THE QUESTION OF “WINE AND THE BIBLE”
By: J.P. Free
Even apart from what the Bible teaches, the results of drinking alcoholic beverages are such that a really ‘ conscientious person does not want to drink, even moderately, when he knows the facts. In the year 1945, 28, 600 deaths resulted from motor accidents and of these over 7,000 had a drinking driver or pedestrian involved in them. Even moderate drinking slows down a person’s responses sufficiently, so that, when he is driving, he may not apply the brake in time to avert an accident. Moderate drinking, however, is not the rule in America, for we find that a total of 231 million gallons of distilled spirits and 79 million barrels of malt liquor were consumed in the year 1946. The social problems, including juvenile delinquency, resulting from the effects of drinking are so well known as hardly to require illustration.
In the face of all this, some Christians argue that moderate drinking is their privilege, and they make much of: 1. Christ’s example in making wine at the wedding of Cana (John 2:1-11); 2. The Lord’s command to use wine in the sacred drink offering (Exodus 29:40). It will be demonstrated that the wine at Cana was not necessarily fermented, and it is evident that the drink offering was not drunk, so it is not applicable to our question.
Additional facts must also be considered. The Biblical phrase? “strong drink,” really means light beverages because there was nothing in Bible times which corresponded to the strong drinks of today. Natural fermentation produces a maximum of only about fourteen percent content of alcohol, since a higher alcoholic content kills the yeast cells which produce it. To obtain a higher percentage of alcohol freezing or distillation must be used, processes not known in ancient times for beverage making. Actually wine and beer in ancient Palestine contained not over five or eight per cent alcohol because of the limitations of the natural sugar content in grape juice and the malt which was used. This constituted the “strong drink” of the Bible. Certainly far greater responsibility rests upon those who use strong drink in our society where proof liquor is obtainable, than upon those who used alcoholic beverages in ancient times when only five to eight per cent liquor was to be had. We may conclude from the very nature of the situation that the Bible condemns the strong liquors of our day.
Furthermore the Biblical attitude toward wine of any appreciable alcoholic content is clearly indicated in Proverbs 20:1, “Wine is a mocker strong drink is raging; and whosoever is deceived thereby not wise.” And Proverbs, 23:31, 32, “Look not thou upon the wine when it is red, when it giveth his color in the cup, when it moveth itself aright. At the last it biteth like serpent, and stingeth like an adder.” These statements do not give any support even to so-called “moderate drinking.” However, wine is sometimes spoken of in the Bible in a way that does not seem to condemn it. To understand these seemingly contradictory cases, we must go to the original languages.
Two Hebrew words are used a great deal in referring to beverages, but their meaning is obscured by the fact that both are translated. “wine” in the English Bible. They mean quite different things, as shown by an examination of the standard Hebrew lexicons. The first word, tirosh, which occurs thirty-eight times is to be translated “must, fresh or new wine”; in Mandelkern’s Hebrew Concordance, where the meanings are rendered in Latin, it is given as “mustum, vinum novem.” Examination of the use of this word shows that it does not refer to a fermented drink. Eleven times it speaks of wine as a first fruit fresh from the harvest, usually in the phrase, “corn, wine, and oil,” and obviously refers to grape juice. Seventeen times it is used with grain and oil, as natural products of the field, again clearly implying grape juice. In three places tirosh is said to be filling the presses, obviously referring to freshly pressed juice (Joel 2:24, Hosea 9:2, and Proverbs 3:10). Isaiah 65:8 pictures tirosh as being still in the cluster of grapes, and Micah 6:15 is the clearest of all, mentioning tirosh as the material from which fermented wine is formed. Only in one place is there any association between tirosh and wickedness (Hosea 4:11), “whoredom, wine (yayin), and new wine (tirosh) take away the heart.” Even here in this particular context there is no mention of actual drunkenness and no suggestion that tirosh in itself is intoxicating.
It is clear, then, that tirosh is regularly used in the sense of “grapejuicer” a beverage with no appreciable content of alcohol. The fact that the Authorized Version in twenty-six places translates this innocent word tirosh as “wine” has resulted in much confusion. Much of the argument usually urged for moderate drinking collapses when it is remembered that Old Testament passages commending tirosh give no approbation to alcoholic beverages (Harris, BT, March, 1944, p. 133).
