Saturday, September 11, 2010

Beer in Ancient Israel

There is an interesting article in this month's issue of Biblical Archaeology Review (BAR). The article in its entirety is currently available, but I'm not sure for how long.

Michael M. Homan, "Did the Ancient Israelites Drink Beer?" BAR 36:05, Sep/Oct 2010.

First of all, let me say that I don't drink beer. I don't drink wine, either. I don't abstain for theological reasons though either. I take a kind of medication that precludes me from drinking alcohol in general. And I come from a family of people who struggle with addiction. So I've decided over the years that it's probably wise for me not to drink. Even so, I'm not theologically against people drinking alcohol. I have yet to read a strong biblical case for prohibition.

So when this article came up on my Facebook feed under the title, "God Drank Beer," I have to admit, I was intrigued. Kudos to whatever editor thought of posting that. Now THAT'S a great hook. 

I strongly recommend that you take a few minutes to read over the article before you read my comments. I think it will make more sense. Don't worry. I'll wait....

I don't have any way to evaluate the quality of the interpretation of Mr. Homan's archaeological data. I'm not knowledgeable enough to do that. But I do think I can make a few comments about his biblical data. In particular, I want to comment on the article's opening paragraph. First, I want to quote it in its entirety so you can see the context, then I'll go through it bit by bit.
Ancient Israelites, with the possible exception of a few teetotaling Nazirites and their moms, proudly drank beer—and lots of it. Men, women and even children of all social classes drank it. Its consumption in ancient Israel was encouraged, sanctioned and intimately linked with their religion. Even Yahweh, according to the Hebrew Bible, consumed at least half a hin of beer (approximately 2 liters, or a six-pack) per day through the cultic ritual of libation, and he drank even more on the Sabbath (Numbers 28:7–10). People who were sad were advised to drink beer to temporarily erase their troubles (Proverbs 31:6). Yet the Biblical authors also called for moderation. Several passages condemn those who consumed too much beer (Isaiah 5:11, 28:7; Proverbs 20:1, 31:4). The absence of beer defines a melancholy situation, according to Isaiah 24:9.
Whether the ancient Israelites "proudly drank beer" seems at this point to be a statement of speculation. I'm not aware of any ancient Jewish manuscript evidence that says Jews "proudly drank beer." And you certainly couldn't draw that conclusion simply by looking at beer-making implements, unless one had an inscription that said something to the effect, "We are proud to drink beer." To my knowledge, there is no such inscription.

As far as making the assertion that children drank beer, that's probably true given what we know about the ancient world and the limited access people had to clean water. I'm a little more skeptical about the statement that the ancient Jews drank "lots" of beer and that it was "encouraged" and "sanctioned." Again, did I miss some manuscript evidence here?

Now for the most outrageous part of the article. "Even Yahweh, according to the Hebrew Bible, consumed at least half a hin of beer (approximately 2 liters, or a six-pack) per day through the cultic ritual of libation." Really? This statement is a great way to sell magazines, but it's not exactly stellar exegesis of the biblical text. One of the major themes of the Mosaic Law is that the God of Israel is not like the other gods. His sacrifices aren't given as gifts to help him. Offerings were given for: guilt, sin, thanks, peace with God and devotion. The point was to draw God and humans together. To suggest that God is somehow imbibing theses sacrifices is to go beyond the scope of the text. Nowhere do we get the impression that God "ate" and "drank" the offerings.

Now, it is true that there are a few references to God commanding wine to be part of the drink offering (Lev. 23:13; Ex. 29:40; Num. 15:5, 7, 10; 28:14). Homan argues that the "grain offering" mentioned in Numbers 28:7–10 refers to beer. This may, in fact, be true. However, Homan simply asserts this interpretation without actually providing solid evidence for it.

Did the Israelites drink beer? Of course they did. Did Israelite children drink beer? Probably. Did the Israelites drink lots of beer, proudly? Jury is still out on that one. Did God drink beer? No. Did he require that the Israelites include alcohol in their sacrifices? The text is clear about wine, not as clear about beer. The evidence of a robust beer culture in ancient Israel is mere conjecture.

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