The Search for a "Thou Shalt Not"

I have not found in the Bible any explicit prohibition against the consumption of wine. Where is the biblical support for the church's position?

To answer your question thoroughly requires more space than I have available here. What makes a short answer difficult is that there are a significant number of biblical texts to consider, and at times the texts move from what appears to be acceptance of wine consumption, to moderate use of it, to rejection.

Your question requires a careful study of the biblical terminology for wine, the different contexts in which it is used, and the meaning of that information for us today. I will point only in a general way to the biblical teaching on this subject.

1. Comments on the Terminology: The Old Testament employs three main words to refer to wine. The first is shekar, which is usually translated "strong drink," but is now acknowledged, based on the use of the same root in other ancient languages, to refer to what we know as beer. It was definitely intoxicating (Isa. 28:7, 8; 29:9), and most probably made from grains. Most of the biblical references denounce or forbid its use (Lev. 10:9; 1 Sam. 1:15; Prov. 20:1; Isa. 5:11). Nevertheless, there is a peculiar and unique case that suggests that it was not necessarily wrong for an Israelite to drink beer (Deut. 14:26).

The second term, tirosh, is used to designate "new wine," grape juice (Judges 9:13; Isa. 65:8), the fresh must in the hollow of the winepress (Hosea 9:2; Micah 6:15; Joel 2:24; Prov. 3:10). Only one passage seems to indicate that it was intoxicating (Hosea 4:11), but the use of two words for wine in that text suggests that the intoxicating effect was the result of mixing "old" fermented wine with "new" unfermented wine.

The third word used for wine in the Bible is yayin, fermented grape juice (Gen. 9:21; Isa. 28:7). But again, there are several cases in which it could be referring to unfermented grape juice as it came from the winepress (Isa. 16:10; Jer. 48:33). The Greek version of the Old Testament uses the same Greek word, oinos, to render both Hebrew terms tirosh and yayin; and oinos is the term for "wine" found in the New Testament. The use of that term in the Old Testament suggests that in the New Testament oinos does not necessarily designate fermented grape juice.

2. Use of Wine in the Bible: Wine (yayin) was often part of the daily diet of the people of Israel (Gen. 14:18; Judges 19:19), and was also offered to God as a drink offering (Ex. 29:40). In a land where water was scarce, the juice of the grape was very important and widely used. That same type of wine was commonly associated with joy (Ps. 104:15), but its ingestion could lead to immoral behavior (Isa. 5:11, 12), drunkenness (Prov. 20:1), vomiting (Isa. 28:7, 8), addiction, and hallucinations (Prov. 23:33-35). Its use was forbidden among priests (Lev. 10:9) and Nazirites (Num. 6:1-4), and not recommended for kings and rulers (Prov. 31:4). In some cases wine seems to have had a medicinal function (2 Sam. 16:2; Luke 10:34; 1 Tim. 5:23). The soldiers at the foot of the cross tried to alleviate Jesus' pain by offering Him wine mixed with myrrh (Mark 15:23).

3. Implications for Believers: Wine was obviously used among the Israelites, and its consumption had beneficial as well as damaging effects. Not every reference to wine in the Bible automatically indicates a fermented drink. Each passage must be studied by itself. Many have concluded that the Bible does not teach abstinence from wine, but a moderate use of it. But we must consider the Bible's strong language against the use of wine.

The Bible points to abstinence as a better and more excellent way. Proverbs 23:31, 32 does not simply discourage the use of fermented wine, but counsels the individual to stay away from it: "Do not gaze at wine when it is red, when it sparkles in the cup, when it goes down smoothly! In the end it bites like a snake and poisons like a viper" (NIV). It is that biblical ideal that Adventists support and promote in a world in which the damaging effects of alcoholism are painfully well known.