Shekar is a noun, a name of a beverage. In the Bible it is usually called "strong drink." Before we study the drink named shekar, it is important to examine its related verb, shakar. Shakar, according to the Hebrew lexicons, means "be or become drunk, drunken."
Does shakar strictly mean "getting drunk"? It is true that the main use of this verb connects it to a state of drunkenness, but as we study we will find that the answer to our question is "no." In some verses this definition does not adequately express the total usage of shakar.
I. SHAKAR: DRUNKENNESS FROM ALCOHOLIC DRINKS
Four times in the Bible the context of shakar indicates literal drunkenness.
Genesis 9:21: Noah drank of the wine (yayin) and became drunk (shakar)....
I Samuel 1:13,14: Eli thought she (Hannah) was drunk. And Eli said to her, How long
will you make yourself drunk (shakar)? Put away your wine....
II Samuel 11:10 – 13: David called him (Uriah)... and he made him drunk (shakar).
Habakkuk 2:15: Woe to you who make your neighbors drink, who mix in your venom
even to make them drunk (shakar) so as to look on their nakedness!
In three of these verses the context makes it plain that drunkenness (shakar) comes from alcoholic wine. The verses about David and Uriah are not so clear. Whatever David gave Uriah, the Bible says Uriah did not lose his ability to stand up for his principles.1
II. SHAKAR: DRUNKENNESS BUT NOT FROM ALCOHOL
Eleven more Bible passages (out of a total of nineteen) use shakar to indicate drinking to the point of drunkenness. The drunkenness, however, does not come from alcohol. The drink may be God's wrath, blood, a spirit of insensibility or inability to think right, or it may be a lust to sin.
Deuteronomy 32:41,42 speaks of blood, not an alcoholic beverage: "...And I will repay those who hate Me. I will make My arrows drunk (shakar) with blood."
God, in Isaiah 29:9,10, gives the people a drink that makes them stagger. It is not intoxicating wine. Dr. Teachout translates the verses like this:
Linger, and become astounded;
Enjoy yourselves, and become blind!
They will become drunk (shakar), but not with wine (yayin);
They will stagger, but not from strong drink (shekar).
Because Yahweh (God) will pour upon you a spirit of deep insensibility—
In that He will tightly close your eyes, namely the prophets;
In that He will blindfold your heads, namely the seers. 2
Isaiah 51:21 also calls the people drunken, but again says it is not caused by alcoholic drink. "Therefore hear now this, thou afflicted, and drunken (shakar), but not with wine." Isaiah 63:6 warns that God "will... make them drunk (shakar) in my fury...."
In Jeremiah 51:7 we read, "Babylon hath been a golden cup in the Lord's hand, that made all the earth drunk (shakar); The nations have drunk of her wine; therefore the nations are mad." God has tested the nations. Each of them has joyfully swallowed down or accepted the sins of Babylon. They are drunk on the sin and they are mad.
Babylon has been an instrument in the Lord's hands, but she too will be destroyed. God's wrath and judgment is poured out for the people to drink. Jeremiah 51:39 says,
In their heat I will make their feasts and I will make them drunk (shakar), that they may rejoice and sleep ...and not wake, saith the LORD.
Jeremiah 51:57 repeats the words. "I will make drunk... and they shall sleep... and not wake." And in Jeremiah 25:27 God tells all the nations, Babylon included,
...be drunk (shakar), vomit, fall and rise no more because of the sword which I will send among you....
Concerning Moab, the Lord orders in Jeremiah 48:26, "Make him drunk (shakar); for he magnified himself against the LORD. Moab shall wallow in his vomit...." About Edom, He says in Lamentations 4:21,22, "Thou shalt be drunk (shakar) and shalt make thyself naked. He will punish thine iniquity O daughter of Edom; He will uncover thy sins." He warns Nineveh, Nahum 3:11,19, "Thou also shalt be drunk (shakar). ...for upon whom hath not thy wickedness passed continually?"
