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Issue and Interchange

Reynolds: Scripture Prohibits the Drinking of Alhocolic Beverages

Mr. Gentry argues for what he calls the moderationist view which is that the Bible allows the partaking of alcoholic beverages in moderation and with circumspection.

In the first place, all readers must understand that I present my arguments altogether from the Reformation standpoint that the Bible in its autograph manuscripts in the original languages of inspiration was inerrant. Some copyists made errors, but usually these were of very minor importance, did not affect faith or practice, and in most cases scholars can with some assurance recover what was the original. God never granted inerrancy to copyists and certainly not to translators. Some errors of translators do affect faith and practice and should be corrected. A new translation of both the Old and New Testament is urgently needed. This should be done not so much by consulting Hebrew and Greek dictionaries but by upholding the unity and harmony of the whole Bible. If the conclusions of any translator, dictionary, writer, commentator or polemicist of any kind damage the unity and harmony of the Bible they should immediately be held up to the closest scrutiny. God is his own interpreter, and He will make all plain. This last statement does not mean that it is necessarily easy to find the plain truth of the Bible on the matter of alcoholic beverages, but the principle is certain, and we must follow it.

In an attempt to give myself credibility to the reader of this critique, I must say that I was trained in the moderationist tradition and lived in it without pangs of conscience for many years. When I broke from it, it was not for what Mr. gentry calls cultural or demographic reasons, but on the basis of God's Word studied in depth in the original languages. Of course, there were cultural and demographic reasons which came to my attention, but to my shame as I look back on the past, I accepted the shallow arguments of my mentors.

My education included a degree from Princeton Theological Seminary and a Ph.D. from Princeton University and a long career of teaching Biblical subjects based on the original languages. But for years, I never dug deeply into the meaning of passages touching on beverages, whether alcoholic or nonalcoholic. I was asked and accepted the responsibility of being a member of a translation team working on the New International Version of the Bible, but no passage touching on alcoholic beverages occurred in the part of Scripture on which I worked. I did observe that members of another translation team were following a false tradition touching on what sort of a conscience a Christian ought to have, and I tried to get this team to correct the obvious error but to no avail.

I noticed failures on the part of mentors and my fellow clergymen, who doubtless considered themselves to be moderationists, at least in theory, to use alcoholic beverages in what even impartial observers would call circumspection or moderation. Some of these failures I considered more laughable than sinful, and as such, I could not regard them as sins; so I did not go back to the Bible to see what it really says. I had the tools of training in the Biblical languages, but such is the force of tradition I failed to use them. These sad failures of my own I admit, but I believe they do not harm my credibility as a student of God's Word in the original languages when at last I took up the study of beverages in the Bible.

A careful study of Proverbs 23 in the original freed me forever from my bondage to the moderationist theory. This chapter contains a number of prohibitions addressed to all humanity in the second person singular as are some of the Ten Commandments. They forbid us, each and every human being addressed as an individual, to do certain things such as removing old landmarks (stealing land), withholding correction from a child, envying sinners, being among winebibbers, despising our own mother when she is old and looking at a drink which in Hebrew transliterated is yayin ki yith'addam. The word yayin is generally translated wine in English Bibles. In this passage it is correctly translated wine. It is a beverage we must not look at lustfully. It is alcoholic wine. Yith'addam cannot (being hithpa'el) mean simply "when it is red." The following words are no doubt put in Holy Writ to distinguish the forbidden yayin from other yayin which is not forbidden.

This prohibition of looking at this sort of yayin establishes a principle, one to which all the rest of the Bible must conform if the Bible is in harmony with itself, which it certainly is.

We can no more look to other passages in the Bible, put our own interpretation on them, and say they negate Proverbs 23:31 than we can find some passage which we can twist to mean that we can despise our mothers when they are old and say that this negates verse 22 of the same chapter.

Someone who objects to taking Proverbs 23:31 in its plain sense has suggested that the entire book of Proverbs is given to us to make us think and contains no firm commands to be obeyed, but this is against II Timothy 3:16. If Proverbs gives a command, that command must be obeyed.

Another who objects to taking Prov. 23:31 as a command to all persons as individuals says it applies only to drunkards. His reason for doing that is that drunkards are mentioned, but drunkards and the ill effects of drinking are there to make clear what sort of yayin is prohibited, as there was nonalcoholic yayin as well as alcoholic. The idea of this objector is a very improper reason for seeking to avoid a clear command of God, which by reason of its place in the Bible is to be obeyed by all, not merely by drunkards.

That yayin in the Bible need not refer to an alcoholic drink is proved by Isaiah 16:10 and Jeremiah 48:33. Here the immediate product of treading grapes is called yayin, and yet everyone knows that the immediate product of treading grapes is called in modern (but not 17th century) English: grape juice.

