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I want to preface my answer to this question by pointing out that different people have different moral opinions on this subject, though less and less in our day and, really, only in the Bible belt of the United States. If it is your conviction that drinking is morally wrong, unacceptable, or is some sort of slippery slope, I want you to know that I respect your opinion and conviction. According to Romans 14, no one can condemn you because of a moral conviction you have. Nor should you try to persuade others to abstain from those things that Scripture doesn’t condemn. The consumption of alcoholic beverages is one of the many things that well-meaning religious people will make a primary subject of the Biblical text in order to convince others of a certain moral opinion. This tendency is, moreso, evidence that a person hasn’t taken time to listen to what God has actually said in His word. This is precisely what the Pharisees and scribes did and what Jesus condemned them for doing. Please understand, I am applying this observation both to the prohibitionist and to one who does not make this prohibition. The one who persuades others to abstain adds to God’s word to do so or argues that one sip is the start of some sort of slippery slope, which is a logical fallacy. The one who persuades others not to abstain takes away from God’s word, by which we are instructed to honor the personal, moral convictions of others for their sake in Christ.
So, I will not try to convince you either way. On this point, I will take a neutral position. This isn’t the case with every point. I will save my voice to speak for meaningful things to which God has spoken for our good. My goal, here, will simply be to exposit the text in question for the benefit of those who love God and are called according to His purpose.
You shall surely tithe all the produce from what you sow, which comes out of the field every year. You shall eat in the presence of the Lord your God, at the place where He chooses to establish His name, the tithe of your grain, your new wine, your oil, and the firstborn of your herd and your flock, so that you may learn to fear the Lord your God always. If the distance is so great for you that you are not able to bring the tithe, since the place where the Lord your God chooses to set His name is too far away from you when the Lord your God blesses you, then you shall exchange it for money, and bind the money in your hand and go to the place which the Lord your God chooses. You may spend the money for whatever your heart desires: for oxen, or sheep, or wine, or strong drink, or whatever your heart desires; and there you shall eat in the presence of the Lord your God and rejoice, you and your household. Also you shall not neglect the Levite who is in your town, for he has no portion or inheritance among you.
The Old Testament tithes
In the Old Testament there were three different tithes prescribed for Israel. The first was the Levitical tithe (Numbers 18:21-24) and was an annual 10% tax used to provide a salary to the priests because they had no land inheritance. This is why many pastors will teach that church members should give 10% of their income to the New Testament church in order to pay the salaries of pastors and support the ministries of the church even though no verse or passage in the New Testament makes this direct connection for us.
The second was the tithe for the poor (Deuteronomy 14:28-29) and was a 10% tithe collected every three years for the authorities to hold and distribute as needed to the impoverished, the refugee, and the Levite.
The third is the tithe we see described in this text, the Feast tithe. Each Hebrew family was to save 10% of its produce so that each family could make this annual pilgrimage to the place God would choose (later this would be Jerusalem). This pilgrimage was like a family vacation each year (v. 22). Each family would eat and drink its own produce before God (v. 23). This served the purpose of teaching the people in each family to fear the Lord their God always (v. 23). If the distance was too great for the family to carry 10% of its annual produce, the family was to sell the produce and take the money to Jerusalem to purchase “whatever [their] heart desires” (v. 24-26). They were to donate so that the priests in their town could also make this annual celebratory pilgrimage (v. 27).
The importance of the feast tithe
The main point of this text is not that God instructed people to buy wine and beer (or strong drink). People will often do this thing with the Biblical text where they major on a minor detail. This is the case for those who want to use this passage as a prooftext in favor of drinking. The reality is that this passage neither condones nor condemns the act of drinking. In the same way, people will often skip over or ignore details in the text. Every time the church gathers, they are skipping to a different part of the Bible teaching only the details in Scripture that they want to teach. To do either of these things is Pharisaical. The product is not a sermon or truly Biblical lesson. It’s a bad joke, a nightmare you run from. This is how we get teaching that is so far from Biblical teaching yet still believed by people who sincerely desire to follow Christ. The cure is simply that we would strive to know the Bible genuinely and sincerely. This means that we want our preachers and teachers to teach the Bible- not read it and then commentate making all sorts of applications without first explaining the text. That is how we get bad theology, works-based salvation, and unsound doctrine. This is why I make a habit of walking through Scripture, not skipping a thing each time we gather together as God’s local church.