Although we do not find alcoholic drink in any of the eleven Bible passages we have just studied, the verb shakar in the verses indicates drinking to drunkenness.as it pictures God's judgment for rebellion against Him. However, in several of the verses, Deuteronomy 32:41,42 and Isaiah 63:6, the meaning of shakar goes beyond the narrow lexicon definition "to be or become drunk, drunken". We will study these verses again later in the lesson.
III. SHAKAR WITH GRAPE JUICE AND WATER
A quick look at shakar in the Old Testament may lead one to believe that "to be drunk, drunken," is always a correct meaning of the word. Careful study makes it clear that this is not true. There are Bible passages where shakar cannot mean drinking to drunkenness.
Song of Solomon 5:1 is the clearest example of a different use of the word shakar :
...I have eaten my honeycomb with my honey; I have drunk my grape juice (yayin) with my milk... drink, yea, drink abundantly (shakar) O beloved.
Solomon is not talking about drinking alcoholic wine or being drunk on alcoholic wine. In this verse shakar means to drink abundantly, or, as Dr. Teachout explains, to drink to satisfaction.3 God is expressing His approval of the marriage bed in beautiful language. Both the King James Bible and the New American Standard Bible recognize this truth. The NASB says, "imbibe deeply, O lovers."
Haggai 1:5,6 is another Bible reference where shakar means "to drink deeply" but not of intoxicating wine. God is sending a drought to Israel because His house has not been built. He tells the people,
You have sown much, but harvested only a little; You eat, but do not have enough
to satisfy your hunger; you drink, but do not have enough to quench your thirst
(shakar); You put on clothes, but do not have enough to keep warm; Even the one
who earns wages places his earnings into a purse full of holes.4
Although it is very clear that the context of shakar is a drought or a time of great lack of water, the New American Standard Bible translates part of verse 6 as "You drink but there is not enough to become drunk." This is not the idea Haggai presents. "Nothing," Dr. Teachout tells us, "could be further removed from the thought of the passage than getting drunk."5 The people don't have enough food, clothes, drink or wages. Everything mentioned in the verse is necessary for ordinary living. The drink they don't have must be water. In a time of drought, getting enough water to drink is a major problem.
From Song of Solomon 5 and Haggai 1, we can see that "to be or become drunk" is not a complete or satisfying definition for shakar. Dr.Teachout calls that definition "inadequate and misleading."6
IV. SHAKAR'S REAL MEANING: TO DRINK DEEPLY
Shakar, like saba, means drinking deeply of some liquid to satisfy thirst. That means the drinker's thirst is quenched; he is filled to overflowing. Drinking deeply can be positive or negative depending upon the beverage consumed.
This one verb, then, can mean satisfying one's thirst with a healthful drink or satisfying one's craving for a harmful beverage. In Song of Solomon 5, shakar or drinking deeply to satisfy thirst is used with grape juice. In Haggai 1, it is used with water. With grape juice or water, shakar brings joy and good health. With intoxicating wine, it causes drunkenness.
Shakar, when understood properly, is a neutral verb. True, it usually depicts drunkenness. But since drunkenness is not the innate meaning of the word, it is the context--what the drink is or what the circumstances are in a particular Bible passage-- that show it means drunkenness.
Those who think shakar always indicates drunkenness should remember that only four of the verses using shakar talk about real drunkenness from alcohol. Of those four, one is doubtful. No one is sure what David gave Uriah.
On the other hand, three Bible references show clearly that drinking deeply or heavily of unfermented beverages brings great enjoyment. Besides Song of Solomon 5:1 and Haggai 1:6, the two verses we have just studied, a third verse that tells about drinking a large amount of unfermented drink for enjoyment is Genesis 43:34. Joseph served unfermented drinks to his brothers. Here is verse 34 from the New American Standard Bible:
And he took portions to them from his own table; but Benjamin's portion was five
times as much as any of theirs. So they feasted and drank freely with him.
The last sentence of verse 34 in The King James Bible says, "And they drank and were merry with him." This gives a different thought from the idea of a feast. Dr. Teachout explains that the context of verse 34 includes verse 31. In verse 31 Joseph ordered his servants to "Set on bread." He served his brothers a full meal. No beverage is named.
The Hebrew word that is translated as "drank" in the King James Bible is translated "feasted" in the New American Standard Bible. In the light of the context, Dr. Teachout believes that feasted is correct in this verse. In Esther 3:15, the same Hebrew word is also translated "feast" by F. Brown, S. R. Driver, and C. A. Briggs, editors, in A Hebrew Lexicon of the Old Testament.7
V. SHAKAR: DRINKING GOD'S JUDGMENT
Most of the verses that use shakar are figures of speech. They paint a word picture that shows us rebellious people drinking God's punishment for sin. Shakar is a good word to picture that awful punishment. No other verb that deals with drinking means drinking more heavily than shakar.
The definition for shakar "be or become drunk," does not necessarily fit all these figures of speech. In some, the drinking is very heavy, but the verses give no thought of drunkenness. Drinking to the point of "being satiated or filled up" is a better meaning.
Isaiah 63:6 and Deuteronomy 32:42
We have studied Isaiah 63:6 and Deuteronomy 32:42 before in section II of this outline, Drunkenness but not from Alcohol. Most translations of the Bible say shakar means "drunk" in Isaiah 63:6 and Deuteronomy 32:42. That inexact meaning of the word and does not totally express what God means. The better definition of shakar is "to drink deeply to quench thirst, to be filled up or filled to overflowing."
First we will look at Isaiah 63:6 in the New American Standard Bible and then at Dr. Teachout's translation of this same verse.
And I trod down the peoples in My anger, and made them drunk (shakar)
in my wrath, and I poured out their lifeblood on the earth.
Here God treads down the people, and pours out their lifeblood but in between, if shakar means only "to be drunk", He makes them drunk. Some Bible scholars have tried to substitute another verb instead of shakar (such as the word for break or crush) because shakar translated "made them drunk" does not fit.
Dr. Teachout enables us to better understand Isaiah 63:6 by using shakar's meaning of "quenching thirst to overflowing" instead of "made them drunk." He translates the verse:
So I trampled the peoples in My anger,
And I surfeited them (quenched their thirst to overflowing – shakar) with My fury,
Then I poured out their expressed life blood to the earth.
The people really thirsted for judgment. They knew God was righteous, and understood that He would judge them. Still they continued to defy Him and disobey His commands. Finally God quenched their thirst for His fierce anger by trampling them like grapes in the grape press. He filled them to overflowing with His fury for their terrible rebellion against Him. After He finished the treading, what was left was so worthless it was poured on the ground. This is a solemn picture of "the wages of sin."8
Shakar does not mean drunkenness in Deuteronomy 32:42 either. The words "drink deeply" in Dr. Teachout's translation instead of "drunk" make the picture in the verse clearer.
"I will make My arrows drink deeply (shakar) of blood,
And my sword shall feed upon flesh."
God's judgment is compared to eating and drinking.
Jeremiah 49:12 and Isaiah 49:26
God warns Edom in Jeremiah 49:12,
Behold, they whose judgment was not to drink of the cup have assuredly drunken
(shakar --drunk deeply)... thou shalt not go unpunished, but thou shalt surely drink of it.
In Isaiah 49:26, God comforts Israel by telling them how He will punish their enemies. No drunkenness is mentioned in the context of shakar. Dr. Teachout's translation reads:
"...And they shall drink copiously (shakar) of their own blood as if it were fresh juice
Copiously means abundantly.
VI. A SHORT SUMMARY OF THE VERB SHAKAR
Shakar is really a neutral word. It means to drink deeply until satisfied. This is drinking until thirst is quenched or until filled to overflowing. If the word is used with intoxicating wine it will cause drunkenness, but if it is used with grape juice it will bring enjoyment.
Saying that shakar means "to be drunk, drunken" erroneously limits the meaning of this verb. "To be drunk" is a legitimate shade of meaning, but it is the context of the verb, not the verb itself, that decides if that usage is correct.
