In spite of the prophetic statement in D&C 89 that the Word of Wisdom was given because of conditions particular to our own time, many LDS read it back into the scriptures in one form or another. “Wine,” for example, only means “grape juice” or some such. I view these historically inaccurate statements as attempts to legitimate or rationalize the Word of Wisdom. For myself, I keep the Word of Wisdom because I believe that it is God’s will for me, and I have covenanted to keep it. (Sidenote: Interesting paper on the authority of doctrine.) Historically speaking, however, several things are fairly undisputable regardint the use of alcohol in the Old Testament.
First, though often watered down, Hebrew yayin “wine” and shekar were capable of inebriating people. The two words are often paired, in the KJV as “wine and strong drink” but Biblical “strong drink” is not equivalent to modern strong drink such as vodka, whiskey, etc. Pure distillation only arose in the 8th century AD. Shekar and its cognates such as Akkadian shikru clearly refer to beer, or can refer more broadly to any intoxicating drink.
Second, alcoholic beverages were a prescribed and regular part of Israelite ritual.
Along with the daily offering, morning and evening, of one lamb, one-tenth of a measure of flour and oil, Israelites were commanded to offer one-fourth of a hin of yayin. Scholars vary on how much, exactly, a hin is, anywhere from 3.5 to 7.5 liters. Offered twice daily, 7 days weekly, 365 days a year… yields between 638.75 and 1368.75 liters, or 168.74 – 361.5 gallons of wine, offered to the Lord. Since drink offerings often accompanied other prescribed and voluntary offerings, that number represents an absolute minimum.
The OT varies in its prescriptions of the uses of agricultural tithes. Several inconsistant prescriptions exist which mix the tithing as being for the support of priests or Levites, sometimes for the sanctuary itself, sometimes for the poor, and sometimes for ritual meals of the tithers themselves at the chosen sanctuary. Deuteronomy 14:22ff states that if “the place that [the Lord] will choose as a dwelling for his name,” (i.e. Jerusalem) is too far for you to go with your tithing, convert it to money and then go to Jerusalem. Once there, spend the money on whatever food and strong drink you want, “and you shall eat there in the presence of the Lord your God, you and your household rejoicing together.” This is quite a feast, being 35 days worth of food and strong drink.
Although intoxication was deprecated, alcoholic beverages were valued as part of any celebration. Wine was appreciated for bringing joy and banishing sorrow, and complete abstinence was associated with mourning and turning away from civilization….
Assuming that the farmers invited the Levites and poor to the meals, as required, even if they doubled their normal consumption at the festivals, they could not dispose of all the food involved unless there were as many Levites and poor as there were members of the farmers’ households, which is unlikely.
Jeffrey H. Tigay, The JPS Torah Commentary, on Deuteronomy 14:26
It seems, then, that the Law of Moses prescribed a feast surpassing our own ritual eating at Thanksgiving, which also included alcohol for “rejoicing.” Has anyone ever spent 10% of their annual income on Thanksgiving dinner? Perhaps someone can chime in on whether LDS ever tithed on their home-made wine, as on other tithes which were paid in kind.