What Does the Bible Say About Marijuana? An Exhaustive Study Part 3: Drunkenness From Genesis to Psalms

Question: How does the Bible describe drunkenness?


As we discussed in our last article, one of the primary arguments against Christian Recreational Cannabis Use (CRCU) is the belief that marijuana intoxication is similar to drunkenness and should be prohibited based on the Bible's prohibition of drunkenness. But is this the correct view? Are the Biblical descriptions of drunkenness in fact similar to the effects of cannabis intoxication? In order to find out, we will need to examine the Biblical evidence.

To do so, I have searched the English Standard Version (ESV) of the Bible for all instances of the word "wine," all verses that include the words "merry" and "heart," and all variations on the word "drunk," including "drink," "drinking," "drank," and "drunkard." Many of the verses that included the words "wine" or "drink" were regarding drink offerings and did not offer insight into the question at hand. Many other verses were regarding the prohibition of alcohol use for special groups of people at special times (Levites, Nazarites). And while these verses may lend weight to other arguments against Christian Recreational Cannabis Use (CRCU), and we will be sure to look at them more closely in future articles, they do not provide evidence of what the Bible says that drunkenness is, and therefore are of no help in determining whether drunkenness is similar to marijuana intoxication. But from the results, I have narrowed down the list to all of the passages that include specific descriptions of alcohol use and drunkenness, which we will look at in order of appearance.


The very first mention of alcohol use is found in Genesis 9, and perhaps not coincidentally, it is also the first description of drunkenness.

"20 Noah began to be a man of the soil, and he planted a vineyard. 21 He drank of the wine and became drunk and lay uncovered in his tent. 22 And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father and told his two brothers outside. 23 Then Shem and Japheth took a garment, laid it on both their shoulders, and walked backward and covered the nakedness of their father. Their faces were turned backward, and they did not see their father’s nakedness. 24 When Noah awoke from his wine and knew what his youngest son had done to him, 25 he said, 'Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be to his brothers.'" (Genesis 9:20-25 ESV)

Here we see the negative effects of drunkenness clearly described. In this case, it is intoxication to the point of unconsciousness, including the poor judgment to unclothe oneself.

The Bible's second mention of alcohol in Genesis 14 does not include drunkenness.

"18 And Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine. (He was priest of God Most High.) 19 And he blessed him and said, 'Blessed be Abram by God Most High, Possessor of heaven and earth;'" (Genesis 14:18-19 ESV)

But the third mention of alcohol in Genesis 19 does again describe drunkenness, this time with Lot and his daughters.

"30 Now Lot went up out of Zoar and lived in the hills with his two daughters, for he was afraid to live in Zoar. So he lived in a cave with his two daughters. 31 And the firstborn said to the younger, “Our father is old, and there is not a man on earth to come in to us after the manner of all the earth. 32 Come, let us make our father drink wine, and we will lie with him, that we may preserve offspring from our father.” 33 So they made their father drink wine that night. And the firstborn went in and lay with her father. He did not know when she lay down or when she arose.  
34 The next day, the firstborn said to the younger, “Behold, I lay last night with my father. Let us make him drink wine tonight also. Then you go in and lie with him, that we may preserve offspring from our father.” 35 So they made their father drink wine that night also. And the younger arose and lay with him, and he did not know when she lay down or when she arose. 36 Thus both the daughters of Lot became pregnant by their father. 37 The firstborn bore a son and called his name Moab. He is the father of the Moabites to this day. 38 The younger also bore a son and called his name Ben-ammi. He is the father of the Ammonites to this day." (Genesis 19:30-38 ESV)

These first two examples of drunkenness are strikingly similar in their description of its effects. With Noah, the drunkenness caused him to fall asleep unclothed in his tent. With Lot, the drunkenness caused him to have sex with his own daughters and then not remember doing so. For anyone who has experience with alcohol use, it is obvious that extreme intoxication is being described here.

The third example of drunkenness is not found until Deuteronomy 18.

