have stricken me, shalt thou say, and I was not sick; they have beaten me, and I felt it not: when shall I awake? I will seek it yet again.

The state of being described, however, is that of one who has indeed procrastinated at yayin to the point of drunkenness. As such it condemns drunkenness, but not merely yayin. As a further point, I must fairly bring against Bacchiocchi’s argument the same caveat I have against skeptics like McKinsey who misuse Proverbs and other Biblical wisdom literature. Proverbs and other proverbial literature are not absolutes. They are ancient sound bites, not cohesive and complete arguments. These passages can therefore no more be read as absolute condemnations of comsuming alcohol than Prov. 26:4-5 (“Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest thou also be like unto him. Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own conceit.”) can be read as contradictory.

This leads to an important point. Proverbs and other parts of the Bible reveal a paradox recognized by the ancients: alcohol was a “food with two faces” [OrH, 9]. (As noted elsewhere, this nature is embodied in the contradictory nature of Dionysus, the ancient god of wine.) Ancient writers referred to wine in terms both positive (“chemical symphony”, “bottled poetry”) and negative (“destroyer of homes”, “opener of graves”) [ibid.]. A more detailed commentator explained the paradox: wine “drives all sorrows from men’s hearts when drunk in good measure, but when taken immoderately, is a bane.” [OrH, 13] Proverbs warns of wine’s consequences, as the ancients all did, but this does not equate with prohibition any more than Miller beer’s warnings against drunk driving do. (See also Hab. 2:5.) Thus as well EBE improperly cites such passages (Prov. 20:1, 23; Hab. 2:5) as “more or less forceful” admonitions in favor of teetolatry.

Proverbs 31:4-6 offers an interesting case. Again, it must be considered within the context of proverbial literature and not taken as an absolute, neither as a total prohibition (per Bacchiocchi, 234) nor as full permission (per EBE). Bacchiocchi is probably correct in supposing that 31:6 advocates alcoholic beverage as a pain reliever, used for medicinal purposes. Prior to the advent of pain relievers, this was often the only option available. However, it begs the question to say that it is an “ironical” statement that “suggests that alcohol is fit only to kill the excruciating pain of someone in distress.” [236]

Ecclesiastes mentions yayin three times: as something the author consumed, as something that “maketh merry,” and something the writer tells the reader to consume (9:7). The Song of Solomon mentions yayin several times and compares it to love. Love is better than wine (4:10), it is drunk with milk (5:1). Bacchiocchi [Bac.W, 69] supposes that this must refer to grape juice, for he says the same author (in Proverbs) also condemns yayin, but as noted, this sort of argument fails to appreciate the proverbial, non-absolute nature of the condemnation and is not informed by the paradoxical thought of the ancients on the subject. It was quite possible for the ancients to simultaneously praise and condemns wine.

Isaiah mentions yayin and shekar several times. Is. 5:11-12 Woe unto them that rise up early in the morning, that they may follow strong drink; that continue until night, till wine inflame them! And the harp, and the viol, the tabret, and pipe, and wine, are in their feasts: but they regard not the work of the LORD, neither consider the operation of his hands.
Is. 5:22 Woe unto them that are mighty to drink wine, and men of strength to mingle strong drink:

This passage refer in particular to those who are “mighty” (the same word describes the “mighty men of old”) to drink wine and points to those who go out of their way to get hold of it and experiment with it. It thereby condemns strong focus on drink, but says nothing about moderate consumption. Is. 24:9 They shall not drink wine with a song; strong drink shall be bitter to them that drink it.
This verse encapsulates both sides of the two-faces paradox. It implies that wine can be drunk with a song, but states that it will not be. Is. 28:1, 7 Woe to the crown of pride, to the drunkards of Ephraim, whose glorious beauty is a fading flower, which are on the head of the fat valleys of them that are overcome with wine!…But they also have erred through wine, and through strong drink are out of the way; the priest and the prophet have erred through strong drink, they are swallowed up of wine, they are out of the way through strong drink; they err in vision, they stumble in judgment.

