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Alcohol and the Bible

I am often asked for my opinion/perspective on issues related to alcohol and Christianity because of my experience as a distiller and as a pastor.  There has been a lot of talk around this amongst my friends because my hometown of Somerset, KY is about to vote on weather or not to allow alcohol sales in the county. I have communicated my thoughts with many people individually, but figured now is as good a time as ever to post them for others.

Here is a modified version of an email I sent to a friend while discussing the issue:

When discussing alcohol and the Bible, I think the burden of proof lies on those who choose to demonize alcohol. Obviously drunkenness is flat out forbidden throughout scripture, but there is a distinct line between the consumption of alcohol and drunkenness. In fact, if anything, the consumption of alcohol is held in high regard in the Bible. Consider the following:

One of the two central sacraments of Christianity involves the consumption of wine. If God/Jesus thinks drinking alcohol is bad, I doubt he would have set up communion around it. (By the way, it was a Methodist pastor, Rev. Welch, who started the tradition of using grape juice instead of wine and that was only in recent history. He went on to found Welch’s Grape juice).

Paul instructs his protégé Timothy to drink wine instead of just water for his stomach (1 Tim 5:23). We get most of our New Testament "dos and don’ts" from Paul, yet here he encourages his (young) apprentice to consume alcohol.

In the Old Testament (and carrying on into the New Testament), wine is not a symbol of sin, it is a symbol of celebration. In fact, THE central symbol of God’s blessing to his people is the symbol of wine. What do you think the phrase "my cup runneth over" means? It means that God has blessed him so much that he has more wine than he can drink. God shows his favor by giving alcohol (If you need references, I have a slew of them). Again, how can we demonize something that God sees as being a symbol of his love and blessing?

We can bring this imagery back to the New Testament when we look at Jesus’ first miracle: turning water into wine. I have 40+ page paper I wrote on this passage (you can read it here), but I will just give you the cliff notes: This miracle in John chapter two is used to frame the start of Jesus’ ministry. Not only is it significant that Jesus turned water into wine (again, why would he do this if God is opposed to alcohol), but the symbolism is striking. The ministry of Jesus is replacing an oppressive system of rules (the water jars were used for ritualistic washing), with overflowing blessing and provision. Jesus isn’t opposed to wine, he uses it as a symbol of showing how great God’s love and blessing really are. When we demonize alcohol, we miss out on ways in which God is showing his love.

Perhaps my favorite alcohol related passage comes in Deuteronomy 14 when it talks about how you handle the tithe. (By the way, I have major issues with the way the church teaches on tithing.  See here and here.) Basically it says you should take 10% of your yield and go to Jerusalem and use it for a celebration of what God has done with your friends and family. But, if you live so far away that you cannot physically bring your tithe to Jerusalem then you should:

"…turn it into money. With the money secure in hand, go to the place that the LORD your God will choose (Jerusalem); spend the money for whatever you wish– oxen, sheep, wine, strong drink, or whatever you desire. And you shall eat there in the presence of the LORD your God, you and your household rejoicing together." -DT 14:25-26

Did you catch that? If you can’t take your physical tithe to Jerusalem then you are supposed to sell it, and use the money to throw a huge party that includes wine and strong drink!

So, when you look at what the bible teaches about alcohol, you find that instead of demonizing it and calling for total abstinence, the bible actually celebrates alcohol and repeatedly uses it as a symbol of God’s blessing.

Now of course, the standard response is that drinking "may cause your brother to stumble" and thus it is better to abstain. I will admit that is a valid point, but only when used consistently. Tea-totalers will often argue that any drinking sets a bad example and may cause others to stumble. Basically, if someone sees you drinking then they will automatically fall off the bandwagon and become a raging alcoholic. I am sorry, but that logic is faulty. In most cases, the only people who "stumble" are the tea-totalers who get all bent out of shape at the thought of a Christian drinking. Of course you should not be taking shots of whiskey in an AA, meeting, but if you are enjoying a wine or beer with friends, I highly doubt that is going to cause anyone to stumble. There are places and times I abstain from drinking, but there is no way you can come up with a biblical argument for total abstention for all people in all circumstances.

I understand there are good reasons to not drink at all, but the problem is, when you insist that approach should apply to everyone, you neglect the good that comes with the risk. Take sex for instance. There are plenty of passages talking about sexual sin, and total abstinence from sex is considered a virtuous option according to Paul. But, if you think that no one should have sex then you miss out on the gift that sexuality in a committed relationship is intended to be. The same is true with wealth. There are plenty of passages talking about greed and living a life of poverty is considered a virtuous option. However, if we demonize wealth then we miss the fact that God often uses wealth to show his blessing (bearing in mind that we are blessed to be a blessing to others).

