Of course the subject of beer and the Bible comes up when you work with a community of close readers and fun-loving people. Deuteronomy 14:26 is just one of those legendary verses. It is bound to come up.
Moses tells us that we don’t have to cart our whole tithe in ox-drawn wagons. We can cash it in. And when we do, we are to bring it to the Feast (especially Sukkot, a.k.a. Tabernacles). And we are given this further instruction about what to do with it:
and spend the money on anything you want — cattle, sheep, wine, or other intoxicant, or anything you may desire. And you shall feast there, in the presence of the Lord your God, and rejoice with your household.
–Deuteronomy 14:26 JPS Translation
Who says it’s hard to be religious?
But what is it that I have been misinforming my congregants about? I have been misinformed myself about the identity of the word rendered “other intoxicant.” In many English Bibles it is called “strong drink.” I had the idea, not sure what resources I got it from (but perhaps this is one place Jacob Milgrom let me down), that this was brandy, grape liquor.
Not so, says Michael Homan, associate professor of Hebrew Bible at Xavier University in New Orleans in the September/October issue of Biblical Archaeology Review. He writes in “Was Beer a Biblical Brew?” to correct the misnomer about this word.
Sheichar (שכר) is used as a noun twenty times in the Bible. It is usually parallel with the word for wine (יין). Homan goes on to give abundant evidence that the word means beer:
(1) It is related to the Akkadian word shikaru.
(2) Barley was an abundant crop in ancient Israel.
(3) Archaeological digs have found items such as beer jugs (with built in strainers so the one drinking could filter out solids) and donut-shaped fermentation stoppers.
Homan gives a simple recipe for making beer like the ancients. He notes that they often used dates or figs to add some sweetness to the beer (yay, fruit beers!). They did not use hops and did not carbonate their beer.
Why has beer production in Israel been doubted up till now? Homan says it is because of the prejudice against beer as less civilized than wine amongst the early researchers, whose conclusions have been passed down for generations. Yet Homan is not alone in translation sheichar as beer. He cites a long list of well-known names in Hebrew Bible research who share his conclusion.
And beer makes sense nutritionally in the ancient world. Much easier to make than wine, it has the same benefits. Its alcohol content controlled harmful microorganisms found abundantly in the untreated water supply. It was a source of calories multiplying the food value of inexpensive and abundant grain (barley was poor man’s grain).
Wine and beer go along with the slaughtered calf, the braised shank of lamb, and the commanded atmosphere of rejoicing at the festivals. They are just the sort of thing we should expect God to delight in at his festivals. We all know the potential dangers when alcohol becomes a weapon or a slave shackle. But in proper merriment and moderation, may it make our merriment ample and plenteous.