"18 'If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey the voice of his father or the voice of his mother, and, though they discipline him, will not listen to them, 19 then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his city at the gate of the place where he lives, 20 and they shall say to the elders of his city, ‘This our son is stubborn and rebellious; he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton and a drunkard.’ 21 Then all the men of the city shall stone him to death with stones. So you shall purge the evil from your midst, and all Israel shall hear, and fear.'" (Deuteronomy 21:18-21 ESV)

This example does not do much to describe the effects of drunkenness, except to equate it with gluttony, stubbornness, rebellion, and disobedience. If it is to be argued from this verse that the effects of drunkenness are stubbornness, rebellion, and disobedience, then it must be shown that drunkenness and gluttony are not themselves the rebellion and disobedience being described, which seems more likely.

The fourth mention of drunkenness is in Judges 16.

"23 Now the lords of the Philistines gathered to offer a great sacrifice to Dagon their god and to rejoice, and they said, 'Our god has given Samson our enemy into our hand.' 24 And when the people saw him, they praised their god. For they said, 'Our god has given our enemy into our hand, the ravager of our country, who has killed many of us.' 25 And when their hearts were merry, they said, 'Call Samson, that he may entertain us.' So they called Samson out of the prison, and he entertained them. They made him stand between the pillars." (Judges 16:23-25 ESV)

The phrase "hearts were merry" or similar phrases are used in ten verses in the Bible to denote alcohol intoxication. In this example it is not clear that actual drunkennes is in view, although we are again shown an example of alcohol use that is correlated to (if not causal of) negative consequences. In this case, the consequences are critically poor judgment in a self defense situation.

The fifth mention of drunkenness is in Judges 19. It is a long story with several variations of the phrase "merry heart" throughout, beginning in verse 6.

"4 And his father-in-law, the girl’s father, made him stay, and he remained with him three days. So they ate and drank and spent the night there. 5 And on the fourth day they arose early in the morning, and he prepared to go, but the girl’s father said to his son-in-law, 'Strengthen your heart with a morsel of bread, and after that you may go.' 6 So the two of them sat and ate and drank together. And the girl’s father said to the man, 'Be pleased to spend the night, and let your heart be merry.' 7 And when the man rose up to go, his father-in-law pressed him, till he spent the night there again." (Judges 19:4-7 ESV)

In this example the description seems to be of normal social drinking. It seems reasonable to assume that this "certain Levite" son-in-law was drinking alcohol the first three evenings as well as the fourth and fifth nights where it is described specifically as a merry heart. The fifth night of drinking does however end with negative consequences.

"22 As they were making their hearts merry, behold, the men of the city, worthless fellows, surrounded the house, beating on the door. And they said to the old man, the master of the house, 'Bring out the man who came into your house, that we may know him.'" (Judges 19:22 ESV)

Interestingly, the negative consequences flow in two directions. First, there is the gang rape and murder of the concubine. This happens while the victims were making their hearts merry. Perhaps it wouldn't have happened if they had not been drinking? But this seems an unnecessarily speculative interpretation. The second stream of negative consequences happen to the group of rapists, as it begins the war between Israel and Benjamin as described in Judges 20. All in all, while alcohol use is euphemized several times in this story, it does not seem to provide any useful description of drunkenness.

The fifth mention of drunkenness is in Ruth 3.

"6 So she went down to the threshing floor and did just as her mother-in-law had commanded her. 7 And when Boaz had eaten and drunk, and his heart was merry, he went to lie down at the end of the heap of grain. Then she came softly and uncovered his feet and lay down." (Ruth 3:6-7 ESV)

Again, this seems to be a euphemism for moderate social drinking and does not provide any useful description of drunkenness.

The sixth mention of drunkenness is in 1 Samuel 1.

"12 As she continued praying before the LORD, Eli observed her mouth. 13 Hannah was speaking in her heart; only her lips moved, and her voice was not heard. Therefore Eli took her to be a drunken woman. 14 And Eli said to her, 'How long will you go on being drunk? Put your wine away from you.' 15 But Hannah answered, 'No, my lord, I am a woman troubled in spirit. I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before the LORD. 16 Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman, for all along I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation.' 17 Then Eli answered, 'Go in peace, and the God of Israel grant your petition that you have made to him.'" (1 Samuel 1:12-17 ESV)

In this example, Eli confuses Hannah's silent praying as drunkenness. Apparently Eli thought that Hannah's behavior was abnormal, and he assumed drunkenness as the cause for the abnormal behavior. Abnormal behavior is also what we see in Genesis 9 and 19.

