To understand this, you need to know who drank what in the ancient world.
Egypt is a land is well suited to growing and storing grain. (At least, it was until the Aswan Dam was built in the 20th century). It is a flat land that has the Nile flowing through it to provide water for irrigation. Egypt became a centralized, urbanized society in the second millennium BCE by taking advantage of its geography to produce large surpluses of grain that could be placed in central storage facilities controlled by a ruling elite who would distribute the food to the people in times of famine. Even before the story of Joseph, Genesis refers to Egypt as a good place to go when food is scarce (12:10 and 26:1-2).
The idea that Joseph taught Pharaoh how to store grain is an obvious anachronism in the story. Thousands of years before Joseph, grain storage was the technology that made Egypt, and its pharaohs, a powerhouse in the ancient world.
Egypt's pharaohs did not use their stored grain only as a safeguard against hard times. They also used it as a way of controlling their large urban population. They did this – of course – by feeding their workers bread made from the grain, but they also turned that grain into beer.
Now, you may think of beer as a luxury item that one enjoys as a repast while filling up on other foods. However, that is not the way that beer was consumed in ancient Egypt. Beer made from barley was a staple in ancient Egypt. Most Egyptians, even children, drank what would be considered today enormous amounts of beer every day.
Consider also that, in the ancient world, bread and beer were made, more or less, in the same way. Water was added to the grain to create a mash that would begin to germinate, making it sweet. A process of fermentation from naturally occurring yeast would begin, which made bread dough rise and which gave beer its alcohol. Bread and beer in the ancient world were really just the solid and liquid forms of the same food.
Beer, of course, had the advantage of providing a pleasant sensation of intoxication (which the Egyptians thought was a marvelous, inexplicable gift from the gods). Beer also kept people alive in the heat of Egypt. Once people started living in cities, finding safe drinking water became more difficult as local water supplies were fouled by human waste. Drinking water could kill you. Drinking beer – which was made in a process that included boiling – was a safe way to stay hydrated.
So why is beer mentioned so infrequently in the Bible if it was so important to the foundation of great ancient cities? The answer is that beer was not the drink of the ancient Israelites. They may have been Hebrews (get it?), but they did not have the geographical advantages of Egypt for the expansive development of growing barely for beer. Most of the Israelite population lived in the inland mountain ranges, an area that was advantageous for the development of a different drink.
The Israelites used their relatively limited supply of grain to make simple flat breads. For drink, they used their grapes to make beautiful wines. To grow the best grapes, you need cool rainy winters, dry and warm springs, and long hot summers. You also need a hilly landscape for drainage and the right angle of sunlight. All of these qualities are exceptionally good in the land of Israel. The ancient Israelites thought of themselves as culturally and morally superior to the Egyptians because they drank wine – the drink of free and mighty shepherds in the mountains, and not beer – the drink of city folk controlled by an overbearing king who kept them controlled through intoxication.
This moral distinction between mountain dwellers and city people appears throughout the Bible. In the story of Cain and Abel, for example, we see God favoring the offering of the shepherd Abel, who brought "the firstlings of his flock," and disfavoring the offering of the farmer Cain, who brought "from the fruit of the earth" (Genesis 4:2-3). The story never states directly why God prefers Abel's offering, but a knowledge of the cultural biases of the Bible makes it clear. God likes the shepherds who live in the hills and drink wine, and dislikes the farmers who live in the cities and drink beer.
The dreams of the doomed bread baker and the successful wine steward in this week's Torah portion don't just give Joseph an opportunity to show off his ability to interpret dreams. They are symbols that foreshadow the real message of the story. The Egyptians will be destroyed because they are haughty like the bread baker and cruel like Pharaoh. Israel will triumph because they worship a just and moral God.
Which drink is for you, the brew or the vintage? Who will you follow, the king who built the mighty cities, or God who made heaven and earth?
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