Wine in the Bible

The foregoing investigation has shown that in secular Greek and Hebrew, the respective words for wine, oinos and yayin, have been used to refer either to fermented or unfermented wine. At this juncture it is important to ascertain if the same dual meanings are found in the Biblical usage of these two related words. This information is essential because it will explain why Scripture sometimes clearly approves of wine and sometimes strongly disapproves of it, while using the same word to designate both.

The apparent ambiguity of Scripture toward wine is resolved if we can establish that the two related words for wine—oinos and yayin—are used in Scripture in the same way as in secular Greek and Hebrew, namely to refer to the juice of the grape, whether fermented or unfermented. If these dual meaning is present in Scripture, then it will be easier to show that God approves of the unfermented grape juice and that He disapproves of the fermented intoxicating wine, even while using the same word to designate both. The procedure we shall follow is to examine first the usage of yayin in the Old Testament and then of oinos in the New Testament.

1. Yayin as Fermented Wine

Frequent Use

The noun yayin is the most frequently used word for wine in the Old Testament, fully 141 times. As already noticed, there is an apparent inconsistency in the use of this word, since sometimes it receives God’s approval and sometimes His disapproval. The reason for this will become apparent by looking at some examples where yayin obviously means fermented, intoxicating wine and at others where it means unfermented grape juice.

According to Robert Teachout’s tabulation of the 141 references to yayin in the Old Testament, 71 times the word refers to unfermented grape juice and 70 times to fermented wine. This tabulation may not necessarily be accurate, since in certain instances the context is unclear. The actual ratio in the two usages of yayin is of relative significance, because for the purpose of our study it is important simply to establish that yayin is sometimes used in the Old Testament to refer to the unfermented juice of the grape.

Examples of Intoxication

No one doubts that yayin frequently refers in the Old Testament to intoxicating wine. This fact is clearly established both by the many examples of the evil consequences of drinking yayin and by the divine condemnation of its use.

The very first example of the use of yayin in Scripture describes the intoxicating effects of fermented wine: "Noah was the first tiller of the soil. He planted a vineyard; and he drank of the wine [yayin] and became drunk, and lay uncovered in his tent" (Gen 9:20, 21).

Another sordid example in which intoxicating wine played a leading role is that of Lot’s daughters. Fearing to be left without progeny after the destruction of Sodom and the surrounding cities, the older daughter said to the younger: "Come, let us make our father drink wine [yayin], and we will lie with him, that we may preserve offspring through our father.’ So they made their father drink wine [yayin] that night; and the first-born went in, and lay with her father; he did not know when she lay down or when she arose" (Gen 19:32-33). The story continues relating how the following night the younger daughter repeated the same strategy.

The story of Nabal provides another example of the evil effects of intoxicating wine. Nabal was a wealthy man who had benefited from David’s protection. Yet he refused to give any food in return to David’s men. When David organized his men to kill the ungrateful Nabal, his wife, Abigail, acted hastily on a tip received and brought provisions to David, apologizing for her husband’s foolish behavior. After David accepted her apologies and provisions, she returned home, only to find her husband drunk: "And Abigail came to Nabal; and, lo, he was holding a feast in his house, like the feast of a king. And Nabal’s heart was merry within him, for he was very drunk; so she told him nothing at all until the morning light. And in the morning, when the wine [yayin] had gone out of Nabal, his wife told him these things, and his heart died within him and he became as a stone" (1 Sam 25:36-37).

Among the many other stories of intoxicating wine, we could refer to Ammon, who was murdered by the servants of his brother Absalom while he was "merry with wine [yayin]" (2 Sam 13:28). Also King Ahasuerus who, when his heart "was merry with wine [yayin]" (Esther 1:10), tried to subject Vashiti, his queen, to the gaze of the inebriated nobility of the royal court.

The examples cited suffice to show that yayin in the Old Testament often refers to fermented, intoxicating wine. Further indications are provided by the explicit divine disapproval of the use of wine.

