Thursday, January 31, 2013

Jewish Beer???

SONY DSCBeer was familiar across the Ancient Middle East, so why don’t we see the word ‘beer’ in the Bible? Michael Homan, of Biblical Archaelogy Review, suggests it might just be there after all.
I grew up thinking that the primary contribution of Germans to America was neither the Christmas tree nor schnapps but beer. The plethora of regional brews with German sounding names (Storz, Hamms, Schlitz, Pabst, etc) though not exactly like their authentic German counterparts seemed to reinforce this presumption. Oh, sure, I heard stories of beer as an ancient beer predating the Goths and other Germanic tribes -- but I did not give much credence to them. Now I find that even the Israelites might have known beer (not before seen in Scripture and surely not as predominant as wine, or maybe not). 
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: 
    Cast your bread upon the waters,
        for you will find it after many days.
    Give a portion to seven, or even to eight,
        for you know not what disaster may happen on earth.  (ESV)

Homan has come to the conclusion that these two verses refer to the cakes of bread used in the brewing of beer. The preacher of Ecclesiastes suggests making and drinking beer with friends (eat, drink and be merry...).


Anonymous said...

New definition for the dictionary:

Beer = Lutheran lemonade

Anonymous said...

Of course beer is derided as crap compared to wine, as American beer companies ruined the brand by brewing cheap, disgusting slop such as Miller Lite and Budweiser. The abolition of the Rheinheitsgebot in Europe also weakened the reputation of beer. Luckily, wine coolers did not grow enough in popularity to be a threat to the existence of wine. I suppose if you really want to drink crap wine, the cheap vinegar tasing Shiraz is available (but mostly popular in Australia and in England).

Public health was one major reason why the ancient Israelites drank wine and beer. The drinking water in biblical times was filthy, full of virues, harmful bacteria, and parasites. The fermentation of wine and beer would solve the problem of contaminated drinking water. Sorry, evangelicals, the wine of the Bible was not grape juice.

Rich Kauzlarich said...

Maccabee beer is actually pretty good -- especially when the competition is Bud :)

Janis Williams said...

Makes sense; Baptists learned long ago how to brew at home without being detected: )

Seriously, how silly is it to think ancient Israel knew how to make wine and not brew beer? Also, beer was a home industry up until monks and businessmen decided it was a moneymaking activity.