Thursday, January 26, 2012

Christians, alcohol and drunkenness

A few days ago, I read a brief commentary on Genesis 9:18-29 This is the passage where Noah plants and harvest a vineyard, invents some kind of wine, drinks it, and then falls asleep in the nude. One of his sons sees him; the others reverse into the tent and cover him up. Reading the passage I noticed that while Noah is upset with the son who was disrespectful (did he, perhaps, laugh at his dad's nakedness? Make some lewd comment? Try to persuade his siblings to take a peek?) the passage does not in any way pass judgement on Noah himself.

So I was rather surprised that the commentary focused only briefly on the different behaviours of Noah's sons, and then made quite a big deal about what it called the 'sin' of Noah's drunkenness. It was making the point that even people as righteous as Noah can fall into temptation, and that it's easy for all of us to trip up over relatively small issues. Undoubtedly true... but I didn't feel that it was actually relevant in this case.

Disclaimer: I am not, in any way, a champion of alcohol. I don't personally drink it at all, as I don't like it. I very much dislike the behaviour of people who have had too much to drink, even when they're just at the slightly silly stage, and I am well aware that drinking makes drivers dangerous and causes some people to turn violent. It's expensive, it's addictive, and although a glass or two of wine may be beneficial to our health, it certainly isn't good in excess.

However, just because something is harmful in excess, and under certain situations does not make it automatically sinful. I know that there are some Christians who believe that all the references to wine in the New Testament actually refer to unfermented grape juice. This suggests that they have not looked at the passages in any detail, and also that they have no idea about the times of grape harvests in the Middle East. Without the benefits of freezers or tetrapak processing, unfermented grape juice would only have been available between about August and October in Palestine, where Jesus lived as a man. By Passover (March, usually) the only possible way to drink the 'fruit of the vine' was in its fermented state.

In addition, I can't avoid thinking about Jesus' first miracle, where he launched his public ministry. It's described in John's Gospel, chapter 2. Jesus was at a wedding with his friends, when the wine ran out. Did he give an impromptu sermon about the evils of alcohol? Did he tell a parable about the need to be prepared, the kind that featured later on in his teaching career?


He used his power as the Son of God to save the public humiliation of the bride's father, by transforming ordinary water into wine.

And yes, it would have been regular fermented wine. Good quality wine, too. The wedding host makes a comment about how impressive it is to bring out top wine at this stage in the party. Most people, he says, serve the best wine first and then produce cheaper wine when the guests have drunk so much that they can't really tell the difference. So Jesus is actually producing high-class wine, even though the guests have reached this stage where their discernment is impaired.

Quite startling, really, even if - like me - you've grown up in a culture where Christians are happy to drink alcohol. Jesus is apparently condoning not just a glass or two, but continued drinking at a lively party.

I started this post by thinking about Noah, who lived several thousand years before the famous wedding in Cana. Possibly he made the first wine that was ever grown. Prior to the flood, people were corrupt and violent, but there is no mention of their being drunk. So it's quite possible that Noah had no idea what he was producing when he made some wine. Maybe it was a happy accident - he wondered how bad some old grape juice was, and found that it was surprisingly good. Or perhaps he knew exactly what he was doing - the passage doesn't say.

Either way, Noah drank a lot of wine. And then he fell asleep. He didn't hit his sons or beat his wife, he didn't tear the tent down, or smash crockery. He didn't take his donkey out. He didn't even fall down comatose outside his tent. He went in, and took off his robe, and then fell asleep - apparently - before he had time to cover himself up.

Is that sin? I don't see it. Perhaps he had a headache when he woke up - the natural consequence of over-indulging. Undoubtedly his actions were the catalyst for his son's bad behaviour that upset Noah so much when he learned about it (but then, who would have told him? His other, holier-than-thou sons tattling...?). So it was certainly a pity that this happened. I hope Noah learned his lesson, and was more careful in future.

But sin?

When the law had not been given, and when wine was apparently God-given - and, later, sanctioned by Jesus?

Somehow, I don't think so. It seems to me that, instead, Noah's rather dramatic condemnation of his son's actions (driven, quite possibly, by embarrassment as much as anything) was his sin in this story.

I would be interested to know how others see it.