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Sarah: Life with Abraham 1

A familiar example

The name Sarah resonates with Bible readers, women of faith, feminists, and historians. More space is devoted to her than any other woman in the Bible. One of the most quoted passages concerning Sarah, and one which ultimately defines her, is 1 Peter 3:1-6:

Wives, likewise, be submissive to your own husbands, that even if some do not obey the word, they, without a word, may be won by the conduct of their wives, when they observe your chaste conduct accompanied by fear. Do not let your adornment be merely outward — arranging the hair, wearing gold, or putting on fine apparel — rather let it be the hidden person of the heart, with the incorruptible beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is very precious in the sight of God. For in this manner, in former times, the holy women who trusted in God also adorned themselves, being submissive to their own husbands, as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord, whose daughters you are if you do good and are not afraid with any terror.

Since Sarah is generally regarded in her role as Abraham’s wife (and eventually Isaac’s mother), in order to understand her more fully, it is necessary explore the world and the person of the man who enjoyed her honor, respect, and submission. The purpose of this series is to pull back the curtains of history and travel alongside them on their lifelong journey of faith.

Starting with the basics

Genealogy was of prime importance anciently, and it holds significance for us as well to note that their lineage stems from Shem, Noah’s oldest son (Genesis 10:10-26). Their father Terah and his clan lived in Ur of the Chaldees,[1] the dominant Mesopotamian city-state during his time, established by the Sumerians and located near the banks of the Euphrates River.

Terah was the father of Abraham mentioned in t...

Terah was the father of Abraham mentioned in the Hebrew Bible. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There is no hard fact concerning the family’s occupation at Ur. There are, however, opinions—one being they were semi-nomads who largely tended their herds and flocks on the outskirts of the city,[2] and another, citing a Jewish tradition[3] which casts Terah as an idolatrous priest who manufactured and sold idols.[4] The latter found inspiration from Joshua 24:1-5 where God through Joshua states that “your fathers, including Terah, the father of Abraham and the father of Nahor, dwelt on the other side of the River in old times; and they served other gods.”

Manufacturing and selling idols would have been a lucrative trade since Ur was a major center for worshiping the moon goddess, Nanna, divine patron of the city-state. The huge ziggurat built in her honor still exists at the site of the ancient city. “The structure would have been the highest point in the city by far and, like the spire of a medieval cathedral, would have been visible for miles around, a focal point for travelers and the pious alike. As the Ziggurat [sic] supported the temple of the patron god of the city of Ur, it is likely that it was the place where the citizens of Ur would bring agricultural surplus and where they would go to receive their regular food allotments. In antiquity, to visit the ziggurat at Ur was to seek both spiritual and physical nourishment.”[5]

Dwellings

Ruins in the Town of Ur, Southern Iraq Español...

Ruins in the Town of Ur, Southern Iraq Español: Ruinas de la ciuad de Ur con el Zigurat de Ur-Nammu al fondo a las afueras de Nasiriyah. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If indeed Terah’s sons were semi-nomadic herdsmen, they lived in tents near the great city, using it as their home base. If city dwellers, then they lived in houses. Excavations of ancient Ur have unearthed many such structures, the average being small, of one-story, made of mud brick. Its rooms were grouped around a courtyard. The wealthy lived in two-story, fired-brick homes, plastered and whitewashed inside and out, containing about a dozen rooms. There is one such building alleged by some to be Abraham’s house. It is huge—containing some twenty-seven rooms and five courtyards!

Cultural underpinnings

English: Ancient cities of Sumer Español: Anti...

English: Ancient cities of Sumer Español: Antiguas ciudades de Sumeria Magyar: Ókori sumer városok (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Since environment plays a pivotal part in life, shaping intellect and world view, Terah’s family was influenced by living in Mesopotamia, and Ur specifically. The Sumerians were an accomplished people, credited with impressive innovations and accomplishments over their approximate 1000-year span of influence.

Writing and order

They devised a system of writing on clay (cuneiform), which was borrowed and used all over the Near East for some two thousand years.[6] They compiled the first known dictionary, and are recognized as being among the first to formulate and record laws and law codes in order to avoid misunderstandings, misrepresentation, and arbitrariness.