Disapproval of Yayin

The classic condemnation of the use of intoxicating wine and a description of its consequences is found in Proverbs 23:29-35. After warning against some woes caused by wine, such as sorrow, strife, complaining, wounds without cause and redness of eyes, Solomon admonishes to refrain even from looking upon wine: "Do not look at wine [yayin] when it is red, when it sparkles in the cup and goes down smoothly. At the last it bites like a serpent and stings like an adder" (Prov 23:31-32).

A similar warning against intoxicating wine is found in Proverbs 20:1: "Wine [yayin] is a mocker, strong drink a brawler; and whoever is led astray by it is not wise." Such warnings, however, were largely ignored. By the time of Isaiah, drinking fermented wine had become such a universal problem that even "the priest and the prophet reel with strong drink; they are confused with wine [yayin], they stagger with strong drink; they err in vision, they stumble in giving judgment" (Is 28:7).

Other passages which clearly indicate that yayin refers to fermented, intoxicating wine, will be mentioned in the following chapter, where we shall examine more closely some of the reasons that Scripture admonishes not to use fermented wine.

2. Yayin as Unfermented Grape Juice

No Self-explanatory Passage

The use of yayin in the Old Testament to denote unfermented grape juice is not always as evident as its use to describe alcoholic wine, because the former does not come under condemnation like the latter. There is no single passage which clearly defines yayin as unfermented grape juice. If such a passage existed, there would be no controversy over this subject and no need to write this book.

The Bible, however, is not a lexicon which defines its words. The meaning of its words must often be derived from their context and from their comparative usage in other passages and/or related (cognate) languages. In the case of the word yayin, we believe that there are passages where the context clearly indicates that the word designates unfermented grape juice.

Isaiah 16:10

One of the clearest passages is Isaiah 16:10. The context of the passage is God’s judgment upon Moab for its pride. The judgment is manifested, as often is the case throughout the Old Testament, through the removal of the divine blessing from the vineyard and the grape juice: "And joy and gladness are taken away from the fruitful field; and in the vineyard no songs are sung, no shouts are raised; no treader treads out wine [yayin] in the presses; the vintage shout is hushed" (Is 16:10).

The important point which this passage clarifies is that what the treaders tread out in the pressing vat is called yayin. This is obviously unfermented grape juice, since fermentation is a time-controlled process. Some people wrongly assume that if one just lets grape juice alone, it will automatically ferment into a "good" grade of wine. Such an assumption is wrong. Pressed grape juice (must) allowed to ferment without a controlled environment becomes spoiled grape juice (vinegar) which no one wishes to drink.

Kenneth L. Gentry objects to this interpretation by arguing that "the poetic imagery so common in Hebrew poetry will allow yayin here to be alcoholic." His argument is that in poetry sometimes the end results are attributed to the substance which causes the result. Gentry’s objection has two major weaknesses. First, it fails to recognize that the poetic imagery of Isaiah 16:10 deals with the joy of the harvest and the treading of the grapes. The yayin flowing out of the press is seen not in terms of what it could become, fermented wine, but in terms of what it is at harvest time, "wine in the presses."

Second, Gentry ignores the fact that the pressed grape juice, prior to fermentation, was called by the Jews, as shown earlier, "yayin mi-gat—wine from the press." Being unwilling to accept the fact that pressed grape juice could be called yayin, Gentry and a host of moderationists are forced to interpret as alcoholic wine the very yayin flowing from the press. Normal interpretation of Isaiah 16:10 does not require interpreting yayin as a poetic reference to the finished product, fermented wine, since the plain reference to fresh grape juice makes good, understandable sense in the context. A parallel passage is found in Jeremiah 48:33.

Jeremiah 40:10, 12

Another clear example of the use of yayin to designate the unfermented juice of the grape is found in Jeremiah 40:10, 12. In verse 10, Gedaliah, the Babylonian governor, tells the Jews who had not been taken captive: "Gather wine [yayin] and summer fruits and oil, and store them in your vessels, and dwell in your cities that you have taken." This order encouraged those Jews who had fled to neighboring countries to return to the land of Judah "and they gathered wine [yayin] and summer fruits in great abundance" (Jer 40:12). In both of these verses we find the term yayin used in a matter-of-fact construction to refer to the fruit of the vine. Alcoholic wine is not gathered from the fields. Such usages negate the assumption that yayin can refer only to fermented wine.

Nehemiah 13:15

In Nehemiah 13:15 we find another example where yayin is used to designate freshly pressed grape juice. "In those days I saw in Judah men treading wine presses on the sabbath, and bringing in heaps of grain and loading them on asses; and also wine [yayin], grapes, figs and all kind of burdens, which they brought into Jerusalem on the sabbath day; and I warned them on the day when they sold food." Here yayin is most probably the pressed grape juice, since it is mentioned together with the treading of wine presses on the Sabbath. The fresh juice was sold on the Sabbath along with fresh grapes and other fruits.

Lamentations 2:12

In Lamentations there is a vivid description of the physical anguish suffered by Judah during the great famine caused by Nebuchadnezzar’s siege of Jerusalem. In famished distress the little children cried out to their mothers: "‘Where is bread and wine[yayin]?’ as they faint like wounded men in the streets of the city, as their life is poured out on their mothers’ bosom" (Lam 2:12).

In this passage the nursing infants are crying out to their mothers for their normal fare of food and drink, namely, bread and yayin. It is hardly imaginable that in time of siege and famine, little children would be asking their mothers for intoxicating wine as their normal drink. "What they wanted as they were dying on their mothers’ breast," notes Robert Teachout, "was grape juice (yayin) which has a tremendous nourishment and which had been part of their normal diet."

Genesis 49:11

In Genesis 49:11 the blessings of God upon Judah are prophesised through the imagery of an abundant harvest of yayin: "He washes his garments in wine [yayin] and his vesture in the blood of grapes." The idea expressed by this imagery is that the harvest is so copious that the garments of the grape treaders appear washed in the abundance of juice.

In this passage we also have a striking example of Hebrew parallelism where two clauses express the same thought with different words. In this instance, the "garments" of the first clause correspond to the "vesture" of the second clause, and the "wine" (yayin) to the "blood of the grapes." "Blood" is a poetical name for "grape juice," and its usage in parallelism with "wine" suggests that in Bible times grape juice was called yayin, prior to its fermentation.

Song of Solomon

Other examples of the use of yayin referring to unfermented grape juice are found in the love poem written by Solomon, King of Israel. In several verses the enjoyment of pure love is compared with yayin: "O that you would kiss me with the kisses of your mouth! For your love is better than wine [yayin], . . . We will exult and rejoice in you; we will extol your love more than wine [yayin]; . . . How sweet is your love, my sister, my bride! how much better is your love than wine [yayin]" (Song of Solomon 1:2, 4; 4:10).

In these verses yayin can hardly refer to fermented, intoxicating wine, since the author of this book condemns fermented wine as a "mocker" and a stinging "adder" (Prov 20:1, 23:32). It is evident that Solomon is comparing the sweetness of pure, undefiled love with sweet grape juice. Such a comparison is most appropriate, because, as Teachout observes, "just as grape juice was given explicitly by God for the purpose of rejoicing the heart of man (Psalm 104:15), so too is the love between a man and a woman."

The foregoing examples clearly indicate that, contrary to prevailing opinion, yayin was used in the Old Testament, as in rabbinical literature, to designate either fermented or unfermented grape juice.

3. Oinos as Fermented Wine
The meaning of oinos, the Greek term for wine in the New Testament, is equivalent to the Hebrew meaning of yayin in the Old Testament. Earlier we established that oinos was used in secular Greek literature as a generic term to refer either to fermented or unfermented grape juice. The same dual meanings of oinos can be found in its Biblical usage. The word, however, occurs only 32 times in the New Testament, while the corresponding Hebrew yayin occurs 141 times.
Intoxicating Oinos

One of the clearest examples of the use of oinos as intoxicating wine, is found in Ephesians 5:18: "And do not get drunk with wine [oinos], for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit." It is evident that here oinos refers to fermented, intoxicating wine. First, because it can make a person "drunk," and second, because its usage is condemned as "debauchery," that is, utter depravity and dissoluteness.