This is all the evidence needed to affirm that wherever yayin is praised in the Bible it should be translated "grape juice," as for example when it is said that little children not fully weaned cry for it (Lam. 2:12) or when, in what may be the description of a harvest festival, fresh grape juice is being enjoyed by the happy harvesters and their friends and is called a gift of God from the earth to make glad the heart of man (Ps. 104:15).

One who objects to this suggests that yayin is properly translated wine (meaning an alcoholic beverage) in these passages by a figure of speech called prolepsis, but the context is altogether against this as can be proved if Mr. Gentry in a reply attempts to use this argument.

It is therefore certain that yayin in the Old Testament may be nonalcoholic, as incidentally it can be in modern Hebrew. God used a special phrase, yayin ki yith'addam to name the alcoholic kind. Furthermore, to make sure no one misses the point, He described what it does to the user. It bites like a serpent, stings like an adder, affects the vision and the heart badly, causes a condition like seasickness, insensitivity to pain and is habit forming.

This dangerous beverage is forbidden to be looked at in a series of prohibitions all the rest of which believers have universally accepted as easily understandable. But instead of saying drink not the prohibition is look not. This obviously does not mean that we can drink without looking. The meaning emphasizes the prohibition of verse 20. That verse commands us not to be among winebibbers. "Bad company corrupts good morals" (I Cor. 15:35 NAS). Verse 30 adds to the prohibition of verse 20 the further restriction that every person is forbidden to look at alcoholic wine lustfully whether in company or alone, because looking may lead to drinking. Drinking even a little of this beverage is a sin because it is forbidden to every individual person. This having been established, the rest of the Bible must be interpreted to harmonize with it, and this is not as difficult as a student untrained in deep study of the original languages may imagine.

I hope Mr. Gentry in reply will demonstrate skill in dealing with grammatical points in Hebrew and Greek and especially in harmonizing passages where the Bible appears to contradict itself. In his opening contribution I believe I see evidence of too much reliance on other writers rather than independent research, or even of proper use of the original. For example, in note 6, he cites Judges 9:13 as an example of where yayin is said to make glad the heart of man. This suggests that he was using an English translation, as the word here translated wine is tirosh and not yayin.

Mr. Gentry cites Dr. E.J. Young on the word shemarim in Isaiah 25:6. I knew the late Dr. Young and honor him greatly. He graciously said an exegetical study I did and which he published was excellent. I do not in any way suggest that my depth of scholarship is in any way equal to his. I must say frankly that he was greater in scholarship than I. Nevertheless his conclusion as to the meaning of this word shemer is formed from insufficient evidence. Shemer (plural shemarim) normally means dregs or lees and appears elsewhere as an unappetizing substance that settles in the bottom of a liquid. Shemarim is never presented in a favorable light except here. In Psalm 75:9, the wicked must drink it as punishment. In Jeremiah 48:11 and Zephaniah 1:12 the word by a figure of speech is associated with men who deserve punishment. It does not support the unity and harmony of the Bible to leap to the conclusion that the meaning "wine on the lees" is attached to this word in Isaiah 25:6 where it appears twice, being used of a delectable substance God will give to all people. Much more should be said to explain this verse, and readers can find more in my The Biblical Approach to Alcohol (Minnesota: International Society of Good Templars), but I have touched on it as much as I have in order to show that Mr. Gentry tries to make a point that the beverage at this feast will be "aged wine," therefore fermented. He can find this translation in the NIV but it is only a bad guess. The KJV translates it wine on the lees, but the word for wine does not occur, only the word normally translated as "lees." It is certain that we must dig deeper than either the KJV, the NIV or other translations. If we cannot determine the precise meanings we should be content to translate it simply beverages and in the second occurrence of the word beverages purged of yeast. The words purged of yeast are derived grammatically and philologically. It is interesting that Martin Luther translates this verse as to be "without yeast," a brilliant insight.

Mr. Gentry writes that the non-moderationist argument may distort the doctrine of Christ "in that any universal censure of something Jesus did distracts from His holiness." In fact, it is the people who say Jesus drank alcoholic beverages and created alcoholic wine in large quantity who make Jesus an object of scorn. A cartoon was published in an atheistic periodical showing Jesus and the wedding party at Cana in an advanced state of drunkenness. If Jesus made a large quantity of alcoholic wine for a wedding party in a small village He was not teaching a lesson in moderation. The atheistic cartoonist was making a reasonable inference from the facts as he understood them, and the moderationist should rethink what he has written so that the holiness of Christ may be vindicated before the reading public. A better Bible translation is needed.

