Old Testament Texts Permitting Strong Drink
The following text speaks of strong drink (shekar) as though God approved of it.
24 And if the way be too long for thee, so that thou art not able to carry it; or if the place be too far from thee, which the Lord thy God shall choose to set his name there, when the Lord thy God hath blessed thee:
25 Then shalt thou turn it into money, and bind up the money in thine hand, and shalt go unto the place which the Lord thy God shall choose:
26 For thou shalt bestow that money for whatsoever thy soul lusteth after, for oxen, or for sheep, or for wine, or for strong drink, or for whatsoever thy soul desireth: and thou shalt eat there before the Lord thy God, and thou shalt rejoice, thou, and thine household.
Since shekar is related to the Hebrew words "to be drunken" (shakar), "drunkard" (shikkar), and "drunkenness" (shikkaron), many contemporary scholars believe that shekar must refer to an intoxicating drink (1). The NIV translates it "fermented drink." The exact meaning of the term cannot, however, be settled by looking at its use in the Old Testament. In some instances it clearly refers to an alcoholic beverage (1 Sam. 1:12-15; Prov. 20:1; Isa. 5:11). Yet the possibility that the term, at least in early times, referred to a kind of drink having both alcoholic and nonalcoholic forms cannot be ruled out. A cognate word in Aramaic suggests that the primitive root of shekar signified a drink made from dates or honey (2). In its usual form, shekar, whether it was mead (from honey) or date-wine or some other nonvinous drink, was probably alcoholic, such that, in time, the word begat numerous words having to do with intoxication. Yet when Deuteronomy was written, and perhaps later in history also, shekar may have been simply a generic term, like cider, denoting a drink that might be fermented or unfermented.
An analogous case is the Greek word methu, which means "wine." Since methu is related to methuo, a common word meaning "to be drunken," an attractive conjecture is that the more ancient word is methuo, from which methu was derived. In fact, however, methu is derived from an Indo-European root meaning "honey" (3). Similarly, shekar may be more primitive than the words related to it, and its original meaning may not have referred exclusively to an alcoholic drink.
Old Testament Texts Viewing Wine or Strong Drink as a Remedy
The most notable example is the following:
6 Give strong drink unto him that is ready to perish, and wine unto those that be of heavy hearts.
7 Let him drink, and forget his poverty, and remember his misery no more.
Here, when speaking to kings who make laws, God advises against a complete prohibition of alcoholic drink, because strong drink is appropriate for someone near death and wine is appropriate for someone in great sorrow. No doubt, considering their effects, the intended beverages are alcoholic.
The occasion for strong drink pictures someone in great pain caused by a fatal wound or illness. The writer recommends strong drink to relieve pain that would otherwise be unbearable.
The occasion for wine should not be misunderstood. The passage is not talking about a sorrow linked to either a recurring depression or a chronic state of poverty, for drinking aggravates both conditions. Rather, it is talking about a grief caused by sudden overwhelming loss, either of loved ones or possessions. Today, a victim of such loss might be given a sedative. Yet a believer need not rely on the help of drugs to endure great sorrow. Following David's example when the Amalekites stole his family and wealth, he can encourage himself in the Lord (1 Sam. 30:6).
The counsel of Proverbs 31:6-7 is not inconsistent with total abstinence. Most Christians who embrace total abstinence regard it as a stand only against drinking for pleasure. Throughout history the church has approved the use of alcohol as a medicine of last resort. For example, there was a time when wine and whiskey were the only anesthetics that could be administered during lifesaving surgery. Even today, emergencies can arise necessitating the medical use of alcohol.
A New Testament Text Urging the Consumption of Wine
Moderationists regard the following text as strong support for their position.
Drink no longer water, but use a little wine for thy stomach's sake and thine often infirmities.
1 Timothy 5:23
The affliction that Timothy was suffering as a result of drinking water is uncertain. Evidently it was not a single affliction. Paul recommends "a little wine" both for the good of his stomach and for the prevention of recurring "infirmities." Thus, enlarging upon the foregoing text in Proverbs that prescribes wine for the relief of pain and agony, Paul is permitting the use of wine for any medicinal purpose.