This passage speaks of those who have been “overcome” with wine, and so speaks against excess, but not against mere consumption as EBE supposes. (cf. 51:21) In other places it is mentioned as an agri-product (16:10, 24:7, along with tiyrowsh, which is also in 36:17 and 65:8, and is mentioned as a drink in 62:8) and as something consumed (22:13, 24:7-9, 11, 55:1). 16:10 in particular is taken by Bacchiocchi as an example of where yayin means unfermented grape juice:

And gladness is taken away, and joy out of the plentiful field; and in the vineyards there shall be no singing, neither shall there be shouting: the treaders shall tread out no wine in their presses; I have made their vintage shouting to cease. Bacchiocchi reasons [Bac.W, 67] that “what the treaders tread out in the pressing vat” is called yayin, and since the stuff in the vat must have been non-alcoholic, yayin must sometimes mean non-alcoholic grape juice. Part of his appeal, however, rests upon the unproven assumption that the rabbinic distinctions noted above existed at the time of Isaiah. (See also Jer. 48:33.)

Second, it is noted that Gentry argues that yayin is spoken of in terms of what is being produced, that “the end results are attributed to the substance which causes the result.” Bacchiocchi responds thusly with the rabbinic delineation, and adds that the imagery of Is. 16:10 “deals with the joy of the harvest and treading of the grapes” and what it is, not what it becomes. In fact both Gentry and Bacchiocchi are making psychological assumptions here in terms of what the treaders are looking forward to; but Gentry is on far firmer ground because of parallel OT uses of the unmodified yayin. 55:1 is also taken to be referencing grape juice: 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 and milk without money and without price.

Bacchiocchi [Bac.W, 83-4] finds it “hard to believe” that alcoholic wine is in view here, paired as it is with water and milk, “a natural, nourishing food”. Bacchiocchi is arguing in a circle here. He has assumed that the pairing is made under the heading “natural, nourishing food” when it just as well is reckoned under a more general heading, “things to drink and enjoy.” Bacchiocchi has assumed a category distinction based upon his own premise. (See also Song 5:1.) This is no more valid a tactic when used by skeptics, and I am compelled to call him on it.
Jeremiah also mentions yayin several times.

We see as usual warnings against intoxication: Jer. 23:9 Mine heart within me is broken because of the prophets; all my bones shake; I am like a drunken man, and like a man whom wine hath overcome, because of the LORD, and because of the words of his holiness. Jer. 51:7 Babylon hath been a golden cup in the LORD’S hand, that made all the earth drunken: the nations have drunken of her wine; therefore the nations are mad.
Jer. 13:12 says, “Every bottle shall be filled with wine.” Again EBE reads this as a verse that “advocate[s] indulging in alcohol,” but there is no grounds for supposing that it allows anything beyond moderation. (The same may be said for other verses EBE puts in this category, such as Is. 55;1, Joel 2:19 — which refers to tiyrowsh — Amos 9:14, Is. 25:6, Joel 3:18, and Ps. 104:15.)Tiyrowsh is referred to once as an agri-product (31:12).

Yayin is given to the Rechabites by directive to the Lord for their refreshment (35:2, 5-6, 14), but which they refuse because of their family vows. It is mentioned as an agri-product (40:10, 12. 48:33). Bacchiocchi [Bca.W, 68] takes the first two of these three verses as proof that yayin could be non-alcoholic: As for me, behold, I will dwell at Mizpah, to serve the Chaldeans, which will come unto us: but ye, gather ye wine, and summer fruits, and oil, and put them in your vessels, and dwell in your cities that ye have taken…Even all the Jews returned out of all places whither they were driven, and came to the land of Judah, to Gedaliah, unto Mizpah, and gathered wine and summer fruits very much.

Bacchiocchi comments, “Alcoholic wine was not gathered in the fields.” Therefore yayin can even be the fruit of the vine itself. But there is no reference here to the fields, and oil is not taken from the fields either. Lamentations mentions yayin as an agri-product (2:11-12). Bacchiocchi [Bac.W, 68] takes this as indicating that yayin could be non-alcoholic: Mine eyes do fail with tears, my bowels are troubled, my liver is poured upon the earth, for the destruction of the daughter of my people; because the children and the sucklings swoon in the streets of the city. They say to their mothers, Where is corn and wine? When they swooned as the wounded in the streets of the city, when their soul was poured out into their mothers’ bosom.

Bacchiocchi argues that “nursing infants are crying out for their normal fare of food and drink” and “it is hardly imaginable that in time of siege and famine, little children would be asking their mothers for intoxicating wine as their normal drink.” Rather, they wanted nourishing grape juice. However, these infants were no more likely to be asking for “corn” either. Bacchiocchi uses a translation that refers to “bread” but the word used is dagan, which refers to grain. Moreoever, sucklings and “children” (this word is rendered elsewhere as “infants”) aren’t going to be asking for corn, wine, or any particular thing coherently. There is obviously more to this passage.

