Strong Drink

Most English versions of the Bible consistently translate the Hebrew word “shekar” as “strong drink.”  “Shekar” literally means “drink.”  It is used 23 times in the Old Testament.  The vast majority of the times when it is used in the Old Testament are in contexts where its use is condemned (ex. Lev. 10:9-11; Num. 6:2-4; Judg. 13:3-5; Prov. 20:1; Isa. 5:11).  Incidentally, our English word “sugar” is derived from it.

Shekar is a sweet beverage produced primarily from palm or dates. It may include beverages made from grains, fruits or honeycombs.  It is an unfermented beverage while it remains sweet.  As the sugar in “shekar” breaks down into alcohol, it becomes bitter.  It is the bitter “shekar” that is an intoxicating beverage.  Perhaps this is the reason Isaiah alludes to the wicked as those “Who put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter” (Isa.5:20).

Isaiah gives us another passage that defines this word.  In Isaiah 24:9, it simply states, “Strong drink is bitter to those who drink it.”  As translated into English, this statement sounds rhetorical.  In Old Testament times, intoxicating beverages were all bitter.  However, “shekar” which is translated into the words “strong drink” is not always bitter.  In fact, it is quite the opposite.  “Shekar” is known as a sweet beverage unless it is allowed to spoil and become fermented.  Leon Fields in his book, Oinos: A Discussion of the Bible-Wine Question (1883),  “correctly observes that “the contrast between ‘sweet’ and ‘bitter’ in Isaiah 24:9 (literally, ‘bitter shall be the sweet drink – shekar – to them that drink it,’) shows that shekar was valued on account of its sweetness, a quality which decreases in proportion to the amount of alcohol present.  The fact that it was commanded to be consumed ‘before the Lord’ (Deut. 24:26), and to be offered in sacrifice (Num. 28:7), indicates that it included unfermented forms of fruit juice.”[i]

“Shekar” does not inherently mean strong or intoxicating.  The word “strong” is an added word imposed by the translators.  It can only be assumed that the original English translators must have incorrectly thought that since “shekar” is so frequently found in a context where it is condemned, that it must always be intoxicating and therefore “strong.”  In some of the more recent versions of the Bible the word “strong” has been replaced with the word “similar.”  The New King James Version of the Bible is one such translation to make this correction.

Those who defend the moderate use of alcohol like to point out Deuteronomy 14:26 as a divine sanction for the use of alcohol.  In this passage, a special ordinance for the use of “strong drink” (KJV) is allowed when the journey to the annual harvest feast is logistically preventative. The spurious position relies upon the premise that no error was made in translation.  If this premise be true, then the ordinance would allow a distant traveler to the feast to drink alcoholic beverages from the Lord’s tithe.  Yet, those in close proximity to the feast must drink new wine (Deut. 14:23).

A proper understanding of the harvest feast would prevent such an erroneous understanding of the ordinance.  The context of Deuteronomy 14:3-21 calls for God’s people to abstain from anything unclean.  Those instructions are immediately followed by the instructions for the harvest feast.  Sacrifices such as those prepared and consumed during the harvest feast could not contain leaven (Lev. 2:11; Deut. 12:5-7).  Fermented wine was leavened and considered unclean (Lev. 10:9-10).   In order to allow the distant traveler to drink alcohol at the feast, it would have to be an exception to God’s laws. Yet, no exception is necessary when we understand new wine (tirosh) or similar drink (shekar) is being specified.

Another passage that is called into question is Proverbs 31:6-7.  It states, “Give strong drink to him who is perishing, and wine to those who are bitter of heart. Let him drink and forget his poverty, and remember his misery no more.”   This passage sounds like approval to drink alcohol for the purpose of burying one’s problems.

In context, this advice is given to a young king that is being admonished by his mother not to drink intoxicating beverages because it impairs thinking and results in injustice (Prov. 31:1-5; Isa. 5:22-23).  The mother affirms that alcohol is not for responsible people.  In contrast, the mother asserts that alcohol is for the irresponsible.  It is for people who find the remedy to their problems at the bottom of a bottle rather than seeking justice.  Sarcastically, she is saying alcohol is only fit for those who relish in their misery.  This is not a passage that condones alcohol but one that condemns it.

By Steve A. Hamilton


[i] Samuele Bacchiocchi, Wine in the Bible, (Michigan, 2004) p. 229.

