Wine in the Bible—Proverbs 20:1

The Bible presents wine as both a part of daily life and as a religious symbol of the blood of redemption—a major biblical theme. An understanding of ancient Near Eastern viticulture and an appreciation of the broad and profound importance of wine to ancient society will help us to appreciate its spiritual and practical significance in the biblical world.

The fact that the subject of wine appears throughout Scripture in a wide variety of usages, ranging from a happy biblical metaphor (along with grain and oil) depicting economic and political success (e.g., 2 Chron. 2:10, 15) to a symbol of royal celebration (e.g., Esther 5:6; 7:2, 7, 8), indicates its singular importance to the people of Bible times. Other biblical images, e.g., wine as the agent and expression of God’s perfect wrath (Rev. 14:9, 10; 16:19), depict a more sinister aspect to the issue of wine.

Of the varied drinks known to antiquity, those produced from figs, carob, cherries, prunes, and dates, none has ever attained the universal popularity of this “fruit of the vine.” The wide-ranging historical references to grape juice and vineyards reflect the importance of wine to Israel and its neighbors in Anatolia, Assyria-Babylonia, Europe, Egypt, and the Transcaucasia. Unfortunately, we have a better sense of how such peoples valued it than we do how they processed it. Nevertheless, the best textual interpretations must depend on what we have learned about how the ancients produced, preserved, and stored wine.

The ancient Hittite territory of Anatolia (modern Turkey) appears to have grown grapes longer than anywhere else in Bible lands. Though we lack precise data on how it may have changed through the millennia, vine cultivation seems to have occurred along the four great river valleys of the far west, in the Adana plain, and the vicinities of Nigde, Nevsehir, Kayseri, Yozgat, and Sungurlu. A Hittite law code from no later than the early Iron Age (1200 BC or earlier) shows the comparatively high regard the ancients held toward grape agriculture and its products. As to the cost of wine, one parisu (PA) of wine was the same as one PA of emmer wheat.

Pharaonic Egypt had extensive vineyards, but by the fifth century BC, the nation had to import wine from Greece. Egyptian artists depicted grape vines either growing on trellises or more simply, as climbing an arch of pliable branches stuck in the ground at both ends, as running along a wooden pole resting in the forked ends of two upright wooden pillars, or even merely as climbing existing hedges. Sometimes they are shown growing unsupported.

Trampling the grapes, the means of juice extraction and wine production, was a celebratory occasion that could involve hired musicians, or, if not, unaccompanied singing by the grape-crushers themselves. The wine would be stored in ceramic made classified jars, with the highest quality being the grape juice that flowed directly from the crushing vat into a lower vat. The lees remaining in the crushing vat would be put into a cloth and wrung out, the juice obtained then set aside to make lesser quality wine. Both in Egypt and Mesopotamia, molds (saccharomyces ellipsoideus and apiculatus) that naturally occurred on the skin of the grapes helped to transform the grape sugar into alcohol.

The Greeks, Romans, and other peoples of the ancient Near East took five distinct, if sometimes apparently, incompatible positions toward wine. They might (1) withhold it completely from some members of society; (2) use it while acknowledging its potential dangers; (3) enjoy it even with cautions about restraint; (4) consider it as a source of great honor with wine-pouring being sometimes restricted to high officials and the noble-born; or (5) view with suspicion some aspects of its consumption. At times a single society might hold all of these mutually contradictory positions.

Such different responses to wine illustrate its varied effects on users and society as a whole. Scripture can speak of the joy that it can bring (Judg. 9:13; Ps. 4:7, 104:15) but at the same time cannot ignore the sorrow that it can also cause (Ps. 60:3, 75:8). The shame and degradation that drinking wine too often lead to (Gen. 19:32-35; Prov. 20:1; 23:19, 20) can undermine the economic and social stability it may at times symbolize (Gen. 27:28; Prov. 3:10). The spirituality it may stand for (Gen. 14:18) can contrast with the moral perversion it depicts (Jer. 51:7; Rev. 14:8). And the unparalleled redemptive glory the imagery of wine portrays about divine redemption (Luke 22:17-20; 1 Cor. 11:25, 26) also stands over against the ultimate disaster resulting from false doctrine (Rev. 18:1-3).

The continued contrast between Scripture’s positive and negative images of wine may be the Bible’s commentary on the different substances that produce various behaviors. The biblical association of the familiar term “wine” with the less frequently used “strong drink” seems to implicate substances rather than just those who consume wine. Some have identified the Hebrew word regularly translated “strong drink” (shekar, 25 times) as a synonym for “wine.” However, shekar consistently identifies an intoxicant when combined with the principal Hebrew word for “wine” (yayin). The combination occurs 20 times (substantive yayin plus root shkr [Gen 9:21]—once; substantives yayin + shekar—19 times, either in parallelism or as the phrase yayin weshekar [Lev. 10:9; Num. 6:3; Deut. 14:26; 29:6; Judg. 13:4, 7, 14; 1 Sam. 1:15; Prov. 20:1; 31:4, 6; Isa. 5:11, 22; 28:7; 29:9; 51:21; 56:12; Jer. 51:7; Mic. 2:11]). All but one of these occurrences (Deut. 14:26) speak negatively, with many identifying an intoxicant. The mention of wine appears to be one of the ways that biblical language makes a categorical distinction between safe (i.e., unfermented beverages) and dangerous (i.e., alcoholic) substances.

Several statements from antiquity indicate that the ancients distinguished between pure grape juice and an alcoholic beverage. They include Pliny the Elder (14.11.83), Columella (Columella 12.20.1), and Maimonides (Book 7: The Book of Agriculture, “Heave Offerings,” 5. 25). Also, ancient texts indicate that people generally drank wine diluted with water, often three or four parts water to one part wine. The most potent mixture was one-part water to two parts of wine. The Greeks considered even those who drank lesser dilutions as being intemperate. The Greek writer Athenaeus claimed that a mixture of half water and half wine would lead to madness.

The New Testament continues the Bible’s cautions toward alcoholic drinks. The apostle Paul in Ephesians 5:18 notes that drunkenness leads to dissipation and debauchery. Because wine has a much lower alcohol level than distilled drinks, people had to drink much more of it to get drunk. However, church leaders should especially avoid alcoholic beverages (1 Tim. 3:3, 8; Titus 1:7; 2:3). Just as did the Old Testament (Jer. 25:15), the New Testament employed drunkenness as a symbol of God’s judgment.

Paul’s suggestion that Timothy should use a little wine for his stomach’s sake (1 Tim. 5:23) may puzzle the reader. But as noted previously, most people consumed highly diluted wine. The small amount of alcohol would kill much of the microorganisms in the often-contaminated water sources. Timothy had some kind of gastrointestinal problem, perhaps a parasite.

In the end, the use of wine as a metaphor of the Messiah’s redeeming blood continually challenges the notion that the yeast of fermentation would be permissible there (see Exod. 12:19 that employs yeast as a symbol of sin). Jesus’ connection of His gospel message with “new wine” in contrast to old, fermented wine strongly suggest the value of total abstinence from intoxicating drinks.