The intoxicating power of oinos is implied in its symbolic use to describe divine judgment upon the wicked: "He also shall drink the wine [oinos] of God’s wrath, poured unmixed into the cup of his anger" (Rev 14:10). Here the "wine of God’s wrath" is said to be "unmixed" (akraton), that is, not mixed with water which would reduce its potency. A similar figurative use is found in Revelation 16:19 (NIV) where it says: "God remembered Babylon the Great and gave her the cup filled with the wine [oinos] of the fury of his wrath." Here the fury of God’s wrath is described by the imagery of a cup of wine, intoxicating and maddening those who are compelled to drink it.

The intoxicating wine of God’s wrath represents the retribution in kind upon "the great harlot . . . with whom the kings of the earth have committed fornication, and with the wine of whose fornication the dwellers on earth have become drunk" (Rev 17:1, 2). Here spiritual whoredom is represented as intoxicating wine possessing an incredible power to confuse the understanding and to corrupt the heart.

These few examples of the literal and figurative use of oinos make it abundantly clear that the term is used in the New Testament to refer to intoxicating, fermented wine.

4. Oinos as Unfermented Grape Juice
Indications of the Biblical usage of oinos as unfermented grape juice come to us in two different ways: 
(1) through the Greek translation of the Old Testament (known as the Septuagint) used by the apostles, and 
(2) through the context of such New Testament texts as Matthew 9:17 and Revelation 6:6.
Oinos in the Septuagint

We noted earlier that the Septuagint, an intertestamental Greek translation of the Old Testament used by the apostles, translates at least 33 times the Hebrew word for grape juice, tirosh, by the Greek word oinos (Ps 4:7-8, Is 65:8; Joel 1:10-12; 2:23-24). For example, in Proverbs 3:10 the freshly pressed juice of the grape (tirosh in Hebrew) is translated oinos in the Septuagint. The King James Version reads: "Thy presses shall burst out with new wine" (Prov 3:10). "New wine" translates the Hebrew tirosh, but the Septuagint simply uses the word oinos without the adjective "new." This in itself shows, as Ernest Gordon observes, that "oinos without qualification, then, can easily mean unfermented wine in the New Testament."  The fact that the translators of the Septuagint employed the word oinos to translate tirosh, which is the common Hebrew word for fresh grape juice, is proof that oinos was used to refer to both fermented and unfermented grape juice.

This conclusion is further supported by the use of the Greek word oinos in the Septuagint to translate the Hebrew word yayin when the latter clearly means the freshly pressed juice of the grapes. For example, the Septuagint uses oinos to translate yayin in Isaiah 16:10: "No treader treads out wine [oinos in the Septuagint] in the presses." In view of the fact that the language of the Septuagint greatly influenced New Testament writers, it seems plausible to assume that oinos is used also in the New Testament with the same dual meanings of fermented or unfermented grape juice.

New Wine in Fresh Wineskins

A possible use of oinos in the New Testament as a reference to unfermented wine, is found in Matthew 9:17 where Jesus says: "Neither is new wine put into old wineskins; if it is, the skins burst, and the wine is spilled, and the skins are destroyed; but new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved." From this verse we learn that it was customary in Christ’s time to put new wine into new wineskins in order to preserve both the wine and its wineskins.

The usual explanation for this custom is that new wineskins were used because they could better resist the expansive force of the carbonic acid generated by fermentation. For example, Jimmy L. Albright writes: "Freshly made wine was put into new wineskins; old skins would burst under the pressure (Matt 9:17; Mark 2:22; Luke 5:37-38)." This view can hardly be correct, because new wineskins, no matter how strong, could resist the pressure caused by fermentation. I have learned this fact from personal experience, as I have seen in my parents’ cellar glass bottles shattered to pieces by grape juice which had inadvertently fermented.

The Encyclopedia Biblica rightly observes that "it is impossible that the must could ever have been put into skins to undergo the whole process of fermentation, as is usually stated, the action of the gas given off in the earlier stages of the process being much too violent for any skins to withstand."

