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Wine and Beer in the Ancient Near East

Harvest celebration

 In ancient Israel the high point of grape harvesting was winemaking, “an activity which was carried out by the vinedresser and his family.”[1] The treading of grapes in the wine press was “accompanied by music.” Grape juice flowed into troughs and was later poured into large jars. Do you picture the vinedresser’s happy family—father, mother, and children—laughing, slipping and sliding on grape skins? It probably didn’t happen that way.

Ancient Wine Bottles

Ancient Wine Bottles (Photo credit: Ryan Opaz)

Production line

 From Egyptian drawings of winemaking, men did most of the work. Men are shown treading the grapes and carrying storage jars to cellars where the wine fermented. If the Egyptians and Israelites followed similar winemaking techniques, men and women picked grapes, but men carried the heavy baskets and treaded the press. Archeologists discovered several wine presses in the cities of Gibeon and Beth-shemesh, (also En-gedi, Samaria, Shiloh and Timnah) suggesting that these areas were centers for wine production in ancient Israel. “Jars discovered in the Gibeon were inscribed with names of winemakers, an indication that these jars were returnable.”[2]

The first wine—a fortuitous accident?

Where did wine come from? In researching the role of women in making and/or providing wine for their families, I was given an article entitled “The Beginnings of Winemaking and Viniculture in the Ancient Near East and Egypt.” The authors wondered if wine came into being by accident. Did ancient people come across wild grapes that had fermented on the vine? When they placed harvested clusters into leather bags, did some of the fruit crush and make juice that fermented at the bottom of the bags? Did the ancient people experiment with wild grapes and fortuitously come up with an intoxicating drink? Researchers can’t prove how wine was discovered, but they have tracked down the earliest evidence of winemaking.

The authors believe that when the ancient peoples moved from a nomadic existence and settled in cities, they became farmers and tillers. They learned how to grow and process food, including how to make wine and beer. The “best candidate for early wine making and viniculture”[3] is in eastern Turkey, somewhere in the region of the Taurus Mountains.  Archeologists found pottery jars there with traces of tartaric acid “which occurs in large amounts in nature only in grapes” and residues in the same jars of “terebinth tree resin,”[4] a preservative that would have extended the life of the wine.

Beginning or revival?

Getting back to the origin of wine, there is a school of thought which hypothesizes that grape domestication, and its attendant wine culture, began in a specific region and spread across the ancient world.

The Bible records that after the Flood, Noah landed on the slopes of Mount Ararat in eastern Turkey. When Noah settled there, he planted a vineyard and made wine. Whether this was the actual beginning of winemaking, or perhaps a revival of pre-flood viticulture is not addressed by the Bible. [5] It is safe, however, to note that from that time on, wine production eventually spread throughout various existing cultures.

Home brew?

With grape-growing and winemaking an established industry in Palestine, did individuals plant grapes and make a little wine at home? I imagine some families planted grapes to eat as fresh fruit and raisins, to make vinegar and syrup and to press into dried fruit cakes. However, the quantity of grapes needed to make wine, the skill involved and the fermentation time, make it likely that men and women bought wine for the family from a vintner—perhaps in refillable jars?

Israelites also drank beer made from barley and wheat. To celebrate the annual Holy Days, the people set aside money to spend “for whatever your heart desires; for oxen or sheep, for wine or similar drink.” [6] The Hebrew word sikura or shekar translated similar drink or strong drink includes any number of intoxicating beverages made from apples, honey, dates, wheat and barley.

Wooden brewery model (Middle Kingdom) on displ...

Wooden brewery model (Middle Kingdom) on display at the Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum in San Jose, California. Barley beer is being brewed, with the men on the left mashing the yeast starter in a bowl for fermenting, while the ones on the right are bottling. The rightmost figure with a tablet tucked under his arm is a scribe, counting the bottles. RC 483 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Was beer a significant beverage in Israel? Some scholars believe beer was as common in Israel as it was in other ancient countries; however, the word beer became associated with drunkenness in general, regardless of the beverage.

Israelites enjoyed a variety of drinks: wines fermented from fruit, some beer-like beverages fermented from grain; and non-alcoholic drinks such as sweet milk, soured milk and water. When used properly, wine had the additional benefits of making the heart glad and settling the stomach (Psalm 104:15, 1 Tim. 5:23).—Mary Hendren


[1] Borowski, Oded “Agriculture in Iron Age Israel,” p. 110

[2] Same source, p. 112

[3] “The Beginnings of Winemaking and Viniculture in the Ancient Near East and Egypt” (Patrick McGovern, Ulrich Hartung, Virginia R. Badler, Donald L. Glusker, and Lawrence J. Exner) p. 4

[4] Same source and page

[5] Is it possible that the origin went back even farther, and that God told Adam and Eve how to make wine? I’ve wondered about how God helped Adam and Eve learn to till the ground. Did He teach them how to support themselves by tilling the soil? The Bible doesn’t say. Later, when God cleaned up the corruption on earth, I’ve wondered if Noah took on board the ark plant material (grapes, wheat, fruit) for re-establishing staple crops? Again, the Bible doesn’t say how God took care of that.

[6] Deuteronomy 14:26

About womenfromthebook

Mine is a life-long interest in the women of the Bible, and I enjoy exploring the world in which they lived, and discovering the challenges that they faced. I have enough curiosity about them to last the rest of my life.

2 responses »

  1. Excellent article Mary! Thanks!
    I believe that when God created Adam and Eve He taught them all about tilling the ground and planting gardens and vineyards. He had created all of the vegetation and the plants just as grape vines, berry vines, etc. He must have taught them how to make wine and
    different beverages. I doubt that wine making came from an accident especially since wine is very important to God and Christ. As it is part of the Passover service representing the blood of our Savior; and Christ also says in:Mark 14:25 that He will not drink of it again until He drinks it new in the kingdom of God.

    Reply
    • Thanks, Judy. I, too, imagine that God told Adam and Eve about wine making. It’s hard to think that something like wine, intended to cheer the heart, and that plays a central role in the scriptures could have come to be by accident. Some day we will be amazed beyond what words can now express, by the magnitude of God’s provision for us.

      Mary

      Reply

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