Benjamin Franklin did not say that beer was proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy, but that does not make the sentiment any less appealing. With Eastertide upon us, it is fitting to meditate upon the truth of it. Does God so love the world, that he gave us his only-begotten son – and the ability to brew?
In fact, Franklin made his much-quoted statement not about beer but about wine, in some correspondence with Abbé André Morellet, in the summer of 1779.
This letter includes some notable contentions, the funniest of which is Franklin’s claim that the Biblical Patriarchs achieved insights into worldly and godly truths “au moyen d’un coupe ou d’un verre de vin”, and that this explains why, “depuis ce temps… même les déités, ont eté appellées divines ou divinités”.
More plausibly, he argues that God created vineyards to quench Noah’s thirst, because Noah had stopped drinking water when he noticed that it was causing the people around him to die. Mixing strong wine with water helps to kill bacteria and make it potable; boiling wort in the brewing process similarly makes water sanitary.
For the famous quote itself, he turns to the episode of the wedding in Cana (John 2:1-10):
“On parle de la conversion de l’eau en vin, à la noce de Cana, comme d’un miracle. Mais cette conversion est faite tous les jours par la bonté de Dieu devant nos yeux. Voilà l’eau qui tombe des cieux sur nos vignobles; là, elle entre les racines des vignes pour être changée en vin; preuve constante que Dieu nous aime, et qu’il aime à nous voir heureux.”
We speak of the “miracle” of turning water into wine at the wedding, he says, and yet we see the same process around us every day: it rains, the grapes swell, we make wine from them. Constant proof that God loves us and wants to see us happy.
The Bible supports Franklin’s view much of the time. Wine is appreciated because it “maketh merry” (Eccl 10:19) and “maketh glad the heart of man” (Psalms 104:15). It is no idle luxury, however, but rather a gift from God that constitutes one of life’s staples, which are often described using the formulaic phrase, “grain, wine and oil” (Deut 11:14). As the Psalm puts it:
“He watereth the hills from his chambers: the earth is satisfied with the fruit of thy works. He causeth the grass to grow for the cattle, and herb for the service of man: that he may bring forth food out of the earth; And wine that maketh glad the heart of man, and oil to make his face to shine, and bread which strengtheneth man’s heart” (Psalm 104:13-15).
Drunkenness is never a good thing – Noah and Lot both had reason to regret their binging, and at least two Kings, Elah and Ben-hadad, were undone by intemperance (Gen 9:20-27, 19:30-38; 1Kings 16:9, 20:16). “Wine is a mocker, strong drink is raging: and whosoever is deceived thereby is not wise,” warns Proverbs 20:1. God tells Aaron not to drink before going to the tabernacle (Lev 10:9), the Nazirites were forbidden to drink wine while under their vow, and the admired, acetic Rechabites were committed teetotallers (Num 6:2-4; Jer 35).
In general, however, enjoying an alcoholic beverage is not scripturally problematic.
That is not to say that the theology of alcohol can be boiled down to the simplistic rule that all things are good in moderation. Wine’s use as a metaphor in the Bible is far too strong to allow us to stop there.
Wine and grape juice is often likened to blood (Gen 49:11; Deut 32:14). Occasionally, it prefigures the oceans of blood that will be spilled on the terrible Day of Judgement, as in Isaiah:
“Wherefore art thou red in thine apparel, and thy garments like him that treadeth in the winefat? I have trodden the winepress alone; and of the people there was none with me: for I will tread them in mine anger, and trample them in my fury; and their blood shall be sprinkled upon my garments, and I will stain all my raiment. For the day of vengeance is in mine heart, and the year of my redeemed is come.”