The seventh mention of drunkenness is Nabal in 1 Samuel 25

"36 And Abigail came to Nabal, and behold, 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. 37 In the morning, when the wine had gone out of Nabal, his wife told him these things, and his heart died within him, and he became as a stone. 38 And about ten days later the LORD struck Nabal, and he died." (1 Samuel 25:36-38 ESV)

Here again the euphemism "heart was merry" is used, but this time it is described as "very drunk." Given the gravity of his situation, the inappropriateness of Nabal's festivities may be what is in view here.

The eighth mention is in 2 Samuel 11. David gets Uriah drunk so that he will sleep with Bathsheba, so that David's sin might be covered up. But the scheme does not work.

"11 Uriah said to David, “The ark and Israel and Judah dwell in booths, and my lord Joab and the servants of my lord are camping in the open field. Shall I then go to my house, to eat and to drink and to lie with my wife? As you live, and as your soul lives, I will not do this thing.” 12 Then David said to Uriah, “Remain here today also, and tomorrow I will send you back.” So Uriah remained in Jerusalem that day and the next. 13 And David invited him, and he ate in his presence and drank, so that he made him drunk. And in the evening he went out to lie on his couch with the servants of his lord, but he did not go down to his house." (2 Samuel 11:11-13 ESV)

In this example, Uriah makes a personal oath that he will not have sex with his wife while his people are away at war. David uses alcohol to make Uriah drunk, with the expectation that drunkenness will cause Uriah to do what he has sworn an oath not to. This, like Noah laying uncovered in his tent, shows that drunkenness was known to cause critically poor judgment.

The ninth mention is in 2 Samuel 13.

28 Then Absalom commanded his servants, 'Mark when Amnon’s heart is merry with wine, and when I say to you, ‘Strike Amnon,’ then kill him. Do not fear; have I not commanded you? Be courageous and be valiant.'" (2 Samuel 13:28 ESV)

This is also related to a mention in 1 Kings 16.

"8 In the twenty-sixth year of Asa king of Judah, Elah the son of Baasha began to reign over Israel in Tirzah, and he reigned two years. 9 But his servant Zimri, commander of half his chariots, conspired against him. When he was at Tirzah, drinking himself drunk in the house of Arza, who was over the household in Tirzah, 10 Zimri came in and struck him down and killed him, in the twenty-seventh year of Asa king of Judah, and reigned in his place." (1 Kings 16:8-10 ESV)

In these examples, drunkenness is shown to make a person vulnerable to attack. As we have previously seen, drunkenness causes critically poor judgment, blackouts, and unconsciousness, which are obvious liabilities in any self-defense situation. Although it could be argued that the effects of drunkenness are not specifically described as factors of Amnon's and Tirzah's demise (it could be coincidence that they were killed while drunk). Nonetheless, we have in Amnon and Tirzah (much like Nabal and the Phillistines) another description of drunkenness that is correlated with (if not the cause of) negative consequences.

The tenth mention is in 1 Kings 20.

"16 And they went out at noon, while Ben-hadad was drinking himself drunk in the booths, he and the thirty-two kings who helped him. 17 The servants of the governors of the districts went out first. And Ben-hadad sent out scouts, and they reported to him, “Men are coming out from Samaria.” 18 He said, “If they have come out for peace, take them alive. Or if they have come out for war, take them alive.” 
19 So these went out of the city, the servants of the governors of the districts and the army that followed them. 20 And each struck down his man. The Syrians fled, and Israel pursued them, but Ben-hadad king of Syria escaped on a horse with horsemen. 21 And the king of Israel went out and struck the horses and chariots, and struck the Syrians with a great blow." (1 Kings 20:16-21 ESV)

This is another example of drunkenness causing critically poor judgment with regard to self defense.

The eleventh and twelfth mentions, found in Esther 1 and 7,  may or may not be drunkenness, as that term is not specifically used in the book. But alcohol use is certainly central to the story of Esther.

