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Book 1, Lesson 3
Wine in the Ancient World


Although the answer to our questions about wine must come from the Bible, the writings and pictures of ancient people do help us understand their customs.

Chapter two of Dr. Teachout's work on The Use of Wine in the Old Testament tells us about the wine industry in the ancient world.


In Egypt the people liked to drink both alcoholic wine and beer, but beer was more popular with the common people. It was made from grain and everyone had grain. Bread and beer made a meal.1

Egypt had important vineyards. Usually the pharoah or his nobles had control of them. Wine was the main liquid offered to the gods.

Drunkenness was common in Egypt. It was socially acceptable but some writers warned against it: “Thou art like a broken steering oar in a ship . . . .”2

Genesis 40:11 shows us that not all wine in Egypt was fermented. In this verse, the Bible gives us an example of the use of sweet wine or grape juice in Egypt. Genesis 40:11 says: “I took the grapes, and pressed them into Pharaoh's cup, and I gave the cup into Pharaoh's hand.”

Josephus, the Jewish historian, translates the butler's speech in Genesis 40 like this: “He said that by the king's permission he pressed the grapes into a goblet, and having strained the sweet wine, he gave it to the king to drink and that he (the king) received it graciously.”

Those who believe all wine in the Bible is fermented wine argue that the butler was only telling a dream. They say pressing out fresh grape juice was not what the butler did in real life. The dream was just a picture to give him an idea of what God was going to do. But the dream was very exact about time and the butler's work. In three days the butler would be back at his job. Joseph told him “. . .  you will hand Pharoah his cup as was your previous custom when you were his butler.” (Genesis 40:13)

More proof has been found that pressing grapes into a cup was common in ancient times. Dr. Patton tells about a statue of Bacchus, the god of wine and revelry, that was dug up at Pompeii, Italy. Bacchus is holding a large cluster of grapes in both hands and squeezing the juice into a cup. Besides showing us that this was an ancient custom like Genesis 40:11 says, the statue also proves that not all the wine drunk at feasts was intoxicating.


In Mesopotamia (land that is part of Iraq today) as much as forty per cent of the grain crop was used for brewing beer. Some grapes were grown in Babylon and Assyria (kingdoms in Mesopotamia), but wine was also imported especially for the king and his nobles. The poets of these kingdoms write about giving must, red wine, oil and white wine to workmen preparing a celebration for the gods. Must is unfermented juice, so we know they did drink sweet juice too. The Akkadian (Akkad-Assyria) word for wine, karanu, means either fermented wine or unfermented grape juice.3

Although we believe the earlier Mesopotamians highly valued and drank fresh grape juice like the Greeks and Romans did, we do not have many written records from Mesopotamia. In his book, Babylon and Assyria, a man named Contenau wrote that after the first millennium (1000 years), Babylon produced many wines, “. . . those which aged without fermenting being especially highly esteemed.”4


The Hittites of Anatolia (Asian part of Turkey) often wrote about wine and beer together. When they cremated the royal dead, they used wine and beer to put out the fire.5 

Greece and Rome

For the Greeks and the Romans, wine and olive oil were very valuable for trade. These people did not like beer. They offered wine to their gods, and they declared it was a gift from the gods. They had big drinking parties. Often they mixed the wine with water to cut down on drunkenness.

The Greek philosopher Plato, writing to his fellow citizens, warned that soldiers, kings, judges and those making important decisions or starting families should totally abstain from intoxicating beverages.6

Besides their fermented wine, the Greeks and Romans also highly valued and drank fresh grape juice. The Greek word oinos and the Latin (Roman) word vinum mean either fresh juice or fermented wine. These people told about not one, but several different ways to keep juice from fermenting long after harvest.7

The Land of Canaan

Canaan is the land God told Israel to occupy when He had Moses lead His people out of Egypt. What was going on in the grape industry before Israel arrived?

The wine from Syria in Canaan was famous throughout the ancient world.

The writings from Ugarit, a pagan city state of Canaan very close to Israel, show that wine was “exceedingly important to the nobility of Ugarit . . .”8 Vineyards were important property. The people prayed to Baal for moisture for the grapes. Wine was paid as taxes to the king and given out to soldiers, royalty, the temple and craftsmen.

The actual beverages named in Ugaritic literature include water, milk and different kinds of wines. One kind of wine was yn. Yn is mentioned more often than any other word for wine. Its use compares to the use of the word yayin during the times of the kings of Israel. Yn, like yayin can mean either fermented wine or grape juice.9

Phoenicia was a trading nation. Ezekiel 27 tells about Tyre before its judgment by God. Wine from Syria, verse 18, and excellent wine from Tyre were shipped to India, East Africa, Arabia and Spain.

A Quick Review of Ancient Customs

From our brief study of the countries around Israel we see that the grape was an important commercial product for many people. Drinking alcoholic beverages such as wine and beer was common. Pagan gods were offered alcoholic drinks and praised because they had given these drinks to man. They were praised too for giving grape juice. The gods themselves acted just like humans athough they were considered to be supernatural. They set no moral standards.