Yayin is the most common word for wine in the Old Testament, occurring one hundred thirty-five times, and clearly means fermented wine. At least thirty times yayin is definitely associated with drunkenness and its use is more or less condemned; it was prohibited to the Nazarites (Numbers 6:3); Daniel the King’s yayin (Daniel 1:8). About half the passages mentioning yayin in the Old Testament are clearly denunciatory. In some places it is mentioned merely as a natural product without praise or blame, just as polygamy is referred to at times without specified condemnation being given at that reference. An examination of passages supposed to support the use of yayin shows that they really do not give such support: he use of yayin in making the drink offering does not support partaking of wine, for this offering was not drunk; Isaiah invites us to buy wine and milk freely (55:1), but an examination shows that this is highly metaphorical, and wine is here used as a symbol of spiritual abundance and luxury.?
The Hebrew word for strong drink, shekar, seems to apply to all fermented drinks except grape, wine, and probably included date wine and beer. This word occurs twenty-two times and is associated with yayin every time but one. In nineteen of the twentytwo references it is more or less condemned, which certainly shows the definite attitude of the Old Testament toward intoxicating beverages.
What about the Greek usage of the words for wine? When examine the Greek translation of the Old Testament (Septuagint), we find that the Greek word oinos is used to translate both tirosh (grape juice) and yayin (wine). An examination of New Testament passages also shows that oinos may mean either wine or grape juice, and only the context can show which it is. In Ephesians 5:18, the phrase “Be not drunk with wine” (oinos) refers to alcoholic wine, whereas in Revelation 19:13-15 the reference to Christ treading out the winepress with oinos on his clothes must refer to grape juice, the product of the winepress (the American Revised Version correctly-points out that the phrase (in Rev. 19:15) “the winepress of the fierceness” reads. in the Greek, “winepress of the wine of the fierceness”).
An examination of passages supposed to support the use of alcoholic wine shows that the argument for moderate drinking, or any other kind, is not supported. A passage often cited is I Timothy 5:23, “Drink … a little wine for thy stomach’s sake.” Harris comments, “No one objects to the medicinal use of alcohol, especially in ancient days, when medicines were limited and wine was weak.” Further-more, oinos could mean either wine or grape juice in this passage, as elsewhere.
The usual argument in favor of moderate drinking is based on the indication that wine was served at the wedding feast at Cana (John 2). But let us examine the situation. Between one hundred six and one hundred sixty gallons of wine were made, according to Meyer’s Commentary. The fact that this large amount of wine was brought in during the latter part of a feast in a small country town furnishes no basis for arguing that the Scripture condones moderate drinking. It would seem to prove either: I. Excessive drinking was allowable, or 2. The oinos in this case was grape juice. In the light of the whole Old Testament condemnation of wine, it certainly would appear that the beverage was grape juice. It is sometimes objected that this is referred to as “good wine” (John 2:10), indicating an alcoholic content. Upon examination, however, we find no hint that its goodness was in its high alcoholic content (Harris, BT, p. 138). Ernest Gordon comments, “when the creative hand of the Lord made wine for the guests we may be sure that it was superlative even to corrupted tastes . . . It isn’t likely they would call Christ’s wine anything but, good ” (SST, “Notes on open Letters,” July 22, 1944, p. 514).
Fermented wine was not the only kind of wine in the ancient world as evidenced by our ancient sources. The Roman writer Pliny speaks of a product called sapa, made by boiling grail juice to one-third its volume, and of another drink made by diluting grape juice, then boiling off the water (called adynamon; see Harris, p.138)..
The New Testament attitude toward intoxicating drink is shown by the injunction for Christians to be nephalios, translated “sober.” This word is used only three times in the New Testament (I Tim. 3:2,11, and Titus 2:2), but it is used regularly in the classical authors meaning “free from all wine.’ This word shows strongly that the New Testament ideal is total abstinence (Harris, p. 139).
In summary,” we are left with the Biblical condemnation of alcoholic drink, and a definite denunciation of drunkenness as sin. Nowhere is moderate drinking given approval and any supposed approval arises from mistranslations or misunderstandings. The existence of. light fermented wine does not mean that God sanctioned its use for beverage purposes. Furthermore, a different situation exists today with the use of modern strong alcoholic beverages. Solomon’s observation of long ago is just as applicable today, if not more so: “Look not thou upon the wine when it is red . . . at the last it biteth like a serpent and stingeth like an adder” (Proverbs 23:31, 32)
This article “The Question of Wine and the Bible” written by J.P. Free is excerpted from Archaeology and Bible History.