Deuteronomy 14:26—How can this passage permit the use of strong drink when other passages condemn its consumption?
Problem: According to Deuteronomy 14:26, God permitted the purchase of wine or strong drink for conducting a feast before the Lord. However, Leviticus 10:8–9 forbids the use of strong drink by the priests, and passages like Proverbs 20:1, 23:29–35, and 31:4–5 seem to forbid the use of strong drink by all. How can this passage permit the use of strong drink when these other passages clearly condemn its use?
Solution: It is clear that the Scriptures condemn the use of strong drink. For example, Leviticus 10:8–9 forbids the priest from drinking wine or strong drink when he is supposed to minister in the tent of meeting. Also, Proverbs forbids the use of wine or strong drink by kings or rulers, lest they pervert justice. Further, many passages warn of the deceitfulness of strong drink (Prov. 20:1) and condemn the use of it in general.
The word translated “eat” in Deut. 14:26 is a general term for consuming and may include the idea of drinking as well as eating solid food. However, the passage does not grant permission to drink strong drink or to drink to excess. Such action is specifically condemned in the NT as well as the OT. It was a common practice to dilute the strong drink (i.e., normally fermented grape juice) with about three parts water to one part wine. In this weaker form, imbibed with meals in moderation, there was no fear of excess. It is only in this sense that “wine” was permitted in the Scriptures and then only in a culture that was not alcoholic. While moderate drinking of this diluted wine may be permissible, in a culture shot through with alcoholism (such as ours), it is not profitable. Paul warns us in 1 Corinthians 6:12 that “All things are lawful for me, but all things are not helpful.” Paul declared that “It is better not to eat meat or drink wine or to do anything else that will cause your brother to fall” (Rom. 14:21, niv). God desires that our lives be influenced by the Spirit, not by the spirits.
The Bible is opposed to both strong drink and drunkenness (1 Cor. 6:9–10; Eph. 5:18). It pronounces woes on those who drink either strong drink or who drink in excess (Isa. 5:11; Amos 6:1, 6; Micah 2:11). Christian leaders are urged to be temperate (1 Tim. 3:3, 8). All are warned that too much alcohol is abhored by God (Amos 6:1–8). And although moderate amounts were recommended for medicinal purposes (1 Tim. 5:23), nowhere does the Bible commend strong drink as a beverage. The only reference to taking “strong drink” is as a pain killer in extreme circumstances: “Give strong drink to him who is perishing” (Prov. 31:6).
Deuteronomy 14:26 should not be taken as an excuse to imbibe strong drink for several reasons. First, the stated command was not to drink it, but simply to buy it. There were other legitimate uses for owning alcohol, namely for cooking, healing (cf. Luke 10:34), and pain-killing. Second, the very next verse speaks only of “eating” food, not of drinking strong drink. Third, even if drinking is implied along with eating (v. 26), the Jews always diluted it with about three parts water to one part wine before they drank it in moderation with their meals. Done in this light form in such moderate amounts with food guaranteed them against the excesses known in today’s alcoholic cultures. Fourth, it is still always wrong to use an unclear passage (such as Deuteronomy 14:26) to contradict all the clear ones (cited above) against strong drink.
In view of all these factors, it is best to conclude with the Apostle Paul, “It is good neither to eat meat nor drink wine nor do anything by which your brother stumbles or is offended or is made weak” (Rom. 14:21).
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This excerpt is from When Critics Ask: A Popular Handbook on Bible Difficulties (Wheaton, Ill.: Victor Books, 1992). © 2014 Norman Geisler and Thomas Howe. All rights reserved. Used by permission. Click here to purchase this book.