I love that parable of David Foster Wallace about the two fish, swimming happily along, when they meet and old fish swimming toward them in the other direction. He passes, saying “How’s the water, boys?” And swims on. Suddenly, one of them stops and looks at the other and asks, “What the heck is WATER?”
Most of us read the Bible simply assuming it’s world is our world, it’s values are accessible to us simply because we know about the same things in our world. Tragically, we fail to sense the water we swim in, and the water in which the biblical writers swam, and the fact that they are different waters.
God chose historically and culturally conditioned literature, written in specific times, places, cultures and languages, that is, living and breathing different water from ours, to express his character and will to the world. That means the most important thing we bring to interpreting the Bible is the ability to listen to a voice wildly divergent from our own. The good news is that the task is challenging, but with knowledge, experience, hard work and empathy we can do it. This listening also prepares us for the harder thing: hearing a word that contradicts our present beliefs and practices, and taking it seriously. But first we have to accept the fact that in order to speak God’s word across cultures, we first have to learn to listen to God’s word across cultures.
So… the Old Testament says some nice things about wine and beer. It even talks about people being, to translate literally, “good in their wine” which refers not to being drunk, but simply to being… mellow… perhaps not ready to drive or operate heavy machinery… which actually raises the point I want to make here.
The same behavior often has vastly different consequences in different contexts. While some actions might be morally right or wrong in and of themselves, a great many actions acquire their moral value from who does them, why, and to what effect. Such matters are not central to the faith, but are things about which a Christian should discern the best stewardship of their one and only life.
So… driving and operating heavy machinery. One vast difference in “the water,” between the world of the Bible and our world is the amount of damage one person can do. In ancient Israel, if a village elder sitting around the beer pot imbibed too much, all that likely happened was he drifted a few yards to his own house and fell asleep under the stars. He did not get into a 2000 pound pile of steel and go hurtling down a street with hundreds of other 2000 pound chunks of metal whizzing only feet from each other in opposite directions. Let’s face it: a major issue in alcohol abuse, especially since WW2, is driving while alcohol-impaired (not necessarily even drunk) and the toll it takes. The OT folks knew nothing of this and nothing even remotely like it. Plus, the very people most likely to drive while impaired are the ones who will tell you they are fine and can handle it, thank you very much. Do we trust them?
Another difference between the Old Testament world and ours is the economics of the wine or beer, specifically, the obtaining of it. While wine was a commercial product, and the elite 2% purchased it, 98% of folks made their own wine and beer, from their own grapes and barley. In the Old Testament world, there was no money. Coinage came to the Levant only around 500 BC, as the OT story was already 90% told. The ordinary folk of the OT wouldn’t pick up a paycheck, cash it, and stop at a bar on the way home and go through their grocery money at $10 a drink. Cities did have “ale houses” but they were often operated in the service of a deity, ironically, the goddess we see on ancient plaques who is drinking beer through a tube while having sexual intercourse with a client. You can imagine the OT wouldn’t be happy about that arrangement! So we don’t have much sign of ale houses in ancient Israel. By contrast, one very real effect of modern alcohol abuse in low and middle income families is the financial drain because an irresponsible person spends vital family funds getting hammered at the local watering hole.
Yet another difference between the OT world and ours is the availability of weapons combined with the high-dollar damage any person can do. Nobody in ancient Israel, after drinking too much, could pick up a pistol, shotgun, or assault rifle and kill a bunch of people so quickly nobody could stop them until it was too late. Somehow bows and arrows just don’t work the same when you can’t stand up. Consider also that the streets of most OT era towns were not lined with shops full of enticing consumer goods, protected only by glass windows and cheap alarm systems. A drunk person couldn’t go on a rampage, break windows, destroy property and in doing so, eliminate an enormous part of other people’s living. Sure they could do damage, but in our society, based as it is on money and consumer goods—with more value compressed into smaller, more fragile units—the potential for harm is greater.
Lastly, very few people in the OT era had jobs other than basic agriculture or local crafts. You farmed, took care of livestock, perhaps worked with pottery or leather, if you were a front-edge technology leader maybe you ran a local bronze or iron forge, but you didn’t work in an office cubicle. You didn’t punch a clock. You didn’t handle other people’s bank accounts, to-do lists and retirement funds. You didn’t tell 75,000 pound airplanes traveling hundreds of miles an hour through the sky which 200 foot wide strip of pavement to land on, just a few dozen yards away from the other 200 foot wide strip of pavement… you get it.
A typical ancient Israelite who had a little too much to drink could still get up in the morning and make their customary contribution to the community.
Does any of this say it is wrong to drink alcohol? Of course not. Does this mean that it is always unwise to drink alcohol? Again, no.
On the other hand, to jump from alcohol’s inclusion in the OT covenant blessings, as if this endowed it with obligation, to arguing directly for alcohol use in our modern context, as Preston Sprinkle does, is just exegetically and theologically sloppy. It’s looking at Iron Age religion through post-modern glasses. It’s the same argument used by the heretical wealth-and-prosperity preachers, the name-it-and-claim-it false-prophets. They seize on wealth and health, promised in the Old Covenant, and simply transfer them to the New Covenant where, sure enough, Jesus heals people, so obviously no Christian should ever be sick. Do I hear an “Amen!”? No… I thought not. I always find it ironic when folks who almost never go to the Old Testament for moral guidance on things like sex, war or the Sabbath suddenly appeal to it on the alcohol question. Again, I’m not arguing for mandatory abstinence. I just see a lot of sloppy, inconsistent biblical interpretation out there. For some reason, otherwise reasonable people often abandon their basic hermeneutic sense when they hit this topic.
Just as we don’t directly transfer the OT promises of property, prodigious reproduction, prosperity and celebrity into the NT vision of salvation, perhaps we should ask why we would transfer OT statements about alcohol in that manner? Maybe we should, maybe not, I’m not telling you the answer. The point is: who is even pausing long enough to ask the question, with a willingness to change their life attitudes and habits in light of scripture? In the headlong rush to break free of old-fashioned fundamentalist abstemiousness, are we just flinging proof texts around, not really working out a full biblical picture?
Before we simplistically take the OT’s statements in praise of wine, and the common, daily enjoyment of beer in the ancient world, as a free endorsement for any and all of other eras to do the same, we need to ponder the context.
- The OT also endorses war. Do we? Perhaps, perhaps not.
- The OT has at its center what looks like a narrative of divinely ordained seizure of territory by force, aka “The Promised Land.” Do you accept that as God’s truth for us today?
- OT also accepts the reality of slavery. Do we?
- The OT prohibits women from serving as clergy. Should we?
- The OT sees a direct agency of God in almost all national and personal tragedies, usually divine judgment. Next time a friend has a tragedy, are you going hand him a glass of wine and say “It’s God’s judgment on you?”
In all such matters, Christians reading both the OT and the NT need always to place the scriptural statements in context, both in the ancient culture and in the larger ecosystem of the Bible as a whole, before drawing superficial, hasty analogies for contemporary life.
Otherwise, whatever choice we make, we might find ourselves as fish… out of water.
And again, that’s something they’re not telling you about alcohol and the Bible.