The consumption of alcohol has been a great debate in history. The battleground has not been limited to just the political arena or secular sectors, religious institutions have also been greatly divided over the issue. Some liken it to the ‘Devil’s Juice’ and others herald it as a freedom given to them by God. In the following paragraphs, I’ll offer my own biblical interpretation on the matter. I welcome dissenting opinions on my interpretation.
I will not address the issue of dual meanings for wine in Scripture. I think the bible is abundantly clear that there are two meanings for wine: one speaks of juice unfermented and the other carries a reference to fermentation. I do dispute the interpretation of some that there are dual meanings for the phrase ‘strong drink’. I contend heavily that every time we see the words wine and strong drink together in the bible, it is clearly a reference to that which is fermented. Of the 19 times that the phrase ‘strong drink’ is mentioned in the Bible, nine of those clearly pertain to alcohol.
The first reference to alcohol we find in the bible is that which pertains to Noah. Most people know the story. Noah drank too much, was naked in bed and his son walks in on him. While there is no dispute that drunkenness is a foolish sin, the question most have is why did Noah, a righteous person (as Lot was also indicated [Gen 19:32/2 Pet 2:8]) have possession of alcohol? It is my contention that not only did Noah possess alcohol regularly, I contend that he was the inventor of it. We find a curious passage at the end of Genesis five from Noah’s father, Lamech:
Gen 5:29 And he called his name Noah, saying, This same shall comfort us concerning our work and toil of our hands, because of the ground which the LORD hath cursed.
We have only two significant events given to us regarding the life of Noah. The first is the story of his drunkenness and the second is that concerning the Ark and the flood. The above passage, which must be interpreted literally, can have no literal application to the Ark or the flood. There may perhaps be a spiritual application concerning salvation that applies, but the literal must not be disregarded. With a literal interpretation, the ark/flood is excluded because Lamech did not receive any ‘comfort’ concerning the work and toil of his hands. This not only applies to Lamech, it applies to everyone else living at the time as only Noah and his sons received salvation from the flood. This passage therefore can not refer to Noah’s ark or the flood. I think the comfort given by Noah came in the form of Alcohol. Unfortunately, like many other pleasures in this life, it became abused and misused.
This interpretation is not contradictory to any Mosaic law as alcohol was never forbidden under the old covenant. In fact, to the contrary, the only time it was forbidden was to priest going into the tabernacle of the congregation (Lev 10:9)! Even if you took the interpretation that Leviticus 10:19 is referring to unfermented juice, it only furthers the point that alcohol was not prohibited under the old covenant by giving zero point of reference. Were alcohol such the scourge that some claim it to be, it would have certainly been forbidden under Levitical law along with other unclean things (such as pork). The constant references to drunkenness throughout the Old Testament (1 Sam 1:14 for example) give a clear indication that alcohol was quite prevalent among the Jews. However, we do not have to rely solely on the Old Testament for such indications that alcohol was prevalent among the Jews, we can find clear references in the New Testament as well.
We see the clear presence of alcohol in Jewish society with the introduction that John the Baptist would have neither wine or strong drink (Lk 1:15) and, equally noteworthy, we find Peter making reference with regards to the New Testament church:
Act 2:14-15 But Peter, standing up with the eleven, lifted up his voice, and said unto them, Ye men of Judaea, and all ye that dwell at Jerusalem, be this known unto you, and hearken to my words: For these are not drunken, as ye suppose, seeing it is but the third hour of the day.
Peter did not say, “we are faithful Jews, we don’t drink” nor did he say “we don’t touch that awful stuff”. Peter said, “For these are not drunken, as ye suppose, seeing it is but the third hour of the day.” In other words, Peter said it was too early, men don’t drink alcohol at such an early hour! You can safely bet he was making no reference to being on a sugar rush from grape juice in this passage. To deny the prevalence of alcohol in Jewish society is not only theologically unsound, it is absurd.
Peter further adds to this concept in his first epistle:
1Pe 4:3 For the time past of our life may suffice us to have wrought the will of the Gentiles, when we walked in lasciviousness, lusts, excess of wine, revellings, banquetings, and abominable idolatries:
I have heard countless testimonies of people who have received Christ and publicly repented of their sins, their consciences being illuminated by the Holy Spirit. In all of those testimonies over the years, I have yet to hear one person repent or express guilt at having consumed an ‘excess of grape juice’. The Scriptures continue to be abundantly clear on the concept of moderation.
So what do we then do with the other passages regarding the warnings of alcohol? Let’s look at those one by one. We’ll start with the favorite of prohibitionists:
Pro 31:4-7 It is not for kings, O Lemuel, it is not for kings to drink wine; nor for princes strong drink: Lest they drink, and forget the law, and pervert the judgment of any of the afflicted. Give strong drink unto him that is ready to perish, and wine unto those that be of heavy hearts. Let him drink, and forget his poverty, and remember his misery no more.
The first rule of interpretation is that you must interpret scripture as literal as possible. Given that rule, this passage clearly indicates that there are people who hold positions of authority and they should abstain from alcohol. This makes perfect sense and I believe it also applies to church leaders as well (Tit 1:7). You can not replace the word “kings” in this passage with “Christians”. Even if you chose to do such a silly thing you’d still be blatantly ignoring the “give unto him” portion in the latter part of the passage. So many people against the use of alcohol are quick to condemn it with this verse by substituting “kings” for “Christians” and then literally interpreting the first part of the passage but then they try to spiritualize the latter of half the passage as they would refuse to “Give strong drink” to anybody. Such a position is a violation of basic hermeneutics.
Let us look at the other common Proverbs passage:
Pro 23:29-35 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; they that go to seek mixed wine. Look not thou upon the wine 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.
I think the phrase “tarry long” here is quite plain in its meaning. These verses have absolutely nothing to do the person who has a glass of wine with dinner or a cold beer after a hard day of work. Those who quote this verse usually only quote [or emphasize] the “Look not thou upon the wine” portion of this passage. This passage in Proverbs is clearly dealing with drunkards and drunkenness.
Pastors and other theologians who hold a position of abstinence are quick to condemn alcohol on the basis of those who have abused it. Given the day and age we live in, we all know of someone who drinks excessively. It is an easy vice and readily available. The abuse of it has destroyed countless lives and scarred many a family. Abstinence of alcohol is not a bad thing (and surely a good recommendation) but the Bible no more requires abstinence of alcohol than it requires celibacy: both could be recommended, neither are required.
This is not an advocacy to run out to the local store and liquor up but rather an attempt to clarify an issue that so many have pushed to their personal side of the fence. Do you drink? If not, then don’t start; you do well. Are you a drinker? If so, enjoy your drink in peace and not to the offense of your brother who might stumble.
Rom 14:21-23 It is good neither to eat flesh, nor to drink wine, nor any thing whereby thy brother stumbleth, or is offended, or is made weak. Hast thou faith? have it to thyself before God. Happy is he that condemneth not himself in that thing which he alloweth. And he that doubteth is damned if he eat, because he eateth not of faith: for whatsoever is not of faith is sin.
The all unimportant question many people haggle over is that of Christ’s first miracle. Was it regular juice or did Jesus turn water into alcoholic wine at the wedding in Cana? Personally speaking, I think it is irrelevant to the entire point of the passage. If you spend a lot time wondering about that, maybe you should put the bottle away and ask Jesus at the Judgment Seat.