Did the Ancient Israelites Drink Beer?

Did the Ancient Israelites Drink Beer?


Beer was a staple in the Israelite diet, just as it was throughout the ancient Near East. Yet a search of most English translations of the Bible will produce few, if any, occurrences of the word “beer.” Ancient Israel’s affinity for beer has largely been ignored. I believe this is for three reasons: (1) confusion about the meaning of the Hebrew word shekhar (שכר), (2) a general snobbery in academia causing scholars to scorn beer drinking while celebrating wine culture, and (3) the unique challenges archaeologists have faced in finding (or identifying) beer remains in the Israelite material record.


The process for making beer was different in the ancient world from that used today, and it didn’t include the addition of hops or carbonation. Beer was often produced by creating a bread or cake made from malted barley or wheat. The bread was then placed in water, forming a sweet liquid known as a wort. In a few days, after adding yeast, the carbohydrates would be converted to alcohol and carbon dioxide, which would cause the liquid to bubble, indicating fermentation. Thus the wait from the time it was produced until the time it was consumed would have been only a few days. Moreover, beer did not keep well, so it was made for immediate consumption.

The word from the Hebrew Bible that I translate as “beer” is shekhar (שכר). I believe this is the best translation, based on linguistic and archaeological sources. I am certainly not the only scholar to adopt this translation. Others include Richard E. Friedman, Magen Broshi, Robert G. Boling, Johann Döller and Werner Dommershausen. The most frequent translation of shekhar in English Bibles, however, is “strong drink.” The Jewish Publication Society translation uses ten different English terms for this single Hebrew word: “liquor,” “other liquor,” “drink,” “strong drink,” “any strong drink,” “other strong drink,” “other intoxicant,” “any other intoxicant,” “fermented drink” [with footnote “i.e., wine”], and “drunkards [for drinkers of shekhar].” When used as a noun, the word shekhar appears 20 times in the Hebrew Bible. In all but one of these (Numbers 28:7), it stands in parallel to “wine.” Thus, it is similar to wine in that it is fermented and is capable of causing drunkenness, but it is also distinct from wine.


One key to understanding shekhar as “beer” is its etymology. The Hebrew word shekhar is clearly derived from Akkadian šikaru (Sumerian KAŠ), which means “barley beer.” The term šikaru references beer at all of the major Akkadian archival centers, including Alalakh, Amarna, Ebla, Emar, Karana, Mari, Nineveh, Nippur, Nuzi and Ras Shamra. The importance of beer in the ancient Near East can be seen by the fact that, in time, the word for beer came to designate the state of drunkenness. The word for beer became synonymous with inebriation in Akkadian, Aramaic, Ugaritic and Arabic. Similarly in the Egyptian language, “beer” (ḥnqt) was used for general drunkenness. And in the Bible, shekhar is often a verb that means “to get drunk” (e.g., Genesis 9:21; Isaiah 29:9), a parallel linguistic usage that furthers the case for shekhar as “beer.” (This parallel usage has also survived in modern Hebrew: A drunk is a shekhor (שכור), and shekhar (שכר) means beer, although beer is also commonly called simply beera.)

Some have argued that shekhar is actually a fermented wine made from dates rather than barley beer. This argument stems primarily from the belief that certain sandy regions in Israel, including Ashkelon and Jericho, were better suited for date production than for barley. Yet barley remains have been found at both sites, and one need not travel far from such sites to find soil well suited to barley production.

Comment: I don't know Hebrew so I really don't know but found the article interesting. About the author: Michael M. Homan is associate professor of Hebrew Bible at Xavier University of Louisiana in New Orleans. He has excavated at Tel Zeitah, the Jebel Hamrat Fidan Research Project and at Bethsaida.


  1. I've actually thought that one reason you don't hear too much about beer in the OT is that with people invading all the time, people simply couldn't afford the loss of nutrition which occurs when you make grain into beer--that was of course one of the chief reasons for Prohibition outside the "saloon-buster" movement. The grain was needed to feed the soldiers.

    1. The same argument could then be made of wine, since "nutrition" is lost when grapes are turned into wine. However, truth be told, both wine and beer were healthy for the purpose for which they were drunk by ancients. Water was just too darned contaminated in many cases, while both beer and wine were safer routes for hydration. The Egyptians, for instance, gave a ration of around 2 gallons of beer three times a day to the slaves that built the pyramids (the Israelites?). Amazingly, beer has more protein and B-vitamins than wine, and in one particular way, it has a healthy effect that the barley it is made from does not have--the healthy effect of moderate alcohol consumption on heart disease and the circulatory system. The Israelites actually lived in relative peace for many years at a time. Barley and grapes were both in plenty, so I doubt that the consumption of beer would have harmed their nutrition. If anything, the many benefits of moderate beer consumption was a healthy addition to their diet.


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