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Booze In The Bible

The Law of The Nazir

The Nazirite Vow described in Numbers 6:1-21 is frequently referenced to support the prohibitionist view. Any who would dedicate himself to the Lord must abstain from alcoholic beverages. This can be answered on two fronts. First, the argument fails a simple consistency check. Second, the Nazirite Vow is not as simple as the prohibitionists’ superficial treatment might suggest.

As to the argument’s consistency, a thorough reading of Numbers 6:1-21 reveals that the Nazir was required to abstain from more than just alcohol. The Nazir must abstain from alcoholic beverages, vinegar, grapes, raisins, grape juice, and even the seeds and skins from grapes. The Nazir must not go near a dead person, and must not cut his hair. If the prohibitionists really believed their own argument (modern Christians should adhere to the Nazirite Vow), they would also insist that we must abstain from vinegar, raisins, and funerals. They would also stop shaving and cutting their hair. But, of course, they do none of those things, because they don’t really believe that argument.

The inclusion of mishrat anavim (משׁרת ענבים) in the list establishes quite convincingly that the author of the Pentateuch knew how to clearly distinguish wine from grape juice. This also indicates that grape juice is not included in the meaning of the Hebrew word yayin (יין). The fact that Numbers 6:20 specifically says, “and afterward the Nazirite may drink yayin” and not, “the Nazirite may drink mishrat anavim” shows that God specifically authorized the resumption of wine consumption (and by implication vinegar, raisins, haircuts, etc.) once the vow was complete.

When we look at all the Nazirite prohibitions ignored by the prohibitionist, the argument appears disingenuous. And when we consider the evidence that the Pentateuch author did in fact know how to say “grape juice” when he wanted to, we’re also left wondering why Deuteronomy 14:26 says yayin if it was intended to refer only to mishrat anavim.

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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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Booze In The Bible

Wine is a Mocker

A prohibitionist claimed:

There is no way around Proverbs 20:1.

So, let’s take a look at this verse that will absolutely prove the prohibitionist correct:

Proverbs 20:1 Wine is a mocker, strong drink is raging: and whosoever is deceived thereby is not wise.

The first two clauses are offered as absolute proof that any alcohol consumption is forbidden by God, and the last part of the verse is discarded as meaningless rambling to fill out the meter of the poetry.

However, when we read the verse in its entirety, which I’ve been told is a legitimate method of exegesis, we can’t help but notice that “whosoever is deceived [by wine or string drink] is not wise.”

Any moderationist would freely agree that that it is not wise to be deceived by wine, and that falling into drunkenness constitutes such deception. In fact, many concordances and lexicons say that the Hebrew word used here for “deceived” can refer to intoxication, so that can hardly be called an unreasonable interpretation.

The only thing that can be said of Proverbs 20:1 with any certainty is that it is one of the many passages in the Bible that speaks of the foolishness of intoxication.

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Booze In The Bible

Behold a Gluttonous Man, and a Winebibber

Prohibitionists have an interesting way of dealing with these two passages:

  1. Matthew 11:18-19:
  2. 18 For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, He hath a devil.
    19 The Son of man came eating and drinking, and they say, Behold a man gluttonous, and a winebibber, a friend of publicans and sinners. But wisdom is justified of her children.

  3. Luke 7:33-35
  4. 33 For John the Baptist came neither eating bread nor drinking wine; and ye say, He hath a devil.
    34 The Son of man is come eating and drinking; and ye say, Behold a gluttonous man, and a winebibber, a friend of publicans and sinners!
    35 But wisdom is justified of all her children.

When looking at these passages, Prohibitionists generally address this claim: We know that Jesus drank wine because the Pharisees called Him a winebibber. They argue correctly that the accusation does not prove that He drank wine. In fact, the point Jesus was making was that the Pharisees were falsely accusing Him of being a winebibber.

The problem is that no one has made the claim that the accusation of the Pharisees proved that Jesus drank wine. That is a straw man argument, invented because it is easy to refute and provide an appearance of victory over the real argument.

What is the real argument?

The Real Argument

In the event described in the two passages above, Jesus is criticizing the Pharisees because of their sinful attitude towards two people who brought them spiritual truth, which they rejected. The point Jesus made was that the Pharisees accused John of evil because John did NOT drink wine, while at the same time accusing Jesus of evil because Jesus DID drink wine.

