Wine & Strong Drink in the Bible, Part 4

Strong drink was forbidden in the Bible

Consider the following exhaustive list of the occurrences of the expression “strong drink” in the Bible. Note also that (with a couple of exceptions) every occurrence appears in negative connotation.

  • Leviticus 10:9 – Thou shalt not drink wine nor strong drink, thou, and thy sons with thee, when ye go into the tent of meeting, lest ye die—it is an everlasting statute throughout your generations. 

Aaron and the priests were specifically told NOT to drink wine or strong drink when they went into the tabernacle… under the penalty of death!

  • Numbers 6:3 – he shall separate himself from wine and strong drink: he shall drink no vinegar of wine, nor vinegar of strong drink, neither shall he drink any liquor of grapes, nor eat grapes, fresh or dried. 

Here, one who takes the oath of a Nazarite (one separated unto God) was to separate himself from wine and strong drink.

  • Deuteronomy 29:6 – ye have not eaten bread, neither have ye drunk wine or strong drink, that ye might know that I am Jehovah your God. 

When the children of Israel wandered in the wilderness, they did not drink wine and strong drink. Through this experience, they learned that God was LORD. They had no need of wine or strong drink – for they drank of that Rock… God provided them with pure water. They didn’t need any wine! However, this supernatural provision of pure water would not last forever. In time, they would once again NEED wine to mix with and purify their water.

  • Judges 13:4 – And now beware, I pray thee, and drink not wine nor strong drink, and eat nothing unclean. 
  • Judges 13:7 – And he said to me, Behold, thou shalt conceive and bear a son; and now drink not wine nor strong drink, and eat not anything unclean; for the boy shall be a Nazarite of God from the womb to the day of his death. 
  • Judges 13:14 – she shall not eat of anything that cometh of the vine, neither shall she drink wine or strong drink, nor eat anything unclean: all that I commanded her shall she observe. 

Manoah’s wife would give birth to a baby (Samson) who would be a Nazarite. This was woman, the mother of a Nazarite, was not to drink wine or strong drink.

  • 1 Samuel 1:15 And Hannah answered and said, No, my lord, I am a woman of a sorrowful spirit: I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but have poured out my soul before Jehovah. 

Hannah assures Eli that she is NOT drunk. She did NOT drink wine or strong drink. She shudders at the thought!

  • Proverbs 20:1 – Wine is a scorner, strong drink is raging; and whoso erreth thereby is not wise.

This passage hardly needs comment. It certainly does not cast strong drink in a positive light.

  • Proverbs 31:4 – It is not for kings, Lemuel, it is not for kings to drink wine, nor for rulers to say, Where is the strong drink? 

Strong drink is NOT for kings or rulers – people who need sound judgment.

  • Proverbs 31:6 – Give strong drink unto him that is ready to perish, and wine unto the bitter of soul.

Strong drink is not for those who need to use their faculties, but for those who are perishing and wish to numb their faculties.

  • Isaiah 5:11 – Woe unto them that, rising early in the morning, run after strong drink; that linger till twilight, till wine inflameth them! 
  • Isaiah 5:22 – Woe unto them that are mighty for drinking wine, and men valiant to mix strong drink

God pronounces a WOE against those who drink strong drink… to those who are MIGHTY in drink!

  • Isaiah 24:9 – They do not drink wine with a song; strong drink is bitter to them that drink it.

Here, strong drink results in bitterness.

  • Isaiah 28:7 – But these also have erred through wine, and through strong drink are they gone astray. The priest and the prophet have erred through strong drink; they are overpowered by wine, they are gone astray through strong drink; they have erred in vision, they have stumbled in judgment. 

Here, strong drink causes men to err and go astray. This is hardly an endorsement.

  • Isaiah 29:9 – Be astounded and astonished, blind yourselves and be blind! They are drunken, but not with wine; they stagger, but not with strong drink

Here, Isaiah points out that strong drink causes loss of balance and control.

  • Isaiah 56:12 – Come, say they, I will fetch wine, and we will fill ourselves with strong drink; and to-morrow shall be as this day, and much more abundant. 

This passage MIGHT be taken in a positive way if viewed alone. However, the context reveals the one who are speaking are referred to as “dumb dogs,” and “greedy dogs which can never have enough” (vs.10-11). These are not complimentary terms.

  • Luke 1:15 – For he shall be great before the Lord, and he shall drink no wine nor strong drink; and he shall be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. 

The only New Testament passage which mentions “strong drink” forbids its use by John the Baptist.

There is no honest way to put a positive spin on the Biblical usage of the term “strong drink.” And keep in mind that strong drink referred to unmixed wine.