The process of wine making in the ancient Near East is only relatively known. James B. Pritchard, excavator of ancient Gibeon, where 63 storage vats were found, candidly admits that "only a little is known from literary and pictorial sources of preclassical times about the process of making wine in the ancient Near East." According to his reconstruction, at Gibeon the juice of pressed grapes was transferred into four different tanks during the course of several days. In the last three tanks the violent fermentation processes occurred. Then the decanted wine was poured into large jars sealed with olive oil at 65 degrees F (18 degrees C).

Unfermented Grape Juice

In the light of this information, Christ’s saying about "new wine" being placed in "fresh wineskins" can best be understood as referring to wine fresh from the press which was strained and possibly boiled, and then placed immediately into new wineskins made air-tight, possibly by a film of oil on the opening of the wineskin. The various methods used by the ancients to preserve grape juice unfermented will be discussed in Chapter 4. At this juncture it suffices to note that Christ’s words suggest that "new wine" was placed into fresh wineskins to insure the absence of any fermentation-causing substance.

"If old bags were used," Lees and Burns explain, "some of the decayed albuminous matter adhering to their sides must, by the action of air, have become changed into a leaven or ferment (Hebrew, seor); or by long wear and heat, cracks or apertures admitting the air might exist undetected; and the wine, thus set a-fermenting, would in due course burst the skin, and be spilled and ‘lost’" On the other hand, if unfermented new wine was poured into new wineskins, no cause of fermentation would be present. Thus, the wine would be preserved from fermentation and the wineskins from rupture. If this interpretation is correct, then Christ’s reference to "new wine" (oinos neos) would constitute another example of the use of oinos in the New Testament to describe unfermented grape juice.

Oil and Wine Spared

An example of the generic use of the word oinos is found in Revelation 6:6, where a voice is heard from the center of the throne room, saying: "A quart of wheat for a denarius's, and three quarts of barley for a denarius's; but do not harm oil and wine [oinos]!" The warning against hurting the oil and the wine sets the limits to the destruction which the black horse and its rider are about to carry out. "Since the roots of the olive and vine go deeper," explains Robert H. Mounce, "they would not be affected by a limited drought which would all but destroy the grain."

In the context of this warning against the destruction of the harvest, the reference to "oil and wine" is significant, because it shows that these two terms could be used to refer to the solid fruits, the olive and the grape yielding oil and wine (oinos) . This usage of the term oinos to refer to the actual fruit—the grapes—is not surprising, because there are numerous examples in secular Greek in which wine is spoken of as produced within the grape and cluster. Anacreon, for example, speaks of the oinos "imprisoned in the fruit upon the branches," and he sings of the treaders "letting loose the wine."

The above examples of the usage of oinos in the New Testament and in the Septuagint show that the term was used in Biblical Greek in a generic way, to refer to either fermented or unfermented grape juice. This usage is consistent with what we have found to be the use of yayin in the Old Testament. Thus the meaning of the two related Biblical terms for wine (yayin and oinos) must be determined by the context in which they are used. This will become more apparent in the next chapter where we shall examine the Biblical teaching on wine.


The survey conducted in this chapter on the usage of four related words—wine in English, vinum in Latin, oinos in Greek and yayin in Hebrews—has shown an amazing consistency in the historical usage of these related words. In all four languages, these linguistically related words have been used historically to refer to the juice of the grape, whether fermented or unfermented. This significant finding discredits the charge that the theory of the two wines is devoid of Biblical and historical support. The sampling of Biblical and historical sources examined in this chapter shows instead that it is the theory of one wine which is devoid of Biblical and historical support.

Long before this century, scholars recognized that the Hebrew, Greek and Latin words for wine could refer equally to fermented or unfermented grape juice. In recent times, however, this historical understanding has been obscured by the restrictive use of "wine" which has come to mean only fermented, intoxicating grape juice. This has misled many Christians into believing that yayin and oinos also refer only to fermented wine which Scripture allegedly approves.

In this chapter we have endeavored to clarify this prevalent misunderstanding, by showing how Scripture uses the same words (yayin and oinos) to designate either fermented or unfermented grape juice. This conclusion will become clearer in the next chapter, where we shall examine some of the reasons that the Bible disapproves of fermented wine but approves of unfermented grape juice.