Wandering the savage garden…


In another conversation with one of my kids – the typical way for me to think of things to write – alcohol came up somehow.

I’m trying to remember the course of conversation that led to that, but I don’t. When I’m taking them to school, I tend to just riff on about any subject that we happen to come across, and sometimes I actually say stuff that’s worth hearing.

So the subject of that particular conversation was, like I said, alcohol, and naturally I was putting it in context of the Christian life.

The short form is that I don’t think alcohol is a bad thing (although too much is), and the church has a tendency to say any alcohol is a bad thing. The Bible doesn’t quite back the church up on that.

I don’t drink alcohol, myself. It’s a taste I think you have to acquire, and living in the United States I am blessed to have clean water available at any time. (The poorest person in the United States has access to things that some other countries would consider unimaginable riches. James 4 has stuff that applies to every American, yet we handily assume that we’re poor and it doesn’t apply to us.)

That said, I don’t have a biblical reason to avoid alcohol. Nor does anyone else.

Consider: for one thing, the Bible never says not to drink. It says not to overconsume (“Be not drunk with wine,” Ephesians 5:18) but not to avoid, although there are some situations in which it was to be avoided.

What are those situations?

One was in the Tabernacle (Leviticus 10:9); pagan worship was ecstatic through the use of many things (sex, art, strong drink) and Hebrew worship was deliberate and solemn. You were supposed to approach God with a clear head, not one filled with… something else.

Another was if you were a Nazirite. The Nazirim (“Nazirians?” “Nazirish?”) were consecrated to God in everything; they were supposed to not cut their hair or touch anything ritually unclean, and they weren’t supposed to touch alcohol. Samson (“Shimshon” in Hebrew) was a Nazirite, although he clearly didn’t pay attention to a whole lot of the code, as I understand it.

I don’t know of any living Nazirim, and the Tabernacle and Temple no longer exist. There are other situations, I’d imagine, but I don’t know of any that wouldn’t be very limited in scope – and the ones I know of are cultural and not biblical.

Also consider: they didn’t have clean water. It was unhealthy to drink unpurified liquid, and purification wasn’t easy; fermentation was. Drinking only unfermented liquids would have been very odd, and unhealthy for the most part.

This is circumstantial, of course; there’s nothing saying that they could not get by with only nonalcoholic drinks. It just seems like a stretch to me.

Also consider: Jesus’ first recorded miracle was at a wedding – converting water to wine (John 2:10, and many others). If alcohol was to be avoided in all things, I doubt Jesus would have done this.

There’s some assertion that Jesus, too, was supposed to be a Nazirite (not just a Nazarene, one who was from the town of Natzaret). However, the reference in Isaiah (Is. 11:1) doesn’t necessarily use Nazirite – it uses “neser,” which means “branch,” not “nasir,” which means “consecrated.”

Of course, the text doesn’t actually say “neser” or “nazir” – it didn’t have any vowels, so you had a phonetic word written down. (וְנֵ֖צֶר is translated “branch,” where הַנָּזִיר֮ is “nazir” – and these have the vowels where the original did not.) Plus, the rest of Isaiah 11:1 uses context of a growing thing, a plant, which would make the Nazirite reference a little odd.

In any event, we have no assertion that I know of that says that Jesus abstained from wine – and considering that He provided it to others, it’d be highly unlikely that such an assertion would hold.

So as I understand it, the admonition should not be for the laity to avoid all wine. The admonition would be to be moderate in all such things; if you drink, you are to be wise about it and avoid drunkenness.

That seems simple; it’s unfortunate that so many see an opportunity for overzealousness and use it as a club to beat others with.


Originally published on Dec 23, 2011.

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