Jesus stated as fact that John The Baptist did not drink wine. Jesus also stated as fact that The Son of Man did drink wine. Jesus himself says that He did, in fact, drink wine. Jesus criticized the Pharisees for using the fact that He drank wine as an opportunity to make the false accusation that He was a drunkard (the meaning of “winebibber”).

The proof that Jesus drank wine is that He said Himself that He drank wine.

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Booze In The Bible

Twenty To One Revisited

Let’s revisit the claim that wine was diluted to a water-to-wine ratio of Twenty To One.

This ratio comes up in support of the claim that the only use for wine in biblical times was for purifying water. Citing this ratio as support shows not only the absurdity of the claim, but also reveals the low standards for research among prohibitionists.

First, the twenty to one ratio is absurd on it’s face. Wine diluted to that degree would serve no purpose. It would not have any effect on microbes in the water, and would even be insufficient to improve the taste or the appearance of contaminated water. Add to the this the prohibitionist claim that wine in biblical times had significantly less alcohol than modern wine, and the twenty to one ratio becomes impossible to believe.

Second, the claim of twenty to one reveals sloppy research at best. Some don’t even research the claimed ratio to learn its source. Of those who do, some stop at “we know from Homer” and are not the least bit suspicious about Homer’s credentials as a writer of mythology. Of those who look deeper and see that the ratio comes from The Odyssey, few are at all concerned about that book’s status as mythical fiction. If we count those who sought out a copy of The Odyssey to read first-hand the context in which the ratio was found (magic wine used to defeat the Cyclops), there would be virtually no one. How can a man with a Ph.D. not know what The Odyssey is, and not be immediately suspicious of it being cited for historical support?

So, when we see a prohibitionist claim that wine in biblical times was diluted twenty parts water to one part wine, we know two things about that prohibitionist: that he knows nothing about water purification, and he knows even less about history and literature. When I hear about how thorough their research was, I can’t help but laugh.

As soon as they say “twenty to one” their research has lost all credibility.

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Booze In The Bible Reference

Bacchus and Anti-Bacchus

Below are links to a two-part article written by John MacLean in 1841. Dr. MacLean was Professor of Ancient Languages at the College of New Jersey at the time.

In this two-part article, John MacLean examines the claims made in two articles:

Bacchus, by Ralph Barnes Grindrod

Anti-Bacchus, by Rev B. Parsons

In John MacLean’s introduction he says:

The comparative merit of the two Essays we shall not undertake to discuss, as our purpose is merely to examine some of the positions assumed, and to show that they are utterly untenable, being contrary to the word of God and the testimony of antiquity. So far as the object of these Essays is to promote temperance, we cordially approve it and we only regret that in the prosecution of an object so important, and so benevolent, the authors have not confined themselves to arguments which will stand the most rigid scrutiny. 

These two articles form the foundation of modern prohibitionist arguments, and John MacLean refutes them soundly.

The Princeton Review
Volume 13, Issue 2
April 1841
pp. 267-306
Bacchus and Anti-Bacchus, Part 1
The Princeton Review
Volume 13, Issue 4
October 1841
pp. 471-523
Bacchus and Anti-Bacchus, concluded

The distribution of these documents was made possible by: Princeton Theological Seminary.

Articles in The Princeton Review were published without identifying their authors. However, in 1868 an index was published which made it possible to identify the Authors, such as John MacLean.


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Booze In The Bible

Not Given To Wine

1 Timothy 3:3 and Titus 1:7 both include “not given to wine” (KJV) in the qualifications for a bishop. Some prohibitionists interpret these verses to say that church leaders must abstain from alcoholic beverages. Some even say that the Greek word translated as “given to wine”, πάροινος, comes from πάρα οινος, meaning “next to wine”, and therefore prohibits a church leader from even being near wine. The problem with this is that looking at etymology alone can lead to inaccurate conclusions about a word’s meaning.

Take the word pedophile, for example. If we examine the derivation of that word, we would conclude that the word refers to someone who likes children, which obviously does not capture the true meaning of the word. We must also look at the usage of pedophile to understand it’s meaning. The same is true for πάροινος.

Fortunately, Greek scholars have already done that work for us, and we can look at various published works on the meaning of Greek words instead of trying to figure it out ourselves. For example, according to Warren C. Trenchard’s Complete Vocabulary Guide To The Greek New Testament, p. 192, πάροινος is an adjective which means drunken, addicted to wine, or when used substantively (as if it were a noun), as it is in Timothy and Titus, a drunkard.