In our day and age, we think of a strong drink as something with a high alcohol content, such as whiskey or vodka. However, the ancients knew nothing of distilled alcohol. To the writers of the Scriptures, strong drink did not mean bourbon or tequila; it referred to unmixed wine. William Patton wrote, “As to distillation, by which alcoholic liquors are now principally obtained, it was utterly unknown to the Hebrews, and, indeed to all the world in ancient times.”[i]  Secular writers have recorded the same conclusions. “Neolithic farmers soon learned to ferment their newly domesticated grains and grapes. Biblical accounts of early man mention alcohol some 250 times—usually wine, but beer and vinegar as well. Some versions talk about strong drink, but that’s misleading. Distillation was a medieval invention. No one made really strong drink before the 13th century.” [ii]  However, another source indicates that the first written account of alcohol distillation was recorded at a medical school in Salerno, Italy.[iii]

Another issue, which might be misleading to modern readers, is the fact that several Biblical passages differentiate between wine and strong drink. The modern reader would naturally be inclined to think that the author is differentiating between wine (as we know it today) and strong drinks such as whiskey or vodka. That is not the case. The difference is really between wine (mixed with an appropriate ratio of water) and strong drink (unmixed wine). To the ancients, unmixed wine WAS the strongest drink known to man.

In light of the ancient practice of mixing wine with several parts of water, the alcoholic content of the drink is another issue to be considered. The argument is made, “They drank wine in the Bible times. We can drink wine today too.”  This analogy is faulty.  Consider the following chart of alcoholic content in drinks today:

  • Modern wine has between 9-11% alcohol
  • Brandy has 15-20 % alcohol
  • Liquors usually have between 40-50 % alcohol
  • Some extra hard liquors can be 90 proof

That which is on the LOW end of alcoholic content today is what used to be called “strong drink.” What we call strong drink did not exist in Bible times.

To compare apples with apples, it is necessary to take the wine sold in stores today (9-11% alcohol) and dilute it with between 3-10 parts of water. Even if we take one of the stronger wines (11% alcohol) and dilute with the lower end of the water ratio (three parts water), we still end up with a drink which has an alcoholic content of only about 2-3%. If one uses a ration of 5-10 parts water, the alcoholic content becomes negligible. What the ancients actually drank would be considered today a sub-alcoholic drink by today’s standards.[iv]  That which is sold in stores today as wine would have been considered strong drink by the ancients and those who drink it unmixed were considered barbaric. Comparing modern wines and modern practices to ancient wines and ancient practices is NOT comparing apples to apples.

In virtually every passage where strong drink (unmixed wine) is mentioned, it is cast in a negative light. There are, however, two verses which mention strong drink in the Bible where it is not found in a negative context.

  • Deuteronomy 14:26 – And thou shalt give the money for whatever thy soul desireth, for oxen, or for sheep, or for wine, or for strong drink, or for whatever thy soul asketh of thee; and thou shalt eat there before Jehovah thy God, and thou shalt rejoice, thou, and thy house.

Moses speaks of this strong drink as a valuable and desirable commodity. But this passage says nothing about HOW the strong drink was to be drunk. According to the custom in Bible times, before this strong drink (pure wine) was drunk, it was first mixed with several parts of water. The ancient Jews considered unmixed, fermented wine more like a “concentrate.” They were forbidden to drink the “concentrate” unmixed. Wine is a mocker. Strong drink raging! However, that concentrate was valuable to them because of its various uses as a medicine, disinfectant, and water purifier. Thus, it was perfectly right for Moses to refer to strong drink as something valuable. When used properly, according to the customs of the day, and in harmony with the tenor of Scripture, it WAS quite valuable and necessary.

  • Micah 2:11 – If a man walking in wind and falsehood do lie, saying, I will prophesy unto thee of wine and of strong drink, he shall be the prophet of this people. 

Micah states that the false prophets were predicting good crops of wine and strong drink, but they were lying. The nation was actually slated for captivity, not prosperity. Like the previous passage (Deut.14:26), the false prophets in this passage indicate what the Jews thought of fermented, unmixed wine: it represented a prosperous growing season, and in that sense was good. But the fact that the false prophets held up strong drink as a sign of prosperity, says nothing about HOW that unmixed wine was used. These two passages do not in any way mitigate the dark shadow cast in each of the previous seventeen passages in which strong drink is mentioned.

“Strong drink” appears in two passages in a “neutral” light, but in seventeen under a dark shadow where we are told it causes men to err and to wander astray. Woes are pronounced against those who linger at it. Several groups of Israelites are specifically told to stay away and not to touch it. The death penalty was leveled against a priest who violated these laws. God means business when it comes to strong drink. Strong drink was valuable and necessary because of its many uses, and thus it was proper for Moses and Micah to write of its value. However, it was dangerous if drunk unmixed. All the passages that speak about DRINKING strong drink come with severe warnings. There is no honest way to conclude that the Old Testament endorses strong drink, namely unmixed wine.

[i] William Patton,  Bible Wines, Sane Press, Oklahoma City, 1871, p.  57.

[ii] John H. Lienhard, The Engines of Our Ingenuity , 1997.

[iii] Judy Monroe, Alcohol, Enslow Publishers Inc, Springfield, 1994, p.8.

[iv] John MacArthur, Jr., Living in the Spirit , Word of Grace Communications, 1981, p.14.

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“What the Bible Says about Wine and Strong Drink” Index