“Corn and wine” is used 10 times in the Bible sometimes with oil as representative of the harvest as a whole (cf. Deut. 33:28). In all but this verse, tiyrwosh is used rather than yayin, but the point is not what the kids are requesting specifically, but that they are in essence, through their cries of hunger, asking why there has been no harvest which feeds the adults, who provide them with their nourishment in turn. Ezekiel mentions yayin twice once as a product, and here:
Exek. 44:21 Neither shall any priest drink wine, when they enter into the inner court. This is again a prohibition limited to a specific time and place.

Daniel mentions yayin (and food) as something Daniel and friends refused from the king’s table and as something (along with good food) that Daniel abstains from after a vision (10:3). EBE reads Daniel’s refusal as opposing alcohol consumption, but it no more does this than it opposes the consumption of food. Many reasons have been proposed for Daniel’s refusal, but Goldingay [Daniel commentary, 18] finds it most likely that it was a way of Daniel and friends standing against full assimilation into the Babylonian royal society. At best Daniel would suggest that we should not take the food and wine from Nebbie’s table (or that of any pagan king) either.

Hosea mentions tiyrowsh several times as an agri-product. It also mentions it in a passage that is sometimes taken to understand that it could be alcoholic: Hos. 4:11 Whoredom and wine and new wine take away the heart. It would be argued that “new wine” (tiyrowsh), to take away the heart, must have some alcoholic content. In this case Bacchiocchi’s answer is suitable: as “whoredom” signifies fornication with other gods, or idolatry (4:10), so “wine and new wine” signify divine blessings, and these items were also used in idolatrous worship, rather than in the worship of the true God. The properties of the wines are not in view, and thus also EBE wrongly interprets this as a verse opposing alcohol consumption. Hosea also implicitly disses overindulgence:

Hos. 7:5 In the day of our king the princes have made him sick with bottles of wine; he stretched out his hand with scorners. Joel mentions yayin as an agri-product cut off due to judgment (1:5) and as something the people sell their children for (3:3), which again warns against dependence but not against mere consumption. Tiyrowsh is referred to as an agri-product a few times. Amos mentions yayin as something used in religious ceremonies (2:8) and given to the Nazirites (2:12) in violation of God’s command. It is an agri-product (9:14) taken by judgment (5:11) and something drunk (6:6). Bacchiocchi [Bac.W, 83] supposes that 9:14 refers a non-alcoholic yayin:

And I will bring again the captivity of my people of Israel, and they shall build the waste cities, and inhabit them; and they shall plant vineyards, and drink the wine thereof; they shall also make gardens, and eat the fruit of them. Though it is not explained clearly, Bacchiocchi seems to argue that the parallel of gardens/fruit somehow proves that yayin here is unfermented grape juice as a “normal product of the vineyard.” One is pressed to understand why fermented juice cannot be regarded as a “normal product”. This is like arguing that the people only ate the fruit raw to be normal, and did not cook or prepare it in other ways. (See also Amos 9:14.) Once again Bacchiocchi has assumed a category distinction that begs the question.
Some passages in the Minor Prophets offer nothing new. We now move to the NT examples.

The NT hardly mentions wine at all, and there are only two Greek words of interest:
Oinos this is the most-used word. In this case, unlike with the OT yayin, Bacchiocchi [Bac.W, 60-61] provides fairly solid evidence that oinos was sometimes used to mean what we would call grape juice unfermented grape products. Not all of his evidence is convincing. Gluekos used only once, in Acts; see my comments here.

Several times in the Gospels, Jesus refers to oinos in parables; these would make no statement about consumption one way or the other. Texts where Jesus associates with drunkards no more proves that he drank alcoholic wine than his association with prostitutes proves he was pimp, or his association with Pharisees proves he was a Pharisee. Accusations of drunkenness by Jesus (Matt. 11:19, etc) are not conclusive as they come from the mouths of adversaries out to discredit Jesus, and at any rate would have no relevance either way for moderate consumption. Oddly enough, oinos is actually not mentioned at the Last Supper; it is assumed that the reference to “blood” parallels fermented wine.

What is mentioned is the “fruit of the vine,” which Bacchiochi shows can mean merely grape juice [Bac.W, 156], though it goes too far and beyond evidence to suggest that the word oinos was avoided when Bacchiocchi has already argued that oinos did not have to mean something intoxicating. The argument that fermented wine would not be a suitable parallel to Christ’s untainted blood [ibid., 165] likewise begs the question. The evidence is perhaps best regarded as equivocal, though church tradition does tip the balance in favor of a non-alcoholic communion [168ff]. Here are some other passages cited as relevant: Mark 15:23 And they gave him to drink wine mingled with myrrh: but he received it not.

