A Brief Theology of Wine

A Brief Theology of Wine

By Dr. Gary North

And thou shalt bestow that money for whatsoever thy soul lusteth after, for oxen, or for sheep, or for wine, or for strong drink, or for whatsoever thy soul desireth: and thou shalt eat there before the Lord thy God, and thou shalt rejoice, thou, and thine household.(Deut. 14:26)

 The key biblical passage that is rarely discussed in detail by anti-alcohol, total abstinence advocates is Deuteronomy 14:26, which refers to the festival of celebration, part of the mandatory tithe system. “And thou shalt bestow that money for whatsoever thy soul lusteth after, for oxen, or for sheep, or for wine, or for strong drink, or for whatsoever thy soul desireth: and thou shalt eat there before the LORD thy God, and thou shalt rejoice, thou, and thine household.”1 Total abstainers will occasionally refer to the passage’s authorization of wine, and then say that the Hebrew word really means grape juice. But their exegetical problem is the Hebrew word shekar, here translated as “strong drink.” It is based on the Hebrew word shakar, which means “to be, or become, drunk, drunken.”2 Shekar is accompanied by the Hebrew word for wine in all but one instance (Numbers 28:7) of the 22 times that it appears in the Old Testament.3 This is because wine also intoxicates, just as stronger alcoholic beverages do.

This places the strict prohibitionist in an intellectually embarrassing exegetical position. He is either forced to deny literally all of the Hebrew lexicons4 and also the contexts of the passages that include shekar,5 or else he is forced to conclude that God in the Old Covenant authorized the consumption of alcohol as part of a mandated family festival of celebration. How can a Christian logically make a universal condemnation of something that was specifically authorized by God for His covenant people, as part of their mandatory national worship?

If he argues that alcohol used to be morally acceptable to God, but is now prohibited by God, he must find explicit references in the New Testament to prove his case. Problem: there is no such universal New Testament prohibition.6

The Mosaic priests were not allowed to drink either wine or strong drink inside the tabernacle. “Do not drink wine nor strong drink, thou, nor thy sons with thee, when ye go into the tabernacle of the congregation, lest ye die: it shall be a statute for ever throughout your generations” (Lev. 10:9).7 The reason for this prohibition was that alcohol belonged exclusively to God inside the tabernacle or the temple. Alcohol was a special offering to God. It was poured out to Him, not just wine, but strong wine—clearly not grape juice! “And the drink offering thereof shall be the fourth part of an hin for the one lamb: in the holy place shalt thou cause the strong wine to be poured unto the LORD for a drink offering” (Num. 28:7). Why would God demand a sacrificial offering of something inherently corrupt, foul, or immoral? This makes no sense. This is why strict prohibitionism makes no sense.

Wine in the Old Testament was not grape juice. Grape juice does not have the following effect: “Wine is a mocker, strong drink is raging: and whosoever is deceived thereby is not wise” (Prov. 20:1). Obviously, grape juice does not have any inflaming effect. Both wine and strong drink were legitimate for most people most of the time. They were both part of God’s holy system of mandatory national festivals. Furthermore, “Give strong drink unto him that is ready to perish, and wine unto those that be of heavy hearts” (Prov. 31:6). It is addiction to alcohol that is prohibited: “Woe unto them that rise up early in the morning, that they may follow strong drink; that continue until night, till wine inflame them!” (Isa. 5:11). Wine is dangerous for addicts.

Grape juice is not. “But they also have erred through wine, and through strong drink are out of the way; the priest and the prophet have erred through strong drink, they are swallowed up of wine, they are out of the way through strong drink; they err in vision, they stumble in judgment” (Isa. 28:7). Wine inebriates. So does strong drink. “Stay yourselves, and wonder; cry ye out, and cry: they are drunken, but not with wine; they stagger, but not with strong drink.

For the LORD hath poured out upon you the spirit of deep sleep, and hath closed your eyes: the prophets and your rulers, the seers hath he covered” (Isa. 29:9–10). It is clear why the proponents of total abstinence from alcohol never discuss wine in the context of strong drink: both are intoxicants, yet God authorized both for one of His mandatory festivals. Did God authorize something that is immoral? Of course not. So, total abstainers avoid discussing Deuteronomy 14:26.

