What Does the Old Testament Say About Drinking?
GOD’S WORD SPEAKS
There are many strongly opinions given on the subject of drinking, but what does God say about drinking? In this video we’re going to cut through the many human traditions on this subject and look at what the Old Testament says about drinking.
So, let’s attune our ears to hear and amend our beliefs to the faith delivered to us by the word of God.
Wine is God’s blessing
Wine was one of the three central products of the ancient Mediterranean world, which is why these cultures considered wine to be one of God’s blessings, and Scripture affirms this belief that God provided the blessing of wine to them:
Deuteronomy 7:13 (CSB) — 13 He will love you, bless you, and multiply you. He will bless your offspring, and the produce of your land—your grain, new wine, and fresh oil—the young of your herds, and the newborn of your flocks, in the land he swore to your fathers that he would give you.
Genesis 27:28 (CSB) — 28 May God give to you— from the dew of the sky and from the richness of the land— an abundance of grain and new wine.
Proverbs 3:9–10 (CSB) — 9 Honor the Lord with your possessions and with the first produce of your entire harvest; 10 then your barns will be completely filled, and your vats will overflow with new wine.
God’s covenant blessings were provided to increase, among other blessings, Israel’s new wine (more about this term later).
Fermented wine was part of both the gladness of one’s everyday life (Ps. 104:15) and the ceremonial life of the sanctuary that pleased God (Num 15:10). Similar temperate uses of wine bringing joy and gladness to our heart are employed all throughout the Old Testament: Gn 14:18; Jgs 19:19; 1 Sm 16:20; Eccl 10:19; Is 55:1-2; Zec 10:7).
Wine is generally approved of by God
God never gives one-dimensional approval to anything, but God does generally approve of drinking wine:
Deuteronomy 14:26 (CSB) — 26 You may spend the silver on anything you want: cattle, sheep, goats, wine, beer, or anything you desire. You are to feast there in the presence of the Lord your God and rejoice with your family.
The Law allowed for those Israelites who lived too far away from the Lord’s appointed place to exchange one-tenth of their land’s produce for silver, and then allowed them to spend that silver on anything they wanted – including wine and beer – and use that supply to feast with their families in the presence of the Lord.
Wine had many uses in the Old Testament world. The “drink offering” was wine (Ex 29:40; Lv 23:13) and the worshiper regularly brought wine when offering sacrifice (1 Sm 1:24). In addition, a supply of wine was kept in the temple for sacrificial purposes (1 Chr 9:29). At times wine was used in helping the weak and sick (2 Sm 16:2; Prv 31:6). There is no mention of wine being administered to water to make it safe for drinking, as is commonly accepted.
God pleased by wine in the Old Testament
When the Old Testament speaks in a positive light about wine, it usually views wine as a blessing for people. But Jotham’s parable atop Mount Gerizim presents wine as “cheering both God and man”.
Judges 9:13 (CSB) — 13 But the grapevine said to them, “Should I stop giving my wine that cheers both God and man, and rule over trees?”
Jotham is the sole survivor of Abimelech’s purge and he presents an allegorical story of the trees to lay bare Abimelech’s true character and the utter disregard of the people of Shechem for Gideon’s memory. In verses 7-9, Jotham traveled to Shechem and climbed Mount Gerizim’s eight-hundred-foot slope south of the city where he could take advantage of its acoustics to pronounce a curse upon them from a safe distance (cf. v.57). He begins by comparing Israel’s lowly status with an olive tree (vv.8–9); olives were one of Israel’s most valued crops (Deut. 11:14) and used for food, ointment, and medicine. Most importantly, olive oil kept the lamps in the Holy Place burning constantly, thus “honoring” the Lord. Then Jotham explains how, in view of its important functions, the olive tree declined the offer to become king. In verses 10-11, the fig tree likewise passed up the opportunity to rule; figs were a key agricultural product and were used in Israel as a symbol of the ideal age when every man could sit under his vine and under his fig tree (Mic 4:4; cf. 2 Kings 18:31). In verses 12-13, the vine also refused; its fruit was the main beverage of the land, and libations of wine accompanied many sacrifices at the sanctuary (Num 15:10). In verses 14-15, at last the thorn bush was called on and, having nothing better to do, gladly agreed to reign; thornbushes were a menace to agriculture and had the quality of burning quickly (Ps 58:9). Since it provided little if any shade, its refuge is spoken of sarcastically. It could only threaten to destroy, if its rule were not accepted.
Jotham is employing both physically and spiritually significant symbols whose meanings were very clear to those listening.
Addressing New Wine
Some people object to interpreting passages like Deuteronomy 7:13 or Proverbs 3:10 as referring to fermented wine. They suggest instead that the Old Testament term translated as “new wine” (תִּירוֹשׁ – Tirosh) referred to unfermented grape juice. Their argument contrasts Tirosh against the other Hebrew words for wine and concludes that Tirosh referred only to grape juice (Prv 3:10; Hos 9:2; Jl 2:24; Mi 6:15), while the others refer to fermented wine.
