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Booze In The Bible

Strong Drink

Recently, someone directed my attention to the International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia (ISBE), specifically the contents of its entry on wine related to the Hebrew word shekar. This was offered as evidence that shekar was not necessarily alcoholic.

Here is the relevant part of the ISBE entry Wine; Wine Press:

(7) שׁכר, shēkhār (22 times), translated “strong drink” in English Versions of the Bible. Shēkhār appears to mean “intoxicating drink” of any sort and in Num_28:7 is certainly simply “wine” (compare also its use in parallelism to “wine” in Isa_5:11, Isa_5:22, etc.). In certain passages (Lev_10:9; Num_6:3; 1Sa_1:15, etc.), however, it is distinguished from “wine,” and the meaning is not quite certain. But it would seem to mean “drink not made from grapes.” Of such only pomegranate wine is named in the Bible (Son_8:2), but a variety of such preparations (made from apples, quinces, dates, barley, etc.) were known to the ancients and must have been used in Palestine also. The translation “strong drink” is unfortunate, for it suggests “distilled liquor,” “brandy,” which is hardly in point. See DRINK, STRONG.

We notice that shekar “appears to mean ‘intoxicating drink’ of any sort.” Sometimes it simply means wine and sometimes it is distinct from wine, but it is always intoxicating.

When the text says “it would seem to mean ‘drink not made from grapes'”, the context of that statement still refers to intoxicating drink, thus the author identifies shekar as “[intoxicating] drink not made from grapes.”

The sole biblical example of pomegranate wine (not juice) is mentioned, and then the author states that “preparations” of other fruits and grains are know to have been used historically. The author did not say shekar might be apple juice, but that a preparation of apples (etc.) could be used to make shekar.

When examined carefully, this text does not leave room for shekar to be anything other than an alcoholic beverage.

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Reference

Drink, Strong

The following article is reproduced from the public-domain version of the International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia (1913).

James Orr, M.A., D.D., General Editor

John L. Nuelsen, D.D., LL.D.
Edgar Y. Mullins, D.D., LL.D.
Assistant Editors

Morris O. Evans, D.D., PhD., Managing Editor

[ Underlining added for emphasis ]

DRINK, STRONG

(שׁכר, shēkhār; σίκερα, síkera; from שׁכר, shākhar, “to be or become drunk”; probably from the same root as sugar, saccharine): With the exception of Num 28:7, “strong drink” is always coupled with “wine.” The two terms are commonly used as mutually exclusive, and as together exhaustive of all kinds of intoxicants.

Originally shēkhār seems to have been a general term for intoxicating drinks of all kinds, without reference to the material out of which they were made; and in that sense, it would include wine. Reminiscences of this older usage may be found in Num 28:7 (where shēkhār is clearly equivalent to wine, as may be seen by comparing it with Num 28:14, and with Exo 29:40, where the material of the drink offering is expressly designated “wine”).When the Hebrews were living a nomadic life, before their settlement in Canaan, the grape-wine was practically unknown to them, and there would be no need of a special term to describe it. But when they settled down to an agricultural life, and came to cultivate the vine, it would become necessary to distinguish it from the older kinds of intoxicants; hence, the borrowed word yayin (“wine”) was applied to the former, while the latter would be classed together under the old term shēkhār, which would then come to mean all intoxicating beverages other than wine (Lev_10:9; Num_6:3; Deu_14:26; Pro_20:1; Isa_24:9). The exact nature of these drinks is not clearly indicated in the Bible itself. The only fermented beverage other than grape-wine specifically named is pomegranate-wine (Son_8:2 : “the juice of my pomegranate,” the Revised Version, margin “sweet wine of my pomegranate”); but we may infer that other kinds of shēkhār besides that obtained from pomegranates were in use, such as drinks made from dates, honey, raisins, barley, apples, etc. Probably Jerome (circa 400 ad) was near the mark when he wrote, “Sikera in the Hebrew tongue means every kind of drink which can intoxicate, whether made from grain or from the juice of apples, or when honeycombs are boiled down into a sweet and strange drink, or the fruit of palm oppressed into liquor, and when water is colored and thickened from boiled herbs” (Ep. ad Nepotianum). Thus shēkhār is a comprehensive term for all kinds of fermented drinks, excluding wine.

Probably the most common sort of shēkhār used in Biblical times was palm or date-wine. This is not actually mentioned in the Bible, and we do not meet with its Hebrew name yēn temārīm (“wine of dates”) until the Talmudic period. But it is frequently referred to in the Assyrian-Babylonian contract tablets (cuneiform), and from this and other evidence we infer that it was very well known among the ancient Semitic peoples. Moreover, it is known that the palm tree flourished abundantly in Biblical lands, and the presumption is therefore very strong that wine made of the juice of dates was a common beverage. It must not be supposed, however, that the term shēkhār refers exclusively to date-wine. It rather designates all intoxicating liquors other than grape-wine, while in few cases it probably includes even wine.>/p>

There can be no doubt that shēkhār was intoxicating. This is proved (1) from the etymology of the word, it being derived from shākhar, “to be or become drunk” (Gen_9:21; Isa_29:9; Jer_25:27, etc.); compare the word for drunkard (shikkār), and for drunkenness (shikkārōn) from the same root; (2) from descriptions of its effects: e.g. Isaiah graphically describes the stupefying effect of shēkhār on those who drink it excessively (Isa_28:7, Isa_28:8). Hannah defended herself against the charge of being drunk by saying, “I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink,” i.e. neither wine nor any other intoxicating liquor (1Sa_1:15). The attempt made to prove that it was simply the unfermented juice of certain fruits is quite without foundation. Its immoderate use is strongly condemned (Isa_5:11, Isa_5:12; Pro_20:1; see DRUNKENNESS). It was forbidden to ministering priests (Lev_10:9), and to Nazirites (Num_6:3; Jdg_13:4, Jdg_13:7, Jdg_13:14; compare Luk_1:15), but was used in the sacrificial meal as drink offering (Num_28:7), and could be bought with the tithe-money and consumed by the worshipper in the temple (Deu_14:26). It is commended to the weak and perishing as a means of deadening their pain; but not to princes, lest it might lead them to pervert justice (Pro_31:4-7).

Written by D. Miall Edwards


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Booze In The Bible

The Rechabites

Some prohibitionists cite Jeremiah 35:1-19 as an example of people being praised for abstaining from alcoholic beverages.

In that passage God told Jeremiah to give wine to the Rechabites, but when Jeremiah does so, the Rechabites refuse to drink. They explain that their father commanded them to drink no wine, build no houses, sow no seed, and plant no vineyard. The Rechabites obeyed their father in all things and remained nomads. Jeremiah praised the Rechabites for obeying their father, in contrast to the sons of Judah who ignored God’s commands.

So, the Rechabites were not praised for abstaining from alcohol, but for obeying their father.

As with several other passages, the prohibitionist interpretation is refuted by reading the passage.