Some philosophers and writers warned against alcoholic drinks. Nonalcoholic wine or grape juice was highly valued and drunk in these ancient times also. Words like karanu, oinos, vinum and yn meant either fermented wine or unfermented grape juice.


Because the Bible mentions the grape so often, we know that it is especially important to God. The grape was a money crop and it was also used in the worship of the true God. The word “vineyard” occurs 94 times in the Old Testament, the word “vine” 54 times and the word “grape” 18 times. The Hebrew yayin (English “wine”) is found 141 times in the Old Testament. Almost 200 other words related to the vine and its products are in the Bible. Only in the Bible do we see the true value of the plant.10

The Vineyard Is God's Blessing

When God promised blessing for His people if they obeyed Him, He talked about the vineyard or the grape juice from it. Isaac blessed Jacob in Genesis 27:28 and 29 when he said, “Therefore God give thee . . . plenty of threshed grain and harvested grape juice.” In English Bibles the words “harvested grape juice” are translated wine, but in Hebrew the word is tirosh. Tirosh is always fresh juice.

Jacob blessed Judah in Genesis 49:10 – 12. Verse 12 is a poor translation from the Hebrew in the King James Bible. Dr. Teachout translates the Hebrew word yayin as grape juice. Jacob said, “Judah . . . will wash his garments in grape juice and his robes in the blood of grapes. His eyes shall be darker than grape juice and his teeth whiter than milk.” Although grape juice was a precious crop, Judah would have so much that, if he wanted, he could wash his clothes in it.

Grape juice and milk give a picture of beauty and health.

When Israel arrived in the promised land they were given vineyards and olive trees which they did not plant (Deuteronomy 6:10 – 12). God told them in Deuteronomy 8:6 – 10 that He was bringing them into a land . . .  of vines and fig trees. They would not lack anything.

Israel was different from the nations around it. The land was fertile because God blessed it. Moses said in Deuteronomy 33:28,29, “. . .  A land of threshed grain and harvested grape juice (tirosh) . . .  Happy art thou, O Israel.” God showed the people that the vineyard was important not just because they liked it that way, or so they could become rich. By God's choice and special design, “. . .  it was a gift of God to be enjoyed by the nation as an outstanding example of His goodness to them for which they could joyfully praise Him.”11

Deuteronomy 28 lists blessings for obedience and cursings for disobedience to God. If the people disobey, they will plant vineyards, but they won't gather the grapes or drink the grape juice. The produce of the ground will be destroyed. Read verses 39 and 51. The word wine is best translated grape juice.12

God Owns the Land

In Leviticus 25:23, God says, “. . . the land is Mine.” He told how to take care of the vineyards in Deuteronomy 20:6, 22:9 and Leviticus 25. God “Himself was the actual owner of the vineyards of His people.”13

Vineyards were often planted on hillsides but the one in Judges 15:5 was on a coastal plain and the one in I Kings 21:1 was in a valley. Much work went into the vineyard the first year. A wall was built to protect it, stones had to be removed from the land, the ground was tilled or plowed and the grapes planted. God said that a man who planted a vineyard was exempt from military service until he had enjoyed the first harvest. Isaiah 5:1 – 6 tells about hoeing and pruning the vineyard.

In Numbers 13:23 the spies who first went into Canaan brought back a cluster of grapes so heavy two men had to carry it. Isaiah 7:23 and Song of Solomon 8:11 tell how much money some vineyards were worth. Solomon said each keeper had to bring a thousand pieces of silver for the fruit.

Harvest time came in September and it was a time of great joy. The juice from the harvest was stored (I Chronicles 27:27), and used during the year as commanded by God for the sacrifices.

Under God, Israel Had High Moral Standards      

As we compare what God says about unfermented wine in Israel to the use of wine in the countries around Israel, we see a great difference. These other countries offered alcoholic wine to their gods, and thought their gods had given them this drink as well as grape juice. They took no moral stand against drunkenness and alcoholism. But in Israel God is seen as the very owner of the land who demands obedience to His instructions about the vineyard. He makes the land fertile. He wants the people to grow vineyards. The grape is a symbol of His blessing and He wants everyone to enjoy the fruit of the vine. At the same time He sets high moral standards of holiness for His people. He allows no drunkenness ever!


  1. Dr. Robert Teachout, The Use of Wine in the Old Testament, Doctoral Dissertation for Dallas Theological Seminary, 1979, p.32. Dr. Teachout documents the process of using bread in beer making on page 30.
  2. Ibid., p.41.
  3. Ibid., p.127.
  4. Ibid., p.50. In his footnote Dr. Teachout says that some claim Contenau meant “without further fermentation”.
  5. Ibid., p.53.
  6. Ibid., p.65.
  7. Ibid., p.65.
  8. Ibid., p.70.
  9. Ibid., p.124.
  10. Ibid., p.87.
  11. Ibid., p.90.
  12. Ibid., p.91. The word yayin will be studied in detail later.
  13. Ibid., p.92.


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Woman's Christian Temperance Union
of South Dakota