This is an excellent question. Here is the passage in context:
Deuteronomy 14:22 Thou shalt truly tithe all the increase of thy seed, that the field bringeth forth year by year.
23 And thou shalt eat before the LORD thy God, in the place which he shall choose to place his name there, the tithe of thy corn, of thy wine, and of thine oil, and the firstlings of thy herds and of thy flocks; that thou mayest learn to fear the LORD thy God always.
24 And if the way be too long for thee, so that thou art not able to carry it; or if the place be too far from thee, which the LORD thy God shall choose to set his name there, when the LORD thy God hath blessed thee:
25 Then shalt thou turn it into money, and bind up the money in thine hand, and shalt go unto the place which the LORD thy God shall choose:
26 And thou shalt bestow that money for whatsoever thy soul lusteth after, for oxen, or for sheep, or for wine, or for strong drink, or for whatsoever thy soul desireth: and thou shalt eat there before the LORD thy God, and thou shalt rejoice, thou, and thine household,
27 And the Levite that is within thy gates; thou shalt not forsake him; for he hath no part nor inheritance with thee
This passage deals with the tithe of the increase of the field that is to be brought to Jerusalem (at least it will eventually be Jerusalem) once a year. Of that tithe, the Israelites were to eat for themselves in a celebration for the blessings of the Lord. The problem for many, as you point out, is the permission they are given to purchase and partake of "strong drink" in this celebration. Let us look at the issues involved.
First, what was the strong drink? The phrase "strong drink" is used 22 times in 19 different verses. It clearly refers to alcoholic beverages. In the Bible, it is strong drink that makes one drunk (1Samuel 1:14-15) and causes the one who partakes of it to stagger (Isaiah 29:9). Proverbs 20:1 warns that strong drink is raging and that whosoever is deceived thereby is not wise. We are also told that it is not for princes to drink strong drink (Proverbs 31:4) for it is the drink of those who are ready to perish (Proverbs 31:6). It is the ruin of men of strength (Isaiah 5:22) and will cause even prophets and priests to err and go out of the way (Isaiah 28:7). There is no reason to believe that the strong drink of this passage is different from the strong drink throughout scripture.
Second, did they really drink of it? I ask this because I have heard some men say that they could not have taken of strong drink because of the teaching of scripture against it. Therefore, they must have just offered the strong drink as an offering and not have partaken of it. Since I am a teetotaler by conviction, this interpretation is appealing to me. However, I am a Bible-believer first and I cannot justify this interpretation by the text or context. If they were unable to transport their increase the distance to Jerusalem, they were to sell the tithe for money at home and then purchase whatever their soul "lusteth after" or "desireth" in Jerusalem. Then, they were to eat it before the Lord in Jerusalem. Note: the use of the term "eat" does not rule out liquid beverages. In verse 23, they are said to "eat" of their wine.
Third, if they were indeed allowed to drink strong drink on the occasion of their annual tithe, how does this align with the teaching of the rest of the Bible? Please consider the following points.
- The full revelation concerning the dangers of strong drink had not yet been given. Revelation is progressive throughout the Bible. What is known at one age may not have been revealed at another. Paul referred to times of ignorance when God winked at certain practices (Acts 17:30).
- We must remember that God permitted certain things in earlier times that are not permitted today, even things that were not especially desired by Him. For instance, under the law divorce was freely allowed and even bigamy was tolerated. Deuteronomy 21:15 gives instructions to a man who had two wives. All things have not always been the same.
- This was a very controlled situation. It occurred once a year in the city of Jerusalem. The Levites and priests were there to keep things from getting out of hand. This was not a blanket endorsement of strong drink. It was rather an allowance to those who felt they must have some on occasion.
- Finally, this was in no way permission to get drunk. The evil of drunkenness is seen all the way back to Noah (Genesis 9:21). It is spoken against in the law (Deuteronomy 21:20; 29:19). Permission to partake of strong drink at an annual celebration in a controlled environment was not an okay from God to get drunk.
I realize that my answer may not satisfy everyone. However, there is no reason for us to despair because of this passage. It does not negate what the rest of the Bible says about strong drink and its dangers.