God Heard It through the Grapevine:
An Exegesis of Isaiah 5:1-7
by Josh Hosler
for Dr. Fentress-Williams
Virginia Theological Seminary
OTS-503: Old Testament Interpretation 3
30 April 2012
What kind of song is Isaiah singing? Gene Tucker asks, “Is this really a song? If so, what kind? … Initially, the speaker announces that he will sing a song, but when one examines the unit as a whole, it becomes clear that the song is limited to vv. 1b-2. If it is not a song, then what is it?” Howard Wallace writes, “There has been a great deal of debate over the genre of the passage. Suggestions have included a song, a love song, a drinking song, a satirical polemic against fertility cults, a lawsuit, a fable, an allegory and a parable.” We may feel it is important to identify the genre of this passage, but Brevard Childs warns:
The problem lies in understanding the relation between the predominately wisdom components of a parable and the prophetic features of a judgment oracle. The very recognition of a unique mixture of literary traditions should guard against an unfruitful search for a formally consistent pattern with one genre. Attention to both form and function is crucial.
Isaiah has intentionally set up a multi-genre passage that functions to keep us listening. The constant shift of genres from verse to verse leaves us uneasy and uncertain of what to expect, so we are caught off our guard when we finally realize that the song implicates us. Let us imagine, then, that Isaiah began with a song that everybody knew and then began to change it specifically in order to pull us in further. We expect a theme, but we begin to hear variations.
|Actual Hebrew text of this passage; click to enlarge|
 We can even sing along with verse 1: “I will sing now for my dear friend a song about him and his vineyard. My dear friend has a vineyard on a fertile hill.” The lyrics are pleasant to the ear in our native Hebrew, carefully crafted to ensure a singsong quality: “Ashirah na lididi shirat dodi. L’charmo kerem hayah lididi b’qeren ben-shamen.” Rhyme is not a common device in our tradition, but we do love alliteration, assonance, and plays on words. When we hear “lididi” and “dodi,” it may as well be “do wah diddy diddy” or “da doo ron ron,” except that these are not nonsense words: they both mean “dear” or “beloved.” They’re fun words to sing, and they lend themselves well to a popular but innocuous ballad. “Ashirah” and “shirat” in English are rather like, “Sing … sing a song.” “Kerem” and “qeren”-- the words for “vineyard” and “hill”—also sound alike. “Qeren ben-shamen” literally means “a horn, son of oil,” but we know it in poetic context as a “horn of plenty” or a “fertile hill.”
Geoffrey Grogan writes, “The use of ‘vineyard’ or garden for a bride is often found in the Song of Solomon … and it may have been recognized as a stock metaphor.” Yet perhaps already our suspicions are aroused due to the identity of the speaker: this street corner scene is not a wedding, but some kind of prophetic performance art. Carolyn Sharp suggests, “Since prophets speak for God, the audience might suspect from the start that this male beloved is God.” Katheryn Pfisterer Darr disagrees: “Elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, the adjective yadid often refers to YHWH’s beloved (e.g. Israel in Jer. 11:15; Ps. 127:2, etc.; Benjamin in Deut. 33:12), although never to YHWH as ‘beloved.’ In the Song of Solomon, a young woman frequently uses dod to refer to the man she loves (e.g., 1:13; 2:3; 4:16; 5:10). Here, however, neither yadid or dod betrays the farmer’s identity.” Either way, it’s an intriguing situation, so we stick around to hear more.
As verse 2 begins, we might imagine Isaiah’s singsong love song to be something like the Beatles’ “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da”: the man will set up a house for his bride where the two of them can happily get down to the work of making babies, new children of Abraham. “And he dug around it thoroughly and de-stoned it, and he planted in it the best possible vines.” In Hebrew this is a series of Pi’el verbs indicating intense work: “Va-y’azqehu, va-y’saqlehu, va-yitta’ehu.” These strong sounds change the tone and form the bridge of the song, leading toward a familiar chorus. “And he built a tower …” Our ears prick up, for Isaiah has departed from the familiar lyric. Let us presume there was nothing in the original hit version about a tower. But why wouldn’t the man build a tower? Isaiah seems to be performing his own variation on the song, and this makes it even more interesting. Carolyn Sharp comments: “The tower will provide a dark place for the storage of fermenting grape juice; it might also house the vineyard owner or an employee watching over the vineyard at night. There may be a subtle resonance with ‘[military] watchtower’ here as well: is this foreshadowing that sentinels will be needed to warn Israel of approaching enemies?” Yet nothing in the song has given us a clue about where it is headed. What a fascinating change! We do have someplace to be, but Isaiah has our attention. Verse 2 continues: “And he built a tower in its midst, and he even hewed out a wine-vat in it.” As Isaiah’s voice swells toward the chorus, we’re excited to hear all about the couple’s love for each other and the birth of their children.
“And he expected a yield of grapes … but it yielded nasty, stinking grapes.” Now there’s a shock. This isn’t a love song at all: it’s a cheating song! Gary Roye Williams addresses this sudden change:
The expectation of grapes (v. 2c), perhaps a symbol of children, was fully justified, and the final word of the verse, “be’ushim,” “stinking grapes,” perhaps representing illegitimate children, comes as a great surprise. One expects rather a synonym of “anabim,” “grapes.” The husband’s expectations were frustrated, but so also are the interpreter’s. A major reinterpretation of the song thus far is called for.
