Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Debate over the Prohibition of Alcoholic Beverage part four

Here's a poem written in 1847, "Look Not Upon the Wine When It Is Red" by N. P. Willis.

Look not upon the wine when it
Is red within the cup ;
Stay not for pleasure when she fills
Her tempting beaker up ;
Though clear its depths, and rich its glow,
A spell of madness lurks below.
They say 'tis pleasant on the lip,
And merry on the brain ;
They say it stirs the sluggish blood,
And dulls the tooth of pain :
Ay, but within its gloomy deeps
A stinging serpent unseen sleeps.
Its rosy lights will turn to fire,
Its coolness change to thirst;
And by its mirth within the brim
A sleepless worm is nursed.
There 's not a bubble at the brim
That does not carry food to him.

Someone needs to put those words to music.

You may have heard that some are now saying we've got new evidence and new scholarship that overturns what has been called the "two-wine position" (what I know as "the view the Bible teaches"). And we've got to be honest with the scriptural data and allow it to lead us to the right conclusion. I agree with that second statement. Let scripture show us what the correct position is. What I don't understand is how that the Bible would start saying something different than it has. God's Word hasn't suddenly begun teaching something that it didn't teach before. Certain passages couldn't have changed in their meaning.

Psalm 104:15

I also get this vibe. The growing number of "one wine" guys talk like the prohibitionist position is the digging-in-the-heels view, that refuses to look at the evidence. Where did this come from? I don't know. Nothing has come along that I've read that seems like ignored scholarship. What I've seen is, "Wine makes the heart glad in Psalm 104:15. See, that's alcohol. Gotta be. Why? Everybody knows that non-alcoholic grape juice could not make anyone glad." Anything coming close to scholarship would be looking at the Hebrew word for "make glad" to see if it is talking about the kind of affects that alcohol would cause, you know, the buzz. This Hebrew form is found 30 times. Consider Psalm 48:11:

Let mount Zion rejoice, let the daughters of Judah be glad, because of thy judgments.

OK. The judgments of the Lord give the daughters of Judah a buzz. What do you think? In the same chapter Psalm 104, in v. 31, we read:

The glory of the LORD shall endure for ever: the LORD shall rejoice in his works.

The same Hebrew verb here is translated "shall rejoice." We know that Jehovah is not feeling tipsy over his works. And yet here's the argument. "Alcohol" makes the heart glad. God gave alcohol. Therefore God wants us to drink alcohol. There's something missing here, isn't there? You can't assume that yayin is alcohol. So you can't argue that yayin is alcohol just because a heart gets glad because of it.

This brainy argument is nothing better than an assumption that the English word "wine" must be referring to an alcoholic beverage. You can't get that from reading Psalm 104:14-15. You get it by reading into the text.

Deuteronomy 14:26

Another gem of "alcoholic scholarship" centers on a rather remote reference to "strong drink" in Deuteronomy 14:26. This clinches this issue for many drinkers. Here's the verse:

And thou shalt bestow that money for whatsoever thy soul lusteth after, for oxen, or for sheep, or for wine, or for strong drink, or for whatsoever thy soul desireth: and thou shalt eat there before the LORD thy God, and thou shalt rejoice, thou, and thine household,

To understand what's going on in Deuteronomy 14:26, consider what's happening in the context beginning in v. 22. The Israelites were to tithe, that is, give a tenth of their agricultural production every year. Certain Israelites lived so far away that it wasn't practical for them to transport their tithes of agriculture all the way to Jerusalem to offer to God. Because of this, God permitted them to exchange it into silver where they lived and then turn it back into agriculture when they arrived by purchasing the equivalent for a feast at the tabernacle location. This Israelite could use the money, which he would otherwise give as a tithe, for the support of the Levitical priesthoood and for such Levites as might happen to live in his neighborhood (v. 27) and for strangers, fatherless persons, and widows.

Here's their argument. All strong drink (shekar) is alcohol. God wants a portion of their alcohol given in the form of this feast. Therefore, alcohol is acceptable to God. Go ahead and drink alcohol, God is saying, in other words. And they would say that is taken from this passage. It doesn't look like such a crucial verse, but it is to them.

Of course, to start, this clashes with what Proverbs 23:29-35 says about alcohol. This is where the "alcoholic scholarship" comes in. It would say that Proverbs 23 must be something other than a prohibition of alcohol. So Deuteronomy 14:26 would guide what we see in Proverbs 23:29-35. And so everything here rests on the meaning of "strong drink" (shekar).