However, the inconclusiveness of this argument may be seen in the following points:
1. The Hebrew word being argued as representing grape juice is found in primarily neutral contexts
I’m very cautious when semantic arguments are made from inconclusive texts because I don’t want to base any doctrine on presumption and assumption.
2. Sometimes the word appears in contexts that seemingly include fermented drinks
One example of a text where the Hebrew word for “new wine” appears in a context that indicates it was fermented drink comes from the prophet Hosea:
Hosea 4:11 (CSB) — 11 Promiscuity, wine, and new wine take away one’s understanding.
3. The Ugaritic parallel to the term in question refers with certainty to a fermented wine
4. The Septuagint equivalents refer to fermented wine
Scholars agree that the Ugaritic and Greek parallels to the Hebrew word for new wine referred with certainty to fermented wines.
5. Fermentation in the ancient Near East, unlike Greece, took only about three days
The fermentation process in the ancient Near East only took a few days and was their means to preserve their drinks.
6. The Mishna (which were a series of interpretations of the meaning of the Law that were given, according to rabbinic tradition, when Moses received the Law from God on Mt Sinai and were to be passed down in oral form from generation to generation) provides no such evidence of the practice of having unfermented wine.
There seems to have been no attempts to preserve wine in an unfermented state; it may have been a near impossible task.
Semantic arguments can be tricky because they often appear to have much more credibility when speaking in generalities, but when examined in closer detail they can often be quite disappointing. The argument that Tirosh referred to unfermented wine does not take into account Old Testament texts like Deuteronomy 14:26, which definitely give God’s approval to fermented wine and beer; it doesn’t cope well with Hosea 4:11, which indicates that Tirosh can “take away one’s understanding”; and it doesn’t deal with how Tirosh was translated into other languages with words that referred to fermented wines.
Addressing Wine Cut with Water
Another key objection is made by arguing that because wine was mixed with water in antiquity, the alcoholic content was so low that one cannot compare it with modern day fermented beverages; while it was ok for them to drink fermented beverages, it would be wrong for us because ours are too high in alcoholic content.
The premise of this argument has some historical merit, but it is an incomplete argument and the evidence for its premise does not support its conclusion.
Although fermented, it is true that wine in the classical and Hellenistic world was usually mixed with water. It was stored in large jugs called amphorae, from which it was poured through a strainer into a large mixing bowl call a krater, in which it was mixed with water and then poured into drinking bowls or cups.
We know that in the western Mediterranean world the term “wine” referred to the mixture of wine and water. Anyone who wanted to mention wine without water had to add the word “unmixed.” For the Greeks, to drink wine unmixed was regarded as barbaric and, therefore, was not widely practiced. And Homer’s Odyssey (10.208f) informs us that the amount of wine per volume varied and could be distilled up to 20-parts water to 1-part wine, apparently because the wine was so strong (Homer, Odyssey 10. 208f).
However, this argument is incomplete because the evidence seems to indicate that wine in the Old Testament was used without being mixed with water.
In fact, diluted beer was symbolic of spiritual adulteration:
Isaiah 1:21–22 (CSB) — 21 The faithful town— what an adulteress she has become! She was once full of justice. Righteousness once dwelt in her, but now, murderers! 22 Your silver has become dross to be discarded, your beer is diluted with water.
So, while we know wine was mixed with water by New Testament times, the evidence seems to suggest that wine in the Old Testament was not mixed with water and was looked on with favor when taken in moderation. Likewise, the act of mixing wine is even employed in Scripture as a symbol of spiritual adultery.
Unfortunately, it appears to me that the historical record of mixing water with wine in the Classical and Hellenistic world actually seems to contradict the conclusions this argument is trying to make because non-distilled wine could reach as high as 15% alcohol content; when watered down 3-parts water to 1-part wine, the alcohol content would still be fairly potent at 5% alcohol content.
An objection might be raised that we know from Homer that wine was sometimes (but not always) watered down as much as 20-parts water to 1-part wine. However, the reason given by Homer for this was because the alcohol was so strong that it had to be watered down. In fact, Pliny speaks of fermenting wine having such a high alcohol content that it could burn, and modern laboratory experiments show that mixtures containing less than 30 percent alcohol won’t burn unless persistently held under a flame at room temperature. These tests show that mixtures with less than 20% alcohol content are simply not flammable.
In fact, some mixing practices also resulted in a stronger drink. Often strong wine was mixed into weak wine, resulting in a stronger drink. This is what is meant by “mixture” in the Bible (Ps 75:8; Is 5:22; Rv 18:6; 19:13–15). At times the fresh wine, high in sugar content, was evaporated, and this concentrated must was mixed with wine to obtain an even higher alcohol content.
The historic record does not seem to support the conclusion that mixing practices rendered ancient wines innocuous, indeed, quite the contrary seems to have been true: ancient wines were mixed precisely because they were so strong. Nor do New Testament prohibitions about drunkenness appear concerned with alcoholic content, but rather, with the integrity of one’s state of being remaining intact so that one may be a suitable dwelling of the Holy Spirit.
Warning against abusive use of wine and beer
The Old Testament also clearly and forcefully teaches against intemperate uses of wine and beer.