It is possible that the healthful benefit in following his advice consisted less in the good qualities of wine than in the harmful qualities of water. Perhaps the water at Ephesus was contaminated. Still today, waterborne diseases are endemic throughout the underdeveloped world. What Paul is urging Timothy to do, therefore, is not to take a little wine along with his water or to drink a mixture of the two, but to forsake water altogether in favor of wine. A little wine would have met his needs. For the purpose of allaying thirst, nonalcoholic wine would have been a better choice than alcoholic wine.
New Testament Texts Showing that Jesus Himself Was a Wine Drinker
On one occasion Jesus miraculously turned water into wine (John 2:1-11). It was His practice to drink wine with publicans and sinners (Luke 7:34). And He served wine at the Last Supper (Matt. 26:27-29). But what kind of wine did He make and drink? The Greek word for this wine is oinos. Many scholars today deny that oinos could be anything but alcoholic wine, but the classical literature testifies against them. Texts that treat grape juice as a species of oinos are found in Aristotle (5), Hippocrates (6), and the papyri (7).
The two incidents that give strongest support to the idea that Jesus drank fermented wine bracket His public ministry: His conversion of water to wine at the Wedding at Cana, and His blessing of the cup at the Last Supper. But in neither incident could the wine have been fermented.
At Cana, Jesus made the wine when the guests were already "well drunk" (John 2:10). The word is methusko, which can mean "well drunk" or "drunken" (8). Some moderationists have argued, rather weakly, that the ruler of the feast is merely quoting a proverb which did not actually describe present company (9). But if the guests had in fact consumed the last drop of the wine laid in for the feast, and if these stores had been deemed ample, the state of the guests must have been methusko. What is the right translation in this context? If the wine was fermented, the correct translation must be "drunken," for surely some guests at least had drunk enough to have lost perfect sobriety. But would Jesus have stayed in the society of people who were becoming tipsy? And would He have abetted further drinking, in violation of a Scriptural precept, by furnishing them with another 120 gallons of fermented wine? Of course not. The only interpretation giving due respect to the holiness of Christ is that the wine on this occasion, both the wine exhausted at the feast and the wine He made, were nonalcoholic. Since He Himself attended the wedding, it is reasonable to suppose that the families involved were highly devout Jews concerned to avoid the evils in drunkenness. The authority exercised by Jesus' mother (John 2:5) suggests that one of the principals was His own brother or sister. The wine He made was considered superior not because it was more decayed, like an old vintage, or more alcoholic, like a wine that modern connoisseurs call robust, but because it was sweeter and more luscious.
Jesus would not have used a fermented wine—a thing infested with corruption—to carry all the meanings intended by the wine on this occasion. The wine He created was a symbol of marriage itself, showing particularly its undefiled character and its joyful consummation. This wine was also a foretaste of the wine to be drunk at His own Wedding Feast in memory of His atoning blood.
Nowhere does Scripture identify the drink at the Last Supper as oinos. It is called "the cup" and "the fruit of the vine." Although these terms can, possibly, betoken a fermented wine, the verbal gymnastics that Scripture undertakes to avoid associating oinos with the Last Supper invites only one explanation: that the Lord wished to defuse any contention that the Bible mandates alcoholic wine at Communion. The wine at Communion is, again, a symbol of Christ's blood. A corrupted wine would be inappropriate. Moreover, the Last Supper was a Passover meal, and the law required that all leaven and all leavened foods be banished from the house during the Feast of Passover. Just as the bread of the Passover meal was unleavened, so the wine, if the spirit and not the letter of the law was to be honored, should have been unleavened also. Perhaps most Jews did not understand that the law governing the Passover celebration disallowed fermented wine, but Jesus, the Creator Himself, surely knew that fermented wine was leavened; that is, made by the action of yeast. As the perfect man, who fulfilled every jot and tittle of the law, Jesus must have filled the cup at the Last Supper with a fresh or boiled wine free of corrupting agencies.