First of all, some background is in order. Alcohol fermentation is a process by which sugars are converted to ethanol (alcohol), usually by yeasts (a type of fungus). Fermentation is an anaerobic process, meaning that it does not require oxygen. Sugary fluids (such as grape juice) left in an enclosed container without refrigeration will naturally ferment. Yeasts often grow on grapes or other fruits and are also found in the air, so they can begin fermentation easily even in fresh products. Once the sugars in the fluid are all converted to alcohol, the fermentation must stop. However, if there are lots of sugars in the fluid, the concentration of alcohol may get so high that it kills the yeasts before the sugars are used up. Therefore, there is a natural limit on the concentration of alcohol that can be achieved naturally through fermentation. In most cases, this limit is about 12% alcohol. Today, some special types of yeasts can be used that survive in higher alcohol concentrations up to about 20%. Higher alcohol concentrations than this are achieved by distillation, in which the alcohol is selectively evaporated, collected, and condensed back into liquid again. The first known instance of alcohol distillation was in the 12th century A.D. Thus, in Bible times, the maximum concentration of alcohol in any alcoholic drink would have been less than 20% and probably more like 12%. Even this concentration may not have been achieved naturally if the substance used in fermentation did not have sufficient amounts of sugars.
The most common alcoholic drink of Bible times was wine. Grapes were plentiful and highly prized in the region and wine was a very common drink. Since refrigeration was unknown in Bible times, all wine that wasn’t freshly squeezed would have begun to ferment. However, the alcohol concentration would have been fairly low in most cases. Only very old wine would have had high enough alcohol content to make getting drunk a realistic possibility. However, the alcohol content of wines could also be reduced or eliminated by boiling, so it would be quite possible for even old wine to have little or no alcohol.
There are several words used in the original Biblical texts to refer to wine. These are the most common Hebrew words translated as “wine” in the Old Testament:
· Yayin – generic term used to refer to grape juice, either fermented or unfermented
· Tirosh – freshly squeezed grape juice (unfermented); often translated as “new wine”
· Shekar – used to refer to fermented beverages (including those not made from grapes) that were very alcoholic; usually translated as “strong drink” or “strong wine”
In the New Testament, the Greek term oinos is the most common term for wine and refers to both fermented and unfermented varieties. The adjective “new” was sometimes added to refer specifically to unfermented wine.
Note: These words can be looked up with a Strong’s concordance (Yayin = H3196, Tirosh = H8492, Shekar = H7941, Oinos = G3631).
Unfermented wine is always considered good to drink and serves as a symbol of blessing in the Bible. For example, in Genesis 27:28, Isaac blesses Jacob with these words: “Therefore God give thee of the dew of heaven, and the fatness of the earth, and plenty of corn and wine (tirosh).”
Several other passages indicate specifically that new wine is a blessing.
“And it shall come to pass, if ye shall hearken diligently unto my commandments which I command you this day, to love the LORD your God, and to serve him with all your heart and with all your soul, That I will give you the rain of your land in his due season, the first rain and the latter rain, that thou mayest gather in thy corn, and thy wine (tirosh), and thine oil.”
Jeremiah 31:11-12 it says:
“For the Lord hath redeemed Jacob, and ransomed him from the hand of him that was stronger than he. Therefore they shall come and sing in the height of Zion, and shall flow together to the goodness of the Lord, for wheat, and for wine (tirosh), and for oil, and for the young of the flock and of the herd: and their soul shall be as a watered garden; and they shall not sorrow any more at all.”
On the other hand, purposeful consumption of highly fermented wine is universally condemned in Scripture, as is being drunk. Proverbs 20:1 says “Wine (yayin) is a mocker, strong drink (shekar) is raging: and whosoever is deceived thereby is not wise.” Interestingly, the word translated “deceived” in this passage means to stray or be misled into doing wrong. It is also used in passages where it refers to being “ravished” by an adulterous woman. The idea here is of unwisely indulging in a wrongful desire that causes you to sin.
Strong drink is warned against in many passages as causing sin and being unwise.
“But they also have erred through wine (yayin), and through strong drink (shekar) are out of the way; the priest and the prophet have erred through strong drink (shekar), they are swallowed up of wine (yayin), they are out of the way through strong drink (shekar); they err in vision, they stumble in judgment.”
“It is not for kings, O Lemuel, it is not for kings to drink wine (yayin); nor for princes strong drink (shekar): Lest they drink, and forget the law, and pervert the judgment of any of the afflicted.”
