Biblical Grape Reverence
We have seen that the Bible is full of grape and wine references, indicating the plant and beverage’s importance to Jews and others of the region. The vineyard and winepress were valuable parts of Israelite culture, especially in the rest of the Tanakh beyond the Torah. The Hebrew word for “wine,” יין yayin, appears 140 times in the Old Testament, while תירוש tiyrowsh or tirosh, representing “new wine,” can be found in 38 instances. The New Testament uses the Greek word for “wine,” οἶνος oinos, 33 times, while “wineskins” or ἀσκός askos appears in a dozen instances.
The NT also contains 23 references to “vineyard,” ἀμπελών ampelōn, while “vine” (ἄμπελος ampelos) occurs nine times, the same word used to describe both Jesus (Jn 15:1, 5) and Bacchus’s love interest Ampelos. This term ἄμπελος ampelos is employed for “vine” in the Septuagint of Deuteronomy 8:8, which lists the “seven species” ( שבעת המינים Shiv'at HaMinim) of “sacred fruits and grains” abundant in the Promised Land:
…a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey…
The Hebrew word here for “vine” is גפן gephen.
Israel as Vine
Gephen also refers figuratively to the “vine of Israel,”1284 including at Psalm 80:9 to describe the nation itself, as the “vine out of Egypt.” This psalm demonstrates Yahweh’s role as a “vineyarder” or “vinedresser,” as he is called in the NT (Jn 15:1); in other words, a vine god like Dionysus. Gephen is used metaphorically likewise at Isaiah 34:4 to describe the “stars fading at Jehovah's judgment” as “leaves [that] fall from the vine.” At Hosea 10:1, we read that “Israel is a luxuriant vine that yields its fruit,” using gephen in the Hebrew and ampelos in the LXX.
As part of this ancient Jewish vine/wine reverence, Judges 9:13 names the libation as the drink that “cheers gods and men.” In a list of divine gifts provided by Yahweh, Psalm 104:15 praises the “wine to gladden the heart of man.”
Noah, the Vintner
In Genesis 9:20–27, the biblical patriarch Noah is deemed “the first tiller of the soil” and depicted as enjoying his wine, thus serving as the legendary original cultivator and vintner. In an episode that sounds very Bacchic, Noah becomes drunk and naked, exposing himself to his sons. This myth is used to explain the tradition of black slavery, as the patriarch curses his son Ham, father of Canaan and progenitor of the Hamite race, for informing his brothers about Noah’s indiscretion.
Fig. 77. Cornelis Cort, The Mocking of Noah, c. 1560. Engraving (The Story of Noah, pl. 6)
This biblical story involving Noah disinheriting his grandson Canaan “seems to represent an origin legend concerning the ancient discovery of the cultivation of grapes around 4000 BCE in the area of Ararat, which is associated with Noah.” Hence, in the Bible the Israelite wine god is raised above that of the Canaanites.
To reiterate, the earlier Ugaritic wine cult is evidenced in KTU 1.114, in which the gods are said to eat and drink, consuming wine “until sate, vintage until inebriated.” The Ugaritic text “Tale of Aqhat” (KTU 1.17–19) may provide a precedent for the Noah-Ham curse, in that it highlights the behavior of a loyal son as “taking my hand when I am drunk, supporting me when sated with wine.”
The parallels between Bacchus and Noah have been obvious enough that the two have been identified with each other over the ages. In this regard, Vossius posited a possible lineage from Noah to Dionysus, when referring to homines eruditi or certain “erudite men,” discussing the origin of the name Bacchus:
Volunt enim ex ,נח Noach, esse Noachus, hinc Nachus, inde Bachus, tum Bacchus.
They wish for out of [Noah], Noach, to be Noachus, hence Nachus, from there Bachus, and Bacchus.
Again, the drunkenness and lewd impression of the Noah story resemble the popular Bacchic orgies, outlawed in Roman times. This Dionysian celebration is evident also in the drunken revelry during the Jewish festival of Purim, during which a “drinking party” or mishteh, reminiscent of a marzeah, is held to commemorate the deliverance of the Jews from the Persian Empire.
As was the case with the personified Staphylos, Semites evidently also anthropomorphized the grape bunch, as a figure biblically called “Eshcol” ( ' אשכל Eshkol or “cluster”):
In pre-Israelite traditions Eshcol (Grape Cluster) appears to be the god of grapes or wine (Gen. 14:13). Eshcol in later Biblical testament was absorbed into El elyon, the chief Canaanite/Israelite deity who becomes in one manifestation a wine god.