One can see how this might be used to advocate teetolatry, but it would also suggest an avoidance of myrrh and modern painkillers if we wish to take it that far.
Luke 1:15 For he shall be great in the sight of the Lord, and shall drink neither wine nor strong drink; and he shall be filled with the Holy Ghost, even from his mother’s womb. (cf. 7:33)
Johnny B. here is subject to a Nazirite vow, which as noted above cannot be expanded to an all-time, all-person, all-amounts prohibition. In this verse also is the only NT mention of “strong drink.”

John 2:3ff And when they wanted wine, the mother of Jesus saith unto him, They have no wine. This is the one that really gets the pot boiling, since if Jesus produced wine with alcoholic content, this is clear evidence that there is some leeway for consumption of alcohol. Bacchiocchi [Bac.W, 138ff] notes the possibility that oinos refers to unfermented grape juice, but as this is only a possibility, it is not conclusive. One defining argument is that the governor of the feast called the oinos “good wine”, and Bacchiocchi’s comment that this title was commonly given to wines that had been filtered so as to temper its effects [Bac.W, 129].

The filtering removed much (but apparently not all) of the intoxicating effects, enabling more to be consumed. Bacchiocchi jumps to the conclusion that this equates with total prohibition, but as he does not show that the filtering process removed all alcoholic content, the argument cannot be taken so far, so easily. Of perhaps more persuasive bearing is the theological argument that the miracle of Cana, representing as it did an divine act of creation, indicates that there was no fermentation, because unfermented wine is “the only wine God produces” in nature. But it is questionable whether the analogy can be pressed so far. The water was originally drawn by men; how does this fit in? Furthermore, to make the point that fermentation is a “process of decay”, while scientifically and technically true, does not hold much strength since decay of some kind begins in nature anyway, even if it is not specifically fermentation. I am reminded here of skeptics who say that Jesus could not have been the Passover lamb because he was whipped first and was therefore not without blemish.

Typological matching does not require full precision in any scenario. Oinos is also used medicinally in Luke 10:34. Romans 14:21 It is good neither to eat flesh, nor to drink wine, nor any thing whereby thy brother stumbleth, or is offended, or is made weak. For this verse, watch carefully: some skeptics cut it off at “wine” and make it sound like a full forbidding; the rest of the verse, and the context, makes all the difference. Paul is referring here to the use of meat and wine in the context of those items being purchased from pagan markets where they were dedicated to pagan gods, and eating and drinking before those who find it offensive. It is not a broad condemnation of eating flesh or drinking wine.

1 Cor. 9:25 And every man that striveth for the mastery is temperate in all things.
Neither wine nor any particular is mentioned here, but Bacchiocchi reads “temperate” in terms of total abstinence. The word is aloso found elsewhere in the NT, referring to restraint in sexual passion (1 Cor. 7:9), but also elsewhere with no specific referent (Gal. 5:22, 2 Peter 1:6). It is also noted that in the context of Paul’s athletic metaphor, the word would suggest a “stern, self-denying discipline”, and includes not taking wine. The parallel seems convincing, but it assumes that what constitutes temperance for the athlete also constitutes temperance for the religious believer. Bacchiocchi quotes advice to athletes against taking wine, but the same advice also says to “live on food which you dislike…abstain from all delicacies…exercise yourself at the necessary and prescribed times both in heat and cold” and “drink nothing cooling.

” Is this advice written specifically to an athlete looking to gain a prize also transferred over to the believer? The word here was actually used to refer to caution against excess in a variety of areas; the places where Bacchiocchi finds it linked to abstinence mean no more than that those writers considered such an extreme necessary to be “temperate” — Bacchiocchi is assuming a universal upon a particular. Eph. 5:18 And be not drunk with wine, wherein is excess; but be filled with the Spirit… Paul clearly admonishes drunkenness here, but it is hard to see, as Bacchiocchi [Bac.W, 70, 93] supposes, that non-intoxicating consumption is forbidden.

