Editorial: More Thoughts On What The Bible Says About Drinking (October, 2018) — Jon Mitchell, Editor

The editorial from the last issue of the Carolina Messenger started a study on what the Bible says about drinking alcoholic beverages. We looked at the definitions of the Greek words translated “drunkenness” (Gal. 5:21), and “drunkards” (1 Cor. 6:10). We examined how the definition of the Greek term translated “get drunk” (Eph. 5:18) — methusko — is an inceptive verb condemning the entire process of becoming drunk. We saw how the Greek word for “sober” (1 Thess. 5:6-8; 1 Pet. 5:8) — nepho — literally means “to be free from the influence of intoxicants” (Vine), “…to abstain from wine (keep sober)…” (Strong), and “to be temperate…” (Thayer). We looked at how nepho is the verbal form of nephaleon (“temperate,” 1 Tim. 3:2, 11; Tit. 2:2), and how an early form of nephaleonnephalios — means “sober: and of drink, without wine, wineless” (Liddell and Scott). Therefore we came to the conclusion that, with the exception of ingesting small amounts of intoxication for medicinal purposes (1 Tim. 5:23), our Lord wishes us to abstain from drinking intoxicating beverages, the practice sometimes known as “social drinking.” Several medical authorities and other official reports and statements were cited to show how even the first sips and drinks of alcoholic beverages immediately act upon our brains in an intoxicating fashion. We also studied how the wine which Christ miraculously made from water at the wedding feast (John 2:1-11) was not intoxicating in nature because the Hebrew and Greek terms translated “wine” in the Bible could refer not only to intoxicating beverages (Prov. 20:1) but also to freshly trodden grape juice (Is. 16:10), clusters of grapes which were just gathered (Jer. 40:10), or the grapevine itself (Num. 6:4).

We will now continue our study on what the Bible says about drinking by examining objections commonly made to the aforementioned fact that “wine” in the Bible is defined not only as an intoxicating beverage, but in other contexts fresh grape juice. One such objection is the notion that “wine” in biblical times exclusively indicated a fermented, intoxicating drink. Yet Aristotle (Meteorologica 4.9), Athenaeus (Deipnosophistae 1. 27; 5199), and Pliny (Natural History 14.11) all spoke of unfermented wine existing in their time. In Pliny’s case, he talked about a Spanish wine which was called inerticulam, (“inert, not affecting the nerves”); it was also called justius sobriam (“more justly, sober wine”) as well as viribus innoxiam: siquidem temulentiam sola non facit (“harmless to the strength, as of itself it does not cause intoxication”). Columella, a Roman agricultural writer, spoke of this wine being called by the Greeks amethyston (“unintoxicating”), inerticula (“not intoxicating”), innoxia, quod iners habetur in tentandis nervis, quamvis in gustu non sit hebes (“harmless because guiltless of disturbing the nerves, though it was not wanting in flavor”), thus showing that unintoxicating wine was both known and appreciated during biblical times (De Re Rustica 3.2).

Others object by claiming that there were no methods of keeping grape juice free from fermentation during biblical times. For example, the removal of moisture from grapes keeps them from fermenting. Columella wrote of drying grapes before the skin was broken and preserving them in that condition in order to produce, even after a considerable period of time, an unfermented beverage after they had been soaked in water, calling it the Roman term passum because the grapes had been spread out in order to dry (De Re Rustica 12. 39). He also wrote of how the Romans had boiled wines by boiling the grapes. The boiling evaporated the water and thus prevented fermentation. Grape juice boils at 212 degrees Fahrenheit and ethyl alcohol evaporates at 172 degrees Fahrenheit; thus boiling was a great way to expel alcohol from the juice. Additionally, Columella and Pliny also wrote of lining earthen containers with pitch, filling them with fresh juice before sealing them, and then sinking them in water or burying them in the ground in order to prevent air from coming into contact with the juice and causing fermentation (De Re Rustica 120; Natural History 14.11).