Fig. 78. Israelite spies bringing back huge grape cluster from Canaan. (Treasures of the Bible)
Although overtly the verses in Genesis 14 appear to represent historical Amorites, combined with Numbers 13:23–24, as follows, the figure of Eshcol seems to have been originally an Amorite wine god:
And they came to the Valley of Eshcol, and cut down from there a branch with a single cluster of grapes, and they carried it on a pole between two of them; they brought also some pomegranates and figs. That place was called the Valley of Eshcol, because of the cluster which the men of Israel cut down from there.
Concerning Eshcol/Eshkol, Lemche remarks that this term is “generally reckoned a personification of the valley of Eshkol close to Hebron, and visited by Moses’ spies (Numb 13:23) who brought back a cluster of grapes from the Valley of Eshkol that could only be transported by two grown-up men.”
The bearing of the grape clusters on a pole in procession sounds very Dionysian, and, as noted, the theme of retrieving grapes from a “promised land” can be found in the Bacchic myth, representing the fertility of spring.
Fig. 79. Rev. grape bunch between two grape leaves; obv. head of Dionysus (not shown), c. 530 BCE. Silver coin, Naxos, Greece
Here we see how important the grapevine was to the early Israelites, as well as the existence of several Semitic wine gods in the relevant region. In this regard, Heskett and Butler surmise that Eshcol was absorbed into the El Elyon wine cult, significant because the Israelites also worshipped this latter god, as their “Most High.”
Melchizedek or ‘Righteous Molech’
At Genesis 14:18 appears the story of Melchizedek, biblical king of Salem and high priest of El Elohim, known for his communion of bread and wine. It is after the order of Melchizedek that Jesus is made to be a high priest forever repeatedly in the epistle to the Hebrews. Like his disciple Christ at the Last Supper, Melchizedek brings out bread and wine, this time in order to bless Abram/Abraham (Gen 14:19). Here it should be recalled that “Abram” appears to be an anthropomorphization of the Indian god Brahm or Brahma, thus subordinated under Melchizedek and El Elohim.
Fig. 80. Charles Foster, Offering to Molech, 1897. (Bible Pictures and What They Teach)
“Melchizedek” often is rendered “my king is Sedek,” but it could also be translated “Righteous Molech,” a remnant, perhaps, of Israelite adherence to the Ammonite god Molech. In this instance, the “ruler” of Salem would be Molech, now dominated by El Elohim. This suggestion of the theonym “Molech” as intended in various verses, rather than the noun “king,” is validated by Acts 7:43, which renders the “king” at Amos 5:25–27 as the god’s name, Μολὸχ Moloch, instead of the noun connoting a monarch.
Demonstrating the intensity of biblical respect for wine, at Genesis 49:11, purportedly written by Moses, we find the following bizarre scripture regarding the coming messiah:
Binding his foal to the vine and his ass’s colt to the choice vine, he washes his garments in wine and his vesture in the blood of grapes; his eyes shall be red with wine, and his teeth white with milk.
This verse concerns the expected ruler of Israel, the savior who will take the scepter from Judah, the reigning tribe of the time. This passage is viewed as one of the many “messianic scriptures” supposedly predicting Jesus Christ but in reality serving as “blueprints,” used midrashically or allegorically by Jewish scribes to create the Christ character. But, why would Israel be ruled by a besotted winebibber? In Genesis 49, the grape and wine are so important that this attribute is listed first in the characteristics of the anticipated messiah in this passage.
Blood of the Grape/Messiah
In this Genesis passage and at Deuteronomy 32:14, wine is called the “blood of the grape,” while, as we have seen, it is also the blood of Jesus (Mt 26:28), who is viewed as the “stem/sprout/shoot/root of Jesse” (Rom 15:12), evidently referring to the grapevine. Hence, we can see that wine is central to both messianic Judaism and Christianity, and that, in significant part, Jesus is a rehash of the vine and wine god Dionysus, whose blood also was that of the grape. In this same regard, we find the typical solar-fertility significance of
wine in Egypt, including as the “blood of Osiris.”
One of the earlier deities possibly perceived as this oenophilic savior was the solar-fertility god Tammuz, originally the Sumerian Dumuzi. Like Dionysus, Tammuz was a “dying and rising” solar-fertility figure whose resurrection was celebrated in spring. This Semitic deity also appears to be a form of the vine/wine god in significant part, having taken the role of his sister, as noted, celebrated in later times also as the god of fall harvest.
