Isaiah’s Love Song for the Vineyard as Prophetic Ecojustice (Part I)

Musicians of the week:  Psalters (
Artist of the week:  Chaim Gross (  Picture above is a page from The Book of the Prophet Isaiah with watercolors by Gross (The Limited Editions Club, Avon:CT, 1979).
Note:  In Who Will Roll Away the Stone? (pp. 337f) I suggest that a key text for a “reclamative theology” of the land is Isaiah 5.  Isaiah was a prophet of repentance who loved his people, and so predicates his hard words about blindness and deafness (Is 6:1ff) with a “parable” about a love song for a vineyard (5:1ff), which a farmer sings to mitigate his despair over a ruined crop.  To elaborate on this I will offer reflections over the next three weeks on Isaiah 5 from a sermon I gave at Pasadena Mennonite Church in July, 2010, after which I will return to excerpts from the Stone book.    
Isaiah’s “Song of the Vineyard” is a key oracle for understanding the whole of Isaiah, and arises from Israel’s difficult situation in the late 8th century BCE, as a small vassal state living in the shadow of the Assyrian empire.  Isaiah 5 is such an important prophetic analysis that seven centuries later, Jesus of Nazareth reappropriated it, recontextualizing the Song for a different historical moment of empire. 
Verses 1-2 begin in a third person voice.  An observer—probably the prophet himself—is singing a love song about someone’s relationship with a vineyard.  This is noteworthy.  The prophetic vocation of speaking truth to power is not predicated on contempt, but upon love—a crucial thing for North American Christian peace and justice activists to understand.  Without deep affection for our place and people, we can hardly be part of the vast work of healing and reconstruction that faces us. 
Isaiah’s story realistically describes the social setting of early Iron Age highlands Israel and the dry farming viticulture that was so central to it.  Preparing and working a steep, rocky hillside in the Judean countryside was an arduous process.  Victor Matthews writes in The Social World of the Hebrew Prophets (Hendrickson, 2001):  “The first step was construction of terraces, which were designed to minimize erosion and to provide sufficient farming space to meet the needs of small villages… By the time of Isaiah… the slopes had been harvested of their lumber and [were] badly eroded.  To counteract the damage, farmers built retaining walls and brought in new topsoil from elsewhere to fill the terraces.  Is. 5:1-7 probably describes the reconstruction of such a terrace.” 
Matthews goes on to describe how after clearing the land, the ancient Israelite farmer would lay out the precious vine cuttings, planting them carefully and lovingly, because the future indeed depended upon them.  What followed was the laborious process of keeping the vineyard free of weeds and briars, and years of hoeing and pruning mature vines.  The watchtower mentioned by Isaiah was to protect the vineyard from predation by both large animal and humans; the stone structure also provided shelter for laborers.  A hedge or stone wall would also have been erected around the vineyard to screen out smaller wild animals and browsing herds. 
Finally, a wine vat would have been carved out of soft limestone of the hillside.  This signaled a communal operation, where the whole village would gather for the annual grape crushing.  The grape pressing work was accompanied by singing, chanting, rhythm, usually by women to keep the men working.  We get a glimpse of this harvest culture in Isaiah 16:9f, which describes the imperial destruction of viticulture in the Moabite areas of *Jazer and Sibmah to the north.  “The shout over your fruit harvest and your grain harvest has ceased,” laments the prophet.  “Joy and gladness are taken away from the fruitful field; and in the vineyards no songs are sung, no shouts are raised; no worker treads out wine in the presses; the vintage-shout is hushed.” 
The social setting of Isaiah 5 is probably the harvest festival in late summer.  At this time the grapes would have been tasted for quality.  And that is where the love song goes sour in Isaiah’s oracle.  For these vines have yielded “wild” grapes, which means they haven’t ripened.  In this story, the vine is at fault, not the farmer or the soil or the weather.  Thus the entire project is a failure, and must be abandoned.  Years of work are lost, and the future of the village is in jeopardy.
This hit close to home for Elaine and I this summer.  We were stunned by the meager fruit harvest our usually prolific plum and apricot trees produced.  The problem was eventually diagnosed as brown-rot, and the trees must go.  Our disappointment has been palpable; and the worst thing is, we don’t know how the trees contracted the disease.
Of course, Isaiah quickly makes it clear that the “vineyard” is a metaphor, which I’ll take up next week.