July 24, 2021 - Food, Drink, and Drugs

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Today, we’re going to take a look at food, drink, and drugs. Does God care what we eat or drink? Does God care what we put into our bodies? Paul says in Romans 14:17, “For the kingdom of God is not food and drink, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Ghost.”

There were 2 major food issues in NT times. One was the kosher food laws in Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14. In Mark 7, Jesus declares all foods clean and says it’s not what goes into a person, but what comes out of them, that defiles a person. The other issue is eating food that had been offered to idols. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 10 that if you go out to eat, don’t ask whether the food came from an idol’s temple, but if someone tells you it did, don’t eat it.

Food is not a moral issue for us today, except if eating too much of it is killing us. Our major issues today are alcohol and drugs. A lot of what we’ll be talking about today, I have covered in chapter 5 of my book What’s on God’s Sin List for Today?

When I was a teenage Christian in the 1970s, one of my friends tried to persuade me from the Bible that it was okay for Christians to get high on marijuana. His proof was 1 Timothy 4:4: “Everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving.” (I should have answered, “Yes! God gave us marijuana, not to smoke it, but to make rope out of it!”) The Bible’s case against the use of mind-altering drugs is not as slam-dunk as we might have imagined, when we start looking for specific texts that address the issue.

But we know that the mind-altering effects of alcohol, marijuana, and opium were known to the Biblical world (although cocaine was not known to them, and methamphetamine had not yet been invented). So what does God say about substance abuse?

Drunkenness carried no penalty in the OT, merely condemnation. Proverbs 20:1 says, “Wine is a mocker, beer is a brawler, and whoever is led astray by it is not wise.” Both Noah and Lot end up in trouble when they place themselves under the influence of alcohol. Eli says to Hannah in 1 Samuel 1:14, “How long will you be drunken? Put away your wine!” The Law of Moses commands priests, “Drink no wine nor beer, neither you nor your sons, when you enter the tent of meeting, lest you die.” (Leviticus 10:9) The message here is that priests must be careful not to make mistakes that would put them in danger of the wrath of God, therefore they must not be under the influence of alcohol when they come on duty.

Similarly, King Lemuel’s mother (Proverbs 31:4–5) says, “It is not for kings to drink wine, nor for rulers to desire beer, or else they will drink and forget what has been decreed, and will pervert all the rights of the afflicted.” Yet Lemuel’s mother also says, “Give beer to one who is perishing, and wine to those in bitter distress; let them drink and forget their poverty, and remember their misery no more.” (Proverbs 31:6–7) While we may not wish to recommend alcohol as a means of forgetting one’s personal troubles, we may see in this passage a precedent for giving morphine to patients who are in severe physical pain.

The NT recognizes drunkenness as a threat to one’s spiritual health. Substance abuse appears on the NT sin lists both as alcohol abuse (1 Corinthians 6:10 and Galatians 5:21) and as pharmakeia, a form of witchcraft involving the use of drugs, potions, and poisons. Together, these two concepts form the entire NT case against substance abuse, which is much slimmer than its case against sexual immorality.

The key verse on substance abuse for Christians is Ephesians 5:18, “Do not be drunk (methuō) with wine.” The reason given is because drunkenness leads to asōtia, a term that is hard to define in simple language, partly because our translations use words like “dissipation,” “debauchery,” and “profligacy,” words that are equally hard to put into plain English. Let’s take a look at how this word is used elsewhere in the Bible.

Asōtia is used a total of four times in the NT. As an adverb, it appears in the parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15:13, where the son spends all his money in “riotous” (asōtōs) living. In 1 Peter 4:3–4, asōtia is used as a catch-all term to refer to “licentiousness (aselgeia), lusts, drunkenness, orgies, drinking parties, and lawless idolatry,” a lifestyle that is out of control. And in Titus 1:6, Paul urges that church leaders be chosen whose children are not open to charges of asōtia.

The basic idea of asōtia is to create a mess of someone’s life by out-of-control indulgence, somewhat like our expression of getting (literally) “wasted.” How do we capture all that in a single English word? Perhaps we may translate Ephesians 5:18, “Do not get drunk with wine, because that is a reckless, harmful, degrading form of excess.” I have written more on this word in a post called “What’s Wrong With Getting Drunk?”

Paul's command applies not just to wine, but to other mind-altering chemicals. The reason that other drinks or mind-altering drugs are not named specifically by Paul here is because none of these other alternatives is being abused at Ephesus; the specific problem is over-use of wine, probably for simple escape from one’s personal pain. Paul insists that the alternative to being under the influence of alcohol is to be under the influence of (literally “filled with”) the Holy Spirit, for which the use of mind-altering drugs of any kind is a dangerous substitute. Instead of us being controlled by the Holy Spirit of God, getting high on chemicals such as alcohol opens us to the control of spirits that are not from God. That’s where the concept of pharmakeia contributes to our discussion of substance abuse.

