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.