Duane Smith at Abnormal Interest has an interesting post on Judges 9:13. The passage is a portion of Jotham’s fable (Judges 9:7-15). In the fable, Jotham rebuked the people of Shechem for anointing Abimelech as king over them.
In his condemnation of the people, Jotham said:
“But the grapevine said to them, ‘Should I stop giving my wine that cheers both God and man, and rule over trees?’” (HCSB).
In commenting on this passage, Duane wrote: “But the allusion to gods finding cheer in the pressings of the vine has caused problems for both teetotalers (or at least those who think it unseemly for God or the gods to drink wine) and monotheists.”
Chris Heard at Higgaion joined the discussion by examining how English translations deal with the text. Chris discovered the following:
KJV, NJPS, NLT, ASV, NASB, ESV, HCSB, and WEB translate אֶלֺהִים as the singular “God” (the translators supplying a capital G), while the NIV, NRSV, NAB, NJB, NEB, and NCV translate אֶלֺהִים as the plural “gods” (the translators using a lower-case g).
In the case of Judges 9:13, one must remember that Jotham was criticizing the people of Shechem because he believed that Abimelech should not be allowed to rule as king over them. Since the people of Shechem were probably Canaanites, it is evident that Jotham was talking about the gods of the Canaanites and not about the God of Israel. Thus, the translation adopted by the KJV, NJPS, NLT, ASV, NASB, ESV, HCSB, and WEB is incorrect.
The translation offered by the KJV, the NLT and others raises a very interesting question: does God drink wine? Since I did not know the answer to this question, I decided to investigate the issue by searching the Bible to find out whether any passage presents the God of Israel as drinking wine.
After checking all the references in the Bible where the words “wine” and “strong drink” appear, I came to the conclusion, to the delight of teetotalers everywhere, that the Bible never says that God drinks wine.
Several texts from the Ancient Near East refer to gods drinking wine. In his post, Duane cites an Ugaritic text that makes reference to gods drinking wine. In the story of Bel and the Dragon, the Babylonians believed Bel was a living god because every day he drank about fifty gallons of wine (Bel 1:6).
There are, however, a few cases in the Old Testament where the text may give the impression that God drinks wine.
Jeremiah 25:15 reads: “For thus the LORD, the God of Israel, said to me: Take from my hand this cup of the wine of wrath, and make all the nations to whom I send you drink it.”
Psalm 75:8 reads: “For in the hand of the LORD there is a cup with foaming wine, well mixed; he will pour a draught from it, and all the wicked of the earth shall drain it down to the dregs.”
The references in Jeremiah and Psalm refer to the cup of God’s wrath which he puts on the lips of the wicked and holds it there until they drink it to the dregs. Other references to the cup of God’s wrath appear in Isaiah 51:17 and Ezekiel 23:32-24.
Psalm 78:65 says: “Then the Lord awoke as from sleep, like a warrior shouting because of wine.”
This text does not say that God was drunk but that when defending Israel, he will behave like a warrior aroused for battle, shouting like a drunken soldier.
In the New Testament, wine is associated with the Lord’s Supper. During the supper, Jesus and his disciples drank together:
“Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink from it, all of you’” (Matthew 26:27).
“Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, and all of them drank from it” (Mark 14:23).
“Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he said, ‘Take this and divide it among yourselves’” (Luke 22:17).
It is important to observe, however, that the gospel writers never used the word “wine” to explain what took place during the meal. Instead, they use the word “cup.” The word “wine” is never used in the context of the celebration of the Lord’s Supper.
After Jesus gave the cup to his disciples, he said:
“I tell you, I will never again drink of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom” (Matthew 26:29).
“Truly I tell you, I will never again drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God” (Mark 14:25).
“I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes” (Luke 22:18).
Again, Jesus never used the word “wine” to explain what he would drink in the Kingdom of God. He used the expression “the fruit of the vine.”
In Hebrew there are two words for wine. The wordתִירֹוש (Tîrôš) is used to refer to unfermented wine or grape juice. The word יַיִן (yäyin) is used to refer to fermented wine. Micah 6:15 makes a distinction between Tîrôš and yäyin where Tîrôš is translated as “new wine” or “grapes” and yäyin is translated as “wine.”
“You will plant crops, but will not harvest them; you will squeeze oil from the olives, but you will have no oil to rub on your bodies; you will squeeze juice from the grapes [Tîrôš], but you will have no wine [yäyin] to drink” (Micah 6:15 NET).
In Isaiah 65:8 Tîrôš is the new wine “found in the cluster” (ESV) or “the new wine found in a bunch of grapes” (HCSB):
“Here is what ADONAI says: As when juice [Tîrôš] is found in a cluster of grapes, and people say, ‘Don’t destroy it, there is still some good in it,’ so I will do likewise for the sake of my servants, and not destroy them all” (Isaiah 65:8 CJB).
I think this ambiguity of whether new wine or fermented wine was used in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper is very important for the contemporary church. I believe that God, in his divine providence, knew that the church would be divided between winebibbers and teetotalers. So, God left the question of the wine to be use in the Lord’s Supper as a matter of interpretation. Those who believe that “the cup” contained yäyin, use fermented wine. Those who believe that “the cup” contained Tîrôš, use grape juice.
I do not think, however, that the issue is as simple as explained above, but both winebibbers and teetotalers can find here an explanation for what they practice.
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary