Dr Ian Elmer brings us a much lighter reflection this week in his puzzling passages series: what place did beer play in the life of our scriptural forebears? There is a great emphasis on grapes and wine in our religious literature and liturgies. Drawing attention to a recent article published in Biblical Archaeology Review by Michael Homan, Ian explores the importance of barley and beer in the life of the Israelites and surrounding nations.
The appeal of the amber fluid...
As Australians we have a fondness of beer; we are famous for it — even if it may be true that the Germans and the English consume more of the frothy stuff than we do. Since the seventies, when Barry Humphries introduced everyone to The Adventures of Barry McKenzie (1972), the image of a beer-swilling "Aussie bloke" has become a national symbol.
Of course, Australians were not the first to brew beer. The beverage came to these shores with the first convict transports; and the practice of brewing beer has very long history stretching back some 5000 years, when the consumption of beer was often preferable (and safer) than imbibing the local water (Katz & Voight, 1986). But we may be surprised to learn that ancient the Israelites also favoured beer and offered it as a sacrificial "libation" to YHWH (Nm 28:7-10).
This interesting observation was explored in a recent article by Michael M. Homan in the Biblical Archaeology Review (2010). Homan (2010: 49) notes that beer (Hb. shekar) was a "staple of the Israelite diet, just as it was throughout the ancient Near East". The author of Proverbs (31:6) advised people who were melancholy and depressed to drink beer; although only temporarily since, in the author's opinion, excessive consumption may have deleterious effects (20:1; 31:4). Isaiah (5:11; 28:7), similarly, warned of the dangers of overindulging in beer. Indeed, when used as a verb, the Hebrew word Shekar means "to get drunk" (Gn 9:21; Is 29:9).
Nevertheless, despite these warnings it seems that most "ancient Israelites, with the possible exception of a few teetotaling Nazarites and their moms, proudly drank beer ... [which] was encouraged, sanctioned and intimately linked to their religion" (Homan, 2010: 49). In the description of the ritual of libation found in Numbers (28:7-10), which was offered as a sacrificial drink to YHWH as an accompaniment to the "burnt offering" of roast lamb, we are informed YHWH was lavished with an entire hin of the stuff — equivalent to about two litres or a modern-day six pack (Homan, 2010). On the Sabbath, it seems that the amount was increased to about 6.5 litres (Nm 28:9, 14).
Homan makes the point that most readers of the Bible in English will miss these many references to the amber ale, primarily because the translators have shied clear of suggesting that heroes of the Bible may have imbibed such a common beverage (Homan, 2010:54). Elsewhere (Homan, 2004), has argued that recent generations of Biblical scholars have generally been wine snobs, who considered beer as an uncivilised beverage, and beer drinkers as loutish and uncouth. Perhaps they have been watching Barry McKenzie! Even some Christians would want to suggest that Jesus drank only unfermented grape juice (Homan, 2010: 54).
Not surprisingly, then, the Hebrew word for beer, shekar, is variously translated as "liquor", "strong drink", "other strong drink", or "fermented drink". Yet, Homan makes the point that etymologically speaking the Hebrew word is derived from the same Semitic linguistic root as that of the Akkadian word šikaru, which always means "barley beer".
Barley was grown widely throughout the Middle East. It was cheap and plentiful. Deuteronomy (8:8) confirms that barley as one of the most abundant and important crops of ancient Israel; even designating the barley grain one of the seven species of plants with which the Promised Land is blessed. According to 2 Kings (7:1, 16, 18), barley was so common that its price was approximately half that of wheat.
Two staples of the ancient diet...
Given that barley was one of the more popular grains for making beer in the ancient world, it would not be surprising to find beer on the Israelite menu. There is no doubt that ancient Israel, like its neighbours, planted, harvested and consumed mass quantities of barley; much of it going into the brewing of bread and beer. Indeed, these two staples of the ancient diet were very closely related.
The process of making both bread and beer required the production of "sour dough" or "wort" to facilitate the fermentation process that would rise the bread and ferment the beer. An echo of this practice is found in Ecclesiastes (11:1-2), where the author is most likely referring to the production of beer when he counsels his audience to "throw bread upon the face of the water", for you will have need of it in "not many days". "Much like the phrase carpe diem, the author advises making beer and drinking it with friends, because you don't know what evil might be coming" (Homan, 2010: 56).
In Egypt and Mesopotamia, beer was the national drink; partly because the climate was not conducive to growing grapes for the fermentation of wine (Homan, 2010). There is evidence to suggest that ancient Egyptians, Sumerians, and Akkadians still drank wine, to be sure, but these beverages were often imported from areas such as Palestine, Phoenicia and Greece, where grapes grew more easily. However, there is also evidence (as we have seen above) to suggest that even in the wine-producing areas of Israel (previously Canaan), just as in other wine-growing regions in Greece and Rome, the inhabitants produced and drank beer.
Throughout the Fertile Crescent, beer was used medicinally for stomach ailments, coughs, and constipation for which one ancient Egyptian text prescribed a beer enema (Homan, 2004). Many ancient temples had their own brewers and beer was often used to pay the wages of labourers and the bride price to fathers of prospective female consorts.
The link between beer and women was not accidental. In the ancient world, beer was most often produced by women in the home to be consumed with meals, along with the bread which was produced simultaneously with beer.
Homan (2010: 50) draws attention to the Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh, where the earth creature, Enkidu, only becomes civilized and enters the world of humans, by consorting with a prostitute who plies him with bread and beer:
Enkidu does not know of eating bread; of barley beer [šikaram] to drink he has not been taught. The prostitute opened her mouth. She said to Enkidu, "Eat the bread Enkidu, [it is] the lustre of life. Drink the beer as is done in this land". Enkidu ate the food until he was sated; of the beer he drank seven cups. His soul became free and cheerful, his heart rejoiced, his face glowed. He rubbed … his hairy body. He anointed himself with oil. He became human.
We have noted elsewhere in this column (Elmer, 2010) the parallels between this episode and the Genesis story of the Man and Woman in the Garden (Gn 2:4b-3:24). There is, of course, no mention of bread or beer in the Genesis story; although the story finishes with a reference to eating of the fruit of the earth (Gn 3:17; 5:29). Later, in the story of the Flood (Gn 6:1-9:28), we are told of Noah, a "man of the soil [who] planted a vineyard", consequently becoming "drunk" (Hb. Shekar) and collapsing naked in his tent (Gn 9:21).
With that charming little vignette we might observe along with the author of Ecclesiastes (1:9) that "there is nothing new under the sun". People have been "casting bread upon the waters" (Ecc 11:1) to make beer for 5000 years. The figure of Barry McKenzie, the loud, uncouth, beer-swilling creation of Barry Humphries, was not the first beer-fuelled lout to appear in human literature; beer, beer drinking and even over consumption of same are common motifs even in our most ancient scriptures.
What are your thoughts on this commentary?
©2010Dr Ian Elmer