Beer in the Bible?
By Kyle Pope
I was a little boy it was understood among most members of the church that
Christians do not drink alcohol.
Now, not only within the church, but in our world as a whole there is a
concerted effort to move religiously minded people to view drinking as acceptable.
In popular culture, we turn on our radio and hear country musician Miranda
Lambert telling us, “I heard Jesus he drank wine and I bet we’d get along just
fine” (A Heart Like Mine). Or, Mark Chesnutt, echoing the same thought,
singing, “I hear that he can turn the water to wine. Any man that can do that,
oh he’s a good friend of mine. I’ve been baptized in beer, I’m here to testify,
I was speaking in tongues when I came home last night. Some folks say I’m
living in sin but I know the Lord loves the drinking man” (The Lord Loves the Drinking Man). This may not surprise us from country musicians, but even in scholarly circles we
see folks like Thomas R. Sinclair (professor of crop science at North Carolina
State University) and his wife, researcher Carol Janas Sinclair, in their book Bread,
Beer and the Seeds of Change: Agriculture’s Imprint on World History, trying
to persuade the reader that Noah was a beer merchant (Cambridge: CABI, 2010, p.
66). Or, Michael Homan (associate professor of Hebrew Bible at Xavier
University of Louisiana), in his article “Did The
Ancient Israelites Drink Beer?” characterizing the God of Israel as a “six
pack” a day beer-drinking tyrant, using the Israelites as his bartenders! He
with the possible exception of a few teetotaling Nazirites and their moms,
proudly drank beer—and lots of it. Men, women and even children of all social
classes drank it. Its consumption in ancient Israel was encouraged, sanctioned
and intimately linked with their religion. Even Yahweh, according to the Hebrew
Bible, consumed at least half a hin of beer (approximately 2 liters, or a
six-pack) per day through the cultic ritual of libation, and he drank even more
on the Sabbath (Numbers 28:7–10) (Biblical
Archaeology Review 36. 5 [Sept./Oct. 2010] 49).
motivates such a zealous push to make drinking seem normal and even wholesome?
As Christians, we must confront the more fundamental issue of whether such
claims harmonize with the teaching of Scripture or not.
speaks often of “wine” using words that can refer to the product of the grape
at any stage from grape juice to vinegar.
The student of Scripture will find, however, that most translations have no
reference to “beer” (e.g. KJV, ASV, RSV, NASB, NKJV, ESV). Only less literal
translations such as the New International Version, the Holman Christian
Standard Bible, and the Contemporary English Version refer to “beer” at all.
This is not because beer is a modern invention. Archaeology reveals that beers
from barley (and other grains) go back into man’s earliest history. Magen
Broshi, in his book Bread, Wine, Walls, and Scrolls, in his section
“Wine in Ancient Palestine,” explains, “…the Middle East of antiquity was
divided into two main sections: wine-consuming countries and beer-consuming
countries. The latter were situated in the great alluvial valleys—Mesopotamia
and Egypt—whereas in all other areas wine was the main alcoholic beverage”
(145). Yet, since the focus of Scripture revolves around Israel, it is no
wonder that we read more about wine and little (if anything) about beer.
why would Homan, and these translations speak of beer? Homan’s argument is an
over-simplification that rests primarily on his desire to narrow the definition
of the Hebrew word shekar to mean “beer” exclusively. The Old Testament
used the word shekar twenty-three times.
In every case, except two (Num. 28:7; Ps. 69:12), it is used in some type of
parallelism as in the phrase “wine and strong drink (shekar).”
Once, in the New Testament, this word is brought into Greek in the same sense,
in the command that John would “drink neither wine nor strong drink (sikera)”
(Luke 1:15). One of the first definitions of this word is offered by Methodius
of Olympus (who died ca. 311). He called it an “artificial wine” made from
“date-palms and other fruit trees” (A Treatise on Chastity 5.6). After
him, Jerome (ca. 342-420) claimed:
Shekar in the Hebrew tongue means every
kind of drink which can intoxicate, whether made from grain or from the juice
of apples, or when honey combs 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 (Epistle to Nepotianus, 266).
the same way, every major Hebrew lexicon defines this word broadly. Shekar probably
included drinks made from grains, but the evidence suggests that “beers” were
not as common in Israel as in Egypt and Mesopotamia. The Babylonian Talmud
claimed that storehouses of beer in Babylon were like the storehouses of wine
in Palestine (Pesachim 8a). Even in Palestine, Broshi associates beer
drinking more with the Philistines than with the Israelites, because of the
type of vessels discovered among the Philistine ruins—jugs with a spout and a
strainer for filtering the chaff (165).
Homan bases much of his argument on the etymological
connection between the Heb. shekar and the Akkadian word shikaru which
he exclusively defines to mean “barley beer” (52). Yet, even the word shikaru
in the Assyrian Dictionary (which he cites) can be used of “date wine”
or “fig wine” as well (Vol. 17, p. 428). What seems most likely is that both
words refer to strong drinks in general with more of an emphasis on “beer” in
Mesopotamia and less in Palestine.