So does God really want the drinking of alcohol based on Deuteronomy 14:26? Definitely not. If God was encouraging it, that would contradict the plain Proverbs 23 passage. If they really were to buy alcohol for a feast with the money from ten percent of their agricultural product, what would that feast be like? If shekar, strong drink here, is alcoholic, and it is saying that with the tithe of a wealthy man’s income he could purchase a great amount of intoxicants, this text would encourage not just moderate drinking but drunkenness that even moderationists forbid.

If shekar and yayin were both alcoholic drinks, you would have two words for alcohol in Deuteronomy 14:26 listed side by side, forcing the verse into an impossible redundancy---"or alcohol or alcohol"---only alcoholic drinks. God would be advocating an open bar for the festivity, and yet, of course, encouraging temperance. I don't think so.

The big grin on the face of the drinkers is because they believe that "strong drink," shekar, is always intoxicating, that's the whole point of the word. They usually point to lexiconal usage. The argument goes like this. Shakar is the verb, meaning drunken. Therefore, the noun form, shekar, is always speaking of intoxicating drink. That idea, which is only an unsubstantiated concept, had been debunked many times over. Others have written wonderful treatments on this, from Robert Teachout to Stephen M. Reynolds to Samuele Bacchiocchi. This article in Bibliotheca Sacra (1880) also says "no."

Samuele Bacchiocchi takes almost all the evidence which has been written that proves that "strong drink" is not always alcoholic in scripture and cobbles it together in his book Wine in the Bible from pages 193 to 201 (you can read it all here). He ends with this conclusion on p. 201:

The preceding considerations have suggested five major reasons why the phrase “wine and strong drink” in Deuteronomy 14:26 refers to an unfermented beverage. First, the larger context of the passage, which calls the people to be “holy to the Lord” by abstaining from anything unclean (Deut 14:3-21), precludes the free consumption of intoxicating beverages at a solemn harvest festival “before the Lord” (vv. 23, 26).

Second, the immediate context (v. 23) specifies that the tithe was to be paid with fresh harvest products (grain, grape juice [tirosh], oil and newborn lambs and calves by those living close to the sanctuary. When consumed, the grain would be known as bread and grape juice (tirosh) as unfermented wine (yayin). It is absurd to imagine that while the worshipers who lived in proximity to the sanctuary celebrated the harvest festival by eating fresh produce, those who had come from distant places would be drinking fermented beverages.

Third, the participation of the priestly Levites in the harvest festival (v. 27) would preclude the consumption of alcoholic beverages (Lev 10:9-10).

Fourth, the word shekar, like yayin, is a generic term which could denote either a fermented or an unfermented beverage. For the text in question the context presupposes the latter.

Fifth, the derivation of shekar as well as its usage in Isaiah 24:9 and in cognate words of Semitic and Indo-European languages, indicate that the word originally denoted a sweet beverage, which could become bitter when allowed to ferment.

All of this, of course, harmonizes Deuteronomy 24:26 with Proverbs 23:31. The Bible is going to harmonize. God won't deny Himself.

More to come in this series.


Jason Stover said...


I've enjoyed this series on your blog. In fact I was thinking about it today as I was reading in Acts. Chapter 2 of Acts seems to argue against a two wine view doesn't it, at least in arguing that new wine is non-alcoholic or juice?
It's Pentecost,and the response of the onlookers to what is taking place is recorded in vs.13 "others mocking said, these men are filled with new wine"--they're accusing them of being drunk with this new wine and this drunkenness has altered their speech. Peter's response confirms this in vs.15.
For these are not drunken, as ye suppose, seeing it is (but) the third hour of the day." I'm not trying to play "gotcha" but I thought about this issue as I was reading today. This passage seems fairly straightforward on the issue of new wine being alcoholic rather than merely grape juice.

I don't drink alcohol for several reasons but the other thing I struggle with is the fact that I don't know of another country in the world where God's people make the two wine distinction in Scripture. Our interpretation is not the historical one, and it seems that without Welch's invention and the subsequent prohibition push this wouldn't even be up for debate. Just my 2 cents.

Mike Aubrey said...

Of course, to start, this clashes with what Proverbs 23:29-35 says about alcohol. This is where the "alcoholic scholarship" comes in. It would say that Proverbs 23 must be something other than a prohibition of alcohol

No it wouldn't.

It would say that the Proverbs past chapter 9 aren't prohibitions at all. They're advice - even when they're in the imperative: hence "Answer a fool according to his folly" and "Do not answer a fool according to his folly" are right beside each other.

Jason Stover said...