In the world before pasteurization, all commercially available wine was fermented, i.e., alcoholic. Only after a Methodist dentist, Dr. Thomas Welch, figured out in 1869 that he could kill wine by pasteurizing it, so that he and his Methodist peers would no longer have to drink wine at the Lord’s Supper, did grape juice appear, or, as his commercial product was originally called, Dr. Welch’s Non-Fermented Wine. This company eventually evolved into the Welch company, which specializes in fruit juices.

Weak Christians should not drink alcohol if they think it violates some moral prohibition, but the source of their error is theological vinegar. Weak Christians are being herded like sheep by pastors who do not understand or respect the doctrine of Christian liberty. The task of the mature Christian is to refrain from publicly assailing the weak Christian’s sensibilities. He has another responsibility, however: to wean the weak Christian away from a theology that does not honor the principle of Christian liberty.8

It should not surprise us that the most scholarly published defense of wine as exclusively grape juice, and the Bible as teaching total abstinence from alcohol, was written by a Seventh Day Adventist. It should also not surprise us that his book has been praised by Protestant fundamentalists, who have yet to publish anything equally scholarly on the subject.9 We should not regard these fundamentalist authors as weak Christians. We should regard them as stubbornly, heretically, arrogantly wrong.10 When David Wilkerson writes that “Christians who drink alcoholic beverages of any kind are deceiving themselves,”11 he is deceiving his fundamentalist readers. When Jack Van Impe writes that “Alcohol is never approved of by God in any amount for the obedient Christian,”12 he is being disobedient to God. When he writes that “Everyone who drinks has an alcohol problem,”13 he reveals that he has an exegesis problem.

Conclusion

Strict prohibitionism is a manifestation of legalism. Legalism is a system of man-made rules that are not found in the Bible, which are then substituted for covenantal obedience to God’s Bible-revealed laws. Legalism also substitutes the traditions of men for the clear revelation of God in His Bible. The heart of Pharisaism was its legalism. Jesus did not tolerate it. Neither did Paul.

*****

1. Gary North, Inheritance and Dominion: An Economic Commentary on

Deuteronomy, 2nd ed.(Dallas, Georgia: Point Five Press, [1999] 2012), ch. 35.

2. According to the standard lexicon by Brown, Driver, and Briggs. See Gentry,

God Gave Wine: What the Bible Says About Alcohol (Lincoln, California: Oakdown,

2001), p. 60. This is an update of his book, The Christian and Alcoholic Beverages: A

Biblical Perspective (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1986).

3. Gentry, idem.

4. Ibid., p. 34.

5. Ibid., pp. 38–39.

6. Ibid., ch. 4.

7. Gary North, Boundaries and Dominion: An Economic Commentary on Leviticus,

2nd ed. (Dallas, Georgia: Point Five Press, [1994] 2012), ch. 8.

8. Gentry, God Gave Wine. See also G. I. Williamson, Wine in the Bible and the

Church (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: Pilgrim, 1976).

9. Samuele Bacchiocchi, Wine in the Bible: A Biblical Study on the Use of Alcoholic

Beverages (Chicago: Signal Press, 1989). For a list of laudatory praise from

fundamentalists, including Dallas Theological Seminary’s John Walvoord, see

Bacchiocchi’s Web site: http://tinyurl.com/2mev9

10. Is “heretical” too strong a word? Fundamentalists regard Dr. Bacchiocchi’s and

the SDA’s position on soul-sleep rather than hell as heretical. They regard the SDA’s

and his view of the Saturday sabbath as heretical. It is their task to show exegetically

why they are not heretical when they stand with Seventh Day Adventism on the

alcohol issue.

11. David Wilkerson, Sipping Saints (Old Tappan, New Jersey: Revell, 1978), p. 35;

cited in Gentry, God Gave Wine, p. 4.

12. Jack Van Impe, Alcohol: The Beloved Enemy (Nashville, Tennessee: Nelson,

1980), p. 8; cited in Gentry, idem.

13. Van Impe, Alcohol, p. 149; cited in Gentry, ibid., p. 2.

Article from Dr. Gary North’s Judgement and Dominion – An Economic Commentary on I Corinthians, Appendix B, Legalism vs. Alcohol. (garynorth.com)

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