Did Ancient Israelites Drink Beer?

SONY DSCI am very particular about context in Scripture, so when I see something obscured that can be clarified, I like to repost it for all. And, in the spirit of the season, a festive libation which has warmed the hearts of men for millenia is the subject. The drinking of beer was prevalent across the Ancient Middle East, and a daily libation in the Ancient world. So why don’t we see the word ‘beer’ in the Bible? Michael Homan, of Biblical Archaelogy Review, fills in the blanks.

So why don’t we see the word ‘beer’ in the Bible, 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 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 (a gallon a day for Egypt’s pyramid workers!) and ancient physicians even 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.

 

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