Mysteries of the Bible

"Unanswered Questions of the Bible"

The Mysterious Transformations of Wine

Posted by foryourfaith on January 13, 2011

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The ancient Israelites were quite aware that drinking wine could bring comfort or disgrace, joy or despair. On one hand, Joshua ben Sira, the second-century BC Jewish scribe, asked, “What is life to a man who is without wine? It has been created to make men glad” (Sirach 31:27). On the other hand, Proverbs 20 stated, “Wine is a mocker, strong drink a brawler; and whoever is led astray by it is not wise.”

In the first biblical anecdote involving wine, the drink’s attraction, power, and danger were all presented. Noah “drank of the wine, and became drunk, and lay uncovered in his tent” (Genesis 9:21). The Bible reported that his son Ham saw him and ran to tell his brothers, Shem and Japheth. Circumspectly, the two brothers backed toward their father. Keeping their eyes averted, they covered their father’s nakedness.

This passage was meant to illustrate Ham’s disrespect. The Israelites found public nakedness shameful. Adam and Eve sought clothing after committing the first sin; thus, there was a strong symbolic tie between nakedness and impiety. Ham not only looked upon his father’s nakedness but also watched as Noah was under the influence of this destructive force.

Over-all, the ancients were mystified by wine’s paradoxical character. In later Jewish folklore, this mystery was explored. One story relates that Noah learned viticulture from Satan himself. Satan used blood from a lamb, a lion, an ape, and a pig as fertilizer. This is legend with an ironic twist, for the heavy drinker may go through four stages: meek as a lamb, fierce as a lion, awkward and silly as an ape, and at last piglike, wallowing in the mud.

The Genesis story of Noah and other early biblical writings indicate an antagonistic attitude toward the use of wine. However, by the 10th century BC, wine had apparently become accepted as part of the fabric of Old Testament life. Though there were still warnings against drunkenness, the tendency was to stress moderation, not total abstinence. Proverbs predicted that “the drunkard and the glutton will come to poverty” (23:21), but also recommended “give strong drink to him who is perishing and wine to those in bitter distress” (31:6).

Wine became a staple of daily life – the most common beverage at meals and a prominent feature at weddings, banquets, and festivals. Wine was acceptable, and in some cases required, in religious ritual. Although never presented as a sacrifice by itself, it was used as a libation with offerings to God. Because wine in ancient times was almost always red, it seemed symbolic of the blood of sacrificial animals.

At the Sukkoth – the principal harvest festival of the year – celebrants traveled to Jerusalem for seven days of feasting and drinking. In Hellenistic times, the Passover feast, which commemorated the Israelites escape from Egypt, involved the ritual drinking of wine.

As a main agricultural occupation, the growing of grapes rivaled the cultivation of olives and figs in Israel. The vine’s fertility was proof of God’s power. Wine, a product of the vine, was evidence of God’s generosity to man, especially since water was not always available throughout Palestine.

In the New Testament, drinking per se was not condemned, though immoderation was still disdained. Jesus first miracle in the gospel of John involved wine – when the wine gave out at the wedding feast at Cana, he changed water into wine. Obviously, Jesus accepted the prudent use of wine, and appreciated its role in celebrations.

Just as wine marked Jesus first public miracle, it was central to his last private meeting with his apostles. According to the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, this last meal was a Passover supper. Jesus explained that the wine they shared in convivial company should be understood symbolically. According to St. Paul, at the supper Jesus proclaimed, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood.” He then enjoined them to “drink it, in remembrance of me.”


(Reader’s Digest, eds., Mysteries of the Bible: Unanswered Questions of the Bible, Reader’s Digest Association Inc., 1997, “The mysterious transformations of wine – "Giver of gladness," "poison of serpents"”; pp. 36-37)

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2 Responses to “The Mysterious Transformations of Wine”

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