If the Bible forbids drinking, why does it mention people drinking wine?

A reader recently asked the question, “Why is wine mentioned in the Bible when wine drinking is forbidden?” Below is a portion of the answer given.

The fact that the Bible talks about people drinking wine does not necessarily mean it approves of such behavior. Many actions are described in the Bible which are not necessarily approved by God. For example, the Bible never records a rebuke or condemnation of David for having multiple wives, but we know from other passages that his polygamy was a sin. (Deuteronomy 17:15-17) The fact that the Bible describes people drinking alcohol does not necessarily mean it approves of such behavior or encourages Christians to practice it.

The Old Testament Hebrew word and the New Testament Greek word that are usually translated “wine” are generic terms. Both Greek and Hebrew words refer to drink made from grapes. This drink could be fermented grape juice or it could be unfermented grape juice. The only way to know whether it is describing wine or Welch’s is from the context. At times the context is unclear and sometimes we only think it is clear because of our preexisting ideas. For example, in the account of Jesus turning water into wine, most people naturally assume Jesus made a big jug of Merlot because alcoholic wine is often served at weddings today. Who would serve their guests grape juice? Yet, other cultures drank fresh squeezed grape juice. One example from the Bible is found in Genesis 40 when Joseph was imprisoned in Egypt. He met Pharaoh’s cupbearer who told him of a dream in which he squeezed fresh grapes into Pharaoh’s cup and gave it to him to drink. Some of the details of the dream were a bit fantastical, but Joseph and the cupbearer seem to have thought grape juice a normal beverage for a king to drink.

When the Old Testament talks about alcoholic drinks it often uses one of two different terms: “wine” and “strong drink.” “Wine is a mocker, strong drink is raging: and whosoever is deceived thereby is not wise.” (Proverbs 20:31) The modern reader thinks wine is something like Chardonnay and strong drink is something like Vodka. This is impossible. Fermentation can only produce a drink with an alcohol content up to 15%. The only way to get higher concentrations of alcohol is through distillation. Distillation was not discovered until sometime after A.D. 600. The last book of the Bible was written over 500 years before anyone made distilled liquors. The Bible never speaks of any alcoholic drink stronger than the strongest naturally occurring alcohols. Therefore, strong drink is not 150 proof Whiskey. Strong drink is full strength wine with an alcohol content of, at most, 12-15%.

History and archeology also show that in ancient times alcoholic wines were commonly diluted before drinking. The usual ratio of dilution was one part wine to 3-5 parts water. This means that in Biblical times the average alcohol content of wine (not strong drink) was the same or less than that found in the average beer today. The wine drunk in Biblical times was not the same as the wine commonly drunk in America today.

I believe the Biblical warnings about alcohol are strong enough that no one should drink distilled liquors or modern day wine. When the Bible discusses the merits of drinking alcohol it almost always presents drinking as a course of action filled with many dangers. Without a definitive Biblical prohibition I cannot say the Bible forbids all consumption of alcohol, but I would warn those who drink low alcohol beverages, such as beer or wine coolers, to do so with great caution. In my opinion, the wisest position for the Christian today is to avoid drinking alcohol.

As Solomon said in Proverbs 23, “Who hath woe? who hath sorrow? who hath contentions? who hath babbling? who hath wounds without cause? who hath redness of eyes? They that tarry long at the wine; they that go to seek mixed wine. Look not thou upon the wine when it is red, when it giveth his colour in the cup, when it moveth itself aright. At the last it biteth like a serpent, and stingeth like an adder. Thine eyes shall behold strange women, and thine heart shall utter perverse things. Yea, thou shalt be as he that lieth down in the midst of the sea, or as he that lieth upon the top of a mast. They have stricken me, shalt thou say, and I was not sick; they have beaten me, and I felt it not: when shall I awake? I will seek it yet again.”