LESSON 7 PART TWO: HEBREW SHEKAR
I. SHEKAR IS CALLED STRONG DRINK
What does "strong drink" mean?10 Of all the words for wine in the Old Testament, shekar gives those of us who believe that God never approves of alcohol our greatest problem. The argument about this word focuses on one verse, Deuteronomy 14:26. We will study that verse in the next lesson.
We can find the word shekar in the Old Testament 23 times. Twenty-one out of those 23 times, the Bible puts yayin and shekar together. Yayin and shekar written together do not mean two drinks. They are a figure of speech that uses two nouns instead of a noun and an adjective to name one drink. Dr. Teachout tells us that the technical term for this figure of speech is "hendiadys."
Here is a summary of shekar's 23 appearances in the Bible:
a) Twenty-one times, out of the total 23, the Bible puts yayin with shekar
and calls the drink yayin and shekar.
Nineteen times, out of the 21 times yayin and shekar are together,
the drink yayin and shekar is intoxicating.
Two times out of the 21 times they are together, the drink yayin and shekar
is satisfying grape juice.
b) Two times out of the total 23 times shekar is in the Bible it appears by itself.
One time shekar, when it appears by itself, is intoxicating.
The other time it appears by itself shekar is grape juice.11
If we add up the times shekar is not intoxicating our total only comes to three. Since shekar is intoxicating in so many Bible verses, we can understand why it is easy to conclude that it is always intoxicating.
The study of shakar has been a good lesson for us; we must now carefully consider the exact meaning of shekar in context or we can be led to believe a lie.
II. BIBLE SHEKAR IS NOT BEER
What was shekar made from? Some Jewish scholars, and other writers too, say that shekar was a beer made from grain, or that it was date wine or honey wine. The writings of these authors cover the years between the Old and New Testaments and the time that followed. They do not speak as authorities about the use of shekar one to two thousand years earlier in the Old Testament.
Evidence from Outside the Bible
Many ancient languages had words related to shekar. These words usually meant intoxicating drink. What the intoxicating drink was depended on the drinking habits of the people of each country. During Bible times it was beer made from grain or bread in Mesopotamia and Egypt, grape wine in Palestine and grape or date wine in Arabia.
There is no historical evidence to show that the Hebrews used their word shekar to mean beer. Israel's close neighbor in early Old Testament times was the city-state of Ugarit. Scholars who study the Ugaritic language do not find the word beer even once in that language.12 Beer was not important to these people; grape wine was exceedingly important.
The ancient records of commerce and trade (see Lesson 3, Book 1) show that wine made from grapes, not beer, was the normal intoxicating drink of Canaan during Old Testament days.
The evidence from outside the Bible leads to the conclusion that beer was not a popular drink in ancient Israel. If this is true, we can conclude also that shekar, a popular drink named often in the Bible, was something different from beer.13
Evidence from the Bible that Shekar Was Wine
Making beer from grain involves a special process. Since the Bible never mentions anything about that process, it is unlikely that many people made beer. On the other hand, the Bible often tells about the work of getting juice from grapes.
The Harvest Triplet
In the Bible the language describing the harvest shows that the grain was grown for eating, not for making a drink. For example, in Deuteronomy 11:14, the harvest triplet is "harvested grain, freshly pressed grape juice, and fresh oil." In I Chronicles 9:29 it is "bread, grape juice, oil." The normal triplet of harvest makes it clear that the grain was used for food, the grapes for drink and the olives for oil.
Someone can argue that the harvest triplets do not prove that grain was never used for beer. That is true. But they do show that the use of grain for a drink was not common. If we compare what the Bible says about grain to what it says about grapes, we find that the main purpose for raising grapes was to produce grape juice. Different verses explain that the people ate grapes, raisins and raisin cakes. But the most often mentioned use of the grape is as a liquid to drink.