The fact which most scholars choose to ignore is that oinos in Koine Greek could be understood as grape juice. The Septuagint translates the word yayin as oinos in Isaiah 16:10 where a substance that could not possibly be alcoholic is mentioned. The Greek of the Septuagint is practically the same as that of the New Testament. This establishes beyond doubt that oinos may be unfermented grape juice in the New Testament. Jesus would not tempt people to commit the sin of drunkenness. Therefore, since oinos may be grape juice fresh from the press, what Jesus made must have been such a drink.

Of course oinos may be alcoholic. The fact that the same word may denote either an alcoholic or a nonalcoholic drink should not be considered incredible. Our English word cider may be either. The English word "wine" in the seventeenth century had both meanings. When the evil nature of the drink (a mocker, poison) is clear, we should understand it as alcoholic. Where it is approved we should understand it to be nonalcoholic. Where the context does not make the distinction apparent, a Bible translator and teacher must use care. In Romans 14:21, which Mr. Gentry cites as evidence that Paul was referring to an alcoholic drink, the weaker brother may have been a Jewish Christian under a Nazarite vow who would be offended if Paul drank grape juice in his presence. Therefore, Paul would abstain for the sake of his brother. Another possibility is that the oinos Paul would forgo was alcoholic, but those who suppose he may have drunk it under other conditions do not notice that he did not say that under other conditions he would drink it. He simply did not address the question. Other passages Mr. Gentry cites may be treated in the same way. What is certain is that Proverbs 23:31 prohibits alcoholic wine, and no passage in any part of the Bible inspired later can possibly abrogate it, for it is part of God's everlasting moral law. An absolute prohibition is not abrogated by a partial prohibition.

I have not cited many human, uninspired authors. God alone is the certain source of all knowledge. We should go to the Source. The Holy Scriptures in the original languages should be our only rule of faith and practice. We should not be prone to follow human authority even when it is enshrined in tradition. For example, Joseph and his brothers are said to have been drunk (Gen.43:34). The word is wayyishke ru. The Septuagint, Vulgate, and Luther's German (early translations) rightly say they were drunk.

It is hard to escape the conclusion that later translators were shocked at the forthright way God in his revealed Word described one incident of what was an occasion brought about by God, and over which He bestowed his blessing. Later translators seem to have thought that the word God used in this situation exposed both the substance alcohol and the patriarchs to criticism from which they wished to shield them. They therefore substituted "they were merry" for "they were drunk." God, however, is unsparing in his use of words regarding what is undoubtedly an alcoholic beverage in Proverbs 23. Elsewhere, he calls it a mocker and refers to its poison. God is also unsparing when He describes the sins of good men.

One reason for mentioning the Genesis 43:34 incident is that it shows what every Christian needs to know. This is that when an error is made by respected persons, especially when it tends to make alcohol acceptable, almost all later translators, commentators and dictionary writers accept the error as correct. This tends to make morals decay. It is all the more noteworthy when it is observed that when matters not having to do with human self-indulgence are treated in the Bible, translators readily distinguish different meanings of words, such as `elohim, keleb and ro'sh. But when yayin is found, it is regularly translated wine, and wine is understood to be an alcoholic drink. This is true even when it is impossible that yayin could be alcoholic. The verb shakar is translated to be merry in Gen. 43:34 when there is nothing in the Bible to suggest what mood the people at the family reunion may have been in. They were drunk, and as confusion took control of their minds, old resentments may have come up, and they may have engaged in quarrels.

Hebrew had a word for to be merry in general circumstances and even expressions meaning to be hilarious because of alcohol, usually leading to death, but these expressions are not used here.

This tendency to make alcohol drinking seem better than it is should be diligently examined and exposed by the use of the original languages. Mr. Gentry may be excused for not doing so in depth, but another scholar, whose credentials to work on Hebrew grammar and vocabulary appear to be much better than Mr. Gentry's, does even worse in defending as correct the error of the NIV in Micah 2:11. In this passage the translators of the NIV without warrant from the Hebrew text introduced a word, "plenty" which is not there. This is a very serious wrong, especially as the word introduced gives quite a different sense to the passage. A limitation of space prevents me from explaining why the NIV is wrong here, but to strengthen my argument that scholars go to extremes to remove the thought that God condemns the use of alcohol even in moderation, I will add that the scholar mentioned above (Prof. Bruce Waltke) uses a grammatical construction, the constructio praegnans, to defend the NIV, a defense that is totally inadmissible.

In conclusion, I have to say that I feel called by God to press on to do all I can with God's help that a new translation be given to suffering mankind. I shall issue a summons to all who understand that mankind has been too long deceived by translators. If any will contribute their skill or some of the financial resources they have as a trust from God to give the people a purified Bible let them come forth as volunteers. I myself, who cannot expect to be given enough time on earth to complete this task, feel moved by God to establish an endowed trust fund. The need is urgent. Are there other volunteers?

Copyright © by Covenant Community Church of Orange County 1991
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