Tirosh and Gleukos

The Bible has a lot to say on the subject of “wine,” but unfortunately it does not specify what kind of ”wine” it is talking about. There are several words from different languages that get translated into the word ”wine.”  Yayin and tirosh from the Hebrew, oinos and gleukos from the Greek, and vinum from the Latin are all words that were translated into “wine” in the Bible. The word tirosh and gleukos refers to the grape itself, a newly finished product of grape such as grape juice, boiled grape juice (which is called must), or a cluster of grapes. The other three words have a dual meaning. They can refer to grape juice or to fermented grape juice whereas tirosh and gleukos never refer to an alcoholic substance. Even though by definition tirosh and gleukos cannot mean an alcoholic wine, we are going to look at some verses translated “wine” and prove that they cannot possibly be referring to an alcoholic beverage .

Tirosh

Since the word tirosh has no alcoholic meaning behind it, yet is translated “wine,” it should be pretty easy to see why the verses we are about to look at do not refer to alcoholic “wine.”

The first mention of tirosh is in Genesis 27:28. The verse is talking about Isaac’s blessing to Jacob and says, “Therefore may God give you … plenty of grain and wine.” The typical person who does not want to see that this is clearly grapes or grape juice would jump to the conclusion that God wants us to have plenty of food and alcohol. Besides, God wants us to be happy and alcohol makes me happy, right? If we look at the context of the verse Isaac is blessing Jacob with natural blessings such as grain, dew, and the fatness of the earth. Besides the fact that tirosh doesn’t refer to alcoholic beverages anyway, we can see that Isaac is blessing Jacob with the bounty of the earth which God provides; not something that is fermented and manmade.

Another great example of the word tirosh is found in Isaiah 65:8. It says, “Thus says the LORD: ‘As the new wine is found in the cluster … ‘” How can there be alcoholic “wine” in the cluster of a grape while still on the vine? Once again it is very evident that tirosh, though translated ”wine” does not refer to an alcoholic beverage.

One last look at the word tirosh is found in Deut. 11:13, 14 which talks about gathering ” … in your grain, your new wine, and your oil.” The verse is once again referring to natural God given blessings of rain, grain, oil and grape juice or grapes. It is important to note that grapes and grape juice were a very large part of the Old Testament economy. Wealth was determined by how well your crops and animals did each year. Certainly, it would be a great blessing of the Lord’s to be given plenty of rain which in turn bears grain, grapes, and oil.

Other verses that have the word tirosh in them are Deut. 33 :28; Hos. 2:8; Joel 1:10; 2: 18, 19, Jer. 31:10-12; Micah 6:15; Num. 18:12; and Psalm 4:7. It is important to note that tirosh is never given a negative connotation [as being fermented] or is frowned upon in scriptures. This shows God’s approval and blessing in grapes and grape juice.

Gleukos

Gleukos is the Greek equivalent to the word tirosh. Unfortunately, it is very rare to find the word gleukos in the New Testament. When the Old Testament was being translated into Greek (known as the Septuagint) they did not translate the Hebrew word tirosh into the equivalent word of gleukos. Instead they translated several uses of the word tirosh into oinos. This fact alone is evidence that you cannot believe the word “wine” in the Bible is always referring to an alcoholic beverage. You need to look at the context of the verse and apply common sense to determine the meaning of the word “wine.”

One example of the Hebrew word tirosh being translated into the Greek word oinos is in Proverbs 3:10 ” … And your vats will overflow with new wine.” The King James Version translates vats into presses. Clearly, we can see that tirosh was the correct word to be used for this verse, and should have been translated gleukos in the Septuagint, since it is referring to a freshly pressed grape.

Other verses that translate the Hebrew word tirosh into the Greek word oinos are Psalms 4:7; Is. 65:8; and Joel 1:10; 2:24.

As mentioned earlier, it is hard to find the Hebrew word tirosh translated into the Greek word gleukos, but it is even harder to find the Hebrew word yayin translated into the Greek word gleukos. One such rare occurrence is in Job 32:19 which reads, “Indeed my belly is like wine that has no vent; it is ready to burst like new wineskins.” The word gleukos is fittingly used here since it is referring to grape juice that has not yet fermented.

Our last look at the word gleukos comes from Acts 2:13, which reads from the NKN as “Others mocking said, ‘They are full of new wine. ‘” It is Pentecost, and the Holy Spirit had been poured out on Peter and other devout men from several places. They were all given a variation of the gift of tongues which allowed them to speak to several men all with different languages and they all heard each other in their own language. Some other men who were there began to mock the group that had received the Holy Spirit saying that they were filled with gleukos? We have previously established that gleukos is the equivalent to tirosh, both which mean grape juice. It is safe to assume that these devout men were well known, and not partakers of alcoholic beverages. The mocking men knew that these devout men did not drink alcoholic beverages, yet these devout men were acting strange to them. So what better sarcastic insult is there but that these devout men were drunk on grape juice? I suppose this argument may not be the best, but one thing is sure, the mocking men accused the devout men of being drunk on grape juice (gleukos).

By Jason Hamilton