“Who hath woe? who hath sorrow? who hath contentions? who hath babbling? who hath wounds without cause? who hath redness of eyes? They that tarry long at the wine (yayin); they that go to seek mixed wine. Look not thou upon the wine (yayin) when it is red, when it giveth his colour in the cup, when it moveth itself aright. At the last it biteth like a serpent, and stingeth like an adder. Thine eyes shall behold strange women, and thine heart shall utter perverse things. Yea, thou shalt be as he that lieth down in the midst of the sea, or as he that lieth upon the top of a mast. They have stricken me, shalt thou say, and I was not sick; they have beaten me, and I felt it not: when shall I awake? I will seek it yet again.”
Wine is forbidden to leaders and those dedicated to God such as priests (Leviticus 10:9), Nazarites (Numbers 6:3), kings (Proverbs 31:14), and church leadership (I Timothy 3:3, 3:8).
The only good use given in Scripture for highly fermented wine is medicinal. It may be used as a pain reliever for the very ill and dying or to treat certain ailments. Proverbs 31:6 says: “Give strong drink (shekar) unto him that is ready to perish, and wine (yayin) unto those that be of heavy hearts.” Similarly, Paul tells Timothy (in I Timothy 5:23) to “use a little wine (oinos) for thy stomach's sake and thine often infirmities.” Note that it specifically says “a little” and only for sickness.
The above passages are quite clear in their identification of fermented and unfermented drinks. Unfermented drinks are good while highly fermented ones are not wise to consume and can lead people astray. Note that “highly fermented” in Bible times was very low compared to today’s standards. Modern alcoholic drinks would all fall under the category of “strong drink” according to Biblical usage and most would be far stronger than anything available back then.
There are many passages where “wine” is used generically (yayin or oinos) and it may not be immediately clear whether fermented or unfermented wine is meant. The above clear passages help to clarify such unclear instances.
For example, considering that Jesus was our High Priest and priests were not to drink alcohol, the wine Jesus drank at the Last Supper was undoubtedly unfermented. In fact, Jesus specifically referred to the wine he drank as “fruit of the vine” to indicate that it was unfermented. Also, all leaven (yeast) and leavened products were forbidden during the Passover (Exodus 12:19) since leaven was a symbol of sin. Thus, fermented wine, as a leavened substance, would not have been used by Jesus at a Passover supper. Similarly, the wine made by Jesus at the wedding in Cana was new wine as it was noted for being the “good wine.” Since new wine is what was named as a blessing in Scripture, it was the unfermented new wine that would be considered “good” wine, and it makes sense that Jesus made new wine to bless the marriage.
Another verse that should be mentioned in this discussion is Ephesians 5:18, which says “And be not drunk with wine, wherein is excess; but be filled with the Spirit.” Many people have attempted to use this verse as license to drink alcohol so long as they do not become drunk. However, when you actually pay attention to the purpose of the verse, it becomes clear that this is not permission to indulge. The contrast in this verse is between being filled with alcohol (drunk) and being filled with the Spirit. Since the purpose of being filled with the Spirit is to modify our hearts and behaviors to become more like Christ, the contrast here is between having our behavior and mood modified by alcohol or modified by the Spirit. It’s saying that we should not use alcohol to make ourselves feel better or to change the way we behave; that need should be filled by the Holy Spirit. So how drunk is drunk? Any amount of alcohol taken for the purpose of altering your behavior or mood is contrary to the spirit of this verse.
Other issues to consider with regard to alcohol are the principle of our bodies as temples for God (thus we should avoid substances such as alcohol that may harm them) and the need to avoid anything that may cause our brother to stumble or harm our Christian witness. We are also commanded not to be controlled by anything, so anything addictive should be avoided unless absolutely necessary.
In summary, unfermented wine (grape juice) is used widely in the Bible as a symbol of blessing. However, fermented beverages are warned against and should be avoided. Deliberate use of alcohol is considered unwise and very likely to lead to sin. An important thing to note here is that alcohol itself is not sinful. It is an inanimate thing and, as such, is amoral. However, the way that alcohol is used may be sinful. Anything strongly fermented enough to be able to produce alteration of behavior or allow the possibility of being drunk is condemned in Scripture. Alcohol harms the body and can lead to addiction, both of which are also good reasons to avoid it based on Biblical principles. Alcohol was permitted for valid medicinal uses (many of which, however, can now be replaced with less harmful and more effective substances). Nowhere is the idea of social drinking condoned. Consumption of highly fermented beverages (strong drink) for recreational purposes is not permitted. Since all modern alcoholic drinks would easily fall within the Biblical understanding of strong drink, they should not be consumed.
In the end, it is not alcohol that is the evil, but our wayward hearts and wrong desires. We are not to use alcohol (or any other chemical) to alter our mood and behavior. We should seek in every way to be controlled and changed by the Spirit of God, and not by any other thing.
This is not, by any means, a comprehensive discussion of every aspect of the issue of alcohol consumption. It is a brief summary of the main points and conclusions that I have come to in studying this issue. I encourage you to do your own study. May God give you wisdom and understanding as you seek His heart.
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