Pharmakeia was a word with three different meanings that were all lumped together in the mind of the average Greek-speaker. It could mean the use of drugs, poisons, and/or witchcraft. Pharmakeia was illegal under Roman law (partly because it often involved the poisoning of others), and any kind of witchcraft was punishable by death under Mosaic law. (Pharmakeia is always used in the Greek OT to translate the term “witchcraft.”)

The use of drugs, as well as the medical profession as a whole, was viewed with considerable skepticism if not fear by the people of the Roman world, both Jews and pagans. Even the best doctors in the first century AD were quacks by modern standards, and at worst, the public feared that they would be given poison by their doctors. The early Christian Tatian trashed all doctors and medicine, although all other early Christian writers, including Tertullian and Clement of Alexandria, approved of doctors and medicine.

The rabbis said, “The best among physicians is destined for Gehenna (hell),” which shows a general attitude in Palestine that doctors were quacks. But Sirach 38:1 in the Apocrypha says, “Honor the physician with the honor due him, for God created him.” Sirach goes on to say, “From the earth God produces medicines, and a sensible man should not reject them” (Sir 38:4). Sirach writes in Egypt, where the medical profession had a higher reputation. Yet from Egypt also came the Jewish philosopher Philo, who complains that people run to doctors and drugs because they lack faith in God.

The Greek physician Galen believed that “drugs are just like the hands of the gods.” Likewise, Plato preferred more “manly” doctors who knew how to use drugs in their practice.

While most of the drugs and other treatments used in the ancient world were of questionable value at best, there were two drugs that were known to the ancients that are well-known today for their power to influence the human mind. Let’s take a look at them.

Opium was commonly used to kill pain in Biblical times. The Sumerians (pre-2000 BC) called it “the joy plant.” A papyrus from Egypt prescribed opium to quiet a crying child (an extra-strength equivalent of Num-Zit?). Opium was also prescribed by Hippocrates to relieve the pain of childbirth. Opium seems to be the drug mentioned by Homer that was drunk with wine to remove all pains and worries. The emperor Marcus Aurelius was well-known to be addicted to opium, who used it to calm his nerves. The first century AD Greek doctor Dioscorides noted that opium overdose could be fatal.

Marijuana was known in Biblical times, but was not as commonly used as opium for its mind-altering effects. Marijuana first appears in the Sumerian language. The Assyrians are the first to call the hemp plant by the name qunnabu, from which we get the Greek/Latin name Cannabis. Cannabis was used by the Assyrians as an ingredient in incense, and as a drug for “depression of spirits.” The price of cannabis in Assyria (571 BC) is reported to have been one pound for three shekels of silver, a price you would pay for a fiber rather than for incense or a drug. Cannabis was also known in Egypt, where it was also used in incense, as an oral medication, and as an eye medication.

Pseudo-Plutarch (second century AD) mentions that the people of Thrace used an herb like oregano, threw the tops into their fire after meals, breathed the smoke, got drunk, and fell into a deep sleep. The Greek historian Herodotus (fifth century BC) tells us that the inhabitants of islands in the Araxes River got drunk on the smoke of an unidentified fruit. In another passage, Herodotus tells us that the Scythians of 450 BC had a custom of throwing cannabis seeds onto red-hot stones after the death of a king and getting drunk by breathing the smoke. In all of the Greco-Roman writers, only Herodotus (and possibly Pseudo-Plutarch) know of cannabis being used as a recreational drug, although Galen also knew of its medical uses.

Hemp is not mentioned by the Jews until the Talmud in the fifth century AD, but no attention is paid to any medicinal value it might have. Someone has suggested that the Hebrew qaneh-bosem may refer to marijuana, because the name sounds so similar to “cannabis”. We find it in the recipe for sacred incense in Exodus 30:33,. But scholars are generally agreed that no, this plant is sweet cane. The curious Hebrew term pannag in Ezekiel 27:17 is a more likely candidate for hemp, although even if so, we get no clue what it was used for.

What we learn from the evidence on cannabis in Biblical times is that the plant was known, and to some extent its mind-altering effects were known, but it evidently did not play enough of a role in the lives of the Biblical audience to warrant any comment or warning against its effects, unlike wine, which played a major role in the lives of those to whom God’s word was addressed, and was often abused. The same may be said for the lack of mention of opium in Biblical texts: hardly anyone in Ephesus was abusing it.