So popular was Tammuz that a Hebrew summer month remains named after him, from the Babylonian god-name for June and July, corresponding to the zodiacal sign of Cancer. This summer month is appropriate for a solar deity and a perfect time for the growth of the grapevine and the ripening of the fruit. Following the summer solstice, the month Tammuz was a traditional time of mourning in the Babylonian culture because of the decline towards winter, with the increasingly intense summer heat, which kills flora and fauna, and causes drought.
The god’s death and lamentation recorded in the biblical book of Ezekiel (8:14) occurred in the fall with the harvest, per Rabbi Pinchas Frankel:
The “Tammuz” cult involved the symbolic death of Tammuz. The death of this god was initially symbolic of the grain being turned into wine or beer for the new wineskins. The wine was put into jars and stored underground... When the tanks ran dry, the gods of wine and beer failed, and they had to be aroused or resurrected with wine and music, to restore the harvest. This religion began in Babylonia, was adopted throughout the world, and even by the Jews...
Here once more is a theme found within the Dionysian religion at Athens, with an evident origin elsewhere. The reverence of and familiarity with a wine god and vintage ritual by the Jews in Ezekiel’s era (c. 622–570 BCE) is apparent from this Tammuz worship.
The Law and Wine
The other books of the Torah/Pentateuch—again, all supposedly written by Moses—have a very different perspective of wine than the giddy, messianic drunkenness of Genesis, indicating these texts were composed by diverse hands. Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy take a much dimmer view of wine than does Genesis, exhorting followers to abstain from its consumption, including and especially the “separated” priests called Nazarites (Num 6:3).
One would think that if the coming messiah were to be wine-drenched, there would be more focus on this sacred beverage in the rest of the Pentateuch, particularly if one person, Moses, wrote it. Yet, Exodus mentions wine by name only once (29:40), as a libation for the sacred lamb sacrificed morning and evening, in the instructions to Moses (and Aaron) on how to commit the massive slaughter of bulls, sheep and other animals for which the Jewish ritual is known.
These sacrifice directions represent a mere pittance of the enormous amount of detailed instructions from Yahweh to these patriarchs that were simply “lost,” to be found centuries later by Josiah’s priest Hilkiah, the possible author of them in the first place. Again, since these rituals were so important to Yahweh, in all their tedious and bloody details, compelled upon the chosen over a period of 40 years in the harsh desert, one wonders where the Lord was during these several centuries when his painstaking instructions were carelessly “lost” and his sacrifices were not being done properly.
Uzziah and Hezekiah
Despite the supposed importance of the law and its restrictions regarding wine, we find evidence of the libation’s continued significance in Israelite life. Regarding the so-called LMLK jar-handle seals from Judea, discussed below, Rainey evinces that they are stamps indicating “special brands of produce from royal farms,” the produce in question here being wine. In specific, these wine jar seals would belong to the vineyards of the Judean king Uzziah (8th cent. BCE), which Rainey concludes were in the hill country.
Along with these vineyards are Uzziah’s great-grandson Hezekiah’s wineries, whence in the late seventh to early sixth centuries BCE the king sent shipments of wine, apparently, to Arad in Israel. If these vineyards were part of the “house of Jesse,” we can fathom what the “shoot” or “sprout” of Jesse predicted at Isaiah 11:1—said to be the expected, wine-soaked messiah— would represent, giving the savior a viticultural significance.
Wine Chambers and Banqueting House/Temple
In an apparent religious ritual also indicating the drink’s sacredness to the Israelites, the “house of Yahweh” or Jerusalem temple contained chambers into which people were led in order to be given wine (Jer 35:2). This same “banqueting house” may be referred to in the erotic biblical book Song of Songs/Solomon (2:4): “He brought me to the banqueting house, and his banner over me was love.” The relevant phrase here is בית יין bayith yayin, this latter word generally denoting “wine.” The LXX styles this chamber οἶκος τοῦ οἴνου oikos tou oinou or “house of wine,” the word oikos also connoting “temple,” as does the Hebrew bayith. Thus, the lover is brought into the “temple of wine,” in a text held sacred by hundreds of millions worldwide.
It is clear that wine remained central to Jewish religion, which means that its producers were important, wealthy and influential, intertwined with a powerful priesthood.
As mentioned and as was the case with the Greek son of God and the Egyptian savior, the blood of the grapes is also that of Jesus (Mt 26:27–29), and wine metaphors continue in the New Testament. Indeed, the Jewish competition with Babylon is evident from Revelation 14:8–11, which contrasts Babylon’s wine with the “wine of the wrath of God, which is poured out without mixture into the cup of his indignation.” Regarding this passage, theologian Dr. Gregory K. Beale comments:
While the intoxicating effect of Babylon’s wine seemed strong, it is nothing in comparison to God’s wine. Babylon’s wine made the nations submissive to her will only temporarily. The effect will wear off at the end of time. Then the ungodly will become drunk with God’s wine, the effect of which will not be temporary. God’s wine will make the nations submissive to his judicial will forever...
