Wibble Wednesday: Metaphorical Wine from Metaphorical Grapes (Isaiah 5)

Missed a few weeks! End of semester, and travel, and whatnot. And Isaiah 5 is, quite frankly, long.

Short snarky summary: How would you feel if you planted a vineyard and no grapes grew there? You would feel annoyed and pretty crappy. God is feeling annoyed and pretty crappy right now. Also, Israelites are far too fond of drunken revelry, which kinda doesn’t go with that last metaphor, but you get what God is saying here, right? Wine is good, except when it’s bad. In conclusion, a vineyard is a land of contrasts.

We get one of those fun metaphorical stories to kick off this chapter. The first two verses, talking about the vineyard of the author’s “beloved” actually looks vaguely like it’s veering off in a Song of Songs direction (apropos: theologians of a conservative bent typically read SoS itself as a theological metaphor, of God’s love for Israel/the Torah/humanity or somesuch, anything to distract from the explicit erotic imagery). But no, we have no wild sexual symbolism here (unless you read a lot more into it than is obvious), but I am intrigued by the presence of this lover and “his” vineyard. Is Isaiah positing a male lover for either himself or for a female voice he’s adopting? It’s a peculiar aspect of the work I can’t quite wrap my head around: a lot of commentaries apparently equate the loved one (with justification) with God himself, so, yeah someoone Isaiah loves dearly and who is male, that works there.

Anyways, the story of the vineyard is lyrical; it doesn’t quite feel like the previous chapters contentwise but shares with them a certain rhythmic quality. Isaiah describes the care with which his lover prepared the field for agriculture, and built winemaking industry around it, only to discover, that when it burst into growth, it brought forth not grapes, but wild grapes instead!

I have two aspects of this I ended up getting caught on, one agronomic and one linguistic. I’m not really deeply conversant with Iron Age agricultural technique, but I’m pretty sure that growing a specific crop, even then, involved a bit more agency than just tilling a field and hoping for the best. The big innovative discovery that you could make a specific plant grow by sowing its seeds was, uh, Paleolithic? Maybe Neolithic? Anyone who thousands of years later was still clearing a plot of land, waiting and watching, and being disappointed when their preferred crop didn’t show up honestly deserves their ill-fortune. And for my other question, the linguistic one, what exactly did show up? Pretty much every translation I looked at described a dichotomy between two types of grapes: most said “grapes” and “wild grapes”; others made a distinction in quality, ranging from “the best grapes”/”common grapes” (BBE) to “good grapes”/”worthless/bad/sour grapes”. Now, from my reading, “wild grapes” are “grapes”, so there’s some nuance in the literal version I wasn’t getting, and it was time to fire up the old concordance to figure out what was going on.

“Grapes” is ענבים, an utterly conventional word which actually means “grapes”; it’s used in several places in the Bible discussing fruit, or the source of wine. They’re in Pharaoh’s cupbearer’s dream in Genesis, and in the fruit brought by the spies in Numbers. This translation is straightforward. On the other hand, ‘wild grapes” is באשים, a word which in that inflection only appears in Isaiah 5. That’s a bummer for figuring out what it means! Fortunately, it’s a plural, and its singular form, באש, appears in several places—intriguingly, not as any sort of plant life at all! Everywhere באש appears, it’s in reference to offensive odors, and it’s typically translated as “stench” or “stink”. So our “wild grapes” might be more accurately “stinking things” or, particularly “rot”. So I’d propose “grapes” vs. “rotting vines”, which also helps with the agricultural issue: the farmer did actually sow grapes, but the vines rotted and stunk instead of bringing forth fruit.

That might be enough drilling down into the botanical specifics of what is surely a metaphor. And make no mistake, this tale is metaphorical (or perhaps allegorical). After lamenting that the vineyard was so unproductive in spite of the loving care given to it, the lover in the tale announces his intention to raze and abandon such an ungrateful and undeserving vineyard. And, surprise! Just in case you didn’t get it, Isaiah explicitly lays out the key to the allegory: the vineyard is Israel, the vines are the people of Judah, the rot is injustice and inequality, and the lover is God. It’s nice to see injustice and inequality continuing to be front and center in Israel’s sins, with impiety and idolatry remaining in the background.

This allegory is followed by an explicit listing in several verses of the exact forms of iniquity which Isaiah is singling out, and the punishments he prophesies. The first sin he calls out is acquisitiveness of property, describing those who join together a number of homesteads to build one huge property and squeeze out their less prosperous neighbors. It’s a refreshing criticism, because while prosperity in itself is not bad, land ownership is ultimately a zero-sum game and huge property-holders pricing out the less fortunate is a perennial societal problem and it’s nice to see a religious text not cast it in a just-world fallacious light. The predicted punishment is that these enormous properties will ultimately be productive inversely to their size, with their huge fields producing meager yields of oil and wine, and with the grand palatial houses thereon being depopulated.

