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BAR 36:05, Sep/Oct 2010
Did the Ancient Israelites Drink Beer?
Ancient Israelites, with the possible exception of a few teetotaling Nazirites and their moms, proudly drank beer—and lots of it. Men, women and even children of all social classes drank it. Its consumption in ancient Israel was encouraged, sanctioned and intimately linked with their religion. Even Yahweh, according to the Hebrew Bible, consumed at least half a hin of beer (approximately 2 liters, or a six-pack) per day through the cultic ritual of libation, and he drank even more on the Sabbath (Numbers 28:7–10). People who were sad were advised to drink beer to temporarily erase their troubles (Proverbs 31:6). Yet the Biblical authors also called for moderation. Several passages condemn those who consumed too much beer (Isaiah 5:11, 28:7; Proverbs 20:1, 31:4). The absence of beer defines a melancholy situation, according to Isaiah 24:9.
Beer was a staple in the Israelite diet, just as it was throughout the ancient Near East. Yet a search of most English translations of the Bible will produce few, if any, occurrences of the word “beer.” Ancient Israel’s affinity for beer has largely been ignored. I believe this is for three reasons: (1) confusion about the meaning of the Hebrew word shekhar (שכר), (2) a general snobbery in academia causing scholars to scorn beer drinking while celebrating wine culture, and (3) the unique challenges archaeologists have faced in finding (or identifying) beer remains in the Israelite material record.
In ancient Near Eastern cultures, beer was in many ways a super-food. By producing and drinking beer, one could dramatically multiply the calories in harvested grains while consuming needed vitamins; the alcohol was also effective at killing bacteria found in tainted water supplies. Given the difficulty of producing food in the ancient world, beer gave you a lot of nutritional bang for your buck.
Humans have been making beer for at least 5,000 years, and most likely much longer.1 Some anthropologists have argued that it was a thirst for beer, rather than a hunger for bread, that led to the Neolithic Revolution (c. 9500–8000 B.C.E.), during which humans gradually abandoned a hunter-gatherer lifestyle in favor of sedentary farming.2 Beer eventually became a defining characteristic of human culture, much like wearing clothes. Thus in the Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh, when the wild man Enkidu becomes civilized and enters the world of humans, drinking beer is one of the defining moments:
Enkidu does not know of eating food; of beer [šikaram] to drink he has not been taught. The prostitute opened her mouth. She said to Enkidu, “Eat the food Enkidu, [it is] the luster 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.3
Nobody disputes the importance of beer in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, where it was the national drink. Beer was used to pay laborers and the fathers of brides.4 It was used medicinally for stomach ailments, coughs, constipation; one ancient Egyptian prescription calls for a beer enema.5 Hammurabi’s Law Code regulates the price and strength of beer.6 Many ancient temples had their own brewers. One text from Mari indicates the possible use of beer to induce a prophetic state.7 There is little doubt that these references are to beer. So there has been much academic attention given to beer in Mesopotamia and Egypt.
Two big reasons for the emphasis on beer (compared to wine) in these cultures are climate and agriculture. Grains such as barley can be easily grown throughout the Fertile Crescent, but grapes are harder to produce and can be grown only in certain regions. Due to the type of soils and weather in Egypt and Mesopotamia, it was difficult to grow grapes. They still drank wine, to be sure, but wines in Egypt and Mesopotamia were often imported from areas such as Palestine, Phoenicia and Greece, where grapes grew more easily. Yet even in the wine-producing regions of Canaan, Greece and Rome, the ancient people also produced and drank beer.8

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Comment Talkback Add Your Comment

Missive or musing?

RAY OLIVER, ESQ. — USA (10/5/2010 7:18:09 PM)

Mr. Meyers. Thank you. I assure you that you will have the opportunity to read and review the authoritative epigraphic finds and archaeological record, which fails to evidence that ancient Israelites established a beer making culture or drank "lots of good tasting beer," as Homan would have readers believe. Stay tuned to BAR... Ray Oliver

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Mr. Oliver's missives

W.Meyers — (9/29/2010 1:40:42 PM)

In closing, Mr. Oliver, I look forward to your rebuttal of Mr. Homan's research and hope you will be honest and thorough in your presentation. In the future, though, I recommend withholding judgement against an author based upon their employer and personal beliefs. This is an archaeological argument, not a theological one. "Judge not, lest ye yourself be judged" someone said. I anticipate further comments from you regarding my statements, and welcome them. Cheers.

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Mr. Oliver's missives

W.Meyers — (9/29/2010 1:37:01 PM)

Beer was indeed made from "beer cakes" or barley bread, also called bappir. Honey, dates, spices, etc. were often also added. Research shows this bread was not typically eaten but was reserved for brewing, as the baking process substituted for the germination and roasting of barley in the modern malting process. Re prop and brewing of ancient barley and beer, visit and Delicious!

