What They’re Not Telling You About Alcohol and the Bible (4)

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So I’ve posted two articles raising questions about the total-abstinence position, and one raising questions about the easy move from the OT approval of wine and beer to modern practice.

But why the caution? I mean, if the OT is loaded with positive things to say about wine and beer, and if Jesus clearly blessed them by making wine at Cana and sanctifying the Passover cup as a sacrament, why hold back? If we avoid the pitfalls of confusing their culture practice with ours, why not boldly go where the Bible points? Is the whole idea of complete abstinence from alcohol just some legalistic fantasy created by people who can’t stand the thought that someone, somewhere is having fun?

It’s always surprising to realize that in the midst of the Bible’s affirmations about wine and beer, surprising statements appear commending… total abstinence, for set periods, sometimes, for life.

Several situations in the Old Testament include strong commendations of complete abstinence from alcohol, and all are worth mulling over as we seek to construct a responsible, informed, biblically shaped life. I plan to spend a couple posts unpacking these categories.

The first is a person in the life of ancient Israel called the Nazirite. Almost anyone who reads the Bible knows the nazirites were required to abstain from alcohol, along with also staying separated from anything related to death and also noalcoholkeeping their hair and beard uncut (cf. Numbers 6). As described in Numbers, the nazirate was entered into voluntarily for a limited period of time. Most scholars, however, believe this is a “subset” of a larger tradition that sees the role of nazirite as permanent, like that of the priest or, especially, the prophet. All our narratives about nazirites involve the nazirite rule as a life-long habitus.

Nazirites aren’t popular among most evangelical writers, especially on the topic of alcohol. The approach is usually to concede the existence of the office and then dismiss it. Few, of course, would appeal to the Nazirite as the model for everyone, because after all, nazirites were the spiritual elites of ancient Israel. Who would want to aspire to maximum spiritual devotion? We should recall that the nazirite was not considered some aberrant, weird person everyone avoided or felt awkward around. Consider:

  • In the 1st century AD, the period of Jesus and the Apostles, the historian Josephus tells us that the nazirite vow was very popular and that nazirites were highly regarded.
  • John the Baptist, and, evidently, James, the brother of Jesus, were life-long nazirites. The prophet Samuel was a Nazirite for his whole life, as was Samson.
  • John’s abstinence from alcohol was paired by the Gospel writer with his being “filled with the Holy Spirit from his birth.” By the same token, Samson, the other famous life-long nazirite in the Bible, was also the  person on whom the spirit of God came more often than any other OT character. I wonder what the biblical writers saw as the connection between avoiding alcohol and being filled with the Spirit of God?
  • Amos 2:11-12 parallels Yahweh’s sending of those unique divine spokesmen, the prophets, with Yahweh’s also sending those unique representatives of total devotion, the (non-drinking) nazirites. In addition, the inducing of a nazirite to drink alcohol was made parallel to the silencing of the prophet. The latter was one of the most severe crimes the OT knows of.
  • Matt. 2:23 associates Jesus with the nazirites. The line “He shall be called a Nazarean” is said to be an OT quotation, but in fact such a statement does not appear in the OT. What does appear in a Dead Sea Scroll version of 1 Samuel 1:22 is the statement that Hannah dedicated her son as a perpetual “Nazir” or Nazirite. The idea is explicit in 1 Sam 1:11, where the Greek OT likely used by St. Matthew includes “and wine and strong drink he shall not drink,” so Matthew likely had this passage in mind, seeing the Nazirite vow as at least typologically pointing to Jesus, if not actually defining his own identity as a Nazirite.
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Scavengers are almost always found in groups. Hawks and Eagles, almost never.

So the abstinences of the nazirite, even though they were a minority, were not considered odd, bizarre, or odious, but were cherished as pointers to a life of total devotion to God and plays a role in understanding the ministry of Jesus. As a matter of fact, the same terms are used to describe the holiness of the nazirite as are used to describe the holiness of Israel’s High Priest (cf. Lev. 21:11ff and Numb. 6)

Here’s an intriguing irony about the Nazirite. Though defined by abstinence from alcohol, the Hebrew term נָזִיר nazir, normally (correctly) translated “dedicated, devoted” at times connotes equally freedom, something allowed to run wide open, given free rein. For example, in Leviticus 25:11, the grapes growing “wild” in the sabbatical year, when no harvest is to be taken, are called עִנְבֵי נְזִירֶיךָ ‘inbê nezîrêka “the grapes of  your nazir” which essentially conveys “the grapes you have allowed to grow freely in the observance of the sabbatical year.” So the idea seems to be a peculiar blend of following a rule and, at the same time, running wild and free! And as for avoiding corpses or anything connected with death, clearly the idea here is to defy death, to bear witness to death’s not being Yahweh’s ultimate plan for his people. The Nazirite represents a powerful witness for the defiance of death and the unleashing of life, wild, luxurious and free. Those original life-long nazirites were charismatic warriors and devotees of Yahweh, the xTreme version of personal OT faith. So emblematic was the nazirite as a leader in devotion that the term for a leader’s crown or diadem is nezer, cloned from the same term as nazir. Far from being a peripheral, disposable feature of the OT faith, the nazirite embodied its high expression.

Like I keep saying: does this mean that total abstinence is somehow mandatory? Of course not.

But it’s important to note that total abstinence is not frowned on either! So when someone writes, as I saw in an editorial recently, that total abstinence is abnormal or might harm a person’s Christian witness, I can only say “Bul… uh, horse-manure!” Someone saying that is an immature person who can’t simply exercise his freedom in Christ: he has to lean on others who make a different, and biblically, possibly higher choice!

The nazirite reminds us that in the community of God’s people, as a whole, abstinence has a cherished place: it is a sign of total dedication to God. These persons in ancient Israel were seen as parallel to the prophets, as embodying  both self-restraint and unleashed death-defying life… As Gordon Wenham writes, “These examples suggest that vows and other self-imposed obligations may still have a place in church life, pointing to the total dedication to God’s service that is the goal of all Christian disciples.” (Tyndale Commentary; Numbers, p. 100, italics added)

Which leads me to a question for my total-abstinence readers. So… is your abstinence a sign of xTreme devotion, of unleashed life, of defiance against death… or is it just a prickly legalistic thing that leads you to judge others?

So… that’s something else that “they” didn’t tell you about alcohol and the Bible!

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I'm 60 years old, professor of Old Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. I love my wife of 36 years, my three adult children and children-in-law. I love our three horses, two cats, and whatever other creatures decide to call our place home. I hate mowing grass, hanging pictures or shelves, or anything involving punching or drilling holes in walls. I love my job of studying and teaching the Old Testament. I've recently contracted a fierce interest in archaeology. I also enjoy guitars, jazz, vintage firearms, airplanes, photography, drystone masonry and, visiting the lands of the Bible.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Thank you for a balanced view. I grew up with an uncle and a grandfather who were UMC clergy. They took a hard line stance against alcohol, as well as some other issues. As an adult, I realized that they took it too far.

  2. Abstinence was encouraged by John Wesley, founder of Methodist Church, not because drinking wine and beer were not biblical, but because he saw alcohol causing so much hurt, despair and breakup of families in England because of over indulgence and alcoholism even in children. It should e noted that abstinence is not mentioned in the Discipline of the United Methodist Church.

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