He argues that the “wherein” could refer back to either the wine or the drunkenness, and in a rather shameful moment resorts as far as suggesting that translators prefer to suggest that it refers to “drunkenness” because they like to take a snort themselves now and then! One sees little difference between this and certain skeptical tactics. In the end he admits that the grammatical evidence could point either way and resorts back to a faulty interpretation of Proverbs 23 (see above) and citing translations which prefer to make “wine” the antecedent. We would agree with Bacchiocchi that Eph. 5:18 at least cannot be taken as sanction for moderate consumption. On the other hand, his comparison to cocaine (and whether a preacher saying “Don’t get high on cocaine!” thereby “sanctions” moderate use) merely begs the question and draws an improper analogy that assumes that the effects and power of alcohol is the same as that of cocaine, which is clearly not the case.

It also takes the analogy too far to suggest that “drunk with wine” verses “filled with the Spirit” indicates a mutual exclusivity of wine and the Spirit, “because no one can be filled with half of each.” How can a comparison be made here, since one relates to the physical and the other to the spiritual? A parallel to Luke 1:15 is of no relevance, since that is made in the context of a Nazirite vow, and as shown in the link above, there was a natural contrast made between those who were drunk with wine and those under spiritual inspiration, and there is no reason therefore to see a direct connection between the passages.

Quite weak is Bacchiocchi’s attempt to explain why Paul did not simply say, “drink no wine at all” [189] — he argues that Paul may have been trying to allow for medicinal use of wine as in 1 Timothy below, or else did not wish to imply that non-intoxicating oinos was disallowed. But it is no harder for Paul to have made these delineations that it was for Bacchiocchi to have done so. At best one may argue that the “medical exclusion” is assumed in a didactic context (which it would also be anyway, had Paul said “none at all”), and if indeed the Last Supper used non-intoxicating oinos, there would be no need for the “grape juice exclusion” either. No one would think that drinking of grape juice led to debauchery.

1 Tim. 3:2-3 A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, vigilant, sober, of good behaviour, given to hospitality, apt to teach. Not given to wine, no striker, not greedy of filthy lucre; but patient, not a brawler, not covetous… 1 Tim. 3:8 Likewise must the deacons be grave, not doubletongued, not given to much wine, not greedy of filthy lucre (cf. Titus 2:3)
These two verses at most would suggest restrictions upon bishops, deacons, and others in positions of authority in the church rather than an all-persons, all-amounts prohibition, and is therefore cited wrongly by EBE as “total abstinence”. “Sober” (sophron), Bacchiocchi insists, must refer to total abstinence, but the cites he gives in this regard are proverbial and far from convincing.

Aristotle is quoted as saying that “By abstaining from pleasures we become sober.” This refers not to just alcohol, but “pleasures” as a whole one may as well see this as a total prohibition of anything enjoyable in some way. A cite from a Jewish work tells us to live “soberly” and “not touch wine at all” but this is “lest ye sin in words of outrage, and in fightings and slanders,” and perish in sin. It is quite understandable to see a connection between “soberness” and total abstinence, yet it is not clear from such cites that moderate consumption is thereby forbidden, or that this was not an individual value judgment of what sobriety required. The expression of absolute prohibition is the sort of didactic formulation we would expect in any event.

The second verse seems to be more permissive. Bacchiocchi [249] tries to explain this in terms of the verse below, saying that “If Paul really believed that it was proper for a Christian to drink alcoholic wine moderately, then he would not have given Timothy such restrictive and qualified advice.” He thus concludes that “not addicted to much wine” is “most probably a loose form of speech intended to express abstinence from the use of wine.” But as Bacchiocchi admits, the advice below is likely given to Timothy as one who has historically been an abstainer. If this is so, it is not Paul’s concern to lay down permission to drink. Trying to turn this into a “loose” expression of abstinence requires very “loose” treatment indeed!

Bacchiocchi also tries to pull Rom. 14:21 into the mix, noting that if the above allows deacons to drink moderately, it will be an example that may tempt the others who cannot. But as noted, Rom. 14:21 is laid out in the context of behavior that is known and visible to others. Bacchiocchi creates a straw man when he refers to deacons drinking during home visitations!
Finally, Bacchiocchi draws from an interpretation suggesting that oinos here is grape juice! It is not explained why advice would need to be given to be moderate in consumption of grape juice, other than referring to “drinking contests” in which so much juice was drunk that the stomach swelled and an emetic was needed.

Unless this was a problem in the church, it is hard to see how this can be of proven relevance. Bacchiocci must come up with a stretched idea that a deacon invited into a home might take advantage of their hosts’ hospitality [253] and drink too many cups of grape juice, and therefore be accused of gluttony! If this is the problem, why not just specify gluttony only, and why single out grape juice? 1 Tim. 5:23 Drink no longer water, but use a little wine for thy stomach’s sake and thine often infirmities.

