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Wine: Fermented and Unfermented

Numerous recent scholars and a long line of older lexicographers tell us that the Hebrew word tirosh is unfermented wine though on the basis of a single text (Hosea 4:11) some say it could be intoxicating. [I think that’s a misunderstanding of the text but leaving that question aside for now it’s true that the scholarly consensus is that the word typically speaks of unfermented wine.] A few scholars here and there tell us that in fact tirosh is the grape and by metonymy the juice it produces. This might well be the case and some versions render tirosh in just that way occasionally (vintage). Isaiah 65:8 speaks the proverbial remark that tirosh is found in the cluster and applies it to faithful Israelites in Israel.

[I don’t think enough attention has been given to this proposal: tirosh is a solid (the vintage) that produces wine.]

In any case, given that tirosh is most likely unfermented wine and is not intoxicating, when Psalm 4:7 tells us that harvesting it (along with grain) gladdens people’s hearts we can be sure it isn’t talking about it intoxicating them (see too Judges 9:13). Psalm 4:7 doesn’t even read as if a “drinking” experience is in view—it’s a harvesting experience; here’s the text (NIV and the rest): “You have filled my heart with greater joy than when their grain and new wine abound.”

I know drinking “grain” is not in view unless you think the psalmist had whiskey or something like that in mind. No, it’s a magnificent harvest of “dagan” (grain) and (tirosh) wine. [It’s almost amusing to hear, every now and then, someone claiming, “That’s what God gave grapes for—to make wine!” Grapes have, since ancient times, been a part of the staple diet of nations as they are to this day. Of course they give wine but they were and are used for food. Think of what the Islamic world does with them. Go to your nearest supermarket and see if you can find grapes to eat.]

However, Psalm 104:15 uses yayin and most scholars think the word “means” an intoxicating wine. It’s true that the word is used that way all over the place but there’s no reason to believe that that’s because the word itself “means” an intoxicating wine. The word yayin like the Greek word oinos is almost certainly a generic term and only the context determines whether or not it is intoxicating.

The Greek OT always renders yayin with oinos but it always renders tirosh with oinos. Scholarly consensus says tirosh is unfermented wine and yet the Greek OT translates it with oinos. What does that tell you? It tells you that they thought oinos can speak of unfermented or fermented wine. Since they used oinos to translate unfermented wine and since they used oinos to translate yayin we have every reason to believe that yayin like oinos is a generic term and that the context determines where intoxicating or non-intoxicating wine is in view.

Look, shelving for now what the word “means” means, note this.

The LXX translated tirosh (unfermented wine) with oinos.

Therefore to say oinos always means fermented wine is untrue.

The LXX used oinos to translate yayin in texts were it is clearly


Therefore oinos can refer to intoxicating wine.

This must mean that oinos is a generic term that applies to the juice of the grape whether it is fermented or not fermented. It’s like the word “water” which doesn’t “mean” salt water or sweet water or sea water or rain water—it simply means water and the context determines the specific form of the water. Oinos is the juice of the grape and ancient literature is saturated with illustrations of oinos in various forms (sweet, bitter, new, old, fresh, spoiled, drugged, mixed and so forth).

Jesus speaks of the universal practice of putting “new wine” in new wineskins to avoid the loss of the wine if and when it fermented and the old bags already stretched to the limit would burst (Matthew 9:17). This presumes that what they put in the bags was not fermented or intoxicating. But he calls it neos oinos (new wine). Manifestly, then, oinos can speak of a non-fermented wine. [There’s even more to learn from this “parable”. We often hear silly things said; “The ancients couldn’t keep grape juice from fermenting because they didn’t have modern chemicals.” You hear people say that intoxicating wine is all they ever drank. This is demonstrably false and in addition, even the naturally fermented wine was usually watered as a table drink. It was nothing like the high-octane stuff the booze industry sells so much of.]

Finally, for now, you hear people say that the English word “wine” is only used correctly when we use it of intoxicating wine. That might be the case today (my concise OED gives no other definition) but it wasn’t always so. [Think what has happened to the word “gay” and the word “baptize” and so many others.] To say that “real” wine is intoxicating is to give the word in a modern exclusive way and it ignores all the versions that render tirosh as “wine” or that render Jesus’ “new wine” remark as “wine”. The English word “wine” comes from the Latin “vinum”—juice that comes from the vine. [To be continued, God enabling]


Spending Time with Jim McGuiggan