A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Did the Ancient Israelites Drink Beer?

That's what Michael Homan argues in the September/October issue of Biblical Archaeology Review. If this is so how come we don't find beer mentioned in the Old Testament and why hasn't this been a topic of any interest in biblical scholarship?

Homan cites three reasons for the lack of knowledge and interest in Hebrew beer brewers: 1) the Hebrew word shekhar (שכר) has been misunderstood, 2) there is a general scholarly "snobbery" concerning beer drinking as opposed to the consumption of wine, and 3) the difficulty in identifying the remains of tools and items in the production of beer.

Now for a little more detail on Homan's three reasons:

1) Most English translations of the Old Testament render shekhar as "strong drink" or "liquor," and other terminology that would lead one to believe that the word does not refer to beer. But in the Hebrew Bible the word appears twenty times in parallel with "wine" (e.g. wine and beer). In other ancient Near Eastern literature the terms for wine and beer are often used in tandem. Moreover, the Hebrew word shekhar is derived from the Akkadian word šikaru which refers to "barley beer."

2) Ancient historians know that beer was a staple drink throughout the Ancient Near East. Why would the Israelites be an exception? We know that grain was grown widely throughout this part of the ancient world because it was easy to grow. Unlike grain, grapes cannot be grown just anywhere. Beer was used as wages and ancient physicians recommended a beer enema for such ailments as constipation. Hammurabi's Law Code legislates the price and the alcoholic content of beer.

One of the reasons scholars have not embraced beer drinking Israelites is that alcoholic beverages were often mixed. The ancient folk sometimes sweetened their beer with figs or honey. They also added spices. Interestingly enough it has been the advent of modern microbreweries with all the different kinds of flavored and spiced beers that have helped to clear up the ambiguity in reference to ancient beers.

A second reason is that the word shekhar also was the term used to refer to intoxication. This was also true of the word for "beer" in the Akkadian, Aramaic, Ugaritic, and Arabic languages.

Combine the connection of shekhar to the state of inebriation with the vision of the guy with the dirty t-shirt sitting in front of the TV drinking a bottle of cheap swill, scholars have not sufficiently considered the important place of beer in Israelite society. There has been an unspoken assumption that beer drinking is uncivilized.

3) It is been difficult to find archaeological evidence for ancient beer making in Israel because much of the same equipment was also used to make bread. This would be understandable, says Homan, since in the ancient world beer and bread were closely connected. In addition, it is more difficult to find chemical traces of ancient beer in jars and other pottery because, unlike wine, ancient beer did not keep long and was brewed for immediate consumption. Beer drinking was also a community activity. One method of consumption was for several people to drink it from a large communal pot through straws.

Homan ends the article with Ecclesiastes 11:1-2:

Throw your bread upon the face of the water, because in many days you will acquire it. Give a serving to seven and also eight, because you do not know what evil will be upon the land.

Homan thinks these two verses are a reference to the cakes of bread used in the brewing of ancient beer. Thus the sage of Ecclesiastes is advising his hearers to make beer and drink it with friends because no one knows when future calamity is coming.

This Methodist preacher is trying to figure out how to preach that to his congregation!
For those who wish to read the full article from BAR, the link is here.


Pumice said...

Interesting but I don't think I will put the topic on the list of vital subjects to research. I tasted beer once, that was enough for me.

When you preach that sermon, maybe you could post it:)

Grace and Peace.

TN Rambler said...

Well, someone once said that "Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy." Perhaps there is more truth to that than I thought. :)

Allan R. Bevere said...

Rambler, that was Ben Franklin. Martin Luther also had positive things to say about beer.

RAY OLIVER, ESQ. said...

IT IS DISCONCERTING to see the lack of critical review of Homan's article. Homan's article is an overwhelming fabrication of sources. Homan's citations were checked against the actual text of renowned authorities. As evidenced, Homan fabricates & misstates the positions of those authorities. Note his footnote 11 does not give "linguistic sources." Homan falsely presented 20 clay jar stoppers as Israelite from Tel Zeitah. Tel Zeitah has no evidence that Jerusalem or Judah existed at the time. Broshi states philology of Shekhar is Greek & Roman word for "Cider." He evidences that Shekhar was "date wine" but called "beer" in Babylonian Talmud. Homan's article should be dismissed as the fodder of a beer drinking assoc. prof. who has no regard for accuracy and intellectual integrity. SEE: http://reverbpolitics.blogspot.com

RAY OLIVER, ESQ. said...

Note also that renowned authority Richard Friedman, states that "beer" requires "fermentation." He states that fermented bread was NOT allowed in the Temple as a sacrifice. Therefore, only unleavened bread was permitted for sacrifice. Therefore, the "fermentation of beer" would be difficult to introduce into the Temple as a sacrifice. In Homan's first 9 footnotes, he cites himself as a "source" 5 times. The remaining 4 are proven false citations of renowned authorities. His representation of Tel Zeitah finds is reprehensible and not sanctioned by the Tel Zeitah excavation director, Dr. R.E. Tappy. SEE: http://reverbpolitics.blogspot.com

Michael said...

Shekhar: Is it Wine or Beer? by Elaine Goodfriend, 2 Ju2 2017 http://thetorah.com/shekhar-is-it-wine-or-beer/