If fermented wine is meant here which is not certain this verse is a health recommendation, and a sound one prior to the advent of advanced sanitation, and does not involve getting drunk (a “little” wine! — the word means literally, “puny”!) nor of course does it recommend any pattern of consumption. EBE is therefore far off the mark in putting this (and the verse above) in the “indulging” category. 1 Peter 4:7 But the end of all things is at hand: be ye therefore sober, and watch unto prayer.

This verse does not refer to wine, but is taken as an admonition of teetolatry by Bacchiocchi [Bac.W, 197-8]. The case he makes for this has some virtue, as “watch” (nepho) is very often used to refer to total abstention. However, here and in 1 Thess. 5:2, the reference is to be sober, as Bacchiocchi correctly notes, “in the context of readiness for the imminent return of Christ.” [203] The point is a good one, but if as we have shown in our series on eschatology, this return happened in 70 AD, then in essence any prohibition is now over with! But it does serve well as a pointer for our conclusion. Oddly enough, oinos is mentioned most often in the NT in the book of Revelation, in the context of symbolizing judgment!

Conclusions: We are now ready to assert some definitive conclusions, but with the note that these may be altered by further research. Drunkenness as a condition is condemned. This at least is agreed on by all parties, even EBE. The vast majority of cites give no moral advice one way or the other. EBE isn’t considering most of the cites it uses in their proper context. Moderate consumption is not condemned, except within the context of certain persons and certain times. And this in turn leads to our final conclusion, which may seem a bit of a surprise, but not if you think about it:

In light of the times, even moderate consumption of alcohol by a Christian is not a good idea. Yes, this is where I reach. Why? It all works out from Romans 14:21 and that, just as the law about railings on roofs applies today to balconies, so the Bible would suggest strongly that these are not times to be enjoying fermented drink as the ancients were permitted to do. In ancient times the choice of fermented beverage was limited and by modern standards fairly weak. There was no equal to vodka or gin, or anything that would deliver a knockout punch in a shot glass. Wine was often purposely diluted to prevent drunkenness while still enjoying it.

Generally such drinks were only affordable to the rich, or could only be rarely consumed. There is no parallel to our easy access to beer, wine, or vodka every day of the week and from every 7-11 or supermarket. Being a drunkard was not an easy habit; addiction was unlikely for all but the richest and most powerful (which fits in with the warning in Proverbs to kings!).
Easy access to cheap alcohol sharpens the warnings of the Bible and makes them much more difficult to take other than seriously today.

Addiction is easier to fall prey to (at least in the US; an Australian reader has told me of mitigating factors there which would change things, and one may also consider whether such a view might be looked at differently in France, for example; though others have told me now of high rates of alcoholism in these countries). Of course for some such as myself alcohol is not a temptation at all, and the warnings may be unnecessary. (If I may divert for a moment since critics will perhaps suggest my own impure motivations I have personally consumed alcohol in the form of fruit and ice cream drinks, and found them no more desirable than those without it; I cannot stand the smell of beer, which reminds me of stale urine; and when I sampled a martini, I would have compared it to drinking my wife’s Oscar de la Rente perfume, only that may have been more pleasant.

In short, I really don’t understand the attraction of the stuff, so I can hardly be accused by the likes of Bacchiocchi of harboring secret desires for a snort.) If any think to consume alcohol today, my counsel would therefore be not to do so, but if you do, do so privately and with heavy restrictions upon yourself, based on your own temperament and physiology not because the Bible has changed, but because social factors have changed that the Bible’s writers could not have envisioned. If their warnings within their social frame are that strong, how much more so would they be in an era of cheap and plentiful alcohol? This is not to say that consumption of alcohol is now a ticket to hell. However, it is a behavior that needs to be carefully considered in light of innumerable other factors and in my view, and for my part, you might as well save yourself the time and have a snort of fruit juice instead; it’s far better for you anyway, and you won’t offend a brother (Rom. 14:21) or have to reach for a calculator.

Bac.W — Bacchiocchi, Samuel. Wine in the Bible. Biblical Perspectives, 1989.
OrH — Origin and History of Wine. Gordon and Brach Publishers, 1996.
Will.W — Williamson, G. I. Wine in the Bible and the Church. Presbyterian and Reformed, 1976.