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Mr. Oliver's missives

W.Meyers — (9/29/2010 1:19:08 PM)

The connection between beer and breadmaking has been long-established, and Mr. Homan makes a valid argument as to the reason why beer-based residues are so rare - beer was produced for immediate consumption and therefore would rarely be stored long enough in pottery to leave significant residues. Dr. McGovern states how rare it is, around the world, to find decipherable residues, and this is precisely Dr. McGovern's job. I recommend the beers he has produced with Dogfish Head Brewery. Cont'd..

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Mr. Oliver's missives

W.Meyers — (9/29/2010 1:13:14 PM)

While you might indeed look silly drinking Sam Adams through a straw today, one no longer need filter out bits of grain, fruit, etc., during consumption. Re Nathan (poster 8/27/20108:18pm), the erudite Mr. Nathan did not say Mr. Homan is free to lie (unless further comments were removed), he simply called the author a liar with no justification beyond his apparent belief that beer is not good for you. Cont'd...

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Mr. Oliver's missives

W. Meyers — USA (9/29/2010 1:07:50 PM)

The problem with people who believe they speak "truths" is that they tend to suffer the distinct inability to recognize when they are even partially wrong. Re the quote from the Jewish Museum, it is precisely this thinking that the author attempts to dispell. Read further into Dr. McGovern's books and you'll see that the drinking straws were common, as beers were scooped from fermentation vessels into drinking vessels, often with bits of grain. Straws served as a filter for the drinker. Cont'd..

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Snobbery and other things

John Barleycorn — (9/28/2010 11:00:46 PM)

1. "...General snobbery in academia causing scholars to scorn beer drinking while celebrating wine culture...." Surely these academics aren't archaeologists?! 2. Yeast prob'ly wasn't added intentionally to ancient beer. Rather, like many traditional Belgian brews, airborne yeast found its way into the wort. 3. Andy, as a Texan you should know that the LORD does enjoy his 'cue.

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Jewish Museum quote

Ray Oliver, Esq. — USA (9/24/2010 10:04:59 PM)

...Here is the specific address to the Jewish Museum's quote:

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RAYMOND OLIVER, ESQ. — USA (9/23/2010 6:51:49 PM)

Kindly note that I intend to submit a rebuttal to Michael Homan's paper on beer and the ancient Israelites. ...As a prelude to my rebuttal, I offer this quote from the Jewish Museum for Homan's heuristic hops holiday, " Beer never played an important role among the drinking customs of the land of Israel." see: RAY OLIVER, ESQ.

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Shekhar & Beer

Joseph — (9/20/2010 4:14:16 PM)

Since the Rabbi has not answered my question, I looked up the Aramaic word for "beer". The 2 related words used throughout the Talmud, the major part of which (called the G'mara) is written in Aramaic, are "shekhar" (שֵׁכָר) and "shikhra" (שִׁיכְרָא) in reference to an intoxicating drink made from dates and/or barley, and are commonly rendered in English translations of the Talmud as "beer". Since the Hebrew word "shekhar" (שֵׁכָר) is used in the Hebrew Bible, it likely also means "beer" in it.

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Homan & Yahweh: "party on"

RAY OLIVER, ESQ. — USA (9/17/2010 4:45:54 PM)

First, Happy & Blessed Yom Kippur to all celebrants. I am glad to see the lively & biting responses to my "truths." And Mr. Duffy, I spent my childhood through college years with my BFF, Coyle from Derry. I promise you Mr. Duffy, that I have 2 cases of Guiness in a cool spot in my basement, to make up for the absence of ancient Israelite beer drinking. RAYOLIVERESQ

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Franklin and that quote

John Duffy — Ireland (9/17/2010 6:00:39 AM)

@ Deacon Beury: Though oft quoted, Franklin never said any such thing. Is a misquote of something he said about wine. See Loved the article. Also loved Mr Oliver's desperate attempt to prevent his teetotal worldview from crumbling.

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Israelite Beer

Diana Gainer — USA (9/16/2010 8:14:18 AM)

The connection between beer-making and bread-baking, both done by women, is interesting. My own granny, born in 1905, did both in her youth in rural Oklahoma. While her kinfolks learned in the local Baptists church that "drinking is a sin," they made Choctaw beer at home and even the kids imbibed. "It had a kick like a mule," said Granny. Makes you wonder what all was in it besides grain!

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Did the Ancient Israelites drink beer

Clyde Beury, Deacon — U.S. (9/16/2010 7:24:36 AM)

I have told students and friends for many years that Beer was a popular beverage in the ancient Middle East, the two most popular brands were, Hebrews and Israelite! The excellent scholarship was as enjoyable as the subject matter. And to quote Ben Franklin, Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy." Clyde Beury, Deacon Lutheran Church of the Resurrection Yardley, PA

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Aramaic word for "beer"?