Isaiah 5:11 (CSB) — 11 Woe to those who rise early in the morning in pursuit of beer, who linger into the evening, inflamed by wine.
In contrast to enjoying wine and beer as blessings from God, the early and late pursuit of these drinks is taught against as an immoral practice. Such early pursuit of beer in the morning and staying out drinking late into the evening are characteristic of someone who is beginning to lose control and is at risk of bringing “woe” into their life.
The kinds of “woes” that such practices bring into people’s lives are seen in broken marriages, shattered careers, and destroyed lives that comes when we lose our senses and inhibitions.
Proverbs 20:1 (CSB) — 1 Wine is a mocker, beer is a brawler; whoever goes astray because of them is not wise.
Wisdom warns that abusing these drinks leads to foolishness and brawling. Being led astray by these things demonstrates an unwise disposition.
Habakkuk 2:15 (CSB) — 15 Woe to him who gives his neighbors drink, pouring out your wrath and even making them drunk, in order to look at their nakedness!
Scripture condemns using alcohol to take advantage of one’s neighbor. Trying to trap your neighbor in shame, or looking to take sexual advantage of your neighbor by causing them to get drunk is an evil practice that God will not tolerate.
Isaiah presents a powerful vision of condemnation to those who drank wine to excess:
Isaiah 28:1–8 (CSB) — 1 Woe to the majestic crown of Ephraim’s drunkards, and to the fading flower of its beautiful splendor, which is on the summit above the rich valley. Woe to those overcome with wine. 2 Look, the Lord has a strong and mighty one— like a devastating hail storm, like a storm with strong flooding water. He will bring it across the land with his hand. 3 The majestic crown of Ephraim’s drunkards will be trampled underfoot. 4 The fading flower of his beautiful splendor, which is on the summit above the rich valley, will be like a ripe fig before the summer harvest. Whoever sees it will swallow it while it is still in his hand. 5 On that day the Lord of Armies will become a crown of beauty and a diadem of splendor to the remnant of his people, 6 a spirit of justice to the one who sits in judgment, and strength to those who repel attacks at the city gate. 7 Even these stagger because of wine and stumble under the influence of beer: priest and prophet stagger because of beer, they are confused by wine. They stumble because of beer, they are muddled in their visions, they stumble in their judgments. 8 Indeed, all their tables are covered with vomit; there is no place without a stench.
Inebriation – not wine – is employed in Isaiah’s prophecy as a symbol of Ephraim’s weakness and vulnerability that would allow her to be conquered by the Assyrians. Isaiah’s vision portrays the priests and prophets as leaders of the people and drunkards, and their state of drunken stupor is central to the devastation and destruction that Isaiah revealed was coming.
Abstaining in the Old Testament
There are also cases in the Old Testament when God instructs people to abstain from drinking wine altogether in certain circumstances: Levitical priests in service at the temple (Lv 10:8, 9), Nazirites (Nm 6:3), and the Rechabites (Jer 35:1–3) were forbidden to drink wine altogether.
Leviticus 10:8–9 (CSB) — 8 The Lord spoke to Aaron: 9 “You and your sons are not to drink wine or beer when you enter the tent of meeting, or else you will die; this is a permanent statute throughout your generations.
Ezekiel 44:21 (CSB) — 21 No priest may drink wine before he enters the inner court.
Strong drink in the Old Testament
The strong drink of the Old Testament seems to be closely related to Mesopotamian date wine. This same date wine, high in sugar content, must have also been high in alcohol content. One Hebrew word is consistently used as strong drink (Lv 10:9; Dt 29:6; 1 Sm 1:15; Prv 20:1; 31:6; Is 5:22; 29:9). There is an equivalent word to this in Ugaritic, translated “drunk,” which parallels the normal word for wine.
Strong drink is usually condemned (Is 5:11, 22; 28:7; 56:12) and is especially forbidden to priests on duty (Lv 10:9).
Strong drink is only ever commended for the weak and weary (Prv 31:6; Nm 28:7).
The Bible presents the wisdom of God applied towards godliness to instruct God’s children in the ways of life that are pleasing to him.
The principles that we learn from our study of the Old Testament’s teaching on drinking is that God provided the means to make these beverages out of the love of his heart as one of his many blessings on faithfulness. God himself is pleased by the gladness that fills his children’s hearts when they drank wine and beer in their appropriate religious and family settings.
However, we also see that whenever God’s blessings are abused, they bring woe and calamity upon those who do not fear God. The Old Testament speaks with strong warnings about any kind of abuse and misuse of alcoholic beverages.
Finally, we see another principle emerge from the Old Testament’s teaching on drinking: there are times and places when total abstinence was required of God’s servants because they were to make the distinction between the “common” and the “holy” known to God’s people.
The Old Testament delivers the wisdom of God in clear and thought provoking ways that will benefit all who revere and love God.
Elwell, W. A., & Beitzel, B. J. (1988). Wine. In Baker encyclopedia of the Bible (Vol. 2, p. 2146-2148). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.
VanGemeren, W. (Ed.). (1997). New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology & Exegesis (Vol. 4, p. 290). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.