Questions & AnswersBible Answers to your Questions | Vol. 28 No. 5 | Jul-Aug 2018
Q: How is a Christian to understand the Bible verse where God allows certain Israelites to drink alcoholic beverages before the Lord: “And spend the money for whatever you desire, oxen, or sheep, or wine or strong drink, whatever your appetite craves; and you shall eat there before the Lord your God and rejoice, you and your household?” Deut. 14:26 NKJV. Is not this text encouraging the consumption of alcohol?
At first sight, the passage above is puzzling. For one thing, it seems to condone not only the use of wine, but also that of stronger drinks (what springs to mind is brandy or whiskey). It also seems to encourage booze imbibing in the sacred context of sanctuary celebrations. But a closer study of the text and context will prove otherwise. Here are some main points to consider:
The context of Deuteronomy 14:22–26 lays down the law of the lesser known “second tithe” or “festival tithe.” This was to be set aside from the produce of the land to provide celebrants with victuals during the prescribed annual festivals to which Israelites where commanded to gather at the sanctuary. If living nearby, the Israelite was to bring the produce with him, whether it was animals, grains, oil, or wine, and eat and drink of these at the sanctuary. If, however, the family lived far way from the sacred precincts, the Israelite was to turn the produce into money, bring that to the sanctuary, and there buy whatever food he and his family desired. The temple markets, which Jesus later felt compelled to cleanse, were set up for the purpose of providing food, as well as sacrificial animals, for such pilgrims coming from long distances. Thus the central message of this text is related to the law of the festival tithe.
The word translated “wine” in our passage is yayin. It is used to designate both unfermented and fermented wine, dictated by the context: a negative message signifies that the fermented variety is what the author had in mind.
Notice the meaning of yayin in Lamentations 2:11–12: “Because the children and the infants faint in the streets of the city. They say to their mothers, ‘Where is grain and wine?’” The context of giving it to “children and infants” shows that it sometimes refers to unfermented grape juice. Further, the Hebrew noun shekar, translated as “strong drink”, is where we get our English words “sugar”, “saccharine” and “cider.” Just as cider can mean either a non-alcoholic or an alcoholic drink, so shekar stands for a sweet drink made from fruit other than grapes. Unfortunately, the King James Version renders shekar as “strong drink”, while other translations opted for “beer” (CSB), “other alcoholic drink” (NLT), “cider” (WYC) or “liquor.” The New King James Version however translates yayin and shekar as “wine or similar drink.”
Bible scholars from previous centuries understood that wine could have a dual meaning in Scripture: “It is tolerably clear that the general words ‘wine’ (yayin, oinos) and ‘strong drink’ (shekar) do not necessarily imply fermented liquors, the former signifying only a production of the vine, the latter the produce of other fruits than the grape.”1 Young’s Analytical Concordance to the Bible translates shekar as “‘sweet drink’ (what satiates or intoxicates).” 2
We may sharpen the point by noting that the parallel text in Deuteronomy 14:23, which outlines the law for those living close to the sanctuary, talks of “new wine” (in the original Heb.: tirosh), which signifies the freshly pressed grape juice. It would be odd and inconsistent to prescribe unfermented wine to the pilgrim living close-by and fermented wine to those living far away, who bring money and exchange it for produce at the sanctuary.
Didn’t God encourage some Israelites to drink wine or strong drink before Him as an act of worship and celebration?
The priests were strictly forbidden on pain of death, from drinking alcohol while on duty in the sanctuary. Leviticus 10:8–10 reads: “Then the Lord spoke to Aaron, saying: ‘Do not drink wine or intoxicating drink, you, nor your sons with you, when you go into the tabernacle of meeting, lest you die. It shall be a statute forever throughout your generations, that you may distinguish between holy and unholy, and between unclean and clean.” Ezek. 44:21 repeats the injunction: “No priest shall drink wine when he enters the inner court.” It would again be inconsistent for God to encourage consumption of alcohol, and more so of strong drinks, to pilgrims coming to the sanctuary, while strictly forbidding their use to the priests serving at the sanctuary. God does not hold double standards. Additionally, Christians today are called “a holy priesthood”: we all are called to have the kind of special holy relationship with God that priests were to enjoy. 1 Pet. 2:5, 9.
When deciding on what the Bible says on a particular topic, it is unwise to park our opinion at one Bible text. To arrive at truth, we need to investigate all the Bible passages that speak on that subject. In the instance of wine, the witness of the Bible to the devastating effects of consuming alcohol is emphatic: “Woe to those who rise early in the morning, that they may follow intoxicating drink; who continue until night, till wine inflames them!” Isa. 5:11. The following list of passages tips the balance of the argument clearly in favor of total abstinence: Prov. 20:1; Prov. 23:29–32; Prov. 31:4–5; Isa. 5:22; Isa. 28:7; Hos. 4:11; Hab. 2:15; Mic. 2:11; Luke 1:15; Rom. 13:13; 1 Cor. 6:9–10; Eph. 5:18; 1 Thess. 5:6–8; 1 Tim. 3:2–3; Tit. 1:7; 1 Cor. 10:31; 1 Cor. 3:16, 17. Add to that the negative examples of Noah (Gen. 9:20–23), Lot (Gen. 19:30–36), Nadab and Abihu (Lev. 10:1–11) and Belshazzar (Dan. 5), and the message of the Bible rings out an emphatic warning against drinking alcohol.
The prerequisite for arriving at truth when searching for it is having an open mind and heart, willing to go wherever the evidence leads. When approaching life’s questions, whether big or small, we need to guard against pre-conceived ideas, opinions that suit our lifestyle or mindset. The attitude of the sincere investigator is firstly one of integrity, and secondly one of diligence in probing deep and wide enough to arrive at truth. On the subject of alcohol, the temptation to side with the positive opinion of indulging in moderate alcohol consumption is great, given that a majority of Christians, let alone non-Christians, take that view. However the great theme of the Bible is restoration of mankind to the original image of God, one of purity and holiness, a return to the Edenic model where all things were good and right. Alcohol, whether drunk in moderation or taken to the extremes of addiction and drunkenness (sometimes hard to avoid), do not fit into that model of sacredness and godly living. Those who pledge abstinence have nothing to lose, but can expect to reap a future of sober, wise, and temperate living while truly enjoying the innocent pleasures of life with clearness of mind and conscience.
- Lyman Abbott, A Dictionary of Religious Knowledge, New York: Harper, 1875, p. 973.
- Robert Young, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970.
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