A “Biblical” View of Alcohol: Another Thought

A “Biblical” View of Alcohol: Another Thought September 26, 2014

Between my article on alcohol for Relevant Magazine, and my follow up blogs HERE and HERE, I hesitate blogging again on this topic for fear that I’ll be known as some tipsy blogger who wants nothing more than the church to start tapping kegs for their potlucks.

But at least one more blog is in order.

Again, as I said in a previous post, alcohol is not really the issue. It’s an issue about biblical authority. One of my greatest pet peeves is when so-called “Bible believing” Christians pound the pulpit when it comes to the authority of Scripture, but then fail to submit to what the Bible really says about certain cultural issues that go against their cherished, written-in-stone views. Alcohol is only one of these issues. Another one is immigration, which we’ll get to on Monday. (We could add to this list homosexuality, violence, money, and loving your enemy—all of which we’ll get to in due time.)

In any case, I was reading an article by Norm Geisler titled: “A Christian Perspective on Wine-Drinking,” which has been hailed as one of the strongest biblical defenses of tee-totaling. The article has the air of being biblical. He gives several word studies, looks at the background of wine in the ancient world, and scatters many references to Scripture throughout the essay. Anyone who reads the article would quickly think that it’s a thoroughly biblical argument and that therefore Christians should not drink.

But his argument is not only historically wrong and logically fallacious (my college logic teacher would have cringed at Geisler’s herculean leaps), it makes some terrible, one my say terrifying, interpretive moves.

At one point, Geisler argues that “strong drink” (shakar) was always forbidden for God’s people. I immediately thought, What about Deuteronomy 14, where strong drink is encouraged?

The context of Deuteronomy 14 is the so-called “third year tithe” (14:22), where Israelites were commanded to bring some of their meat and their wine to celebrate before the Lord in Jerusalem by eating and drinking (14:23). But if you live too far, God says, then you should sell some of your produce, take the money, and go to Jerusalem to buy your celebratory meal there. In Jerusalem, you shall:

“spend the money for whatever you desire—oxen or sheep or wine or strong drink, whatever your appetite craves. And you shall eat there before the LORD your God and rejoice, you and your household” (Deut 14:26).

The verse is clear. It’s straight of the Lord’s mouth. It’s not an option; it’s a command. God wanted his people to use part of their tithe money to buy meat, wine, and strong drink and party before the temple in Jerusalem.

So what does Geisler do with this verse? He writes—and I quote:

The passage in Deuteronomy 14:26 which appears to commend buying ‘strong drink’ (shakar) cannot be used as a divine approval for drinking it for three reasons. First, the Old Testament clearly condemns drinking “strong drink,” as the above passage indicates. Therefore this isolated and unclear passage must be understood in harmony with the clear Old Testament teaching against “strong drink.”

Whoa! Really? I’ve looked at the Hebrew and several English translations. There’s nothing “isolated” or “unclear” about this passage. It’s rather straightforward. Only someone who is troubled by it would find it unclear and isolated. And why interpret this passage in light of other passages? Why not begin with this one and interpret the other ones in light of this one? After all, Deuteronomy 14 occurs way before the prophetic texts that he lists as primary. Certainly, the prophets themselves would have began with Deuteronomy. Plus, Geisler butchers the original context of both Isa 24:6 and Mic 2:11, which condemn not drinking wine and strong drink, but false prophets who assure Israel that everything is okay and they are blessed, even though they are under the covenant curses. The underlining assumption of the texts Geisler cites is that both wine and strong drink are covenant blessings.

We must handle God’s mighty word with much, much more care than this.

Geisler goes on to give his second and third reasons why Deuteronomy 14:26 doesn’t actually commend strong drink:

Second, the passage does not say they should drink it but only that they should buy it. Third, ‘strong drink’ was used for medicinal purposes, so the commendation here is probably to buy medicine (see Prov 31:6).

It’s true. There are sometimes when the Bible is difficult to interpret and there are many valid interpretive possibilities. But this is just embarrassing. Again, Deuteronomy 14:26 follows the command to buy strong drink with “whatever your appetite craves.” I don’t know if I’ve ever craved Tylenol or Neosporin. I truly think that Moses would have gone hog wild with his staff on anyone who tried to interpret his words like this. The Creator God clearly commends and even commands Israelites to buy alcoholic beverages, including strong drink, and celebrate at the temple before the Lord. To say God wanted them to buy strong drink, but not drink it (in a context where every other food item is to be consumed), is just bewildering.

I don’t mean to be too harsh on Norm Geisler. I’ve appreciated his work over the years and even assigned his Ethics book for several classes. In many ways, I’m looking past him as an individual writer to the thousands, perhaps millions, of Christians who would cite this article as proving a tee-totaling stance on alcohol. One would have to have a written-in-stone view on what the Bible says about alcohol to read this article and conclude, “See, the Bible clearly condemns the consumption of alcoholic beverages.”

Interpreters, Evangelicals, Bible-believing Christians: We need to bend our cultural taboos around the text, not the text around our taboos.

Again, it’s not about alcohol. It’s about the Bible. We cannot claim to be biblical if we’re not eager to let the Bible form our views on every subject.

Come back on Monday and we’ll look at what the Bible says about immigration. Yikes!

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