the Fourth Week of Lent
Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology
Forbearance of certain activities as a matter of command and voluntary practice for moral and religious purposes. The word-group "to abstain, " under which popular discussions of negation often take place, is actually rare in English translation. The King James Version never uses this group in the Old Testament and only seven times in the New Testament. The New International Version has three occurrences in the Old Testament (Exodus 19:15; 31:17; Numbers 6:3 ) and a similar group in the New Testament. The semantic domain New Testament lexicon by Louw and Nida does not assign an "abstain" domain. The concept of abstinence, therefore, is addressed by considering a variety of biblical categories that prohibit certain behavioral patterns.
The biblical concept of abstinence is predominately a moral issue. Even in the pristine garden of Eden God told Adam to abstain from eating the fruit of a certain tree. God's moral law, characterized in the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20 ), expects his people to abstain from whatever he identifies as evil or out of bounds. There is a continuum of continuity and discontinuity between the Old Testament and New Testament in this regard. The New Testament upholds the normative moral codes of the Old Testament and exhorts believers to abstain from practices that would violate those codes (cf. 1 Thessalonians 4:3; 5:22; 1 Peter 2:11 ). On the other hand, the Old Testament places food laws (Leviticus 11; signified codes of holiness in contradistinction to other nations) and Sabbath observance into the moral realm. God had given stipulations of prohibition for these categories and to violate those regulations was constituted as disobedience. Stipulated foods and activities on the Sabbath were not intrinsically evil, but they were legally stipulated to be so. Old Testament ceremonial regulations (e.g., rules to regulate what was considered clean or unclean in relation to religious practices) were treated as moral issues in humankind's relationship to God. The New Testament, however, abrogated the food law distinctions and did not perpetuate prohibitions concerning the Sabbath and rules of uncleanness.
Voluntary aspects of abstinence provide opportunities for God's people to demonstrate their commitment to the divine program above and beyond the call of duty. The category of vows in the Old Testament provides an occasion for believers to demonstrate special dedication to God. Making vows was never imposed upon an Old Testament believer as an obligation (Deuteronomy 23:22 ), but once a vow was made, it was a solemn and binding duty to keep it (Deuteronomy 23:21-23; Malachi 1:14; cf. Jesus' condemnation of vow abuse, Matthew 15:4-6; Mark 7:10-13 ). Vows could not be made in relation to obligatory religious duties (Leviticus 27 , esp. vv. 26-28) but in regard to special areas of promises made to God or others. Paul's unique use of a Jewish vow in Acts 18:18 (cf. Acts 21:23-24 ) illustrates the amoral and religious transcultural nature of a vow during that period. Most Old Testament vows were of a positive nature, but the vow also could be a promise to abstain from some normally acceptable activity for a religious purpose. The Nazirite vow was a special category (Numbers 6:1-21 ) that pertained to a person's lifestyle rather than one specified activity or promise. The most famous Nazirites of biblical history were Samson (Judges 13 ) and Samuel (1 Samuel 1:11 ). Samson was stipulated as a Nazirite by God's message to his parents before he was born. Hannah vowed to give her son as a Nazirite if God would only make her fertile. The Nazirite was to distinguish himself or herself (cf. Numbers 6:2 ) by abstaining from the normal practices of cutting the hair and drinking wine or other fermented beverages. John the Baptist portrays some of the traits of a Nazirite, but it is not certain that he lived under that vow.
The practice of fasting was another major form of abstinence in biblical history. Fasting in the Old Testament was only required by law on the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16:29 ). Its practice was more widespread and was particularly connected with religious festivals. Zechariah 8:19 notes four fasting periods in a positive way. The relative frequency of the vocabulary for fasting is well balanced between the Old Testament and New Testament and indicates that it was a common religious practice. Many of the references, however, address the abuse of fasting. This religious practice had become for many a mere externalistic form naively utilized as a way of manipulating God to perform their wishes. Jesus condemned empty formalism, but did not abrogate fasting as a religious practice (cf. Matthew 9:14-15 ). Fasting is practiced in the Book of Acts by believers making important decisions (13:2-3). While there is no instruction in the Epistles concerning fasting as a religious practice to enhance one's spirituality, the use of positive biblical models of fasting are not prohibited. Scripture never promotes asceticism as a means to an end, but it does encourage voluntary symbols of dedication to God that proceed from proper motives.
The term "abstinence" is often identified with the question of the use or nonuse of alcoholic beverages. The Bible consistently condemns drunkenness, but it cannot be viewed as teaching total abstinence from fermented wine. The linguistic, historical-cultural, and contextual aspects of Scripture are often abused by those who claim that the Bible requires total abstinence. The primary Hebrew terms are yayin [ Proverbs 23:31; Hosea 4:11; Isaiah 49:26 ) and all three refer to the expected positive use of fermented wine (yayin [ Leviticus 23:13; Numbers 6:20; 28:14; Deuteronomy 14:26; Psalm 104:15; Isaiah 55:1; Itiros [ Deuteronomy 14:23; asim = Joel 3:18 ). All three are used interchangeably and no hard-line distinctions for a linguistic reference to unfermented as opposed to fermented wine can be sustained for any term. The Greek word oinos [ Acts 2:13 ). The ancient world often diluted wine with water for a more or less fermented effect, although this could be viewed as an insult (cf. Isaiah 1:22 ).
The historical setting of Israel as one of the leading and most respected wine-producing nations in their part of the ancient world is well documented. The blessings of this product are recorded in the Bible along with the evils that come from its abuse. Wine is a major image of joy and blessing (cf. Genesis 27:28; Psalm 104:14-15 ). The messianic era is depicted as a time of great blessing via this imagery (Joel 3:18; Amos 9:13; Zechariah 9:17 ). The destruction of wine is noted as a calamity in the life of Israel (Deuteronomy 28:30-39; Isaiah 62:8; 65:21; Micah 6:15; Zephaniah 1:13 ).
Believers in any given time period or geographical location may choose total abstinence from alcoholic beverages for numerous reasons. One may use certain passages of Scripture to warn against abuse just like ancient Israel did. The abuse of strong drink has plagued all cultures and reasons to abstain abound. Careful biblical interpretation, however, requires that the choice to abstain be made for reasons other than the demand of the biblical pattern.
Gary T. Meadors
Bibliography . B. L. Bandstra, ISBE, 4:1068-72; R. Pierard, EDT, pp. 27-29.
Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology. Edited by Walter A. Elwell
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of Baker Book House Company, PO Box 6287, Grand Rapids, Michigan 49516-6287.
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Elwell, Walter A. Entry for 'Abstain, Abstinence'. Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology. https://www.studylight.org/​dictionaries/​eng/​bed/​a/abstain-abstinence.html. 1996.