In yesterday’s post I said some things about wine in the Bible. With this one I want to do the same concerning “strong drink.” In case you don’t know, “strong drink” is different from wine.
The Hebrew word that gets translated as “strong drink” is shekar. It is used a little over twenty times in the Old Testament. The New Testament equivalent of the Hebrew shekar is the Greek sikera, and it is used just once in the New Testament (Luke 1:15).
I’m generalizing here a little bit, but I think we can basically set up two broad categories of alcoholic beverages. One category is “wine” and the other one is “strong drink” (beer, liquor, etc.) For the record, there are three other Hebrew words that the classic K.J.V. translation renders as “liquor” or “liquors.” They are mishrah (Numbers 6:3), mezeg (Song of Solomon 7:2), and dema (Exodus 22:29). However, each of these words can rightly come under the heading “strong drink” without doing any harm to its meaning.
And so what does the Bible say about strong drink? Does it allow for any drinking of such beverages? You might be surprised to learn that it does. The passage is Deuteronomy 14:22-26. Let me lay the groundwork for it.
These verses are part of that body of law that gave to Israel, and they specifically relate to Israel’s tithing. I won’t take the time to trace down every detail of what the law taught about tithing, but I will point out that the law called for the paying of three separate tithes. These were the “Levite’s tithe” (Numbers 18:21-24), the “poor tithe” (Deuteronomy 14:28-29), and the “festival tithe” (Deuteronomy 14:22-26). It’s the “festival tithe” that we want to more closely examine.
Each year a Jew was to round up a tithe (tenth) of the yearly increase he had seen from farming. This included his grain, new wine, oil, and the firstborn of his flocks and herds. He was then to take all that tithe to the tabernacle. Once there, he and his family were to eat a feast out of that tithe. Whatever was left over after the feast went to the Levites, Israel’s priestly tribe. (When the temple was ultimately built to take the place of the tabernacle, the “festival tithe” was to be taken there and eaten.)
Now, some Jews lived many miles from the site of the tabernacle, and that made paying the “festival tithe” difficult. God understood this. That’s why He built a plan B into the law. By law, if a Jew lived far away from the tabernacle, he could gather together his “festival tithe,” sell it for a fair price, and then take the money to the tabernacle. There he was to use the money to buy whatever his heart desired for his feast before the Lord.
Here now is where we come to our verse. Read it carefully and see if you notice anything:
And 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. (Deuteronomy 14:26, K.J.V)
In case you are wondering, the Hebrew word that is translated there as “strong drink” is indeed shekar, which means that the translation is thoroughly correct. “Russell, are you telling me that God’s holy law actually allowed a Jew to drink not only wine but also strong drink as a part of a feast at the tabernacle, the most holy site in all Israel, the site where God manifested His presence?” Yes, that’s what I’m telling you.
Let me shock you even more. The Holman Christian Standard translation and the New Living Translation even translate shekar in Deuteronomy 14:26 as “beer” rather than “strong drink.” Drinking beer and wine at the tabernacle? With God’s approval no less? You got it.
Okay, with that said, is there any other Bible passage that allows for the consumption of “strong drink”? Yes, there is. Proverbs 31:6-7 says this:
Give strong drink (shekar) unto him that is ready to perish, and wine unto those that be of heavy hearts. Let him drink and forget his poverty, and remember his misery no more. (N.K.J.V.)
I’ve read those who attempt to explain this passage’s call to give “strong drink” by saying that it was for medicinal purposes to ease the intense pain of the one at death’s door. This would be akin to the way today’s hospitals give morphine to the dying. Well, I understand how one could use that interpretation, but what do we do with the call to give wine to those that be of heavy hearts? Let’s be honest in admitting that having a heavy heart certainly isn’t a terminal condition. Also, the last part of the passage talks about drinking to forget your poverty and misery. That’s a far cry from drinking to relieve the pain of a medical problem.
In closing, I feel like I should mention that I never drink anything stronger than Dr. Pepper. So, trust me, I haven’t written all this to justify, rationalize, or explain my own imbibing of beer, wine, or liquor. No, I’ve written it in an attempt to be honest and legitimate about what the Bible teaches about drinking “strong drink.” Is this all that needs to be said on the subject? No, it isn’t. Along those lines, my next post will deal with certain restrictions to drinking wine and “strong drink” as well as the sin of getting drunk off either. But, for now, I’ll stop right here because I trust that I’ve made the point that I was trying to make with this post.