Beer / Bible

“The importance of beer in the ancient Near East can be seen by the fact that, in time, the word for beer came to designate the state of drunkenness”

The importance of beer in the ancient Near East can be seen by the fact that, in time, the word for beer came to designate the state of drunkenness. The word for beer became synonymous with inebriation in Akkadian, Aramaic, Ugaritic and Arabic. Similarly in the Egyptian language, “beer” (hnqt) was used for general drunkenness. And in the Bible, shekhar is often a verb that means “to get drunk” (e.g., Genesis 9:21; Isaiah 29:9), a parallel linguistic usage that furthers the case for shekhar as “beer.” (This parallel usage has also survived in modern Hebrew: A drunk is a shekhor (שכור), and shekhar (שכר) means beer, although beer is also commonly called simply beera.)

Some have argued that shekhar is actually a fermented wine made from dates rather than barley beer. This argument stems primarily from the belief that certain sandy regions in Israel, including Ashkelon and Jericho, were better suited for date production than for barley. Yet barley remains have been found at both sites, and one need not travel far from such sites to find soil well-suited to barley production.

Others have argued for a grape-based shekhar. The primary reason for the idea that shekhar is grape-based stems from the law of the Nazarite:

“He shall separate from wine and shekhar, he shall not drink wine vinegar and shekhar vinegar; and he shall not drink all grape juice and he shall not eat grapes, fresh nor dried. All the days of his separation; from all that is made from the grapevine of wine he shall not eat, from seeds to skins.”
(Numbers 6:3–4)

“She will not eat from all that comes from the vine of wine and she shall not drink wine and shekhar.”
(Judges 13:14)

Because the authors of Numbers and Judges elaborate on grapes and their products, some have contended that shekhar must be grape-based. Yet nowhere does the text state that shekhar is produced from grapes. The issue here is that the Nazirite and a woman pregnant with a child destined to be a Nazirite (such as Samson and his mother) must not come in contact with alcoholic beverages. The Biblical texts elaborate on grapes because a single grape contains the ingredients necessary to ferment and produce alcohol: sugars, liquid and even yeast. Barley, however, cannot ferment on its own and therefore no elaboration is necessary in the Biblical text as to shekhar.

Michael M. Homan, “Did the Ancient Israelites Drink Beer?”, Biblical Archaeology Review vol. 36, no. 5 (September/October 2010), 52-53.