What began as “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” has become “I Heard It through the Grapevine”! Yet more surprises are in store. Childs writes: “These elements of indeterminacy, which are constitutive of a wisdom saying, function to puzzle the audience, which expects one thing but then receives quite another, as the mood of entertainment and curiosity is quickly dispelled by the prophet.” Even the sound of the word “be’ushim”—with a guttural aleph bursting into a “u” vowel—banishes any singsong quality we had been enjoying.
We move into the second section of what will turn out to be a suite, and it is here that Isaiah changes rhythm and even vocal tone to signify that somebody different is speaking. This is no uncle at a wedding; even the honeymoon is over. The bridegroom himself, all worked up in grief and anger, steps up to the microphone in verse 3 for his recitative: “And now, residents of Jerusalem—and man of Judah—judge, if you please, between me and my vineyard.” Isaiah has dragged us into court, and we are placed on the bench to hear the farmer’s grievances. Verse 4 presents the formal complaint: “What more could I have done for my vineyard that I have not already done? Why, when I expected a yield of grapes, did it yield nasty, stinking grapes?” It is important at this point to ask some of the same questions Joseph Blenkinsopp has asked:
There are … incongruities and problems for the modern reader, e.g., squaring the very mundane language of the poem with love poetry; imagining how a vineyard can be responsible for a poor crop; why the same people represented by the failed vineyard are asked to take sides; or, finally, why the decision to destroy is taken before those solicited have a chance to respond by making some useful suggestions, e.g., consult an experienced vintner, add compost, try a different kind of grape.
We have already addressed the problem of genre, and we will discover soon enough who is judging whom. But indeed, how can a vineyard be responsible for its own crop? Could it be that there is indeed more the farmer could do? Did the husband do something to make his bride feel unloved? Or is the entire metaphor about to break down? We have been sucked into this dramatic situation, but we are given no time to review the evidence before a verdict is pronounced in verses 5 and 6—and not by us. But by whom?
So now, listen up! I will declare to you what I am doing to my vineyard. I will take away its hedge, and it will be destroyed. I will break down its wall, and it will become a trampled-down place. And I will lay it waste. It will not be pruned, and it will not be hoed, and thorn bushes and other rough growth will come up …
The court has become a divorce court, and this relationship is clearly over. We move from “I Heard It through the Grapevine” into a bitter breakup song. Isaiah is singing the part of judge, jury, and … executioner? No, for although the farmer takes away the hedge and breaks down the wall, he does not destroy the vineyard itself. He’s leaving, and he will allow the vineyard to be trampled by whatever cattle come along. He will allow it to go to seed in whatever way nature takes its course. It’s not “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia,” but it may well be from the country genre … maybe something along the lines of “My Give a Damn’s Busted.” Yet in the final phrase of verse 6, Isaiah tips his hand. The farmer will not uproot the vines, but he will make every effort to sabotage their continued existence: “… and I will command the dark clouds not to rain on it!” This is no farmer, and this is no husband. Only God can control the weather.
So now we have come full circle. When we first noticed Isaiah on the street corner, we expected a prophecy of doom, and we’re going to get one. We brace ourselves for the rest of the story. We know the Assyrians are about to invade that accursed northern kingdom of Israel, the faithless ones who worship in places other than the temple. Surely this prophecy will be against them, we hope, as Isaiah begins verse 7: “And the vineyard of YHWH-of-the-angel-armies is the house of Israel.” Of course it is. We knew it all along, so we exchange self-satisfied smirks.
“And the man of Judah is the plantation of his delight.” With this line, Isaiah cuts us to the bone. There we stand on the corner, tried and convicted, though we don’t even understand yet what the charges are. All this time Isaiah has been using God’s voice to condemn us! Gene Tucker writes:
In the middle of the parable, the prophet, speaking as the vineyard’s ‘owner,’ directly addresses the ‘inhabitants of Jerusalem and people of Judah’ (v. 3). Finally, however, the indictment is against the ‘house of Israel and the people of Judah’ (v. 7). For many interpreters, the meaning of ‘Israel’ here has been a key to dating the original address, presumed to have been delivered in Jerusalem. Eventually, ‘Israel’ came to be a comprehensive term for the chosen people, and in Isaiah it commonly is used in more of a religious than a political or geographical sense. If ‘Israel’ refers here to the northern kingdom, then the parable of the vineyard probably would have originated before 722 BCE, when Samaria fell to the Assyrians. But the historical allusions in the context are not sufficiently specific to allow reliable conclusions.
