This is my second post in this series which aims to provide a biblical perspective on alcohol; the first is available here. I am currently planning two more posts in this series, one addressing contextualization and another explaining why I am convinced that this issue is extremely important.
Starting with Scripture
As I was reading several weeks ago I came across the following passage in Scripture which surprised me for several reasons.
22You shall tithe all the yield of your seed that comes from the field year by year. 23And before the LORD your God, in the place that he will choose, to make his name dwell there, you shall eat the tithe of your grain, of your wine, and of your oil, and the firstborn of your herd and flock, that you may learn to fear the LORD your God always. 24And if the way is too long for you, so that you are not able to carry the tithe, when the LORD your God blesses you, because the place is too far from you, which the LORD your God chooses, to set his name there, 25then you shall turn it into money and bind up the money in your hand and go to the place that the LORD your God chooses 26and spend the money for whatever you desire—oxen or sheep or wine or strong drink, whatever your appetite craves. And you shall eat there before the LORD your God and rejoice, you and your household. 27And you shall not neglect the Levite who is within your towns, for he has no portion or inheritance with you.
28At the end of every three years you shall bring out all the tithe of your produce in the same year and lay it up within your towns. 29And the Levite, because he has no portion or inheritance with you, and the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow, who are within your towns, shall come and eat and be filled, that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands that you do.
A Surprising Recommendation
This text’s positive mention of wine is not surprising as there are countless texts where it is spoken of in a positive light, although the definition of “wine” has been debated ad nauseam. This text is surprising in that it, without and qualifications, commends “strong drink.” While the various sides of this debate can continue to argue about the alcohol content of wine the meaning of “strong drink” is impeccably clear. This would have been an alcoholic beverage made from wheat or barley in all likelihood it was similar to beer or other grain alcohol. Even more surprising than the commendation of strong drink is the way in which it is commended and to grasp this it is necessary to look at the passage as a whole.
The passage begins by commanding a tithe of grain, wine, oil, and livestock (cf. Leviticus 27:30–32) that is to be taken to “the place that he will choose” i.e. the location of the tabernacle and eventually the temple (cf. Deuteronomy 12). Due to the vastness of the Promised Land and the difficulty of making this pilgrimage with one’s entire family in addition to a tenth of all one’s grain, wine, oil, and livestock it was allowed that one could convert the tithe into money and travel to the sanctuary.
Before continuing it is best to return to verse 23 and examine the intent of the tithe. This tithe is carried out so that “that you may learn to fear the LORD your God always.” This act is not a means of acquiring personal righteousness rather the act of tithing is a means of instructing the covenant community of their standing before God and the reverence that is always due Him. Whether in times of abundance or drought the tithe stood as a reminder to Israel that their God was sovereign and all they possessed was the result of His grace.
Upon arrival at the sanctuary the money would then be used to purchase various goods. This practice was the history behind the moneychangers during Jesus’ day (cf. Matthew 21:12-13) the difference being that those during the time of Christ were taking advantage of those who had made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem rather than dealing with them fairly. Interestingly enough after their arrival at the temple they were not required to purchase the same goods which they had originally exchanged for money but they were allowed to purchase whatever they desired and their appetites craved. The inclusion here of the brief list “or sheep or wine or strong drink” is by no means exhaustive rather it includes a brief sampling of what they might desire to purchase; nevertheless two of the included options are alcoholic beverages.
They are to enjoy what they have purchased by feasting and rejoicing before, or in the presence of, the LORD. Those who would argue that the inclusion of “wine and strong drink” suggests that the goods were used as burnt offerings and drink offerings do a great disservice to the clear language of this text as well as its eschatological dimensions. The language of the text suggests God’s participation in a feast symbolizing covenant renewal; however, the feast also points forward to the wedding supper of the Lamb. This is not the language of burnt offerings but a meal of rejoicing at the covenant faithfulness and redeeming grace of Israel’s God. The Levites, who were charged with the care of the tabernacle (Numbers 1:50-53), did not have an inheritance of their own and depended upon the rest of the covenant community for provision (cf. Numbers 18:24) were to be included in the feast.
God’s care for Israel is demonstrated in this and even more in that every third year the tithe is to be converted into a local feast whereby the Levites, sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow may be provided for.
