I ended the last article by referring to the Hebrew term שֵׁכָר or šēkār, traditionally translated “strong drink” and noted that we now understand that this likely refers to beer. Now, before you start imagining King David or Isaiah with a big frosty glass mug with a rich golden brew and a nice foam head, I should warn you that if you like beer, you likely would not like ancient Israelite beer.
First, a little archaeological and historical quest. Archaeologists have puzzled over a few odd facts about early Israel.
First, the typical ancient Israelite village came notably short of the caloric yield needed to support a thriving community. According to Israeli scholar Baruch Rosen, excavations of ancient villages, silos, winepresses, olive presses, and other food storage and processing stuff yield good information about the agricultural productivity of ancient Israel. Combined with textual descriptions of their diet, in the OT itself and in ancient records, found in places like Samaria, reporting quantities of wine, oil, grain etc. shipped around the country, we can estimate their agricultural yield.
Since we know the ancient Israelites did thrive and breed like cats, scholars puzzle over where those extra calories came from. Milk, meat and other items might have figured in, but the bounding population growth of the early Israelite communities suggests they were doing better than breaking even in the nutrition department. We need something else… a BIG something else.
Second, the ancient Israelites grew a conspicuously large amount of barley. Barley in antiquity wasn’t your top-shelf grain at all. It was mainly fodder for animals and “poor man’s” grain. No really resounding explanation for the barley-intensive cultivation has appeared.
Third, there was this funny artifact. It was a smallish jug-like thing with a spout and holes to act apparently as a strainer. Such items had been found in Philistine sites and identified as beer-strainers. But the Philistine culture was a “banqueting” culture, while Israel seems a much more frugal, even “puritanical” culture, so scholars didn’t think these strainer jugs had been used for beer.
A fascinating article by Dr. Michael Homan in, (naturally!) the Biblical Archaeology Review brought Israelite beer drinking to the foreground. Homan points out that ancients brewed beer first by baking a barley cake and soaking it in water, which yielded a sweet liquid (called a wort) To this yeast was added, since barley does not readily ferment on its own. Soon this bubbling, bready, yeasty mix was ready to drink. It spoiled rapidly, so had to be made regularly for immediate use.
This beer had no hops or carbonation, and so produced no “head” of foam. It would be flavored with things like honey or fruit sugars. And of course, it was drunk from a container with a built in strainer and spout, i.e. the curious artifact noted above.
Many scholars now think the calorie shortfall I mentioned above was met rather handily, and the prodigious barley production of ancient Israelite farms may be explained, by ancient Israelite beer, which is a significant caloric multiplier (“beer belly” comes to mind!). Indeed, it even appears Yahweh accepts offerings of beer according to Numbers 28:7-10.
Actually, we should have known this already. The Hebrew term here has an identical cognate in the Akkadian language, right down to the vowels. The entry in the Chicago Assyrian Dictionary goes over 10 pages and clearly shows this word denotes an intoxicating beverage made from cereals like barley that were not distilled, nor fermented directly like fruit-based wines, but “brewed” in a bread-based medium. This drink could be flavored in many ways by the addition of fruit syrups or honey, even sweet wines. The result was often named for the additive, i.e. “date beer” which wasn’t beer made from dates, but barley beer flavored with date syrup. If the additive was, itself, fermented, then the alcoholic yield of the resulting beverage was a good deal stronger. On top of that, since beer was the most common and versatile of all ancient alcoholic beverages, it became a kind of generic term for any intoxicant, much the way in the deep south, any soft drink is called a “coke” even if it’s a Seven-Up! Thus the confusion surrounding our Hebrew term, with translations like “strong drink” or some form of more potent wine.
Ancient art depicts the gods and humans drinking beer communally from a large jug, using long tubes or straws. One very common, though graphic piece of Mesopotamian art a couple in the midst of coitus a tergo with the woman, who might be a goddess, drinking beer during the act through a straw inserted into a jar.
My point here, other than to share some fascinating information with you, is simply to show that the Old Testament’s statements about wine and beer fit directly into the universal ancient cultural context. It’s appreciations of “adult beverages” mirrors directly the common feeling of all in the ancient Near east. So does this mean then that folks seeking to live according to the Bible should drop their inhibitions about alcohol, belly up to the bar and order their favorite brew?
With the Bible, things are seldom that simplistic. While wine and beer were indeed a regular part of the life of the ancient biblical characters, and while its benefits were known and celebrated, that is not the whole story. The biblical text has a dual relationship with its surrounding culture. It arises from that culture and mirrors it, but it often at times stands over against the culture in various ways. The “trick” in good biblical exegesis is to discern the cutting edge, the distinctive witness of scripture that emerges from its being both in and against its environment.
And yes, there is another “they” who also are not telling you everything about alcohol and the Bible. Next next time we’ll turn to the other side.