The General Use of Shekar in the Bible
One more point to consider is the general use of shekar in the Bible. If the common intoxicating drink shekar was really beer made from grain should there not be at least one reference that shows someone drinking or getting drunk on beer made from grain? There is none. In every historical incident in the Old Testament where intoxicating drink causes drunkenness, the drink is the fermented product of the grapevine.
We must remember too that the Bible uses shekar 21 out of 23 times it appears in the phrase yayin and shekar. In prose the two words together are a figure of speech called a hendiadys; in poetry, they are poetic synonyms in parallel constructions. As a hendiadys, yayin and shekar together are one drink made from grapes – almost always intoxicating. As a "normal poetic pair, the two words also refer to one drink, intoxicating wine."14
When we learn about the Nazirites in Judges, we will find still more proof that shekar was made from grapes. Beer is, of course, well able to cause intoxication. In present times it is often the intoxicating beverage of choice.
III. SHEKAR IN VERSES GIVING THE LAW: THE PRIESTS
Because God is holy He requires His priests to live up to the highest standards. Nadab and Abihu, sons of Aaron, the high priest of Israel, offered strange fire before the Lord in Leviticus 10:1,2. They used their own fire instead of the flame from the perpetual fire on the altar to light the incense in the tabernacle.
And there came forth fire from before the LORD and killed them, and they died before the LORD.
In Leviticus 10:9-11, God spoke to Aaron after the death of his sons,
Do not drink wine nor strong drink (yayin and shekar), thou, nor thy sons with thee, when ye go into the tabernacle of the congregation lest ye die: it shall be a statute forever.... And that ye may put difference between holy and unholy and between unclean and clean; And that ye may teach the children of Israel all the statutes which the Lord hath spoken unto them by the hand of Moses.
God's warning causes us to think that Nadab and Abihu were intoxicated when they disobeyed God.
The Duties of the Priest
When God said the priests were not to drink intoxicating wine while they ministered in the tabernacle, did He mean they could drink when they were not on duty? No.Leviticus 10, 9, 10, 11 is one thought. God said in these verses that the priests had to be able to tell the difference between the holy and the unholy and between the unclean and the clean. More than that, they were to teach the children of Israel the statutes or laws of God.
God emphasizes the point that the priests must think clearly.15 Alcoholic drink weakens the ability to think, the ability to see the difference between right and wrong and the ability to make good moral decisions. Isaiah 28:7 tells us what happened in later years when priests did use alcoholic beverages.
...The priest and the prophet have erred through strong drink... they err in vision, they stumble in judgment.
Ezekiel 44:21 is another command from God against intoxicating drink; "Neither shall any priest drink wine (yayin), when they enter into the inner court." Verse 23 of Ezekiel 44 repeats God's high standard for the priest's teaching.
And they shall teach My people the difference between the holy and profane (common), and cause them to discern between the unclean and the clean.
God again emphasizes clear thinking and an alert mind just as He did in Leviticus 10.
Since the priests were told not to use alcohol before a holy God in the holy tabernacle and temple, we can only think that God considers alcohol unholy.16 It is unholy because it affects the mind, will, emotions and body of whoever drinks it. The purpose of God's command to abstain from intoxicating drink in the tabernacle or temple was to make sure the priests could think clearly and serve Him with their whole heart. Proverbs 31:4,5, advises kings and rulers never to drink for the same reason: "Lest they drink and forget the law...."
The Daily Life of the Priest and the Death Penalty
The priests did not drink intoxicating beverages while on duty in the tabernacle or temple. But neither did they drink intoxicating wine when they were not before God in the tabernacle or the temple. The priest's life was open for everyone to see. Since he was a teacher of Israel and an example of Godly living for the people, he would always have to abstain from alcoholic drinks.
If the priests could never drink alcohol, why did God especially command them not to drink in the tabernacle or in the temple? The answer is that intoxication at any time was wrong, but God announced the death penalty for priests in active ministry who used intoxicating liquor.