Next on Isaiah’s shitlist are the hedonists, who spend their lives in food and drink and music without consideration of either God or of their fellow man. For these Isaiah predicts hunger, thirst, and exile, and, in a colorful sideswipe at the gluttony involved in this sin, he invokes the spectre of Sheol (i.e. the underworld) opening up its jaws to swallow the entire riotous party. This set of sinners also is criticized for their love of wine, which contrasts keenly with the original story about the vineyard and an earnest, noble desire for a productive vineyard. Unlike in previous predictions of woe Isaiah here stops to offer up the possibility that their ruin is specifically to the benefit of someone else, to wit, that in their ruins lambs will graze and outcasts find sustenance. Thesecond of those iis a continuation of the social-equality theme I”ve been so cheered to find in this work.

The next several verses call out by name specific sins which are not specifically those of luxurious excess. There’s a colorful image of some who are dragging their sins around, as if by a rope, and who say that they won’t pay attention to the word of God until it becomes real. The message here is pretty clear (and if it were a Christian eschatalogical message, it’d be pre-millennial): you bring about God’s purpose not by hanging around waiting for him to fulfill it, but by taking steps towards accomplishing his plans yourself. The next two verses move on to another class of sinner, which seems to be some sort of kin to the Sophists: those who deceive the people with high language and cleverness until they believe things completely contrary to reality. Next up in the parade of horribles is a group which again overmixes the boozy metaphors, by talking about those who brazenly practice public corruption as being as “doughty as drinkers of wine”. Damn it, Isaiah, quit undercutting your own nice little parable by reminding us that we really didn’t want that vineyard to be productive anyways. I think these verses are particularly talking about corruption in judgment; whether through bribery of judges or of witnesses I’m not sure of. But you can tell a lot about a society by what it’s concerns are, and Isaiah’s concerns speak to an encouraging current in Israelite society: concerned with truth, equity, and justice.

The last group of sinners is specifically iven an imprecation of divine wrath, for the previous groups were simply identifie by name and in uncomplimentary terms. It’s possible that these verses predicting the destruction of the descendants of malefactors applies not only to the corrupt perverters of justice in the most recent verse, but to the several preceding enumerations of the passively sinful and the sophistic as well.

But in the following verse we get a radical tense shift, which makes it difficult to determine the particular prophetic context of Isaiah. Up until now most of the verses have skewed eschatologically, referring to a dim future of the mighty brought low and the humble raised up. But that is not the only context, or even the dominant context, of Hebrew prophecy! A lot of prophetic works (or “prophetic” works, if you take a dim view of when they were written) are direct references to contemporary events of the period And briefly here we switch into the past tense, and it’s hard not to see in this a commentary on Biblical sufferings and exile when Isaiah puts this forth as why the wrath of God was roused against Israel, striking them with pestilence and earthquake. But, Isaiah says, switching back into the future tense, God isn’t done yet, and he’s saved the best for last, calling up a fearsome army from afar. There’s loving detail lavished on the description of these super-soldiers, who are impeccably armored and provisioned, strong beyond measure and tireless. And, reading between the lines, this army’s purpose is to bring Judah low and conquer it.

Now, how impressive this prophecy is depends a lot on when it was written and how much it was tweaked by later editors. For both Judah and Israel were conquered by aggressive empires in short order. If Isaiah himself lived when contextual clues suggest and he actually wrote this and it wasn’t tweaked too far by future editors, this might be a pretty good prediction of the Babylonian captivity of Judah. OTOH, even taking for granted all those historically dubious details, it’s not like Isaiah can’t have reasonably seen this coming in the broad terms outlined here. Israel had already been gobbled up by Assyria, and Isaiah himself is a player of some significance at a time when a reasonable inference from the military situation was that Judah would be next (they weren’t ever fully subjugated by the Assyrians, as it turns out, but it certainly seemed plausible). In fact, Isaiah might have had Assyria in mind rather than Babylon when he wrote this! So, color me a bit unimpressed by the prediction of conquest.

Next chapter: a significant shift in style and subject matter.

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About Jake
I'm a mathematics professor at the University of Louisville, and a geek.

2 Responses to Wibble Wednesday: Metaphorical Wine from Metaphorical Grapes (Isaiah 5)

  1. gsanders says:

    I may have to read Isiah in total before too long. I’ve considered and overall read through for a few different reasons, but it sounds like there are some parts of Isiah I’d find heartening (we’ve already talked about some of the earlier dispiriting bits).

    • gsanders says:

      [Ergh, mispelled Isaiah up above] Also, maybe Isaiah just needs a quick laudatory verse, “Blessed are those who drink wine in moderation and share with their fellows, for they enable vineyard parables.”

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