Joseph — (9/15/2010 5:15:40 PM)

Rabbi Steinberg-Caudill, you piqued my curiosity. What is the Aramaic word for "beer"? Thanks in advance for your response.

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NOT RAY OLIVER, ESQ. — USA (9/15/2010 4:57:46 PM)

Ray-man A) Why do you seem so worked up over Homan's stance on women priests or planned parenthood? Good for him and his freedom of belief. Are you suggesting he is slanting the article based on his beliefs in women's rights? B) Who the hell uses Esq. anymore? Esquire is a British unofficial title of respect, having no precise significance, it is used to denote a high but indeterminate social status. - You're from the USA. What "social status" are you trying ot prove? - NOT RAY

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Very entertaining read

Andy — Texas (9/15/2010 3:07:58 PM)

I enjoyed the atypical perspective, Mr. Homan, but it appears that Yahweh did not drink a six-pack, as you (humorously?) implied, but either inhaled or smelled it. "Thou shalt offer it, a sacrifice made by fire, of a sweet savour unto the Lord." (Numbers 28:7)

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HOMAN OFFERINGS: Yahweh From Beer To Books

RAY OLIVER, ESQ. — US (9/13/2010 6:08:03 PM)

For the good Rabbi Caudill: IF etymology alone were an acceptable method in archaeology to prove anthropological cultures, THEN Native North Americans and the Mezo civilizations of Central America and indigenous peoples of South America, would be deemed to be "cultural extensions" of the Phoenicians. Etymology alone is not sufficient. rayoliveresq

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HOMAN OFFERINGS: Yahweh, From Beer To Books

RAY OLIVER, ESQ. — US (9/13/2010 5:54:13 PM)

HOMAN's paper raises serious questions of professional & journalistic integrity. Where is ISRAELITE arch evid proving a beer making culture? There is none. As Homan states, "Yahweh drank lots of beer." If prayer is our substitute for "Homan's beer party with Yahweh," then what does YWH do with prayers? If we extend Homan's logic, YWH is binding all the prayers to publish a giant book. Simply, HOMAN has an aversion toward spirituality written into scripture. As Nathan said: he's free to lie.

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HOMAN OFFERINGS: Imbibing with Yahweh

RAY OLIVER, ESQ — US (9/13/2010 5:21:25 PM)

...More examples of Homan's deceptive misuse of footnotes and improper citation. Look at ftnotes 38-41. He shows a Babylonian image as evidence of "Iron Age discoveries in Israel." These are Babylonian artifacts, part of a large collection of a BLYN beer culture during the BLYN conquest of ISRLTS. 38 is of a "poet." 39 of McCormick on WINE-Phoenicia. 40 Egyptian artifacts as support of Homan (un paginated Homan publication). Incredibly, Homan then says, "final piece of evid ISRLTS drank beer."

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HOMAN OFFERINGS: imbibing with Yahweh

RAY OLIVER, ESQ. — US (9/13/2010 3:34:10 PM)

Here's an example: The 1st illustration is misleading. Rather than ISRLT, it's EGYPTN. As Egyptn, the lad holding a jar & the straw is presumptively an ISRLT slave. Would Egyptns drink beer through a straw anymore than the Rabbi would drink Sam Adams through a straw? The jar is proven to be used for dilution of wine or flavoring. The ISRLT lad adds flavoring / dilution to the Egytns taste. Homan's "beer cakes" interpretation is equally dizzy. The only beer I detect here, was with Homan. (final)

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FOOTNOTES: Homan citations

RAY OLIVER, ESQ. — US (9/13/2010 3:15:28 PM)

Rabbi Caudill should check Homan's citations. The footnotes do not support and inaccurately reference bibliographic sources. Take a look for yourself. Homan's paper would raise serious academic issues if an undergraduate submitted this type of paper. Simply, there is no arch hard evidence supporting a beer making culture. To learn, Rabbi should read PATRICK MCGOVERN's (Univ Penn), seminal & foremost authoritative work on alcoholic beverages in ancient Near East. A Homan scriptural black hole?

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Fantastic Article

Jenny — United States (9/11/2010 8:03:33 PM)

Thanks for posting this insightful article about beer consumption among the ancient Israelites. Overlooking its importance is definitely a sign of class snobbery on the part of many scholars.

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Rabbi Gershon Steinberg-Caudill — USA (9/11/2010 6:48:01 PM)

Of course the Israelites drank and tithed beer. I find it absurd to discount such facts based upon one's finding that the author endorses Planned Parenthood, abortion, or women holding priesthood positions. A study of the etymology of the Hebrew and its' relationship to the Aramaic word for beer should be enough. As usual, I find the article to hold up to the standards of scholarship that I expect from BAR.