The only mention of drugs in the Bible comparable to drugs that are commonly abused today is where Jesus refuses the drug he was offered by the soldiers who crucified him (Matthew 27:34). They gave him wine with “gall,” a drug which was probably either opium, hemlock, or absinthe. (Absinthe is what the Bible calls “wormwood,” a close relative of hemlock.) The Roman soldiers offered Jesus this drug for humanitarian reasons, to spare him from suffering. Opium, or absinthe (if that’s what it was), would have numbed the pain; hemlock would have quickly put Jesus out of his misery entirely, thus by-passing the torture of hanging from a cross.

In the parallel passage in Mark 15:23, we are told that the wine Jesus was offered was mixed with myrrh. The Talmud states that according to Jewish tradition, “When one is led out to execution, he is given a goblet of wine containing a grain of frankincense (closely related to myrrh), in order to benumb his senses.” While the Talmud’s memory helps confirm the likelihood that Jesus was offered some sort of narcotic at the cross, we can believe Mark’s testimony as to the specific drug he was offered.

Whatever he was offered, Jesus refused to take upon himself the penalty of hell for the entire human race in a state where he would be unable to experience the pain he had to endure. One may argue that Jesus’ situation at the cross was unlike any situation that we would ever face. Yet Jesus’ determination to face the dreaded pain of hell with full possession of his faculties may still serve as an inspiration to us at times when we are tempted to flee from necessary pain.

Concerning the use of wine and other alcoholic beverages, the Bible teaches temperance rather than abstinence. It is true that, 200 years before Christ, the Roman writer Cato figured out how to preserve non-alcoholic grape juice by sealing the juice in a jug and keeping it submerged in a lake. But as an overwhelming rule, grape juice did not survive for long in non-alcoholic form in Biblical times. Paul advises Timothy to use a little wine for the sake of his stomach (1 Timothy 5:23). Gordon Fee cites the Talmud, Hippocrates, Plutarch, and Pliny as support for the medical use of wine in the ancient world, especially for stomach problems. In Deuteronomy 14:26, Israelites are invited to celebrate God’s goodness in the holy city with whatever they wish, including steak, lamb, wine, and beer. (The Hebrew word is shēker, often translated “strong drink,” or literally “that which makes drunk” – it’s actually a form of malt liquor.)

The Bible does warn us in Ephesians 5:18, however, to avoid the use of any alcoholic beverage to where it becomes a mind-impairing drug. In the case of “hard liquor,” it would seem to be difficult to consume any great amount of it, except by heavily diluting it with other ingredients, without it messing with our minds. The same would no doubt be true of drugs such as marijuana. Marijuana may be legal in Colorado, but I’m not going to try it.

The Christian approach to drugs is to use them for healing, not for recreational high or escape from our problems. When persons are suffering intense pain, the use of morphine or stronger pain relief, if necessary, is entirely appropriate and fits with God’s word in Proverbs 31.

The difficult judgment call comes in cases such as prescription drugs designed to alter one’s mood. The question is whether these drugs act to restore God’s natural balance in the brain, like the use of lithium to treat manic-depression, or whether they act to alter moods in a way contrary to God’s intent. To calm one’s nerves by restoring a natural neural imbalance is good, but to disconnect a person’s natural sense of legitimate guilt would not be desirable. Nor would it be desirable for a drug to produce escape or denial, like nitrous oxide, which produces an “I don’t care” attitude that is fine for undergoing an operation, but is no way to live day-to-day. These are questions that a patient needs to ask in consultation with medical professionals.

The common Christian rule that is used to oppose the abuse of drugs and alcohol is that our bodies are temples of God, temples that are not to be damaged or destroyed. While Paul does indeed teach this in 1 Corinthians 6:19, how we care for our bodies depends in part on scientific advice as to what is bad for our health, which is constantly being updated and often corrected. Scientific advice on coffee, tea, and wine keep changing.

So what about tobacco? Tobacco is difficult to limit to amounts that do not produce a threat to one’s health. A better rule to employ on the use of tobacco, the use of alcohol, the use of prescription drugs, or the overconsumption of food, is Paul’s resolution, “I will not be enslaved by anything” (1 Corinthians 6:12). The greater the risk of addiction involved in any food, drink, or medicine we consume, the wiser we are to follow Paul’s advice: I will not use any substance to which I am likely to become enslaved. That’s the Biblical word of wisdom: “I will not be enslaved by anything.”

Last week we talked about how much of the Bible is still for today, and how much was intended specifically for people in Biblical times. Next week we’re going to come back to that subject as we talk about the question, “Can God change?” Does God progress? Does God change his mind, or does God give us principles that do not change? Is racism or sexual immorality always wrong, or do they change with the times? We’ll talk about these questions next time on Biblical Words and World!