Investigating gluttony and drunkenness in the Bible and ancient Israel
On the one hand, Proverbs 23:20–21 clearly condemns such behavior as folly. In ancient Israel, were gluttony and drunkenness—excessive eating and drinking—viewed as acceptable behaviors? As it turns out, the answer is somewhat complicated.
“Do not be among winebibbers,
or among gluttonous eaters of meat;
for the drunkard and the glutton will come to poverty,
and drowsiness will clothe them with rags.”
On the other hand, feasting was usually viewed in a positive light—as long as the poor were not neglected (e.g., Jeremiah 5:26–28). In fact, feasting was often interpreted as a blessing from God. Deuteronomy 28:4–5 outlines how obedience to God’s commands results in blessings to “the fruit of your ground, and the fruit of your livestock, both the increase of your cattle and the issue of your flock. Blessed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl.” Taking it a step further, Psalm 132:15 describes how God himself promises to guarantee abundant provisions for Jerusalem’s inhabitants:
“I will abundantly bless its provisions;
I will satisfy its poor with bread.”
In her article “Gluttony and Drunkenness in Ancient Israel” published in the Winter 2020 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, Rebekah Welton of the University of Exeter examines excessive eating and drinking in ancient Israel. She investigates a particular legal case from Deuteronomy 21:18–21, wherein parents bring their delinquent son before the town elders and accuse him of stubbornness, rebelliousness, disobedience, gluttony, and drunkenness. The elders decide he is worthy of death by stoning.
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To the average modern reader, this punishment seems harsh—especially when considered at the end of a holiday season that saw many of us indulging in delicacies. However, archaeology and biblical studies can help us better situate the case in its original cultural context. For Welton, the key to understanding this passage lies in identifying the type of food and drink that the rebellious son consumed.
Archaeological excavations have uncovered botanical and faunal remains that illuminate what people farmed, herded, and ate. Based on these remains, Welton reconstructs the diet of the average Israelite and Judahite as primarily consisting of “dairy and grain products, supplemented with seasonal legumes and fruits” and occasionally with meat. Their diet also included beer and wine.
In the biblical world, food played a significant role in ritual worship. Animals, grain, oil, and drink were all offered as sacrifices to the God of Israel (Leviticus 1–7; 23). Throughout the ancient Near East, similar food and drink offerings were presented to other deities. The Bible repeatedly instructs the Israelites not to worship these other deities, and it specifies that they are not to consume sacrifices made to other deities, as this was part of worship (Exodus 34:14–15). According to Deuteronomy, worshiping foreign gods came with a death sentence—by stoning (Deuteronomy 13; 17). Numbers 25:1–5 even records that some Israelites, who ate sacrifices to Baal Peor, were killed by God as a punishment.
Applying this socioreligious context to the case of the delinquent son in Deuteronomy 21:18–21, Welton explains, “The parents of the rebellious son likely did not claim that he was a mere glutton and a drunkard, but rather that he was a religiously deviant consumer, eating against the societal and ritual norms of his Yahwistic community.” Religiously deviant activities were deemed community offenses, hence the punishment of the delinquent son. He is prescribed death by stoning—death at the hands of the community to maintain its socioreligious norms: “So you shall purge the evil from your midst; and all Israel will hear, and be afraid” (Deuteronomy 21:21).
We now return to our original question of how excessive eating and drinking were viewed in ancient Israel. Although gluttony and drunkenness are sometimes denounced (e.g., 1 Samuel 1:14), biblical texts largely condone the practice of feasting—as long as the poor are not neglected and as long as the participants do not engage in religiously deviant activities. But any Israelite eating deviant sacrifices would have been condemned by their community.