Instead of trying to lead the text, we want the text to lead us. It is God’s word and God is the one with authority, here, not us. The major point of this passage is that God instructed each family in Israel to save for and take a family vacation so that they might learn to fear the Lord their God. It is almost as though getting away from work and regular responsibility to spend quality time with family in celebration and reflection of God was important, not only for the benefit of familial relationships but for the benefit of each person’s relationship with God. This was of such importance to God that God commanded this in His Law. Even though this is a civil law, not moral, God’s principles are foundational. We need time away from work with our families so that we might learn to fear God. So, we do not neglect times set aside for family vacations. They are important and more profitable than we might realize. They are more than times of rest and relaxation. They are times of spiritual renewal and revival.
The minor details
The minor details of the text are not minor because they are unimportant. In a way, they are just as important as the major details. Every word is the word of God. The only thing that makes a minor detail a minor detail is that it does not constitute the main point of the text. The main point would still be the main point if these details were missing. Since they are not missing and since God does not speak a vain word, we know that every single detail in Scripture is there for our benefit. So, we read them honestly. Again, we want the text to lead us. We don’t want to lead the text.
If a family was a wine producer, it would bring 10% of its annual wine production on this annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem and the instruction from God was that, as a family on vacation, each member would enjoy the fruits of their labor in God’s presence. If this is the family’s livelihood, 10% is no small amount. If the family could not carry all of this wine to Jerusalem, the family was to sell it and buy “whatever [their] heart desires,” upon arriving in Jerusalem (v. 26). The list of acceptable things to buy included: oxen, sheep, wine, strong drink (some translations say “beer”), or whatever was desired. Notice that God did not instruct his people to purchase wine or beer. God instructed his people to buy what they desired for their feasts while on this vacation. Wine and beer were options but not required purchases. So, this verse cannot be used to convince anyone that he or she needs to take up drinking. Notice, also, that wine is coupled with “strong drink” or “beer.” Wine was alcoholic and so was this strong drink. In fact the Hebrew word for “strong drink” (שכר) was used to refer to intoxication by way of drink and of drunkards, themselves (e.g. Isaiah 24:20). The word is always used to describe a consumable that would, with any significant volume, place a person under the influence. At this time in history, the people of Israel were exposed to several different types of wine, beer, and mead. This type of strong drink would be the equivalent of today’s craft beer, whiskey, vodka, rum, etc… So, this verse also cannot be twisted to insist that the alcoholic beverages were somehow much less potent and that we need to stay away from alcoholic beverages today. Again, Biblically, our instruction is simply to honor the personal, moral convictions that people have and teach what God has said without tainting or hiding His words.
I’m not going to try and tell you what God meant when He instructed His people that they were allowed to purchase and use alcoholic beverages according to their desires. It is simply the case that He did give this instruction. I can answer the question, “Why did God instruct His people to drink beer,” though. He didn’t. He instructed each family to make an annual pilgrimage. He allowed them to drink wine and strong drink if they desired.
What this text does not do
Since it is not the point of this particular text, no guidelines are given concerning the consumption of alcohol. We might be able to find some principles or guidelines in other texts. No mention is made of that, here. What this text does is highlight the importance of us not getting so consumed with what we are doing or not that we forget to honor God as holy. If our worry is whether or not we or others are drinking, our attention is in the wrong place. The whole purpose for the annual vacation prescribed for the families of national Israel in this text is that they take some time to not focus on what they have to do but on God so that they might learn to fear Him always. So, the application is simple. Let us take time to shift our focus from what we have to do to God who is holy, that we might learn to fear Him always- honoring Him first in our hearts and then with our lives. Let us not get addicted to lesser things and so distract ourselves and others from what God has actually said.
Public Service Announcement
Because of the subject matter, I must make it a point to write this warning. Please practice discernment and responsibility. Common sense reveals to us that over-consumption leads to the making of bad decisions and bad health. If you lack self-control around alcoholic beverages, don’t tempt yourself. For, we desire that our bodies be under the influence of the Holy Spirit, not some other type of spirit. We also desire to live long and fruitful lives to God’s glory alone.