This seems to link to wine taking the place of blood in sacrificial ritual (Exod 29:40; Lev 23:13), culminating, of course, in the consubstantiation or transubstantiation of wine and Christ’s blood in the Eucharist:
“And as they did eat, Jesus took bread, and blessed, and brake it, and gave to them, and said, Take, eat: this is my body. And he took the cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them: and they all drank of it. And he said unto them, This is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many. Verily I say unto you, I will drink no more of the fruit of the vine, until that day that I drink it new in the kingdom of God.” (Mark 14: 22-25)
It is notable that Jesus draws a distinction between the wine he drinks in this world, with his followers, and the wine he will drink in the kingdom of God. Joel, Amos and Jeremiah all prophesy that the chosen at the end of days will enjoy the plenty of wheat, wine and oil, “and their soul shall be as a watered garden” (Joel 3:18; Amos 9:13-14; Jer 31:12). Wine will be a feature of heaven, then, but woe betide you if you happen to be drunk on worldly booze at the time of Judgement (1Thess 5:7, Luke 12:45, Matt 24:49). Paul reminds the Corinthians that when they come together to celebrate the Lord’s Supper, it should not be like going out to a restaurant to stuff yourself silly and get off of your face: “What have ye not houses to eat and drink in?… he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body” (1Cor 20-29).
We should bear this distinction in mind when, like Franklin and the Abbé, we consider the wedding at Cana. The point of this parable is not to reassure us that Jesus liked a bit of a tipple. Mary tells Jesus that the hosts have run out of booze, and he does indeed turn a dozen firkins of water into wine for the wedding guests. But then the governor of the feast says something interesting: “Every man at the beginning doth set forth good wine; and when men have well drunk, then that which is worse: but thou hast kept the good wine until now” (John 2:2-10).
In other words, whereas a host usually starts with the good stuff and then brings out the plonk once everyone is good and drunk and cannot tell the difference, this host has saved the very best wine until last. Of course this wine is the best – Christ has made it. The guests who will most appreciate its quality, however, are those who have passed their time at the wedding in a relatively sober, patient manner, those who have foregone gluttony. This wine is the wine of heaven of which Jeremiah speaks. The miracle at the wedding is much more than simply turning water into wine: it is the miracle of making the divine momentarily mundane, or the mundane momentarily divine, the same miracle inherent in the hypostatic union of Christ himself, and in the con- or transubstantiation of the Eucharistic wine.
God moves in a mysterious way his wonders to perform, and wine is an intriguing symbol of that mystery. It brings both merriment and rage; it is drunk by the chosen in heaven but lays low the complacent ruler on earth; it suppresses microorganisms that make men ill and die, but requires microorganisms to be made; it is both the weltering blood of the damned and the cleansing blood of the lamb. When Noah gets drunk, it reveals the corruption in the heart of his son, Ham (Gen 9:18-27). When Adam and Eve partake of forbidden fruit, this felix culpa enables the much greater victory of the Crucifixion and Resurrection, the spilling of the sacrificial blood of the Lamb of God that is symbolised by wine transformed from another kind of fruit, fruit that is both forbidden and essential to the redemption narrative.
Wine, in other words, is the first and most powerful symbol of the notion of the theodicy, and particularly the theodicy that characterises evil as the privation of good, most elegantly articulated by Augustine of Hippo:
“And it was manifested unto me, that those things be good which yet are corrupted; which neither were they sovereignly good, nor unless they were good could be corrupted: for if sovereignly good, they were incorruptible, if not good at all, there were nothing in them to be corrupted. For corruption injures, but unless it diminished goodness, it could not injure. Either then corruption injures not, which cannot be; or which is most certain, all which is corrupted is deprived of good. But if they be deprived of all good, they shall cease to be. For if they shall be, and can now no longer be corrupted, they shall be better than before, because they shall abide incorruptibly. And what more monstrous than to affirm things to become better by losing all their good? Therefore, if they shall be deprived of all good, they shall no longer be. So long therefore as they are, they are good: therefore whatsoever is, is good… I did not now long for things better, because I conceived of all: and with a sounder judgment I apprehended that the things above were better than these below, but altogether better than those above by themselves.”
Augustine, Confessions, Book VII
It is surely more than just coincidence that, when he wants to set forth this line of thinking in anecdotal form, Augustine turns to a story about his alcoholic mother, Monica. Bidden by her parents to fetch wine, she got into the habit of taking a bigger and bigger secret sip, until she was downing a brim-full cup each and every time. “Father, mother, and governors absent,” Augustine asks God, “how didst Thou cure her? how heal her?” The redeeming correction came in the taunts and bitter insults of a maidservant, who called Monica a “wine-bibber”.