We may never know for sure, but by mentioning Israel prior to Judah, Isaiah may be employing a funnel effect similar to that used by Amos in the first two chapters of his book. That prophet’s condemnations move geographically like a tornado, beginning with Damascus, circling the Jordan in a spiral, touching down in Judah, and finally settling on Amos’s own kingdom of Israel. In this way, just when we thought we finally knew what he was up to, Isaiah has changed genres on us once more. This is not a love song, or a cheating song, or a breakup song, or even a “God Bless Judah” patriotic anthem. This is a condemnation of our nation. Gary Roye Williams gets at the heart of Isaiah’s artistic method:
The most unpleasant surprise of all is now ready to be revealed. The phrase “men of Judah” (v. 7) creates an expectation of antithetical parallelism. Israel was to be punished, but Judah would be blessed (cf. Hos. i 7, xii 1). However, the parallelism is synonymous. Suddenly the awful truth is revealed. The disappointing vineyard, the unfaithful wife, “the house of Israel”—all refer to Judah. The Song of the Vineyard has turned out to be a juridicial parable, by means of which the poet has led Judah’s citizens to condemn themselves.
But what have we done to deserve this condemnation? Isaiah saves the accusation itself for the second half of verse 7: “And he [God] expected judgment (‘mishpat’), but behold, bloodshed (‘mishpah’)—righteousness (‘tz’daqa’), but behold, a cry of distress (‘tz’aqa’)!” Here Isaiah uses one of the most famous examples of wordplay in the Hebrew Bible. The words stick in our ears like the choking sound at the center of the word “tz’aqa” sticks in Isaiah’s throat. Referring to the oracle that follows this passage in chapter 5, Jeremy Wynne explains:
The larger context of the parable is therefore indispensable: in their unrighteousness, the people of God have nurtured insatiable appetites for wealth; they have hoarded property and driven the poor from the land (5.8); they have traded the origin of their life together, their election from among all the nations, for the pursuit of self-indulgence and fleeting pleasures (5.11f.); and they have capitulated to bribery and twisted the law such that it no longer protects the innocent but rather serves as an instrument of suffering (5.23).”
And now it all comes clear. The condemnation was for both Israelite countries, even in their estrangement from one another. The breakup lyrics tell us that we cannot assure ourselves of God’s protection, for God intends to remove that protection and let us be trampled down by whatever nation happens to overpower us first. Even the word “parotz” for “break down” returns to haunt us, for it sounds rather like “paroh” … Pharaoh! We have cheated on God, breaking our centuries-old covenant in the way we treat each other, so God is undoing the agreement. We have produced stinking grapes, rather than the sweet grapes that God took every possible measure to assure and which we had no right not to produce. God loves us and longs for us, yet what have we done in return? We stand guilty as charged … right there on the street corner in Jerusalem, surrounded by beggars, widows and orphans. All our expectations have been frustrated … and now we might begin to understand how God feels about the situation. Williams notes, “This hermeneutical frustration is a literary device which strengthens the main message of the song: Yahweh’s frustrated expectations concerning Judah.”
Is all hope lost? Wynne reminds us that in every time and place, God’s number one purpose is always redemption: “In righteousness, and especially in the mode of his wrath, because God is no less free than he is loving and no less loving than free, redemption may take a surprising route, and the yield of righteousness among God’s people, so to speak, may finally be harvested marvelously in another manner.” May it be so. In the meantime, we can only stand in awe at the skill of this prophet-turned-busker who has taken our own love song, used it to draw us in, and turned it against us to display God’s righteous judgment.
 Gene M. Tucker, “The Book of Isaiah,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume VI, Leander E. Keck et al., eds. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001), 87.
 Howard N. Wallace, “Harvesting the Vineyard: The Development of Vineyard Imagery in the Hebrew Bible,” in Seeing Signals, Reading Signs, Mark A. O’Brien and Howard N. Wallace, eds. (London, U.K.: T&T Clark International, 2004), 119.
 Brevard S. Childs, Isaiah (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 44-45.
 For more about Isaiah 5:1-7 as an “uncle’s song,” see John T. Willis, “The Genre of Isaiah 5:1-7,” in Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 96, No. 3 (Sep., 1977), 337.
 The translation of Isaiah 5:1-7 throughout is my own.
 “In Isa 5:1, qeren seems to mean hill or mountain spur (apparently, land that protrudes and is prominent) …” Michael L. Brown, in New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology & Exegesis, Volume 3, William A. VanGemeren, ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1997), 991.
 Geoffrey W. Grogan, “Isaiah,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Tremper Longman III and David E. Garland, eds. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2008), 497.
 Carolyn J. Sharp, Isaiah 5:1-7, in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, Volume 4, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 123.
 Katheryn Pfisterer Darr, Isaiah 5:1-7, in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Volume 3, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 343.
 Sharp, 125.
 Gary Roye Williams, “Frustrated Expectations in Isaiah V 1-7: A Literary Interpretation,” from Vetus Testamentum, Vol. 35, Fasc. 4 (Oct. 1985), 460-461. Accessed April 13, 2012.
 Childs, 45.
 Joseph Blenkinsopp, Isaiah 1-39 (New York: The Anchor Bible Doubleday, 2000), 206.
 Tucker, 89.
 Williams, 462.
 Jeremy J. Wynne, Wrath among the Perfections of God’s Life (London, U.K.: T&T Clark, 2010), 126.
 Williams, 465.
 Wynne, 119.