The Bible Wine Tour
The prophets continue to use wine as a key symbol of God's promised blessing for his people: "Look! I am sending you grain and new wine and olive oil, enough to satisfy your needs. You will no longer be an object of mockery among the surrounding nations" (Joel 2:19, NLT). "The threshing floors will again be piled high with grain, and the presses will overflow with new wine and olive oil" (Joel 2:24, NLT). "'The time will come,' says the Lord, 'when the … grapes will grow faster than they can be harvested. Then the terraced vineyards on the hills of Israel will drip with sweet wine! I will bring my exiled people of Israel back from distant lands, and they will rebuild their ruined cities and live in them again. They will plant vineyards and gardens; they will eat their crops and drink their wine.'" (Amos 9:13-14, NLT).
The prevalence of winemaking is assumed in the Law of Moses: it is prescribed as an offering and commanded as an element of celebrations. In Deuteronomy 12, 14, and 26, God commands people to set aside a second tithe of their grain, wine, and oil in the first, second, fourth, and fifth years of each seven-year cycle. They are to use this for a holy feast. If a person lives too far from Jerusalem to carry their produce to the party, they are instructed to convert it into money and then go to the Holy City and "buy any kind of food you want—cattle, sheep, goats, wine, or other alcoholic drink. Then feast there in the presence of the Lord your God and celebrate with your household" (14:26, NLT).
Of course, though the Bible's fundamental image of wine is one of blessing, it also includes cautions about its use.
Since wine is at times a luxury, it features in the prophets' condemnation of those who oppress the poor while enjoying dainty food and fine vintages (Amos 5-6). Proverbs warns judges and rulers to avoid habitual drinking, since the lives of others are in their hands (31:4-9). And wine is also a metaphor for God's wrath, which stuns people and nations and makes them stagger as though they were drunk (see, for example, Ps. 60:3; Isa. 51:17; Jer. 25:16).
Heskett provides an easy-to-read survey of all these biblical materials—though he doesn't actually deliver a theology of wine or of the vineyard. Unfortunately, he sometimes resorts to frivolous speculation. This is occasionally harmless, such as when he wonders aloud whether at the wedding feast in Cana Jesus might have turned water into white, rather than red, wine.
But in other contexts, his speculation panders to popular notions of the evolution of religions. For example, just after the Melchizedek blessing, Abram names Eshkol as one of the warrior chieftains who deserves a portion of the spoils of war for helping him rescue his nephew. The name Eshkol means "cluster" [of grapes]. Curiously, Heskett asserts that Eshkol is really the name of a wine god—as is ʾĒl 'elyôn, the name of Melchizedek's God. For these conjectures, he relies on Morton Smith, a biblical scholar who long ago established a reputation for imaginative reading between the lines. In this case, Smith argues from evidence that the Greek and Roman cults of Dionysus/Bacchus have their roots in Tyre, next door to Sidon (which Jesus visited) in what is now Lebanon. He then speculates that other wine gods must have preceded Dionysus in Palestine. Why not identify them with Eshkol and ʾĒl 'elyôn? Why not? Those who have a biblical faith must certainly deal with the explicit record of Israelite syncretism, criticized openly by the prophets. But we don't need to conflate YHWH with the assorted gods of ancient Canaan. Unfortunately, the degree of Smith's speculation is not transparent to Heskett's readers, and the paucity of the evidence is hidden from view.