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What exactly was the alcohol of the Bible?

There are many Hebrew words that are often translated as wine or even beer in the Bible. Some words are obviously speaking of non-intoxicating wine. Khemer (foaming juice), ahsis (newly trodden grapes), and tirosh (fruit in its natural condition/fresh) are a few examples. The most often used word in the Old Testament is yayin; which means the expressed juice of the grape. Likewise, the Greek word oinos in the New Testament means grape juice in all of its various stages. These two words for wine do not automatically indicate if the drink is intoxicating or not. They are much like the English word for cider, which can refer to an alcoholic or non-alcoholic drink.

The meaning of the ambiguous words for wine in the Bible has to be derived from the context. Warning after warning comes in regards to fermented wine. Other times, the people are enjoying a basic grape or other fruit juice. Intoxicating wine and other strong drink was available in Biblical times, but it was much different from what we have today.

In Palestine for example, grape juice was allowed to ferment for 3 to 4 days. This wine would reach the stage of aerobic fermentation that brings the change in smell. In this short time, it often did not reach the point of anaerobic fermentation, which is what brewers consider the true conversion to alcohol. The alcohol content of most wine within the 3 to 4 days was only 2-6%. For common consumption, wine was generally deluded with 2 to 3 parts water, bringing the alcohol content down to 0.5%. Some people even drank it with 10 parts water. Many cultures, including those of the Hebrews and Greeks, considered those who drank unmixed wine as barbaric.

The highest possible alcohol content was 14% with natural fermentation. With the normal delusion process, this high content still went down to 3-5%. People that desired to get drunk would probably drink it at its higher content. Wine was generally not allowed to ferment to this point, though. Bacteria could cause the wine to become vinegar or moldy. This produced a sour taste with a bad odor. The percentage of alcohol in any available drink did not increase until the distilling process came around in 800 AD, many years after the Bible was written.

When is the last time you heard of somebody watering down their drink today? We are not dealing with the same alcoholic beverages and drinking culture of Biblical times. The alcohol content today is much different with: beer (3-8%), wine (8-14%), cocktails (15-20%), spirits (37-40%), liquors (22-55%), and some drinks up to 75% and higher. How much more difficult is moderation now? If you want to be on the same playing field with ancient social drinking, you will need to dilute your drink down to 0.5%.

Testimony

I started drinking young - at first just ‘cause I wanted to fit in and belong - but then to forget and become someone else. Forget I did, ‘cause I don’t remember much about those years. Later though is when drinking really cost me more. My children paid the cost of me still wanting to drink and forget. There are a lot of stupid mistakes I made and decisions that still haunt me to this day. My freedom came when I realized that I was the one to blame, not alcohol. It was me that made the choice to drink to forget all my pain. God found me and opened my eyes to this truth. Alcohol is only a drink, but it was I who abused it - and I had to answer the question, “Why did I drink?” I drank because it was easier than dealing with me and my pain. Alcohol is deadly when placed in the hands of someone that doesn’t want to feel. I’d rather feel!
Jewel Stiff
Singer for Apprehended Ones

Wine was not always consumed with alcohol content, though. Grapes could be squeezed directly into a cup. The ancients used many preservation techniques that allowed them to have fresh grapes even out of season. This was done with pitch, chaff, barley, and even clay. Fresh grape juice could be boiled, sifted with a bag called a sacco, or lightly pressed to leave out the fermenting agents of the skin (albumen). To preserve its fresh state, the juice was sealed with pitch, sometimes along with sulphur fumes to prevent the fermentation. These containers or wineskins could also be submerged in cold water to help preservation. Temperatures below 40°F prevent fermentation.

Many times fresh grape juice was boiled down to a syrup or gum. This resembled a coarse honey and was sometimes referred to as honey in the Bible. Some possible examples include: Numbers 13:27, Genesis 43:11, 1 Kings 14:3, and Ezekiel 27:17. When a person was ready to drink the juice, they would boil the gum with water. This would remove any alcoholic content. These ancient people took great pains to prevent fermentation. Proper fermentation without the foul taste was actually quite difficult with the porous containers available and lack of modern wine-making technology. If alcoholic and non-alcoholic wine was being consumed at the time, what did our Lord and Savior drink and make?

What about Jesus turning water into wine?

Jesus is our High Priest and King. That means that He had to abstain from alcohol to not be breaking the commands of the Old Testament. The Pharisees accused Him of being a glutton and winebibber (drunkard) that ate with sinners (Luke 7:34). Their accusations were obviously false; for we know that Jesus was without sin (Hebrews 4:15). One of the most referenced scriptures used for legitimizing drinking alcohol is where Jesus turned water into wine.

“1 And the third day there was a marriage in Cana of Galilee; and the mother of Jesus was there: 2 And both Jesus was called, and his disciples, to the marriage. 3 And when they wanted wine, the mother of Jesus saith unto him, They have no wine. 4 Jesus saith unto her, Woman, what have I to do with thee? mine hour is not yet come. 5 His mother saith unto the servants, Whatsoever he saith unto you, do [it]. 6 And there were set there six waterpots of stone, after the manner of the purifying of the Jews, containing two or three firkins apiece. 7 Jesus saith unto them, Fill the waterpots with water. And they filled them up to the brim. 8 And he saith unto them, Draw out now, and bear unto the governor of the feast. And they bare [it]. 9 When the ruler of the feast had tasted the water that was made wine, and knew not whence it was: (but the servants which drew the water knew;) the governor of the feast called the bridegroom, 10 And saith unto him, Every man at the beginning doth set forth good wine; and when men have well drunk, then that which is worse: [but] thou hast kept the good wine until now.” (John 2:1-10)

What was this wine that Jesus made? The first thing to note is that Jesus did not use grapes or the fermentation process. Jesus essentially created something from nothing by turning water into wine. We can rest in the fact that whatever He made had to be consistent with His character. Would Jesus really tempt those in attendance with 120 gallons of intoxicating wine, essentially giving them an opportunity to sin? Surely not! Do you not think such a large party could have alcoholics in addition to the “moderate” social drinkers? Not only that, if the view is that they were drinking intoxicating wine up until the miracle, would Jesus not be contributing to further drunkenness? Luke 9:56 says “For the Son of man is not come to destroy men’s lives, but to save [them].” If Jesus made intoxicating wine, He would be hurting man. This is not consistent with His character.

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