So why is it important to emphasize this distinction?
First, because Homan, (like so many modern writers), over-simplifies the issue.
A reader who accepts his argument without question might put down his article,
drive to the liquor store and get his own “six-pack” of Budweiser or Coors,
convinced he could do so with the sanction of God. Yet, the fact is that most
of the twenty-three instances of the use of shekar speak of it
negatively. In those cases where this is not the case, the student of Scripture
must understand that what the ancients called “beer” was not the same as modern
“beer.” Six years
before Homan’s article ran, he published an expanded version of
virtually the same article in Near Eastern Archaeology. In that article, Homan acknowledged that
beer made by the ancient method he describes with bread soaked in water for a
few days had an alcohol content of only 2-3% as opposed to modern beers of 5%
and above (“Beer and Its Drinkers: An Ancient Near Eastern Love Story.”
67:2 (2004) 91). Ancient beers were often mixed with dates, honey, or
spices and consumed by both adults and children. Babylonian and Egyptian
reliefs show beer drinkers using straws or strainers because ancient beers
retained the chaff and husks from the barley. Xenophon describes drinking such beers
with straws for this purpose and even mentions that the strength of such drinks
could be diminished further by adding water (Anabasis 4.5.26-27). This
makes it clear we are not talking about the same thing someone might
purchase at the liquor store today.
A second reason this distinction is important is
because Homan asserts that the shekar used for the drink offering of
Number 28:7-10 was “beer.” There are a number of problems with this. First,
Leviticus 2:11 prohibited offerings on the altar that contained “leaven.” Two
words are translated “leaven”: chametz and seor. Both
words are included in this prohibition. David
J. Jordan, in his doctoral thesis, An Offering of Wine: An Introductory exploration
of the role of wine in the Hebrew Bible and ancient Judaism through the
examination of the semantics of some keywords, writes:
Beer is fermented
grain, or, often in the ancient world, fermented bread. Thus, as shakar
was sacrificed on the altar it could not refer to beer in Biblical Hebrew, as
beer is leaven and cannot be sacrificed on the altar. Similarly, banned from
being sacrificed on the altar was debash (Lev 2.11). BDB
defines debash, as honey including fruit honeys. Thus, date
wine (a product of date honey) and mead could not be sacrificed on the altar (Doctoral Thesis, The Department
of Semitic Studies, University of Sydney, 2002, p. 122)
Talmud considered beer made from barley “leavened”—chametz (Pesachim 42a-b),
and considered barley one of five grains subject to chametz restrictions
(Menachoth 70a-b). This makes it highly unlikely that shekar was
(as Homan argues) “barley beer.” If Jordan is right, that date-wine would also
be prohibited, what was the shekar of Numbers 28:7-10? The Dead Sea Scroll known as The Temple Scroll, in a
probable reference to the drink offering, declares, “pour out a libation of shekar,
new wine, on the altar of the Lord, year by year” (11QT 21.10). The
Mishnah considered wine forty days old suitable for use as a drink offering (Eduyoth
6.1) although some rabbis argued that wine straight from the vat could be
used (Baba Bathra 97a). This would suggest that the shekar of
Numbers 28:7 was “new wine”—not beer.
this is the case, it poses a few problems itself. Fermented wine was considered
“leavened” by at least some of the Jews. A conservative sect known as the Karaites,
to this day argues of the Heb. word for leaven, “Chametz comes from the
Heb. word meaning sour as is therefore any edible food that has gone through a
souring process, in other words a substance that has fermented. This includes…beers
and all alcoholic drinks including wines, for to produce alcohol fermentation
has to occur” (The Biblical Passover Haggadha, by the Meir Yosef Rekhavi,
8). Karaites use juice squeezed from rehydrated raisins (called “raisin wine”)
for the Passover (ibid. 7). Broshi cites a potsherd discovered at Lachish that
identifies its former contents as “wine made from black raisins” (152). This could
suggest that shekar (like other Heb. words for wine) might have referred
to drinks that were fermented or unfermented.
we are talking about ancient beers or wines, Christians need to understand that
to compare modern drinks (usually containing added sugars, yeasts, or even
distilled alcohol to boost alcohol content) with ancient drinks is “comparing
apples to oranges.” Broshi, after imagining how an ancient Israelite would
react at our dinner table, writes, “we too, had we chanced to sit down at his
table, would probably have been amazed at the fact that wine was only consumed
mixed with water” (161). He goes on to cite evidence of wine diluted as much as
1 part wine to 20 parts water! Clearly, this is not what we call “wine.”
Ancient people knew how to impede fermentation (to some degree) but still
called both fermented and unfermented drinks by the same names. The Bible
condemns more about drinking than just drunkenness alone (1 Peter 4:3-5).
Christians, as priests of God (Lev. 10:9-11; 1 Pet. 2:4-9), set apart unto God
(Num. 6:1-4; Rom. 1:7), are called to a higher level of readiness and sobriety
than even men and women of the past. With all of this, in a world in which we
are given such an abundance of choices of drinks that in no way compromise our
salvation, influence, judgment, or self-control—why would we choose drinks that