The same is true with alcohol. It is a virtuous option not to drink, but requiring it puts us in a place where we cannot fully appreciate the blessings of God.

I said before, that logic of causing a brother to stumble must be used consistently. If someone is going to insist on abstaining from alcohol for their brother’s sake then they should never eat a Twinkie in front of a fat person, never drive a nice car in front of someone tempted to covet, never discuss controversial things with someone prone to anger, never have a baby around single people (because a baby requires sex to make that idea might cause a single person to stumble), etc. The list goes on… why should we only pick one example and live rigidly by it while ignoring all the others.

Of course if theological reasoning doesn’t work, you can always remind people that Elijah Craig, the inventor of bourbon, was a Baptist Pastor.

Categories: Faith, Spirits Tags: , , , ,
  1. June 17th, 2012 at 06:37 | #1

    Rev. Ben:

    I rather urgently need to know the proper way to baptize bourbon. Does it have to be branch water? Must it necessarily be performed by a Methodist minister or does that give it the extra oomph needed to get a poor wretch like me through the eye of a needle? And what does Scripture say or imply about “bourbon” from Tennessee? Nothing good, I imagine, but what do I know?

  2. June 17th, 2012 at 07:27 | #2

    Regarding the branch water, is it OK if it’s Davidian Branch water? In a pinch, could it be, say, bath water?

  3. Josh
    June 18th, 2012 at 19:46 | #3

    I enjoyed reading this piece. I firmly believe that one can be a good person and a good example of the love and grace of Christ and still drink; the two things are not mutually exclusive. This was very well written article, with many great points. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  4. doug carter
    June 19th, 2012 at 13:25 | #4

    Great article. If anyone wants to live in the word and not try to use it for indoctranated teachings, have an open mind toward God and ALL of his blessings, the word of God is the greatest gift ever.

  5. David Eads
    June 20th, 2012 at 13:11 | #5

    this is most excellent. very well written and very readable. cheers!

  6. sonya
    June 23rd, 2012 at 07:44 | #6

    I read your article and your bio, for someone who professes to want to learn and comment on social attitudes you are, in my opinion WRONG. If you are going to analize the Bible you should first look up the meanings to the hebrew words pertaining to wine, there are three. I will let you do your own research with regard to finding the words. fruit fresh from the vine-grape juice, second definition-wine-third definition, either or, like saying I take drugs, is that prescription or illegal. The only official use of wine was when it was used as a sedative on ones death bed, much the same way we use morphine today, (new testament). Christ on the cross refused the vinegar offered to him, why…in those days vinegar contained alchol. As for the old testament, the laws had many facets that we don’t participate in today, concubines, stoning for adultry, blood offerings, the list goes on and on. I kind of like the saying give us more wisdom and less statistics

  7. June 23rd, 2012 at 07:46 | #7


    Thanks for your comment regarding alcohol and the Bible. What I did not mention in my bio is that my masters degree is in Biblical Studies and focused on biblical languages and ancient cultures. As such, I take discussions like these very seriously.

    Reading your comments below, I simply find the argument you are making just does not hold water from a linguistic stand point. You are right that there are multiple words for wine in Hebrew, and one of them does mean “new wine.” However, the vast majority of the time the word wine is used it comes from the word ya’in. In the KJV, the word wine appears in 189 verses in the old testament and of those times 136 are ya’in.

    This word ya’in means wine in the most traditional sense. We know it is alcoholic, because it is the word to describe what Noah drank when he passed out in Genesis 9 and also what Lot’s daughter’s gave him to seduce him in Genesis 19. Additionally, when God commands people (priests, Nazerites, etc) not to drink wine, this is the word he uses.

    However, we cannot ignore that this same word is also presented in a positive connotation in the Old Testament. It is the word used for wine in Deuteronomy 14 when God instructs the Israelites to use their tithe money to buy wine to celebrate. It is also the word used in Genesis 14 when Melchizedeck (the King-Priest OT archetype of Jesus) brings wine and bread to Abram. Finally, it is used in quite a few places to describe an offering made to God.

    I mention all that because you brought up Hebrew (which the Old Testament was originally written in). The same thing can be said about the Greek that the New Testament was written in. In the KJV, the word wine is used 37 times and 34 of those times are the word oinos. This word describes what Jesus turned water into, what Paul told Timothy to drink for his stomach and also is the word used in verses like “do not get drunk on wine.” Simply put, it is alcoholic wine as we know it. There is a word for new (sweet) wine but it is only used once in Acts 2 and even then it describes people getting drunk. From a linguistic standpoint, there is no way one can argue that Jesus created anything other than alcoholic wine.

