In the middle of a song about God’s gifts of creation, the poet praises God for wine. He says that the Lord causes plants to grow for people to cultivate, so “that he may bring forth food from the earth and wine to gladden the heart of man” (Psalm 104:15).
Wine to gladden the human heart: this is one of the many gifts of God. Wine is not a curse but a blessing, originating in the benevolent plan of the Creator.
Yes, like all God’s gifts, alcohol can be abused—and often is. But that is not the fault of the gift itself, any more than gluttony is the fault of food. The fault lies in the eater and drinker, not the food and drink. One can thank the Lord for wine and beer, as much as one thanks God for bread, shoes, and shelter.
In today’s devotion for my book, Unveiling Mercy: 365 Daily Devotions Based on Insights from Old Testament Hebrew, I talk about the Hebrew word yayin (“wine”). Because some people may wonder what the Old Testament has to say about alcohol, I have provided this list of seven basic Questions and Answers. Much more could be added based on the New Testament, of course, but my focus here is on the Hebrew background.
Q: Which alcoholic drinks are mentioned in the Old Testament?
A: Wine (yayin [יַיִן]) and Beer (shekar [שֵׁכָר]). These are commonly mentioned together as “wine and strong drink” (e.g., Lev. 10:9; Deut. 29:5).
Q: If shekar is beer, why do translations render it as “strong drink”?
A: Scholars are not 100% certain that shekar refers to beer, but that is the broad consensus. The root of this word occurs in many other ancient languages, such as Akkadian, Ugaritic, Aramaic, and Arabic. The word was even was borrowed by the Greeks, who called it sikera. This is the word used in the NT when the angel tells Zechariah that John the Baptist is not to drink “wine or strong drink [σίκερα]” (Luke 1:15), presumably because John was to be a Nazarite.
Q: How common was it for Israelites to drink alcoholic beverages?
A: Very common. Drinking wine and beer appears to have been the norm among God's people. Melchizedek gifted Abram with wine, and Isaac drank wine before bestowing a blessing on Jacob (Gen. 14:18; 27:25). When Isaac was weaned, Abraham threw a "feast," which in Hebrew is a mishteh (מִשְׁתֶּה), a word formed from shatah, "to drink." Feasts involved drinking. It was a staple at meals and parties, and wine is included in gifts presented at the sanctuary. It is referred to multiple times in the Old Testament as the drink that accompanied banquets, was given as provisions, and even provided as payment for services rendered (e.g., 1 Sam. 25:18; 2 Chron. 2:10). The very fact that on-duty priests and Nazarites were to abstain from wine and beer is implicit proof that, in the regular course of life, drinking alcohol was the norm, not the exception.
Q: Were there people in the Old Testament who did not drink wine or beer?
A: Yes. When the priests were on duty at the sanctuary, they were to abstain (Lev. 10:9). Men and women who took the Nazarite vow – or women who were pregnant with future Nazarites (like Samson) – were not to consume any grape product during the time of their vow, but they did drink wine afterward (Num. 6:3, 20). It was the ancestral tradition of one clan of Israelites called the Rechabites not to drink wine (Jeremiah 35). And while Daniel was mourning for three weeks, he also abstained (Dan. 10:2).
Q: Is there any general prohibitions against drinking wine or beer?
A: No. Except for those instances mentioned above, nowhere in the Bible is the consumption of alcohol prohibited.
Q: What about the overconsumption of alcohol? Does the Bible condemn intoxication?
A: Yes, multiple times. Isaiah lambasts “heroes at drinking wine” (Isa. 5:22). Strong warnings are repeated by the prophets and sages against intoxication and its results (e.g., Prov. 20:1). Several infamous episodes are connected with drunkenness: Noah’s nakedness (Gen. 9:21); Lot’s incest (Gen. 19:31-38); Nabal’s foolishness (1 Sam. 25:36); and David’s scheming lies (2 Sam. 11:13). Although the Bible does not discuss (what we call) alcoholism, it would fall under this general discussion regarding overconsumption and the necessity of doing what one must to avoid it, including total abstention.
Q: Is alcohol ever connected to the work of the Messiah?
A: Yes. When Isaiah prophesies the jubilation that will accompany the destruction of death, he says there will be the Party of parties. On God’s mountain, he will make “for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine, of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined. And he will swallow up on this mountain the covering that is cast over all peoples, the veil that is spread over all nations. He will swallow up death forever; and the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces, and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the Lord has spoken” (Isa. 25:6-8). The resurrection banquet in the new creation will have wine, the likes of which has never touched human lips. There we will feast and drink in joy to Christ, the resurrection and the life, and the giver of all good gifts.
To learn more Hebrew words and their connection to the work of the Messiah, check out Chad’s book, Unveiling Mercy: 365 Daily Devotions Based on Insights from Old Testament Hebrew, available at Amazon or the 1517 Shop.
You may also wish to listen to the Unveiling Mercy daily podcast, where Chad reads the Hebrew word and devotion of the day (available wherever you get your podcasts).