Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

It was one of the features of the genius of the Hebrew prophets to take an idea or a genre that was known to their hearers and put a different spin on it.

"Vineyard." Image by Jenny Downing via Flickr licensed under CC BY 2.0.

October 8, 2017

First Reading
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Commentary on Isaiah 5:1-7

It was one of the features of the genius of the Hebrew prophets to take an idea or a genre that was known to their hearers and put a different spin on it.

Here, the “love song” that the prophet introduces turns out to be something very different: A court proceeding in which the hearers are summoned to jury duty, to judge between God and his “vineyard” — the people of Judah. The motif of the divine court proceeding against his own people (Hosea 4:1; 12:2 [ET]; Micah 6:2) or other nations (Jeremiah 25:31) was a well-known prophetic trope modeled on human jurisprudential practice.

The case that the prophet presents is all about frustrated expectations. The text itself gives no particulars at all — it is entirely in the form of a parable, much like the story of Nathan accusing David of stealing Uriah’s wife Bathsheba with a parable about a stolen lamb (2 Samuel 12). This parable, too, is agricultural, told in images anyone from an ancient farming culture could understand: One puts so much labor and hope into a crop, and the frustration of not seeing the expected yields can be bitter.

For the prophet’s ancient hearers, this would have been even more true, since for most of them success in farming was a matter of survival, and because the land in most of Judah was challenging to farm. They did not live in the endless, fruited plains of middle America or the rich fields of the central valley of California. Their land was hilly and rocky, and watered mostly by rainfall alone. Even today, driving through Israel, one can see terraced fields on the hillsides, a testimony to back-breaking labor.

The farming imagery is only a metaphor, of course. In the background of this parable lies the entirely salvation history, the story of God’s saving grace towards his people: the Exodus, the Conquest, even creation itself (the removal of the protective hedge and wall are reminiscent of the removal of the boundaries for the heavenly waters that flooded the earth in Genesis 7:11; compare 1:6-10). This was a common form of reasoning on the part of ancient Near Eastern rulers.

Going back at least to the Bronze Age, in the period of the Hittite Empire, rulers would begin a treaty or covenant document with a recounting of their gracious deeds in support of the less powerful party to the agreement. In the case of the Bible, the book of Deuteronomy makes it clear that this was also how the ancient Israelites envisioned the Lord. This story was ingrained enough in the hearers that the metaphors alone would have done the work: the Lord gave them the land, cleared it for them, and made it fruitful.

Isaiah’s audience also knew all too well the wrath to which he alluded. The parable is addressed to the people of Jerusalem and Judah (Isaiah 5:3), some time in the late 8th century. The cataclysm of Zion’s destruction was still more than a century away (586 bce), but the fall of the northern kingdom and its capital Samaria in 721 was fresh in everyone’s mind.

The 8th century was a time of regional political unrest and instability that was quelled only by the onslaught of even larger and more aggressive empires, especially the Neo-Assyrians. Although most of the people of Judah were not involved in diplomacy and geopolitical machinations, they knew the existential consequences of bad decisions and bad leadership. Indeed, when Hezekiah angered the Assyrians and they campaigned to Judah in 701, Jerusalem survived, but the surrounding cities and towns were destroyed (Isaiah 36:1; 2 Kings 18:13).

The idea that the Lord worked his judgment through the agency of foreign nations was well established. As Isaiah says in 10:5-6, “Assyria is the rod of my anger — the club in their hands is my fury! Against a godless nation I send him, and against the people of my wrath I command him.” The cyclical nature of Israel’s history — its apostasy leading to divine judgment was perceived by a historian who described the pattern in Judges 2:10-23, which reads in part, “They abandoned the LORD … So the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and he gave them over to plunderers who plundered them” (verses 13-14).

The final phrases of the “song” are artful poetry and point toward the message of this passage and the rest of the chapter. It says that God “expected justice, but saw bloodshed; [expected] righteousness, but heard a cry!” The pairs of terms here sound nearly the same in Hebrew, differing by only a single letter in each case; the cleverness of this subversion of the divine will is reminiscent of the prophet’s enemies whom he describes as “wise in your own eyes and clever in your own sight” (Isaiah 5:21) and who “turn things upside down” (Isaiah 29:16).

The terms also unmistakably allude to the just and unjust treatment of humans by other humans: Instead of justice, the Judahites have been characterized by violence, greed, and deceit; the motif of “crying out” recurs in the Bible from the Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18:20; 19:13) to the Exodus (2:23-25; 3:7-9) to the origins of the monarchy (1 Samuel 9:16) to the social justice concerns of the Persian Period (Nehemiah 5:1). Time and time again, the Lord is said to hear the cries of his people and act.

In the case of Isaiah 5, the oppressors are not rapacious foreign empires but the very countrymen of the oppressed. The importance of justice in human society is fleshed out by the ensuing verses, which leave behind the agricultural metaphor and expand on the sins of the condemned people. Having been given everything they needed to flourish, the Judahite elite instead hoarded more than they need, forcing their neighbors out of their houses and off their land (5:8). Driven by unholy appetites, they overconsume and fall into debauchery (5:11-12).

Since the same transgressions are condemned by other eighth-century prophets (especially Amos and Micah), there appears to have been a genuine socio-economic crisis at the time. For this, the prophet says, the elites will not only lose the property they have unjustly seized (Isaiah 5:9-10, 17), but they will go, as it were, straight to hell — into the mouth of Sheol (5:14). This is one of the earliest instances of that image in the Bible.

For all its interpretive potential, the “song of the vineyard” has an elegant simplicity to it that prefigured some of Jesus’ parables, both in content (especially Matthew 21:33-41; Luke 13:6-9; compare 1 Corinthians 9:7) and in style. The British journalist Brian Redhead once charmingly commented that Jesus had been “brought up on Isaiah” — that is, that it had played a formative role in his childhood.1 If the account of Jesus reading Isaiah in the synagogue in Luke 4:16-21 reflects his sense of mission, then that may be true.


1. J. F. A. Sawyer, The Fifth Gospel (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press), 4.