I've enjoyed your series on this issue. In fact I was thinking about it this morning while reading in the book of Acts. Acts 2 seems to argue against the two wine view at least as much that "new wine" was non-alcoholic. At pentecost the onlookers response was "they must be filled with new wine." In other words they thought they were drunk. In fact Peter says a few verses later in so many words "they're not drunk, it's only the third hour of the day." What are your thoughts on this passage as it relates to the two wine view.

I don't drink alcohol for several reasons but I wrestle with the fact that our position is not the historical one. In fact we're the only country in the world (that I'm aware of) where believers read wine in Scripture and think grape juice. I wonder if this is not directly result of our context over the last 200 years with Welch's invention of grape juice (can't even get the stuff in Poland)and then the subsequent push for prohibition

Kent Brandenburg said...


So it isn't a prohibition. Hmmmm. I might respect your Hebrew abilities more than mine. And you might respect your abilities more than mine. But I don't respect either of our Hebrew abilities more than Bruce Waltke, who actually has an often used Hebrew syntax book out there to use. And he says this about Proverbs 23:31:

"At the semantic center of the saying is the command not to yield to wine's temptation. . . . The circle of validating consequences is reinforced lexically by the repetition of the root ‘hr in the initial words of the verses surrounding the command (v. 31)."
p. 262 The Book of Proverbs: Chapters 15-31 Bruce Waltke

"The prohibition arms the youth against addiction by nipping the temptation at the bud. . . . The prohibitions synthetic parallels command the son to stop drinking the wine."
p. 264 The Book of Proverbs: Chapters 15-31 Bruce Waltke

He's not the only one who says it is a prohibition, but I thought you might respect him.


Someone else actually asked about Acts in the comments and you'll find that it isn't the word oinos in Acts 2, while it is in the gospel passages I referred to. That does debunk Acts 2 for you. Thanks for the comment though.

Gary said...

This has been very interesting. I had always thought that all wine in the bible contained alcohol,but that Christians in the United States should not drink it, because of the stumbling block issue. I laughed at our church's doctrinal statement when in regards to the Lord's supper it said "wine(grape juice)". I thought that meant we used grape juice instead of wine, I didn't know that the statement meant that the wine was grape juice. I'll have to speak to my pastor and get his take on this.

I'm still interested in how you explain 1 Timothy 3:8. Why would he be againt the deacon's drinking "much wine"(grape juice)?

I hope that Don and Mike keep debating this with you, they seem to have some knowledge on the subject and it's good to see both sides.

Like I said in the past post, I don't drink, so personally it doesn't effect my walk with the Lord if the wine in the bible was alcoholic or not. Unfortunately, if you prove yourself to be right, I don't think that the drinking Christians are going to admit it and change their ways.

Good Luck!

Don Johnson said...

Hi Kent (and Gary)

Well, on these two passages I agree with Kent, although I would perhaps arrive at the conclusions somewhat differently.

In any case, those for moderation will often bring these passages up as "gotcha verses". Kent has done a good job with Ps 104 and a pretty good job with Dt. I don't think these are all that triumphant for the moderationist view.

I might have more time to explain slight differences of approach on the Dt passage later, we are in the middle of replacing gutters at our church building and I am feeling rather weary.

But as far as these verses go, I agree that they don't prove what the moderationists think they prove.

Perhaps some would like a little more controversy from me on this, but that's about all I can do for right now.

Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

Kent Brandenburg said...


I'll be dealing with some of the other places. Thanks.

Thanks Don.

Mike Aubrey said...

Kent, I'm glad that you're using Waltke, even though he's an evangelical(!!). I enjoyed reading both volumes a couple years ago.

But I would suggest going back and re-reading his introduction, particularly regarding the function of the short saying proverbs. They're not universal. They're contextual and situational and thus not all proverbs apply at all times. This isn't just some excuse for getting around this verse for me. You can't do justice to the entire corpus of sayings if you try to treat them as universals.

Michael said...

I really don't understand why moderationist scholarship is referred to so sarcastically in this article. Kenneth Gentry, for example, wrote an excellent book outlining the moderationist view, called "God Gave Wine."

I also have a hard time understanding why, if God is ssying in Deut 14:26 that it is okay to buy and consume alcohol, God is essentially encouraging drunkennesss. Isn't that like arguing that, because God permits people to spend money on food in the same verse, He is encouraging gluttony?

Unknown said...

Why have you not addressed wine at the wedding at Cana?

Kent Brandenburg said...


This isn't a book. Jesus didn't create alcoholic beverage. It goes along with the two wine view. The story doesn't add anything to the one wine or the two wine view, either one. My series was showing the two wine view from scripture. With that being proven, Jesus created non-alcoholic beverage.