Translating the Bible: Does God Drink Wine?

Bible Translations

The book of Judges details the apostasy of Israel after the death of Joshua and the people who entered the land of Canaan with him: “Moreover, that whole generation was gathered to their ancestors, and another generation grew up after them, who did not know the LORD or the work that he had done for Israel. Then the Israelites did what was evil in the sight of the LORD and worshiped the Baals” (Judges 2:10–11).

This story of apostasy is detailed in Judges 3:7—16:31. This section of the book tells the stories of the major and minor judges. One of these judges was Gideon, one of the major judges who judged Israel for forty years, “So the land had rest forty years in the days of Gideon” (Judges 8:28). However, after the death of Gideon the people of Israel returned to the worship of Baal, “As soon as Gideon died, the Israelites relapsed and prostituted themselves with the Baals, making Baal-berith their god” (Judges 8:33).

After the death of Gideon, his son Abimelech, went to Shechem to visit relatives on his mother’s side of the family. Abimelech spoke to them and his mother’s whole family and reminded them that he was their own flesh and blood. He was one of them, but the seventy sons of Gideon were not.

So, under the instigation of Abimelech, a group of “worthless and reckless men” (Judges 9:4) and Abimelech went to Gideon’s home in Ophrah and killed his seventy brothers. Only Jotham, Gideon’s youngest son, survived because he hid from Abimelech. Then the citizens of Shechem went to a sacred place and proclaimed Abimelech king at the oak by the cult-pillar in Shechem (Judges 9:6).

When Jotham heard that the people of Shechem were gathered together to anoint Abimelech to be their king, he went to a high spot on Mount Gerizim and there, he confronted the people and ridiculed the ceremony by telling the people a fable about trees.

Jotham introduced his judgment upon Abimelech and his anointing by means of a fable (Judges 9:7–15), popularly known as “Jotham’s Fable.” Jotham’s speech is not a parable since parables feature humans as the main characters of the story. Fables generally use animals or plants as the main characters.

Jotham’s fable is a story about trees asking for a noble tree to be their king. Their request is refused by three noble trees, but accepted by a thorn bush. The story concludes with a conditional statement: if the trees are asking the thorn bush to be king in good faith, then the thorn bush will rule over and provide shade for the trees; if not, fire will proceed from the thorn bush and devour the trees.

In the fable, one of the noble trees refuses the invitation to rule over the them. After the olive tree (Judges 9:9) and the fig tree (Judges 9:11) refused to be king over the trees, “the trees said to the vine, ‘You come and reign over us.’ But the vine said to them, ‘Shall I leave my wine that cheers God and men and go hold sway over the trees?’” (Judges 9:12–13 ESV).

In their commentary on Judges, Smith and Bloch-Smith explain the intent of the fable, “Overall, the fable is structured by four narrative steps, with the first three offers of kingship refused and the fourth received with warning. The behavior of the first three plants fits the figure of Gideon, who declined kingship in 8:23. By contrast, the final tree addressed, the thornbush or possibly thorn tree, reverses this pattern, anticipating Abimelech as an analogous prickly leader with few positive traits” (Smith and Bloch-Smith 2022:611–612).

One surprising statement in Judges 9:13 and one that has caused problems for people who do not drink and for those who believe that the God of the Bible does not drink wine, is the statement that wine makes God cheerful and happy, “Shall I leave my wine that cheers God and men?”

This raises the question, “Does God drink wine?”

It depends on which translation of the Bible one reads. Below are two different translations of Judges 9:13:

“But the vine said to them, ‘Shall I leave my wine that cheers God and men and go hold sway over the trees?’” (Judges 9:13 ESV).

The Hebrew word for God is אֱלֹהִים (elohim). When the word אֱלֹהִים (elohim) is used to designate the God of Israel, the word is translated with a capital “G,” “God.” When the word אֱלֹהִים (elohim) is used to designate the god of the Canaanites, the word is translated with a lower-case “g,” “god.”

The following translations use the capital “G” in Judges 9:13 as referring to the God of Israel: KJV, NKJ, TNK, NLT, JPS, ASV, BBE, CJB, DRA, NASB, ESV, HCSB, and WEB:

“But the vine said to them, ‘Shall I leave my wine that cheers God and men and go hold sway over the trees?’” (Judges 9:13 ESV).

The following translations use the lower-case “g” in Judges 9:13 as referring to the god of the Canaanites: NIV, NRSV, RSV, NAB, NET, NJB, NEB, and GWN:

“But the vine answered, ‘Should I give up my wine, which cheers both gods and men, to hold sway over the trees?’” (Judges 9:13 NIV).

