Wine is mentioned in at least 240 Bible passages, but this week I picked a new favorite:
As she kept on praying to the Lord, Eli observed her mouth. 13 Hannah was praying in her heart, and her lips were moving but her voice was not heard. Eli thought she was drunk 14 and said to her, “How long are you going to stay drunk? Put away your wine.” – 1 Samuel:12-14
This scene occurs in the Tabernacle – the tent where Israelites gathered to worship God before the building of the temple – surely a place where prayer should be expected and respected. And yet, Eli – a priest, no less – mistakes fervent prayer for drunken babbling!
A similar error happens several centuries later, on the day of the first Pentecost. When the Holy Spirit came upon the disciples, a euphoria came over them, and they started praising God in languages they didn’t know how to speak. Onlookers from various locales in the Roman Empire didn’t know what to make of the scene:
Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?”
13 Some, however, made fun of them and said, “They have had too much wine.”
Simon Peter seizes the moment and preaches the first sermon in the history of the church, but first addresses the theory that the disciples are tipsy in Acts 2:15, by saying, ‘ These people are not drunk, as you suppose. It’s only nine in the morning!’
Until this week, that was my favorite Bible passage about wine. It’s hilarious, first of all, that the crowd figured that excessive consumption of potent potables could enable the disciples to speak foreign languages.
Because we all know that booze makes you smarter, right?
I also love the argument Peter used to refute the notion that the disciples were soused – It’s only 9 a.m.! – for two reasons:
1. This would have not been a conclusive piece of evidence during my college days. An all-nighter that results in participants still being plastered well after sunrise, was not terribly uncommon. And quaffing a beer with your morning grapefruit (or Cheezies), though less frequent, was not unheard of. And I suspect that we did not invent this practice.
2. His explanation sounds less to me like, ‘Hey, we’re good Christians: we know the value of temperance,’ and more like ‘Hey, we’re good Christians: we don’t start our benders until sundown!’
But what both of these passages from 1 Samuel 1 and Acts 2 have in common is that passionate expressions of faith are mistaken for drunkenness; good illustrations of why alcoholic drinks are sometimes referred to as ‘spirits‘.
Similarly, faith-based alcohol and drug recovery programs often use the mantra ‘There’s no high like the Most High’ to help participants to stay sober.
There appears to be some kind of connection between alcoholic drinks and the spiritual realm – although I wonder sometimes if this connection is a divinely inspired, or merely a man-made red herring – so in light of my new favorite wine verse’s appearance in the Lectionary this week, I thought we’d take a look at some of those 240 appearances of vino in the Bible over the next little while, and see what we can see.
Let’s start with some thoughts on how the Bible feels about booze in general.
The Apostle Paul’s advice in 1 Timothy 5:23 to ‘Stop drinking only water, and use a little wine because of your stomach and your frequent illnesses’, plus his admonishment in Ephesians 5:18 to ‘…not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery’ makes the Bible’s message of temperance and moderation when it comes to alcoholic drinks pretty clear.
Put (irritatingly) simply, drinking is OK, but drunkenness is not.
Errm, except at weddings – according to John 2:1-12.
Jesus’ first miracle, where he turns water into wine at the Wedding in Cana, is a little perplexing, isn’t it? Why would God Incarnate use His divine power to make sure the booze didn’t run out at a wedding party? Seems like a pretty frivolous, trivial use of His authority and ability, doesn’t it?
After all, drunkenness seemed to be the planned destination of many of the wedding guests, judging by the master of the banquet’s words when he tasted the wine in John 2:8-10.
I’ve heard plenty of explanations for the apparent frivolity of this miracle over the years, related to the length of weddings in First Century Palestine, and the superstitious implications if a banquet ever ran dry. I’ve also heard lots of sermons about the symbolism of the way John recorded the events.
These are all fascinating and helpful, and I encourage you to Google the story if you’re interested in exploring them.
But on a more practical level, I wonder if the Bible isn’t saying that a little too much wine (or beer or whisky) on certain special occasions can be OK – in the same way that there’s a difference between feasting and gluttony.
Or, to quote Oscar Wilde, ‘Everything in moderation, including moderation.’
I suppose the trick is figuring out which occasions are special enough to justify a little overindulgence. I’ll let you know if I come up with a reliable formula.
In the meantime, peace (and cheers) be with you.