    I am very curious where you get your information that “The only official use of wine was when it was used as a sedative on ones death bed, much the same way we use morphine today.” I have done a whole lot of research on the Bible as well as on first century Israel and I have never come across such a thing. Instead, there is ample evidence that wine was a regular part of daily life. There are plenty of references of such in the New Testament (many of which I discussed in my blog post).

    Feel free to write back, I would appreciate hearing your thoughts. Just please be carefully… when we stand on the authority of the Bible, we have to stand by what it really says instead of what we want it to say.


  8. Rob Bokkon
    June 23rd, 2012 at 13:01 | #8


    With all due respect, I must point out that your post is not factual. You’re operating from false assumptions. Ben already did a fantastic job of pointing out the linguistic and historical errors in your post. He didn’t mention the problems with the science, however, or the archaeological record. Please note, we’re not talking about differences of opinion here. There are certain undeniable truths on this subject, and the Prohibitionist version of Biblical history is simply not correct. I am not attempting to attack your beliefs, nor am I attempting to attack you personally. I want you be aware of the facts about this subject.

    Firstly–‘grape juice’, as you seem to mean it here, is a thoroughly modern invention, dating back no further than the late 19th century. It was developed by a man named Welch, who marketed his “unfermented wine” to Prohibitionist churches. Despite historical revisionism to the contrary, of which an INSANE amount may be found on the Internet, there is NO evidence that anyone at any time prior to 1869 consumed what we think of as “grape juice”.

    Here’s why. Have you ever seen grapes on the vine? I don’t mean just so-called ‘wine grapes’, but even the Concord or Niagra table grapes people all over the South grow in grape arbors. All grapes, when ripe, have a natural, powdery white coating on their skins. That powder is a naturally-occurring YEAST. Crush the grape into juice and it begins to ferment IMMEDIATELY, unless it is pasteurized, which is the process Mr Welch utilized. In fact, it is possible (though rare) to become intoxicated simply by consuming too many fresh grapes off the vine if they’re not washed first–the yeast and grape juice will combine in the stomach and become alcoholic. Grapes left too long on the vine begin to ferment on their own, and are consumed in this state by all sorts of animals, who may be observed exhibiting the symptoms of intoxication thereafter.

    Now let’s think about climate. The ancient Near East, where Jesus lived, has been an arid and hot region for many tens of thousands of years, even though it is part of the “Fertile Crescent”. In hot climes, the expressed juice of the grape will ferment VERY quickly, even more quickly than the winemaker would prefer. It’s for this reason that wine began to be stored indoors and underground, so that it would ferment at a controlled rate and be more pleasant to the palate when finished.

    Regarding the matter of “new wine”, as anyone who’s ever enjoyed a bottle of Beaujolais Nouveau can tell you, a wine that has been in the bottle only six weeks is, if anything, more potent and likely to cause intoxication than one that has been cellared for several months or years. Sweet wines are often extra-potent.

    Vinegar does not and never has contained alcohol. The way vinegar is made is by bacteria further fermenting the ethanol (drinkable alcohol) from wine or other beverages into acetic acid. The contents of the Roman “mercy sponge” are a matter of rather intense debate, but the only way to make the vinegar contain alcohol would be to pour some wine into it, and in the vinegars of the day, the wine would immediately begin to convert to vinegar itself since the “mother” (the cloudy precursor to vinegar, which was not in that time filtered out) would begin to feed on the wine.

    Regarding the use of wine for those in great pain: yes, they did this, but usually in combination with other and far stronger drugs which were readily available to the pharmacopoeia of the day. The doctors of the day were aware of, and readily used cannabis, henbane, mandrake, deadly nightshade, and of course opium in their daily practice. In fact, the ‘wine’ consumed by the Romans often contained all sorts of things beyond simple fermented grape juice. Various fruits, sugars, and herbs were added to make something rather like sangria– if modern sangria contained psychoactive drugs, that is! The substances listed above were known to be put in wine, as was the blue lotus flower (favored by the ancient Egyptians) which has psychedelic properties, and many, many other plants and herbs which were taken to increase the ‘buzz’ from drinking alcohol. Also, the smoking of opium and the consumption of cannabis preparations were common practices in the urban centers of the ancient Near East, and not unknown in the countryside.

    Judaea of Christ’s time was a vital, urbane, cosmopolitan region, the crossroads of the Roman Empire. The Jews were a settled, city-dwelling culture, who enjoyed all the produce of the land and the imports that flowed through their ports, their caravanseries, and their markets. They were familiar with, and fond of, wine in all its uses. They had access to, and doubtless used, the vast range of medicines available to them–whether for therapeutic or recreational purposes.

    Did cultural proscriptions against intoxication exist?

    Of course.

    Were they the same attitudes held by modern evangelical/fundamentalist Protestantism?

    Not at all.

