What About Social Drinking and the Old Testament?

Does the Old Testament provide precedent for “social” drinking today?
By Wayne Jackson | Christian Courier

No narration available

A brother argues that Deuteronomy 14:26 proves that the use of alcoholic drinks is not sinful, otherwise the Lord would not have sanctioned it. Would you comment on this?"

The text of Deuteronomy 14:26 reads as follows:

“And thou shalt bestow that money for whatsoever thy soul lusteth after, for oxen, 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.”

My first impression is that such a suggestion reflects the disposition of a carnal mind that is seeking justification for worldliness! I must observe, however, that such a view of this passage is not uncommon, even among Bible commentators.

For example, C. H. Waller wrote:

“From this it is clear that the use of strong drink is not sinful in itself” (Ellicott’s Commentary, pp. 11,45).

There are, though, several important factors that should be taken into consideration.

Observe the context

First, one should note the context. It has to do with the Hebrews’ obligation to bring their “tithes” to the temple at the appointed times (Deut. 14:22, 23).

If a Jew lived a great distance from the sanctuary, thus making the transportation of his produce impractical, he might sell his goods at home and bring the money derived to Jerusalem (Deut. 14:24, 25).

In connection with this event, he could purchase the items listed in verse 26 to “eat there before Jehovah.” This was a religious celebration.

Do those who argue this as a precedent for us contend that we may eat meat and drink liquors as a part of our worship today?

Moreover, at the end of every three years, the Hebrews were to make these festivities available for the “sojourner, and the fatherless, and the widow” (Deut. 14:28, 29). Shall we care for the fatherless and widows today by providing them with inebriates (cf. Jas. 1:27)?

Consider the words

Second, some consideration might, with profit, be given to the original words employed in this passage.

The Hebrew terms rendered wine (yayin) and strong drink (shechar) are apparently more generic than some have supposed.

Yayin is found 141 times in the Old Testament. It can mean:

  • a grape vine (Num. 6:4);
  • products of the vineyard that can be gathered, drunk, or eaten (Deut. 28:39; cf. Jer. 40:10, 12);
  • the liquid that comes from the winepress (Isa. 16:10; Jer. 48:33); or,
  • fermented grape juice (Prov. 23:31).

Yayin is thus a general term referring to a variety of products from the grape vine (cf. “all sorts of wine” — Neh. 5:18), and the context in which the term is employed will determine its meaning in a given circumstance.

Similarly, shechar (23 times as a noun in the Old Testament) was used by ancient writers to denote:

  • sweet syrups (the term is related to our words “sugar” and “saccharine”) such as the honey of dates or palm syrup. It was employed for sweet drinks and articles of food;
  • “date or palm wine in its fresh and unfermented state” (Frederick Lees, Ph.D., in Cyclopedia of Biblical Literature, John Kitto, Ed., 1880, I, p. 585; this material is indispensable for the careful student); and,
  • intoxicating beverages from non-grape products (e.g., date palm juice and grains – cf. Is. 5:11).

Thus, with reference to the passage under discussion, Dr. Lees comments that:

shechar might also include the sense of ‘sweet-fruit,’ as in Deut. 14:26, where it and yayin are placed amongst the tithe-offerings as solids to be eaten” (p. 584).

While this is not the general view of this controversial verse, it certainly is not beyond the realm of possibility. In view of the numerous warnings against the dangers of strong drink in the Old Testament, does it seem likely that Moses would encourage its use in a celebration to Jehovah?

Consider the times

Third, though it is conceded that total abstinence was not demanded under the Mosaic regime, such affords no comfort to the modern social drinker.

The Mosaic economy dealt with man in his rudimentary state of spiritual development. Witness the accommodation of the Law to slavery, concubinage, polygamy, capricious divorce, etc. The Mosaic code was a necessary preparatory system that looked forward to time of greater moral responsibility (cf. Acts 17:30).

Perhaps an illustration will help in clarifying this point. Under the levitical system, the priests were forbidden the use of any fermented beverages as they ministered in their priestly functions (Lev. 10:9).

Now, however, under the reign of Christ, all Christians are priests (1 Pet. 2:9; Rev. 1:6) and we are continually functioning in the capacity of offering spiritual sacrifices to God (Rom. 12:1, 2; Heb. 13:15; 1 Pet. 2:5).

How ought Christians to conduct themselves as ministers of a greater priesthood?

Consider this interesting quotation from the Encyclopedia of Christianity (pp. III.457).

“Modern study of the effects of alcohol shows that it is an anesthetic, which means that it affects the higher centers of the brain that regulate morals and judgment before it affects perception or motor coordination. Christians should know and be aware that even minimal use has some influence upon these higher centers. Also, alcoholic beverages are generally used in much the same way and for the same reasons as dangerous drugs. Since man has the inherent tendency to excuse himself, these factors should cause Christians to question strongly any claims of liberty with regard to their use.”

When all of the facts are considered, the spiritually mature individual will have no difficulty in making the choice regarding the consumption of beverage alcohol.