Focus on education

Sumerians valued education and had scribal schools throughout their territory. If Abram came from a wealthier family, he and his brothers probably attended one of these. While there is a record of one woman listed as a scribe, Sarai would not have attended classes with her male siblings. Women enjoyed almost equal rights, “but they were still not considered intelligent enough to be able to master literacy.”[7] [8]

Numerous tablets of school texts have been found containing tables (tabulations of reciprocals, multiplications, square roots, etc.) and problems (addressing such practical matters as excavating or enlarging canals, counting bricks, etc.), evidence of an advanced system of mathematics thought to have begun in ancient Sumer.

Science and industry

The oldest collection to date of pharmacopoeia in the form of fifteen prescriptions inscribed on clay tablets is attributed to the Sumerians. Women were the first doctors and dentists in ancient Mesopotamia until, some suppose, these occupations proved lucrative and were taken over by men.

Sumerian beer brewing has been confirmed going back to 3500-3100 BC. They loved beer so much they ascribed its creation to the gods. Knowledge of brewing went to the Babylonians who commercialized it and passed laws regulating it. The first brewers and tavern keepers were women.[9]

Sumerians invented a brick mold for shaping and baking river clay, thus creating more durable building materials and a system for manufacturing them. Archeologists have uncovered numbers of Sumerian bricks still intact.

The arts

Recovered Sumerian sculpture (a skill for which they are particularly noted) depicts ancient Sumerians, their appearance and their dress. No doubt writers, poets, actors, artists, fashion designers, jewelers, perfumers, and musicians found a niche among the artistic community of Ur as well.

Leaving

Abram, city dweller or not, could have interacted with merchants, laborers, shepherds, students, teachers, city administrators and workers, professionals, intellectuals and artisans, all busily going about the affairs of the day. His would have been a vibrant world, much like any modern urban center. With this brief exploration into the dynamics shaping a city-state such as Ur, it becomes clear that when Abram received God’s memorable instruction to “get out of your country,” it contained monumental implications. Leaving the comfort and security of the familiar. Leaving family property. Leaving the center of power, commerce, and influence for parts unknown. And ultimately, it meant trusting and yielding to his God’s direction implicitly.

The Bible simply records that Abram obeyed, and there is no evidence that Sarai objected or resisted. Thus Abram’s life-long journey of faith began, one which would find his beautiful wife always by his side.

Next time: Introducing Sarai

 

[1] http://www.ancient.eu.com/ur/  “In the Old Babylonian Period (c. 2000-1600 BCE) Ur remained a city of importance and was considered a centre of learning and culture. . . .The city continued to be inhabited through the early part of the Achaemenid Period (550-330 BCE) but, due to climate change and an overuse of the land, more and more people migrated to the northern regions of Mesopotamia or south toward the land of Canaan (the patriarch Abraham, some claim, among them, as previously noted). Ur slowly dwindled in importance as the Persian Gulf receded further and further south from the city and eventually fell into ruin around 450 BCE.”

[2] Great People of the Bible and How They Lived, Reader’s Digest (1974), pp. 34-35.

[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Terah

[4] Josh 24:2: “It is not stated that Abraham himself was an idolater, though his fathers were. Jewish tradition asserts that Abraham while in Ur of the Chaldees was persecuted for his abhorrence of idolatry, and hence, was called away by God from his native land. (from Barnes’ Notes, Electronic Database Copyright © 1997, 2003 by Biblesoft, Inc. All rights reserved.)

[5] http://smarthistory.khanacademy.org/ziggurat-of-ur.html

[6] Kramer, Samuel Noah, The Sumerians, Their History, Culture, and Character (1963), p.4

[7] “Daily Life in Ancient Mesopotamia,” http://www.ancient.eu.com/article/680/

[8] Kramer says students attended school daily from sunrise to sunset. They devoted years to their study, remaining students from early youth to the day they became young men. Many clay tablets illustrative of school work and compositions have been unearthed at various archaeological sites (pp. 233-236).

[9] In the article, “Ancient Egyptian Brewery and Bakery,” beer is described as being “brewed by women in the home as a supplement to meals. The beer was a thick, porridge-like drink consumed through a straw and was made from bippar (barley bread) which was baked twice and allowed to ferment in a vat. By the year 2050 BCE beer brewing had become commercialized as evidenced by the famous Alulu beer receipt from the city of Ur dated to that time” (http://www.ancient.eu/Beer/).

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

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