IV. SHEKAR IN VERSES GIVING THE LAW: THE NAZARITES
In Numbers 6:2 – 4, God tells the Nazarites not to eat or drink anything from the grape vine. In the King James Bible, verse 3 says the Nazarite shall separate himself from wine and strong drink (yayin and shekar) and from the vinegar of wine (yayin) and from the vinegar of strong drink (shekar). Dr. Teachout translates these interesting verses like this:
When any man or woman makes a special vow, the Nazarite vow, to dedicate himself
to the service of Yahweh (God), he shall abstain from any intoxicating wine (yayin and
shekar); he shall not drink any vinegar made from intoxicating wine (yayin and
shekar); neither shall he drink any grape juice, nor eat any grapes whether fresh or
dried. During all the days of his separation, he shall eat nothing that is produced by
the grapevine, from the seeds even to the skin.
In verse 3, God gives the list of the products of the vine. He includes both the good and the harmful products and says the Nazarite is not to eat or drink any of them. In verse 4 He repeats the list and includes every possible product of the grapevine. Because He mentions shekar twice, it is only logical to think that the grapevine produced shekar. Would shekar be the only product in the two verses that did not come from the grape?
Generally a Nazarite vow lasted only for a short time, but Samson was to be a Nazarite for his whole life. Separation from the vine and what was made from it began in the womb. The angel of the Lord told Samson's mother in Judges 13:3,4,7, not to drink wine or strong drink (yayin and shekar). She was to avoid the product of the grape that was harmful. Later, in verse 14, the angel, while talking to Manoah, Samson's father, added, "She should not eat anything which comes from the grapevine; especially she must not drink intoxicating wine (yayin), nor eat any unclean thing...."17
Some people ask if God was just prohibiting alcoholic drinks for a special few like the Nazarites, and Samson's mother? Was alcoholic drink approved by God in common, everyday life? The answer is no to both questions. In Numbers 6:20 when the Nazarite returned to normal life after his vow, he was not given permission to drink intoxicating drink. God said he could drink grape juice (yayin) but not shekar. We have already studied verses that show plainly how much God disapproves of intoxicating drink.
1. Dr. Robert Teachout, The Use of Wine in the Old Testament, Doctoral Dissertation, Dallas Theological Seminary, 1979, p.216.
2. Ibid., p.211.
3. Ibid., p.212. Song of Solomon 5:1: This verse portrays poetically the consummation of the marriage on the wedding night with the expressed approval of the couple's creator. "Only the Divine Poet (God), the most intimate wedding guest of all, could pronounce such an affirmation on the consummation of the wedding. For their love was from Him and from Him would it be approved." Dr. Craig S. Glickman, The Unity of the Song of Solomon, Th.M. thesis, Dallas Theological Seminary, 1974, pp.36,37.
4. Ibid., p.213.
5. Ibid., p.214.
6. Ibid., p.214.
7. Ibid., p.217. Dr. Teachout says, "In the specific context of a full meal... it appears that... feasted for the verb sata is justified."
8. Ibid., p.218. God's poetic justice in the Old Testament meant receiving what you earned. These people thirsted for His anger, and thus thirsted for His justice.
9. Ibid., p.219.
10. Many think strong drink means whiskey or other distilled liquor. This is not true. According to Michael Brander in The Original Scotch, 1975, in the chapter on the "Origins of Distilling," the art of distilling originated in the Far East. The ancient Egyptians began practicing it about the 8th century B.C. This was the time of King Jehoshaphat in Judah and Ahaziah in Israel (I Kings 22, II Kings 1). David wrote Psalms and Solomon wrote Proverbs many years before this time.
11. Teachout, pp.245-247.
12. Ibid., p.134. Dr. Teachout says, "There is no reason to assume, unless clear contextual biblical evidence would support it (which it does not), that Hebrew shekar refers to beer simply because Akkadian sikarum clearly does."
13. Ibid., p.222.
14. Ibid., p.224.
15. Ibid., p.227.
16. Dr. Samuele Bacchiocchi, Wine in the Bible, Biblical Perspective, Berrien Springs, Michigan, 1989, p. 97.
17. Teachout, Use of Wine..., p.232.