Implications for the Church
There are countless implications that can be drawn from this text concerning one’s attitude in giving and the purpose behind this act. This text also has implications for our understanding of the Lord’s Supper as an eschatological and celebratory act. I would love to hear your thoughts on these topics in the comments section.
The purpose of this post is to focus on the implications that must be drawn for our understanding of the use of alcohol within the covenant community of the church. What we find here, and in many other texts that will be discussed over the course of this series, is that the perception that Scripture places an absolute prohibition on the consumption of alcoholic beverages is wholly false. Not only is that perception false but this text arguably places the consumption of alcoholic beverages at the center of Israel’s celebration of the provision and grace of Yahweh.
Am I going to attempt to argue from this that alcohol should be a centerpiece in the worship of the church? No, I am not. Neither should we come to the polar opposite conclusion that alcohol is always condemned by Scripture. The key to this issue, and many others, is moderation. There are times when it is condemned and times when it is commended and the church must be resolved to rest between these two points of tension. This is a difficult task. Both Scripture and church history reveal numerous occasions where the people of God are unable to hold various points of tension and end up in error. We must avoid this error. It is my prayer that, by the grace of God, we will stand between the deadly polls of legalism and liberalism as we live and proclaim the gospel.
As we approach this issue let us do so with both a wisdom that avoids the deadly dangers of legalism and liberalism. If you choose to discuss please do so with charity.
So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.
—I Corinthians 10:31
Keith- I just read your first and second post on alcohol and I think both are great. I would like to comment on the Lord’s Supper since the wine and the blood are so intricately connected. Jesus talked a lot about us eating, drinking and feasting on Him. The passage in John where he states that we must eat his flesh and drink his blood was revolting enough to turn many away.
Communion was meant to be so much more than it is today. It was meant to be a feast with Christ at the center. The symbolism is so strong that it is meant to be used in sharing the good news with those over a meal and was never meant to exclude non believers. Jesus himself, shared the meal along with many other meals with Judas. He had used the same terminology throughout his ministry so that the final meal was the finishing touch on what the feast was meant to represent. Jesus was consistent in his ministry with the breaking of bread and then talking about how it represented His life
We no longer have a feast but we have a tiny wafer a cup of grape juice. Plus we exclude people from partaking of the feast based on a passage in 1 Corinthians 11 that was written to believers as a warning not to exclude other believers from the feast. There were believers even getting sick and some died as a result of not sharing in the feast.
Most inward practices within the church need to return to their outward meaningful purpose. Normal everyday Christians need to think about how Lord’s supper can be an opportunity to share with their neighbors in the giving and breaking of bread. It is a natural way to share the gospel in a non threatening manner.
It doesn’t take a priest to bless the bread and grape juice! Lest we forget just before the Lord’s supper that our Lord commanded us not to Lord it over one another as the disciples to see who was the greatest.
Thanks again Keith for your boldness!
Great post! I was once in the legalistic camp but through hard experience, as well as honest reflections on passages such as the one you mentioned, moved to a more centralized position.
Before reaching this place I actually wrote a book arguing that alcohol of any kind for any reason, other than medicinal, was biblically disallowed. Points in the book are still useful for encouraging moderation but I no longer consider prohibition a worthy cause.
Thanks for writing
Thank you for your comment. I am glad this is an issue that people are starting to think through and discuss. I was first introduced to the communion as feast concept by Neil Cole and Alan Hirsch and it challenged me greatly. In “Organic Church” Cole challenged me with his explanation of why we need to understand the gospel as a means of proclaiming and illustrating the gospel for those who do not know Christ. I hope to see more churches celebrating communion as a meal. I am still wrestling with the idea of including those outside of the covenant community in communion but I think this passage in Deuteronomy does indicate that others were included in the feast in celebration of Yahweh’s redemptive grace. “Organic Church” was the first book that I have read to suggest this are there any resources that you would recommend reading on this issue?
Thank you for the encouraging words.
I just finish reading Church 3.0 by Neil Cole and much of what I shared is in one of the later chapters of the book. Of course Neil’s is well thought out and organized with life examples compared to my rambling. It is an excellent read. One of the best chapters examines the different churches in the NT and challenges the premise that the church in Jerusalem is the “model church” for us to follow today.
Take care brother,