WINE AND WORDS
It’s a fundamental mistake to assume that because God tolerated and even regulated widespread practices that he approved of them. It’s nonsense to think God approved of slavery, polygamy, concubinage and the widespread “divorce for any cause” culture of Israel even though he gave laws regulating them.
The law-lords in the various nations often have to tolerate and regulate existing conditions that they personally disapprove of and there’s a multitude of judges who commit to carrying out those laws though they personally are opposed to many of them. The specific reasons for this are occasionally hard to uncover but it’s imperative for leaders to temporarily settle for the realisable best rather than try to force through the unattainable ideal.
Because everybody’s doing it (and have always been doing it) and because the law regulates “it” we’re tempted to think that “it” is morally acceptable, whatever it is. To believe that to be “law-abiding” is the height of moral and spiritual attainment can be a profound mistake at the personal and national level. We all know (or we’re sure we do) of people who are “law abiding” but are greedy rascals to take advantage of the poor beneath them. Prominent church-leaders came to Jesus armed with texts of scripture to debate what “law-abiding” really meant so as to justfy themselves and Jesus called down a pox on their entire way of thinking; called it “adulterous” (Matthew 19).
Societies need a whole lot more law-abidingness, don’t you know, and to be law-abiding is no bad thing and we should expect people to be (at least) law-abiding; but to line up our lives with specific laws and make that the pinnacle of moral and spiritual aspiration isn’t how Jesus read scripture. To understand the laws of scripture in such a way that the poor and the diseased, the emotionally troubled and the vulnerable young are under threat and/or left without champions is how the worst of the Pharisees understood scripture. To use the laws of scripture to justify the support of some ruinous business or practice just so we can exercise our “freedom” is risky business.
To give the modern booze industry, as an industry, a clean bill of health should require more than some dabbling with a handful of biblical words and the universal practice of imbibing intoxicating drinks (or substances). What a marvellous signal to the world it would be if Christians everywhere made it clear that they freely choose not to drink a drop of what the booze industry produces so long as families and marriages and homes and cities and nations suffer widespread ruin as a result of their engagement with the filthy rich booze industry. How fine it would be if no boy or girl ever had their first acquaintance with the booze industry in their own homes. How wonderful it would be if parents made it clear that the issue isn’t only about “my rights as an individual to drink whiskey or wine as long as I don’t get drunk.”
To help us think straight, John Stuart Mill, felt the need to remind us of something obvious but something that in practice even scholars forget. “The tide of custom first drifts [a] word on to the shore of a particular meaning, then retires and leaves it there.” The word “gay” is used less and less frequently of cheerfulness or light-heartedness because people don’t wish to be misunderstood so the recently adopted use of the term by homosexuals may well become the exclusive use. Pagan used to mean a villager but no more, intoxicate used to mean to poison but (sadly) no more. “Kaffir” used to be a harmless description of a community of people who lived in a particular area of South Africa but it’s now nothing but an ugly insult. “Heathen” used to speak of those who lived on the heaths, away from towns and cities and the last to hear the Christian message. Not any more—call someone a heathen and see the blood-pressure rise. “Wine” used to be the juice of the grape but now it is (almost) exclusively fermented and intoxicating juice of the grape. (My Concise OED has no other definition listed.) “Coffee” came from a Turkish and earlier Arabic term (a wine) “drink”.
It’s difficult sometimes not to be fooled by present usage. “Drunk” didn’t always mean “intoxicated” and wasn’t always associated with intoxicating drinks. “Inebriate” didn’t always mean intoxicated with alcohol (or some such drug) but because that’s all we’re used to, we find it difficult to change gears. “Wine” which was the juice of the grape and was used of that juice in various states now refers to only one state, the fermented and intoxicating state. So when we read the word “wine” in the Bible we think, “Of course it’s intoxicating because that’s what the word ‘wine’ means!” [How many people when they read the word “baptize” in the NT immediately have an image of a baby being baptized?]
Insects and animals develop through various stages just as developing humans do. Specialists come up with words to describe the various stages of that development—this is helpful and important. The word “baby” or “insect” isn’t precise enough to cover the various stages of development so words are invented to aid in precision. (What do you call a butterfly when it’s in the cocoon? What do you call a just recently conceived animal in the womb of its mother—say a cow?)
It’s no crime to call a developing human “an embryo” or a “foetus” though trouble arises when we make moral and civil decisions about the human in those early stages. The same is true about “wine” and a million other things. The Hebrews, Greeks and Romans had various words for wine (“vinum” or “oinos” or “yayin” as the juice of the grape) and other words for wine in different states (ahsis, gleukos, mustum, protropos, shemarim, mesek, tirosh and others).
It’s too easy to ignore all this and in light of the universal custom of drinking intoxicating wine to quote Psalm 104:15 and say, “God gave intoxicating wine to humans as a gift.”
Do you know the difference between “yitzhar” and “shemen”? Does it really matter whether you do or don’t?
(To be continued, God enabling)