Beer worked wonders for biblical heroes, new translation concludes

30 September 2010

by Rebecca Paveley

ANCIENT Israelites drank beer as well as wine, and the brew was even acceptable as an offering to God, a biblical scholar has argued.

The Associate Professor of Theology at the Roman Catholic Xavier University in Louisi­ana, Michael Homan, believes that the Hebrew word shekhar has been mistranslated in English Bibles to mean liquor or strong drink, when it should be translated as beer.

He said that the mistranslation was clue in part to academic snob­bishness, which led scholars to scorn beer drinkers but celebrate the wine-drinking culture.

In an article in the current issue of the Biblical Archae­ology Review, Professor Homan writes: “This has led many Bible scholars actively to distance biblical heroes from a beer drinking world, much like some Christians prefer to believe that Jesus drank unfermented grape juice despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.”

The difficulty of finding archae­ological evidence of beer drinking — owing to the fact that most of the tools used were also used in bread-making, and that beer was drunk fresh and not stored — had meant that the amount of beer drinking in Israeli society had been under­estimated.

“Ancient Israelites, with the possible exception of a few teetotal­ling Nazirites and their moms, proudly drank beer — and lots of it . . . all social classes drank it. Its con­sumption in ancient Israel was en­couraged, sanc­tioned and intim­ately linked with their religion,” he argues.

Unlike today’s brews, ancient beers did not include hops, but were made from creating a barley “cake”, which was placed in water, to which yeast was added, causing fermentation.

The alcohol in beer was effective in killing any bacteria that might be present in tainted water-supplies — another reason for its popularity. Beer was predominantly made from barley, which the Bible records as one of the seven species of plants with which the Promised Land is blessed (Deuteronomy 8.8).

The word shekhar appears 20 times in the Hebrew Bible, and came to be synonymous with drunkenness in many Near Eastern languages. In the Bible, it is also often a verb that means “to get drunk”. This usage has survived in modern Hebrew: a drunk is a shekhor, and shekhar still means beer.


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