Fig. 81. Engraved sterling silver kiddush cup (Dimitri)
Beyond the Bible, Jews to this day recite a berakhot or benediction for food and wine before meals: “Bless art Thou, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, who hast created the fruit of the vine.” On the eve of the Jewish Sabbath and other holidays, a sanctification called kiddush/qiddush—the same word as qadesh, meaning “holy”—is said over a cup of wine before the meal. The cup used is a special chalice, often an engraved silver goblet, resembling the Holy Grail in significance. It is evident that wine has been very important within Judaism, as it had been in paganism, its bounty attributed to God.
Moreover, as one of the seven species of sacred fruits, the grape cluster carried by the two “spies” is a symbol for Israel itself, stylized in art as the logo of Israeli Ministry of Tourism (left), for example, or offered as bumper stickers and so on.
Summarizing the Jewish reverence for the grape, Dr. Tim Unwin states:
Considerable emphasis has been given here to the symbolism of wine and the vine in the Old Testament for two main reasons: first, it can be seen as reflecting several of the broader symbolic representations of wine and the vine in the ideologies of most of the religions in south-west Asia in the first and second millennia BC, and secondly, and more importantly, much of this symbolism was then taken over and developed in Christianity, which in time became the dominant ideology of societies in which wine was to be the most important alcoholic beverage. A second crucial ideological influence on these societies was that of Greece, and it is therefore to a discussion of the symbolism of the Greek god Dionysus, that this chapter now turns.
Indeed, and in this book as a whole, we have covered already the issue of Dionysus in significant detail. As it turns out, one could say that Moses is the Old Testament Dionysus, while Jesus is the NT version, adapted for the needs of the time.
Water to Wine
As another example, the water-to-wine miracle in the gospel story is not historical but mythical, found in the myths of other cultures. We have seen already several instances of Baal, Dionysus or the latter’s followers miraculously producing wine, often in great quantities. In another instance, Diodorus (3.66.2) says that “the Teians produced, as a proof of the birth of Dionysus among them, [the fact] that even to his time at a stated period there was in their city a fountain of wine, spontaneously flowing from the earth and of excellent fragrancy.”
One version of the miracle of “wine” from water can be found in Egypt, regarding the Nile flood, thousands of years before the common era:
The water to wine motif goes…at least as far back as the Old Kingdom of Egypt, and is related to myths about the inundation. Much like Lucian’s explanation of the Adonis river in Lebanon turning into “blood” every year, likewise the ancient Egyptians saw the reddish waters of the annual floods (caused by mountain sediment from melting snow)…as the gods turning its water into wine.
Again, this idea of bloody waters also resembles one of the 10 plagues of the Exodus. The river-flooding connotation evidently arose from the observations of the water-to-wine process of nature.
As stated in Christ in Egypt (292–293), at Pyramid Text 442:820a, Osiris— who was the “first to drink wine” and who taught mankind about the vine, according to Plutarch—is referred to as the “Lord of Wine in the…festival,” again evoking the wedding feast of Cana.
Concerning the water-to-wine miracle at John 2:3–9, Dr. Erich Neumann reminds us that Osiris was a wine god and that January 6th—one of Christ’s several birthdays, as well as the “Feast of Epiphany,” commemorating Jesus turning water into wine—“is also the anniversary of the water-wine transformation performed by Osiris.”
A relevant utterance occurs in the Pyramid Text of Unas/Unis/Wenis (W 143/PT 210:130c): “...the water of Unis is wine, like the Sun.” This last verse hints at the most obvious meaning behind the miracle of turning water into wine: To wit, the sun’s ripening of the grape on the vine and fermenting of the grape juice.
Thus, this motif represents significantly the natural process of water being turned into wine, as the vine draws in the former and creates the latter. The perceived orchestrator of this natural “miracle” has been the sun, which brings the life-giving rains, causes the seeds to germinate, creates photosynthesis, grows the vine, ripens the grapes and ferments the wine. In this regard, the deities who turn water to wine are significantly solar.
It is noteworthy that at the temple of Apollo at Corinth, Greece, there exists a hidden sluice used in antiquity by pagan priests to change water poured in one end to wine coming out the other. Concerning this device, Loeb’s Diodorus editor notes, “Archaeological evidence that a miraculous flow of wine was caused by the priests of a temple (of Dionysus?) of the fifth century B.C. in Corinth is presented by Campbell Bonner, ‘A Dionysiac Miracle at Corinth,’ Am. Journal of Archaeology, 33 (1929), 368‑75.” I was fortunate enough to see this sluice up close while participating in the American School of Classical Studies’ excavation at the site.