"10 On the seventh day, when the heart of the king was merry with wine, he commanded Mehuman, Biztha, Harbona, Bigtha and Abagtha, Zethar and Carkas, the seven eunuchs who served in the presence of King Ahasuerus, 11 to bring Queen Vashti before the king with her royal crown, in order to show the peoples and the princes her beauty, for she was lovely to look at. 12 But Queen Vashti refused to come at the king’s command delivered by the eunuchs. At this the king became enraged, and his anger burned within him." (Esther 1:10-12 ESV)
"7 And the king arose in his wrath from the wine-drinking and went into the palace garden, but Haman stayed to beg for his life from Queen Esther, for he saw that harm was determined against him by the king. 8 And the king returned from the palace garden to the place where they were drinking wine, as Haman was falling on the couch where Esther was. And the king said, “Will he even assault the queen in my presence, in my own house?” As the word left the mouth of the king, they covered Haman’s face." (Esther 7:7-8 ESV)

This is a description of alcohol use where the negative effects, if there are any, seem to be with regard to poor judgment and perhaps anger management. However, overall the king's alcohol use plays a positive role in the story, as it appears to be the catalyst for the seeking of Esther and the execution of Haman, two essential components of the narrative. So it is unclear if we are meant to see any disdain for or negative effects from alcohol use in these passages.

The thirteenth example is in Job 12.

"24 He takes away understanding from the chiefs of the people of the earth and makes them wander in a trackless waste. 25 They grope in the dark without light, and he makes them stagger like a drunken man." (Job 12:24-25 ESV)

Here again we see drunkenness described by its physical effects. Staggering is an obvious reference to the deleterious effect of drunkenness upon one's motor skills. This example is also the first to express a seemingly generalized disdain for drunkenness.


The fourteenth example is in Psalm 60.

"3 You have made your people see hard things; you have given us wine to drink that made us stagger." (Psalm 60:3 ESV)

This verse does not mention drunkenness directly, but it does describe the effects of wine. And again, motor impairment is in view.

The fifteenth example is in Psalm 69.

"11 When I made sackcloth my clothing, I became a byword to them. 12 I am the talk of those who sit in the gate, and the drunkards make songs about me." (Psalm 69:11-12 ESV)

Again we see a generalized disdain for drunkards. It would be insulting to have a drunkard sing a song about you. The specific effects of drunkenness are not described.

The sixteenth example is in Psalm 78.

"65 Then the Lord awoke as from sleep, like a strong man shouting because of wine. 66 And he put his adversaries to rout; he put them to everlasting shame." (Psalm 78:65-66 ESV)

This example, as it is a description of the Lord, does not mention drunkenness. But it does describe the effects of wine as "shouting."

The seventeenth example is in Psalm 104.

"14 You cause the grass to grow for the livestock and plants for man to cultivate, that he may bring forth food from the earth 15 and wine to gladden the heart of man, oil to make his face shine and bread to strengthen man’s heart." (Psalm 104:14-15 ESV)

Here we again see a description of alcohol intoxication as a gladdening of the heart, similar to the euphemisms of "merry heart" in earlier passages.

The eighteenth example is in Psalm 107.

"26 They mounted up to heaven; they went down to the depths; their courage melted away in their evil plight; 27 they reeled and staggered like drunken men and were at their wits’ end. 28 Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress." (Psalm 107:26-28 ESV)

Again, another example of the effects of drunkenness described negatively in terms of severe motor impairment.

Results


Using the verses we have mentioned thus far, we can generate a list of negative behaviors associated specifically with drunkenness. They are as follows.

  1. Critically poor judgment.
  2. Unconsciousness.
  3. Blackouts.
  4. Vulnerability to attack.
  5. Severe motor impairment.

We also see several times where alcohol use is described as a having a merry heart, but these examples are much more ambiguous as to their negativity. So although drunkenness certainly can and does lead to negative consequences, it seems that a glad or merry heart might actually be a positive or at worst a neutral consequence of alcohol intoxication. For instance, it is not obvious that the Levite son-in-law, Boaz, or Xerxes are to be viewed negatively for having made their hearts merry.

We can also gather a general disdain for drunkenness, as seen thus far in Job and Psalms. The root of this disdain, if it can be separated from the negative consequences of drunkenness, is as yet unknown. But we will see much more of this disdain in the next post as we look at drunkenness in Proverbs through the Prophets.

In summary, we are beginning to develop an understanding of what the Bible means when it speaks of drunkenness. But the first specific prohibition of drunkenness is not found until Proverbs, which we will study in depth in Part 4 of this series: Drunkenness from Proverbs to the Prophets. Stay tuned!

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