Isaiah’s Love Song for the Vineyard and Ecojustice (Part II)

Above: “The Prophet Isaiah,” Raphael (1512); fresco; Web Gallery of Art (
Musician of the week:  Deanna Witkowski.  Jazz pianist, committed Christian, world class talent, and friend (
Artist of the week: John August Swanson.  This L.A.-based printmaker’s work is famous, but he always manages to share it generously with people of faith doing justice (
Completing my reflection on Isaiah 5:    Isaiah 5:3 suddenly switches to the first person voice. With the declaration “Now then!” the owner of the vineyard interrupts the love song with a direct appeal to the listener for a judgment regarding this disaster.  The fact that this demand is directed toward “inhabitants of Jerusalem and Judah” unmask Isaiah’s story as a “juridical parable.”  As Brevar Childs puts it, the owner’s plea forces the audience “out of their neutral stance, as they unknowingly pass judgment on themselves.”  Isaiah’s rhetorical strategy is thus similar to the parable used by the prophet Nathan to indict King David in 2 Samuel 12. 
A second “now then” in verse 5 interrupts the flow again, this time so that the owner can make his own decision.  The whole vineyard project must be deconstructed, step by step: the hedge and walls will come down, and the field will return to weeds.  The culmination of this judgment—“I will also command the clouds not to rain” (6b)—reveals the identity of the speaker as none other than YHWH.  Isaiah is perhaps invoking the memory of the ancient Levitical Jubilee warning that “the land is Mine, says God, and you are but tenants on it” (Lev 25:23), and failure to tend it well results in disaster (Lev 26:14ff). 
The prophet now decodes the parable as an allegory about the nation (5:7), returning to the voice that began the parable.  His lament is a poignant play on words:
YHWH looked for justice (משפט  mishpat),but saw only bloodshed (משפח  mispach);righteousness (צדקה  tsĕdaqah), but heard only a cry (צעקה  tsa`aqah)
This is the “punchline” of Isaiah’s parable, revealing that the people are being judged before the bar of social justice.  One could translate the last word as “scream,” connoting an outcry against injustice or a moan of distress (as in Ex 3:7). 
The image of Israel as a vineyard being assessed by the true Landowner recurs several times throughout Isaiah.  For example there is a parallel song in 27:2-6, containing a similar ultimatum.  And Isaiah 3:13-15 earlier established the vineyard metaphor in terms of justice:
14 The Lord enters into judgment with the elders and princes:    It is you who have devoured the vineyard;     the spoil of the poor is in your houses. 15 What do you mean by crushing my people,     by grinding the face of the poor? says YHWH.
It is a graphic, bitter image: the poor—meaning the marginalized sharecroppers who do the work of harvesting—are themselves crushed like grapes and ground like grain by an economic system that exploits them.    
In light of such oppression, a series of prophetic “woes” commences in 5:8 that extend through 5:23.  The first one summarizes starkly all that will follow.  “Joining house to house and field to field” refers to the specific phenomenon of latifundialization, the process by which large landowners increase their holdings by foreclosing on indebted small farmers.  Urich Duchrow points out that the in 8th century BCE, history’s first wave of privatization spread throughout the Mediterranean world, including Israel:
A new form of property economy with its credit mechanism seeped into the monarchic, feudal system… It led to a concentration of land in the hands of large landowners, and drove smallholders into debt… The nouveaux riches were able to achieve their property concentration quite legally by means of creditor-debtor contracts…  It was precisely this unfortunate development… which called forth the protest of the great prophets.  
Verse nine begins with the ominous phrase “the Lord of hosts has sworn in my hearing,” conjuring an image of a child overhearing her parents raging about her bad behavior in the next room.  YHWH’s verdict: the trophy homes of the rich—symbolizing the economic stratification which has ruined the vineyard—will be razed, and latifundia laid waste (5:10). 
Eight centuries later, Jesus of Nazareth thought Isaiah 5 so important that he recontextualizd it in his time (Mk 11:1ff).  Perhaps we should do the same in ours.  I am particularly struck by Isaiah’s haunting description of how the rich monopolizing the wealth of the land “until there is room for no one but you, and you are left to live along in the midst of the land!”  Today we are all too familiar with how banks post huge profits while thousands lose their homes; how agribusiness buys up land until the family farm teeters on the brink of extinction; and how whole beaches, hillsides and canyons are developed into exclusive gated communities for the wealthy.  These patterns truly reflect a social project in which there is room only for the elite.  It’s criminal, and Isaiah insists that the God of the Bible still hears the cry of the disenfranchised.
But our crisis is even more profound: our deepening ecological crisis threatens to destroy the entire lovely vineyard we call Earth.  We no longer have the luxury of pretending this is not the central issue of our time.  There are at least two other ways in which we, the inheritors of the culture of Affluenza, are unwittingly complicit in engineering a world in which there in no room for anyone but us. 
One is the utter self-centeredness of our industrial society.  In contrast to traditional cultures, which think about the impact of their lifestyles “seven generations forward,” we continue to focus only on our needs & appetites, doing whatever is necessary to stimulate short-term economic growth.  We ransack the past by pillaging the stored planetary wealth of millions of years to feed our fossil fuel addictions.  And we mortgage the future by relentlessly drawing down on finite aquafirs, ozone, and soil fertility.  “What we call profitable development,” says Wendell Berry, “the future will call theft.”     
The other way is by our deadly anthropocentrism.  We continue to make choices that exclude all other species but our own; our way of life authorizes a continuing holocaust of species endangerment and extinction.  (The World Conservation Union’s 2008 Red List of Threatened Species included a tenth of the birds evaluated across the globe, a fifth of mammals, a third of fish and reptiles, 40% of invertebrates and 70 % of all plants evaluated.)  We might call this pathology “civilizational solipsism.”  Solipsism is the condition whereby someone is convinced that no one and no thing else exists apart from them.  But in a fundamentally interdependent biosphere, solipsism is disastrous.
Does not Isaiah’s lament arise from the mountain lions and kit foxes and steelhead trout of our bioregion?  “Woe to you who join city to city and industrial system to system until there is no room for anyone but you.”  Does not the Creator hear their cry too?  If we truly love God’s vineyard, we must face our fatal collective pathology.  In the ensuring posts, I’ll focus on what it might mean to recover a prophetic love song for the places where our hearts lie.