    In a culture where the water was not safe to drink, where all milk was made into cheese or yogurt because it would not keep in the heat, where tea was only to be found far to the East and coffee not even yet developed, there was NOTHING ELSE TO DRINK but wine and beer. Everyone from the elderly to just-weaned children consumed wine, mixed with water in varying proportions depending on the consumer. Alcohol consumption was a CONSTANT, not an exception or an aberration.

    If you look at cultural history, you will realize that until well into the 19th century, this was the condition of all classes of people in all Western nations at all times of the day. Even though tea and coffee were available from about 1650 on, most people consumed them in fairly small quantities. Public water purification did not begin in earnest until the 20th century. The pasteurization of milk was not developed until the 1890s, and drinking fresh milk killed many; Abraham Lincoln’s mother and our 12th President, Zachary Taylor being two examples out of hundreds of thousands. It was simply easier, and very much safer, to drink beer, wine, or whiskey.

    Therefore, the idea of ‘drunkenness’, from the Biblical era until the 19th century, encompassed something FAR beyond a simple ‘buzz’. Anyone from those eras who was transported into our century would be shocked and appalled by the small amount of alcohol that can send you to jail for DUI. When you roll out of bed and drink a half-pint of hard cider FIRST THING, as our second President, John Adams, did every day, your blood alcohol level will be truly epic by the time you go back to bed. In Jesus’ day, the wine consumption of the Romans was far beyond what we could easily imagine. The following passage from Juvenal is satire, but from what we know of the upper classes and their love of wine, it cannot be far from the truth:

    “She frequents the baths by night; not till night does she order her oil-flasks and her quarters to be shifted thither; she loves all the bustle and sweat of the bath; when her arms drop exhausted by the heavy weights, the anointer passes his hand skilfully over her body, bringing it down at last with a resounding smack upon the top of her thigh. Meanwhile her unfortunate guests are overcome with sleep and hunger, till at last she comes in with a flushed face, and with thirst enough to drink off the vessel containing full three gallons which is laid at her feet, and from which she tosses off a couple of pints before her dinner to create a raging appetite; then she brings it all up again and souses the floor with the washings of her inside. The stream runs over the marble pavement; the gilt basin reeks of Falernian (wine), for she drinks and vomits like a big snake that has tumbled into a vat.”

    The passage above describes the activities of ONE person at ONE meal. This behavior is of course regarded with disfavor, but at no point does Juvenal suggest that the woman should abstain from drinking wine ALTOGETHER. He merely points out that she drinks TOO MUCH. Why? As I stated above, there was literally nothing else to drink that was safe.

    To conclude, then, the idea that wine was in some way forbidden, or that ‘wine’ meant something different in the time of Christ than it does today, is not simply inaccurate.

    It is revisionism.

    It is entirely unrelated to the truth.

    If there truly is a punishment for those who attempt to alter or spin the meaning of the Scriptures, as so many claim, then that punishment will attend on those who have fostered the lie of ‘grape juice’ in the context of the Bible.

    Rob Bokkon

  9. June 23rd, 2012 at 13:17 | #9

    Very well researched and articulated Mr. Bokkon. I always expect the wit and intelligence from you, and especially appreciate the restraint you showed in responding. As my OT professor from seminary used to say: “You know what the difference between grape juice and wine is in the Ancient Near East? About a day”

  10. Rob Bokkon
    June 23rd, 2012 at 13:33 | #10

    Thank you, Ben. Your professor’s quote, while humorous, is very accurate. If anything, he was erring on the side of caution–alcohol would be present in a measurable quantity a few hours after pressing, especially with the wild yeasts present on the grape skins, to say nothing of the yeasts floating around in the air from bread production, and of course the yeasts in the winery itself. A winery of the period would most likely have looked a lot like a Belgian lambic brewery, absolutely festooned with all sorts of growths on the walls and ceiling, which would have contributed to the body and flavor profile of the final product.

  11. Kurt Helf
    June 23rd, 2012 at 17:51 | #11

    Nicely done, Rob! I won’t comment on the idea of deciding how to live one’s life based on mythology written by prescientific desert dwellers. I will say, however, that there is *extensive* support for the salutary effects of moderate alcohol consumption in the medical literature. See here:

  12. Russ
    July 9th, 2012 at 16:38 | #12

    Jesus refused because he had already told his desciples that he would drink no more until he came again and drank it together in his fathers kingdom. Need to read the word and not use your opinion.

  13. dusty mayfield
    August 22nd, 2012 at 19:57 | #13

    wow! No wonder they don’t preach about this scripture. this is very informative. thank you for sharing your knowledge about alcohol and the bible. it doesn’t surprise me that the’re people that only see want they want to see in scripture’s of the bible. i’m gonna share this with you and i will end my comment. it drives me crazy that most christians (southern baptist)are so closed minded!!

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