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Beer in Ancient Israel

September 16, 2010

Michael Homan has an article up over at Biblical Archaeological Review entitled Did the Ancient Israelites Drink Beer? Obviously, such a title gives the answer away; and Horman does assert that, yes, the Israelites drank beer (Heb: shekhar, שכר).

A key piece of his argument is his treatment of Numbers 6:2-4 where YHWH commands:

Speak to the children of Israel and say to them, ‘If a man or a woman makes a vow of the Nazirite to become a Nazirite of YHWH, from wine and beer one must separate one’s self. One must not drink wine vinegar or beer vinegar, and any juice of the grape one must not drink. One must not eat grapes, either fresh or dried. All the days of one‖s consecration one must not eat anything that is made from the grapevine – from the seeds to the skins.

In discussing this passage, Homan writes that because Num 6 (and similarly Judg 13) elaborates on the grapes and their products and constituent parts,

some have contended that shekhar must be grape-based. Yet nowhere does the text state that shekhar is produced from grapes. The issue here is that the Nazirite and a woman pregnant with a child destined to be a Nazirite (such as Samson and his mother) must not come in contact with alcoholic beverages. The Biblical texts elaborate on grapes because a single grape contains the ingredients necessary to ferment and produce alcohol: sugars, liquid and even yeast. Barley, however, cannot ferment on its own and therefore no elaboration is necessary in the Biblical text as to shekhar.

I dealt with this text in my dissertation and independently came to the same conclusion as Homan. The issue in Num 6:2-4 is a temporary ban on all possible intoxicants (Judg 13 seems to be interpreting Samson as a special kind of Nazirite due to his unique paternal ancestry). Beer needs an emulsified mixture to activate the fermentation process for the grain involved. Grapes (and other fruits such as dates and what not) can begin fermenting much earlier and lingering traces can be tasted if the drying process begins too late. Hence, the biblical proscription of these items is more elaborate.

For a more detailed study designed for a scholarly audience, I recommend Homan’s earlier treatment of this material:

Michael M. Homan, “Beer, Barley and שכר in the Hebrew Bible,” in Le-David Maskil: A Birthday Tribute for David Noel Freedman (ed. Richard E. Friedman and William H. Propp; BJS 9; Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2004), 25-38.

(HT: PaleoJudaica and Dr. Platypus)

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