Beer in the Bible?
Q: I saw an article talking about the invention of beer in ancient Egypt, and it got me thinking: “Did the Israelites drink beer? What did they drink?”
A: Like you, I like to sit down occasionally to figure out what life was like in Bible times. It helps to understand the people and situations we meet on Scripture’s pages. I also like to sit down with a good beer. It helps to relax and refresh a world-weary pilgrim.
Since we Lutherans are often stereotyped as beer-lovers, it seems appropriate to examine Biblical precedent. After all, Martin Luther (probably only partially in jest) commented upon doing what he could, then having a brew and getting out of the Lord's way during the Reformation: “I opposed indulgences and all the papists, but never with force. I simply taught, preached, and wrote God’s Word; otherwise I did nothing. And while I slept [cf. Mark 4:26–29], or drank Wittenberg beer with my friends Philipp [Melanchthon] and [Nicholas] Amsdorf, the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that no prince or emperor ever inflicted such losses upon it. I did nothing; the Word did everything.”
Some time ago, I heard a report about Egyptian beer on National Public Radio. An old recipe was resurrected through modern scientific analysis of entombed remains of ancient beer. A British company made and sold a limited edition. The Egyptians didn’t have hops to season their brew and give it a full and tangy flavor. Using what the chemical analysis and logic showed, the company seasoned the mix with juniper and coriander.
Does the Bible itself mention beer? The references to “strong drink” — often coupled with mention of “wine” — quite possibly speak of beer. Why think this? It seems clear that “wine” and “strong drink” are two separate things, both of which can cause drunkenness. If the “strong drink” isn’t wine, it also wouldn’t be distilled spirits, such as brandy, since distillation is a much more recently developed process. Thus, “strong drink” is most likely a fermented beverage not made from grapes, but from grain or other vegetation. Whether or not some form of secondary fermentation adding carbon dioxide (and foam) was used is a matter of conjecture. So as we go through the following quotes, I recommend replacing “strong drink” with “beer” as you read.
Archaeology shows that rich or poor, slave or free, all drank beer in Egypt by the time of Israel’s bondage. Although not stated, perhaps part of Israel’s lament in Numbers 11 could have come from missing their daily allotment of beer: “Oh that we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we ate in Egypt that cost nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. But now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at. (vv. 4-6)”
Israel had beer at the time of the judges, as shown in this account: “Hannah was speaking in her heart; only her lips moved, and her voice was not heard. Therefore Eli took her to be a drunken woman. And Eli said to her, ‘How long will you go on being drunk? Put away your wine from you.’ But Hannah answered, ‘No, my lord, I am a woman troubled in spirit. I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before the Lord.’ (1 Samuel 1:13-15)”
Evidently, water, beer, and wine were the three most common drinks. In a hot climate, milk would soon spoil, and was probably reserved for the young or else made into cheese. Fruit would quickly rot, and such things as pasteurizing were unknown. Grape juice that sat around would turn quickly to wine, vinegar, or a spoiled mess on its own in a very short time. Any fruit or vegetable-based juices saved for even a short period of time had to be fermented in order to preserve them.
Hard work probably was rewarded with beer or wine. The Lord warned Israel in Isaiah 24:9 that when Jerusalem fell, they’d lose their day-ending drink: “No more do they drink wine with singing; strong drink is bitter to those who drink it.” Isaiah 28:7 cautions the many who abused their drink and misled Judah: “These also reel with wine and stagger with strong drink; the priest and the prophet reel with strong drink, they are swallowed by wine, they stagger with strong drink, they reel in vision, they stumble in giving judgment.”
Beer’s mention in the Bible pales to that of wine (over 200 occurrences) and water (over 450). Like beer, wine receives a mixed review. Misuse is condemned, yet Yahweh commanded wine for the Passover celebration of his deliverance for Israel. Jesus established the meal of his new covenant with bread and wine. The tithe included wine, which went in part to the salary of the Levitical priests. The time of Messiah was prophesied to be a time of free-flowing wine, illustrated by Jesus first miracle at the wedding feast in Cana. Wine was viewed as one of God’s greatest blessings, according to Psalm 104: “You cause the grass to grow for the livestock and plants for man to cultivate, that he may bring forth food from the earth and wine to gladden the heart of man, oil to make his face shine and bread to strengthen man’s heart. (vv. 14-15)”
We don't know if Jesus drank beer as well as wine, but he certainly had His critics, as His comments following the arrest of John the Baptizer show: “John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is justified by her deeds. (Mt 11:18-19)”
Of course, water is the staple. In a dry climate such as Palestine, it was very dear, and fresh water a treasure. The wells, springs, oases, and rivers were among Israel’s greatest blessings. The Bible often depicts salvation and living with Yahweh in terms of being rooted in God and watered by his Word. Baptism brings forgiveness and new life through water and the Word. Jesus speaks of himself as the bearer of living water. Revelation brings all the Old Testament river metaphors to a conclusion in the River of Life which flows from the throne of the Lamb to water his people. Of course Baptism couples this great gift of the physical creation with the infinitely greater gift of His grace and forgiveness in Christ.
Yet even water has a bad side: The chaos of the sea is a regular metaphor for the forces of satanic evil. The Flood brought God’s wrath. Israel was punished for the Golden Calf by being forced to drink its charred remains mixed with their water.
Water, wine, or beer — each has its positive place, each can be misused or can cause destruction. The Scriptures show how much is enough of a good thing, and what constitutes abuse. May Wisdom justify her deeds by your own judicious and sanctified use of all good gifts of God.
Luther quote from “The Second Sermon, March 10, 1522, Monday after Invocavit” Luther’s Works, Volume 51, © 1959 by Fortress Press.
Scripture quoted from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version™, © 2001 by Crossway Bibles.
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Walter Snyder is the pastor of Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Emma, Missouri and coauthor of the book What Do Lutherans Believe.