Monday, September 6, 2010

Did the Ancient Israelites Drink Beer?

My wife, Lori, wanted me to find a hobby. She thought it was fine that I read, write and teach about biblical studies. But she thought I needed to find something that would be a distraction. So I began to brew beer. I already had a deep, abiding love and appreciation for beer. Four years of living in England helped me to appreciate what real beer should taste like. Two uncles who live in England made their own beer. So when I decided to learn the fine art of home brewing I had found a hobby. I am not sure if this is the kind of hobby Lori had in mind, but it is the one I chose.

Imagine my excitement when I saw that the recent issue of Biblical Archaeology Review brought both of my passions together in an article entitled: Did the Ancient Israelites Drink Beer? Michael Horman gives a resounding "Yes" to the question. The ancient Israelites drank beer since it was a common part of the ancient world's diet. Of course the beer of the ancient world was not like the fine brews we enjoy today. Beer in antiquity did not contain hops and it was often produced by fermenting a barley cake in some water.

In the article Horman argues that the Hebrew word shekhar which is usually translated as "strong drink" would be better understood as "beer". He even suggests that one of drinks which the Nazerite was commanded to avoid in Numbers 6:3-4 was beer. Horman notes that the oft repeated phrase from Ecclesiastes 11:1-2 is probably referring to beer.
"cast your bread upon the water and in many days you will acquire and then give servings to seven or eight others for you do not know what evil there will be upon the land"

The description sounds a lot like how the ancients brewed beer!

Horman's article makes me think about Deuteronomy 14:22-26 where ancient Israel is instructed about the tithe. If they could not get to the temple they were to use their tithe to buy food and "strong drink" (beer according to Horman's translation) and then enjoy themselves. I am not sure if most modern churches would approve of me spending my offering this way, but I am glad to see that my hobby has a long history with biblical endorsement.


  1. Thanks for that, i'll be reflecting on that proverb for a while now... The book God and guinness has a great first chapter about the cultural history of beer, which you'd be interested in, if you are not already an expert?
    Here's my review,

  2. Johnathon,

    Thanks! I have seen the book but not read it yet. A few years ago a group of faculty and students would get together on an evening to discuss various theological topics. We called the group God and Guinness.


  3. As one of your beer disciples, I must thank you for your unending wisdom!

  4. Just got my copy of BAR today, so had wondered which "recent" issue you had found this article.

    Interesting. I wonder if the Israelite's beer-making technique was influenced by their 438 years of slavery by the Egyptians? Hard to imagine that much of their "old life" would be the same after that length of time in a different world. Beer ("hnkt") played a big part in the funerary offerings of the dead in Ancient Egypt, no doubt because it played a big part in their day to day lives.

    Also, are not the Israelites told not to harvest the corners of their fields, but to leave the corners for the poor and the widows to glean? I always figured it was for bread, but now, perhaps it was also for beer? Beer could be accessible to all people while wine, one had to have access to grapes (or money).

    Last thought. Are you going to try out the ancient technique of beer brewing by baking a barley cake and casting it upon the waters? Could expand your hobby a bit...and give a whole new meaning to show, (taste) and tell for class. :0)

  5. Beth,

    Although I have never had a class tasting, I suppose we could work something out in the future. Off campus of course.

  6. Kindly note that I had earlier commented on Michael Homan's article, when it was first published online by BAR. I have released an abridged version of my response to Did Ancient Israelites Drink Beer at: Michael Homan's article contains deliberate misleading citations on the works of recognized biblical scholars. My article compares the actual text of scholars whose work was footnoted, with the representations of Asst. professor Michael Homan. The conclusion is clear that Homan fabricated his basis for his unconventional archaeological conclusion. Ray Oliver