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RAY OLIVER, ESQ. — USA (9/3/2010 10:16:24 PM)

Talkback moderator: You were right by editing the last paragph of my earlier comment. Ms. Baldwin, the issue here is not whether Israelites drank beer. The issue is whether there is hard archaeological evidence to conclude anthropologically, that ancient Israelites established a beer making culture. Homan begins with a non-Israelite depiction of an Egyptian. His biblical references to "strong drink" in the 1st paragph incorrectly substitutes Nesekh (undiluted wine) with his word, beer. Shame.

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HOMAN OFFERINGS: Yahweh Drinks Beer

RAY OLIVER, ESQ. — USA (9/3/2010 3:37:41 PM)

...These are the laws of the Torah. Moreover, the reference to �strong drink� in the OT and the legal directives for offerings, did not refer to beer. It is elemental that offering to God �strong drink� was the Nesekh. Nesekh was undiluted wine. --edited by Talkback moderator--

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HOMAN OFFERINGS: Yahweh Drinks Beer

RAY OLIVER, ESQ. — USA (9/3/2010 3:34:19 PM)

...*It did not mean God “ate” and “drank” the offerings. Offerings were a substitute for the person. A person was allowed through an offering to become closer to God by giving away a possession, which was hard earned through labor or valuable to their family. Today, Judaic-Christian offerings are through prayer. The Torah regulated the practice and method of “spiritual offerings.” Offerings were given for: guilt, sin, thanks, peace with God and devotion. ...contin

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HOMAN OFFERINGS: Yaweh Drinks Beer

RAY OLIVER, ESQ. — USA (9/3/2010 3:29:09 PM)

...Nathan’s (justified) sentiment is further articulated. Asst Prf HOMAN attaches an absurd interpretation of the basic laws of sacrifice as promulgated under Judaism’s QORDANOT. Homan states, Yaweh “drank lots of (beer)” and that “strong drink” in the OT referred to beer. Wrong. Homan’s stmts are irresponsible. Sacrifices were spiritual. A person who gave up a possession was brought closer to God-spiritually. ...contin

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Did the Israelites drink beer?

Ann Baldwin — US (9/2/2010 10:06:10 PM)

Of course they drank beer. Any culture that grows grain manufactures beer. And don't forget that God in the bible tells them to tithe their beer. Obviously their priest liked beer also... Sounds just like today.

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Rogue Catholicism : A Homan Dialectic

RAY OLIVER, ESQ. — USA (9/2/2010 3:51:31 PM)

I apologize for multpl comments. But, a google search of M. Homan necessitates further response. Theo Asst Prof Homan teaches at a small Cath Univ. He apparently endorses Planned Parenthood, abortion & female priests. A google search legitimizes Nathan's comment. I graduated Loyola Chicago; maintain contact with Univ Pres Fr. Garazini and had grad courses in Soc of Religion with distng sociologist Tom Gannon, SJ & grad wrk at NYU Homan's beer paper is consistently unimpressive. "rayoliveresq"

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RAY OLIVER, ESQ. — USQ (9/2/2010 3:12:20 PM)

Please note the following corrections to my earlier comment. Prof Hofman (sic) Prof Homan Renaisance (sic) Renaissance Thank you. key search: "RAYOLIVERESQ"

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Israelite Beer Culture

RAY OLIVER, ESQ. — USA (9/1/2010 9:27:42 PM)

...and further, Prof Hofman's portrayal of ancient Israelites as a post Renaisance, Bavarian stein chugging culture of "good tasting beer," is contrary to Arch evidence and empirical studies. Years ago, I read that discovered ancient Egyptian barley was propagated and brewed according to ancient receipe. The result was a terribly bitter beer. Although potable, it was barely palatable. The bitterness lends support to the assumption that beer was more likely medicinal than recreational.

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Polemic Archaeology

RAY OLIVER, ESQ — USA (9/1/2010 6:56:30 PM)

I agree with Nathan. I view the argument made by Prof Hofman as unsubstantiated conjecture. Where hard archaeological evidence exists for the prevalence of a beer culture in Mesopotamia and Egypt, none exists which supports the notion that ancient "covenanted" chosen Israelites acclimated into the beer making culture. To borrow Nathan's sentiment; I find Prof Hofman's assertion to be, figuratively and metaphorically, a crock. Until published in a vetted journal, it is wishful archaeology.

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Nathan — usa (8/27/2010 2:33:36 PM)

that is not at all what its talking about beer is not good for you it yall are liars

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Paul Ballotta — United States (8/26/2010 8:18:55 PM)

Perhaps we may now infer the mythical monster described as "Rehab's-roar-desists" in Isaiah 30:7, is none other than the goddess Hathor. She figures prominently over victory celebrations in the city of Ramses (ANET PP.470-471). "The ale of 'Great of Victories' is sweet; of Kode from the harbor, and wine of the vineyards."

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