“As flattering friends pervert, so reproachful enemies mostly correct,” Augustine observes. The maidservant “in her anger sought to vex her young mistress, not to amend her”, but God, “who turnest to Thy purposes the deepest currents, and the ruled turbulence of the tide of times, didst by the very unhealthiness of one soul heal another” (Augustine, Confessions, Book IX).
We are in a world in which microorganisms create the salve that will allow people to survive in a world of microorganisms. A world that is corrupted, but not evil. A world that is good, but not sovereignly good like Eden. So let us reconsider the distinction between worldly and heavenly wine. It is not the case that one is good and the other evil. Both are good, but one is corrupted and the other is incorruptible, “sovereignly good”.
So much for wine. Where does beer fit into all of this?
The word beer never appears in the Bible. There is a term that crops up in the Old Testament – שֵׁכָר (shekar) – which is usually translated as “strong drink”. Sometimes it just seems to be used generically to refer to alcoholic beverages of all types (“wine and strong drink”); at other times scholars suggest that it probably refers to grain-based, proto-beers.
Without the blood-symbolic potential that wine has, “strong drink” gets a much less favourable press. It is more stolidly mundane, more likely to be sating base appetites than engendering considered meditations on eternity and the hereafter.
A striking passage in Isaiah contrasts the careful tending of a vineyard (clearly meant to symbolise the tending of one’s respect for the Almighty and his works) with the hard toil of “rising up early in the morning” to create “strong drink” (Isa 5:1-12). Later, the prophet despairs at the unsustainable lifestyles of the irresponsible leaders of Israel, “greedy dogs which can never have enough”, who complacently say that they “will fill ourselves with strong drink; and tomorrow shall be as this day, and much more abundant” (Isa 56:10-12).
This is the corrupted world that does not mirror or prefigure the uncorrupted one. It is the world of agriculture and other human ingenuities, into which God cast Adam and Eve: “cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life; Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herb of the field; In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread” (Gen 1:17-19). Here, the temptation is to assume humankind’s self-sufficiency. By the “sweat of our face” we bend nature to our wills, so that “tomorrow shall be as this day, and much more abundant”.
This is the world of beer.
Benjamin Franklin could not have said that beer is proof that God love us and wants to see us happy. When he said that about wine, he was talking about a natural cycle: “Voilà l’eau qui tombe des cieux sur nos vignobles; là, elle entre les racines des vignes pour être changée en vin”. Man may lend a helping foot or two, but essentially this miracle occurs of its own accord, spontaneously – it is an act of God.
Beer, by contrast, requires much more than a helping foot. Grasses need to be cultivated, grains germinated, steeped, dried and milled, mashed at just the right temperature to achieve saccharification, and, ultimately, pitched with a cultivated strain of yeast. Moreover, by taking nutritious food from the mouths of men and women in pursuit of merriment, it exemplifies the unsustainable vanity of chasing after surplus, of making tomorrow much more abundant than today.
The idea that the people of the ancient Near and Middle East brewed beer from stale loaves of bread, like the modern day bouza, has been thoroughly discredited by the work of Delwen Samuels. The people of the Bible brewed very much as a modern homebrewer would today, using grains that might have made flour for bread, sustainer of life and symbol of the body of Christ.
Instead, we are in the world of the pagan gods of plenty, of perpetual life replenished by wordly seasons, rather than eternal life redeemed by the Lamb of God.
Look at De Dolle Brouwers’ Boskeun, a superabundant, indulgent riot of natural goodness sacrificed to the pagan gods of pleasure: it pays lipservice to the suffering of Christ in its designation as a “Speciaal Paasbier”, but its iconography of grinning rabbits and seductive snowdrops pulls us decisively back into the pagan-Germanic world of Ēostre.
In medieval times, brewing yeast may or may not have been referred to as “goddisgoode” – that is, the gift of God. Were that the case, it joins the swelling ranks of Satanic ways in which men mistake the work of their own hands for the work of God.
The Deceiver’s hand is evident in the sly misquotation of Benjamin Franklin, too. As William Blake said of John Milton, while the wine-bibber partakes of the de-vine, the beer lover is of the Devil’s party without knowing it.