The Septuagint (LXX), the Greek translation of the Old Testament, paraphrases Judges 9:13 in order to avoid the anthropomorphic statement that God drinks wine, “And the vine said to them, ‘Am I to neglect my wine, the good cheer of men which comes from God, and go to rule the trees?’” (Judges 9:13 NETS).

So, which translation is correct? The answer to this question requires a careful study of the context of Jotham’s fable.

Jotham was speaking to the citizens of Shechem to ridicule Abimelech and to criticize them for choosing Abimelech as king over them. Shechem was a Canaanite city which was assimilated into Israel in the days of Joshua. Since the inhabitants of Shechem were Canaanites, Jotham was talking about Baal, the Canaanite god worshiped at Shechem, not about Yahweh, the God of Israel.

Thus, from the perspective of Jotham’s address to the people of Shechem, the translation of Judges 9:13 found in the KJV, NKJ, TNK, NLT, JPS, ASV, BBE, CJB, DRA, NASB, ESV, HCSB, and WEB which says that the God of Israel drinks wine is not a good translation.

There is another reference to wine given as an offering to God. Numbers 15:17 says, “as a drink offering you shall offer one-third of a hin of wine, a pleasing odor to the LORD.”

According to Levine, the use of wine for libation “represents an ancient form of worship” (Levine 1993:392). The references to wine for libation is found in Numbers 15:5, 15:7, and 15:10.

However, in the wine offering, the text does not say that God drank the wine. The wine was consumed by fire as a pleasing odor to God, “you shall present as a drink offering half a hin of wine, as an offering by fire, a pleasing odor to the LORD” (Numbers 15:10).

This still leaves the question unanswered: “Does God drink wine?”

The translation offered by the KJV, the ESV, and others raises a very interesting question: does God drink wine? Since the answer to this question is not evident from the text, the answer to this question will come by searching the Bible to find out whether any passage presents the God of Israel drinking wine.

A thorough checking of all the references in the Bible where the words “wine” and “strong drink” appear, leads 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. There is a reference in 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 in the book of Psalms 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 word תִּירוֹש (tîrôŝ) is used to refer to unfermented wine or grape juice. That is the word used in Judges 9:13. The word יַיִן (yayin) is used to refer to fermented wine.

BDB defines tîrôŝ as “must, fresh or new wine.” The word is used thirty-eight times and it is generally translated as new wine: “Threshing floor and winevat shall not feed them, and the new wine (tîrôŝ) shall fail them” (Hosea 9:2 RSV).

Micah 6:15 makes a distinction between תִּירוֹש (tîrôŝ) and יַיִן (yayin) where tîrôŝ is translated as “new wine” or “grapes” and yayin is translated as “wine.”

Micah says that wine (yayin) comes from tîrôŝ: “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 [tîrôŝ], but you will have no wine [yayin] to drink” (Micah 6:15 NET).

Isaiah says that tîrôŝ is found in the clusters: “the wine (tîrôŝ) is found in the cluster” (Isaiah 65:8).

The word tîrôŝ is never associated with drunkenness except perhaps in Hosea 4:11 where yayin is also mentioned. It is for this reason that Albright suggests that tîrôŝ refers to unfermented wine (Albright 1968:186). In his article on tîrôŝ Eugene Carpenter says that “The word designates a fresh, unfermented new wine that was especially desired and enjoyable” (Carpenter 1997:4:290).

In Isaiah 65:8 tîrôŝ is the new wine “found in the cluster” (ESV) or “the new wine found in a bunch of grapes” (HCSB). Carpenter says that “the presence of tîrôŝ in the grape clusters seems to indicate a “nonfermented juice” (Carpenter 1997:4:290)

“Here is what ADONAI says: As when juice [tîrôŝ] 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 yayin, use fermented wine. Those who believe that “the cup” contained tîrôŝ, 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.

NOTE: For other studies on translating the Bible, see my post, Studies on Translation Problems in the Old Testament.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Albright, William F. Yahweh and the Gods of Canaan: A Historical Analysis of Two Contrasting Faiths. Garden City, NY: Doubleday 1968.

Baruch A. Levine, Numbers 1–20. The Anchor Bible. New York: Doubleday, 1993.

Carpenter, Eugene. תִּירוֹש (tîrôŝ). New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis. Edited by Willem A. VanGemeren. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997.

Claude Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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This entry was posted in Abimelech, Book of Judges, Translating, Translation Problems, Translations of the Bible, Wine and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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