Ass and Foal
Fig. 82. Dionysus with kantharos or cup reclining on ass, c. 460–423 BCE. Coin from Macedonia, Schonwalter Collection
Another Bacchic connection occurs in the theme of the wine-drenched messiah riding an ass at Genesis 49:11, as Dionysus too is depicted as sitting on an ass, drunk. In consideration of all the parallels in this present work between Bacchus and Moses (and Jesus), it would be logical to suggest that the Genesis passage concerning the drunken messiah on an ass is straight out of Dionysian myth/literature.
In one myth, Dionysus leads the inebriated Hephaistos on an ass back to Mt. Olympus, the heavenly city, after the smith god had been tossed out by the goddess Hera. As we read in Pausanias (Guide to Greece 1.20.3):
One of the Greek legends is that Hephaestus, when he was born, was thrown down by Hera. In revenge he sent a gift of a golden chair with invisible fetters. When Hera sat down she was held fast, and Hephaestus refused to listen to any other of the gods save Dionysus—in him he reposed the fullest trust—and after making him drunk Dionysus brought him to heaven.
Here is a triumphal entry upon an ass into the heavenly city, much like that of Jesus entering Jerusalem upon “an ass and her foal,” a bizarre verse that makes sense as midrash of Genesis 49:11, which in turn appears to have been borrowed from Dionysian myth.
Significantly, an Ugaritic mug has a scene of El holding a cup, with an attendant about to pour the wine, behind whom is an “equid having the appearance or carriage of a colt or foal.”
Of course, in antiquity the ass would be a favored vehicle for drunken guests to return home after a sacred banquet. Hence, the hero or deity riding an ass might symbolize especially a wine cult.
This ass-and-foal motif may represent also the progression towards the fall ripening and harvest of the grapes, portended by the prominence in the constellation of Cancer of the two “autumnal stars” called by the Romans the Aselli or “Little Asses.” These Little Asses were said to “feed at the manger” of two other stars of the Crab constellation called the “Crib” or “Manger.” The sun in Cancer at the summer solstice, therefore, could be said to “ride in triumph into the city of peace on an ass and her foal.” This time of the year is the season when the grapes are ripening on the vine, approaching the triumphal harvest and vintage in the fall. This motif may explain the comparison of Jacob’s son Issachar to an ass as well.
As concerns when these motifs may have come into currency, certain constellations appear to have been devised several thousand years before the common era.
The various mythical attributes discussed here have to do with nature worship, including and especially the reverence for the grapevine, the sun and fertility, the cult of which proliferated widely in remote antiquity. A further study of the spread of the grapevine, viticulture and viniculture would reveal much about the antiquity of the “Dionysian” cult in any given place, by whatever name.
It is evident that numerous religious and spiritual ideas have been diffused through viticulture and viniculture. These concepts include motifs found within both the Old and New Testaments. As we know, in the New Testament, wine is so important that it serves as Jesus’s blood and the holy communion libation.
With all this emphasis on wine, the Israelites could not have missed the cult and god that came with the grapevine, as they assuredly did not live in a vacuum and in fact were notorious for “whoring after” many other gods besides Yahweh for centuries. Indeed, the Jews’ anticipated messiah was to be wine-drenched, proving there were wine cultists among them—wealthy as they likely were—who decided to follow suit with their neighbors in having a vine and sun lawgiver as a national founder, evidently commissioning the composition of the Moses myth.
Fig. 87. Storm god Tarhunta holding grapes and vines, ‘in Dionysian fashion,’ while propitiated by the king of Tyana, c. 8th cent. BCE. Relief from Ivriz, Turkey, Archaeological Museum, Istanbul
Fig. 88. Bacchus holds a fruiting grapevine in his left hand and a wine jar in his right, facing his wife, Ariadne, or a nymph, c. 520–510 BCE. Amphora by the Andokides and Lysippides painters, Louvre Museum, Paris
Fig. 89. Dionysus holding a thyrsus and sprouting grapevine, c. 490–480 BCE. Kylix by Makron, Antikenmuseen, Berlin
Fig. 90. Giovanni Lanfranco, Moses and the Messengers from Canaan, carrying grapes, 1621–1624. Getty Center, Los Angeles, CA
Fig. 91. Hephaistos led back to heaven by Dionysos, riding an ass, c. 430 BCE. Attic Red Figure oinochoe, Metropolitan Museum, New York
The Great God Sun