The prohibitionist interpretation of 1 Timothy 3:3 and Titus 1:7 falls apart when we look at what πάροινος actually means. As it it used in the New Testament, πάροινος means a drunkard.

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Booze In The Bible

The Feast of Unleavened Wine

One argument that is supposed to prove that the wine used by Jesus to institute the Lord’s Supper was just grape juice, is that leavening was forbidden to be used in the Passover, also called The Feast of Unleavened Bread. I read one claim that Jews were forbidden to partake of anything that contained any leaven ever.

A little bit of research shows that no leaven was allowed in the bread. That’s why it is called The Feast of Unleavened Bread. There was never a prohibition against wine (fermented grape juice), in fact it was and remains the norm for Passover celebrations. In fact, the term Jesus used, fruit of the vine, was used throughout the Mediterranean region to refer to fermented grape juice (aka wine) used for ceremonial purposes.

Passover is not The Feast of No Leavening — it is The Feast of Unleavened Bread.

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Booze In The Bible

Don’t Look!

Proverbs 23:31-33 says [NASB®]:

Do not look on the wine when it is red, When it sparkles in the cup, When it goes down smoothly;
At the last it bites like a serpent, And stings like a viper.
Your eyes will see strange things, And your mind will utter perverse things.

This passage is interpreted differently by different kinds of prohibitionists. The “all fermented beverages were always forbidden” prohibitionists interpret 23:31 to prohibit looking at all fermented beverages, while the “wine was always diluted in biblical times” prohibitionists interpret it to only prohibit looking at undiluted fermented beverages. I disagree with both.

I don’t think that Proverbs is in the category of “Law”, but is advice for wise living written in the form of poetry. I would agree that it would be foolish to not follow the advice in Proverbs, and that it is just as valid today as it was when it was written. But it is still poetry, and that can present some challenges.

The passage (in the context of verses 29 through 35 ) is talking about the foolishness of alcohol abuse. “Redness of eyes”, “tarry long”, “they beat me, but I did not feel it”, etc. All refer to a level of drinking that goes way beyond any definition of moderate. The message is a warning against drunkenness and alcoholism.

The Hebrew lexicon available at http://www.blueletterbible.org (see the full entry from Gesenius’s Lexicon) describes the meaning of the Hebrew word translated “look”, and it seems to mean more than simply seeing a thing. It carries the idea of looking at something with great pleasure and longing. And in my opinion, the rest of the verse is not describing actual characteristics of wine, but the perceived attributes of wine as viewed by someone who is intoxicated (e.g., wine does not sparkle or go down smoothly unless you’ve had a few). Therefore, I believe that Proverbs 23:31 is saying, “do not long for, desire, or seek intoxication.” That verse is preceded and followed by examples of what intoxication leads to: woe, sorrow, strife, etc.

The passage warns against drunkenness and does not forbid all consumption of alcoholic beverages.

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Booze In The Bible

Only Barbarians

Once again, I’d like to look at a quote from Robert Stein’s 1975 article. In my last posting, I quoted this: “The ratio of water might vary, but ony barbarians drank it unmixed, and a mixture of wine and water of equals parts was seen as ‘strong drink’ and frowned upon.” This time, I’d like to focus on “only barbarians drank it unmixed.”

I’ve already mentioned that the wine the ancient Greeks drank was concentrated. With this in mind we could say that only barbarians drank the heavy syrup directly. But, the real issue is that we’re talking about the Greek intellectual elite, their definition of barbarian, and their opinions of what these barbarians did or did not do.

The ancient Greek intellectual elite regarded anyone who was not Greek as a barbarian. This alone would suggest we have cause to disregard the ancient Greek view of barbarians. When the ancient Greeks called someone a barbarian, that just means they were not Greek.

Also, at least some of what the Greeks believed about barbarians was mere supposition. They might say, that only barbarians XYZ when, in fact, they had no knowledge of any particular non-Greek society that actually did XYZ.

Finally, the ancient Greek view of acceptible behavior is not necessarily binding on Bible believing christians. For example, Plato is credited with this quote:

Homosexuality, is regarded as shameful by barbarians and by those who live under despotic governments just as philosophy is regarded as shameful by them, because it is apparently not in the interest of such rulers to have great ideas engendered in their subjects, or powerful friendships or passionate love-all of which homosexuality is particularly apt to produce.

Do prohibitionists really want to base their views on what the ancient Greek intellectuals said about barbarians?

I submit that we have no reason to take notice of what the ancient Greeks believed about barbarians.