Returning our focus to Scripture, the Old Testament says about consumption of intoxicating beverages. The first sin on record in Scripture after the flood was drunkenness, committed, unfortunately, by Noah himself and leading to further sin by his son Ham and the cursing of Canaan by his grandfather (Gen. 9:20-27). Drunkenness also led to the downfall of Lot, another righteous man who had previously stood out as a light among a sin-filled culture only to be taken down by imbibing intoxicating drink and becoming drunk to the point of committing incest with his daughters (Gen. 19:30-38). So it should not surprise us that God refers to intoxicating wine and strong drink as “a mocker…a brawler, and whoever is led astray by it is not wise” (Prov. 20:1). We should understand why he attributes “tarry(ing) long over wine” and “go(ing) to try mixed wine” as the cause for those who have woe, sorrow, strife and complaining before telling us not to even look at these intoxicating drinks and warning of the adverse effects they will have on us (Prov. 23:29-35). We should heed his caution that “wine is a traitor, an arrogant man who is never at rest” (Hab. 2:5) and understand why he pronounced a “woe” upon “him who makes his neighbors drink” (Hab. 2:15-16) … yet another reason why the wine Christ miraculously made for his fellow wedding guests was not intoxicating in nature. These admonitions combined with the direct commands found throughout the New Testament in the Greek terms for “sober” (1 Thess. 5:6-8) and “do not get drunk” (Eph. 5:18) should make it very clear to all of us that our Lord does not want us drinking alcoholic beverages.

Yet the objections still come. For example, some point to Deuteronomy 14:24-26, which records God telling the Israelites to spend their money on whatever they want, including “wine or strong drink.” The thought is that if God told Israel to spend their money on “wine or strong drink,” then he must have permitted them to be social drinkers. Again, it must be pointed out that “wine” (yayin in Hebrew) is used biblically in both an alcoholic andnon-alcoholic sense depending on the context; since elsewhere in the Old Testament God strongly disapproves of ingesting intoxicating yayin, it is clear that the yayin of the Deuteronomy passage is non-alcoholic in nature. The same can be said for “strong drink.” Just as most today automatically associate intoxicating beverages with the term “wine,” such is even more so the case with “strong drink,” and understandably so. Yet “strong drink” comes from the Hebrew term shekar, and like yayin with “wine” scholars have also acknowledged that shekar can refer to the sweet, either fermented or unfermented, juice of many fruits other than grapes (some of which possibly having a particularly strong taste, thus earning the term “strong drink”). For example, the Cyclopaedia of Biblical Literature says shekar “was much broader than ‘strong drink,’” listing other definitions which include “luscious, saccharine drink or sweet syrup, especially sugar or honey of dates, or of the palm-tree; also, by accommodation, occasionally the sweet fruit itself…”, and “date or palm wine in its fresh and unfermented state…” (emphasis mine). Thus, if one is to take the Bible in its entirety (Ps. 119:160a), it is clear that God was not commanding Israel to buy alcoholic wine and alcoholic strong drink, but rather grape juice (“wine,” yayin) and sweet fruit drinks (“strong drink,” shekar).

Another objection is centered around the words of the mother of King Lemuel to her son in which she says, “Give strong drink to the one who is perishing, and wine to those in bitter distress; let them drink and forget their poverty and remember their poverty and remember their misery no more” (Prov. 31:6-7). Clearly the context surrounding verses 6-7 promote the definition of intoxicating beverages, but one must go further to determine if divine support for social drinking is found here. For example, we could look at the previous two verses where his mother says to Lemuel, “It is not for kings, O Lemuel, it is not for kings to drink wine, or for rulers to take strong drink, lest they drink and forget what has been decreed and pervert the rights of all the afflicted” (vs. 4-5). The question must be asked as to why God and this obviously wise woman would warn about the dangers of alcoholic consumption for royalty in one sentence and then in  the very next sentence promote alcoholic consumption and its dangerous results for the dying and impoverished. Since the ethyl alcohol within intoxicating drinks is a medically proven toxic poison, why would God tell us to poison the dying and poor in the same book where he provided instruction to prevent early deaths and care for the poor (cf. Prov. 2:18-19; 5:23; 14:21; 17:5)? Why would God promote “drinking our worries away,” an obvious reference to drunkenness? It is clear when one takes into account the entirety of the Bible’s condemnation of the consumption of alcoholic beverages, including in the immediate context of Proverbs 31:6-7, that King Lemuel’s mother is not advocating social drinking. On the contrary, she is emphasizing the warning she had just given her son in verses 4-5. She is basically saying, “When you become king, remember that kings shouldn’t drink. Bad things will happen if you do. You’ll forget important policies and treat your subjects in an unjust way. Look at those out on the street who are dying and poor. With some, their alcoholism got them there and keeps them there by helping them forget their troubles and taking away their motivation to fix themselves. Don’t be like them.”

More could be studied concerning the biblical admonitions against drinking as well as the objections some have to them, but it is our hope that the study produced in this editorial as well as the one in the previous issue will make it clear to the reader that it is not God’s will that they socially drink alcohol. We are called to be lovingly obedient to our God (John 14:15) and an excellent example to our fellow man (Matt. 5:16; 18:6-7; Rom. 14:21; 1 Cor. 10:32; 1 Pet. 2:12).

It’s simply impossible to do that with a beer or wineglass in your hand.

— Jon

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