The Rev. Dr. Patricia K. Tull is A. B. Rhodes Professor Emerita of Old Testament at Louisville Presbyterian Seminary. Her book Inhabiting Eden: Christians, the Bible, and the Ecological Crisis (Westminster John Knox, 2013) will appear in December. She writes a monthly column for Working Preacher on environmental themes in upcoming lectionary passages, and lives next to the Ohio River in Jeffersonville, Indiana.
The prophet Isaiah was a city dweller, but his mind was on the countryside. Trees, vineyards, and fields populate his thinking and that of his successors in this long book, where vegetation serves both as metaphor (as in Isaiah 5:1-7), and as the life-sustaining growth on which humans literally depend (as in vv. 8-10). Agricultural imagery appears from one end of the book to the other (1:8; 66:17), spelling out both judgment and hope.
In Isaiah, trees represent vulnerable human greatness and fatal human error. Fields of grain both symbolize the people and nourish them—or fail to do so. Destruction and renewal are pictured as grass withering and flourishing. Civilization’s transformation into wasteland, and the desert’s swelling into verdancy, map inhabitants’ falling and rising fortunes.
But vineyard imagery both starts and punctuates the book.
In the devastated opening scene, Jerusalem is Daughter Zion, “left like a booth in a vineyard, like a shelter in a cucumber field, like a besieged city.” In Isaiah 3:14, the vineyard’s plight is reinforced once more when, speaking to the society’s leadership, the prophet declares, “It is you who have devoured the vineyard; the spoil of the poor is in your houses.”
Other passages spell out the disaster of agricultural loss: “Every place where there used to be a thousand vines, worth a thousand shekels of silver, will become briers and thorns” (7:23); “Joy and gladness are taken away from the fruitful field; and in the vineyards no songs are sung, no shouts are raised; no treader treads out wine in the presses; the vintage-shout is hushed” (Isaiah 16:10; see also 18:5; 24:7; 27:2-6; 32:12; 36:17; 37:30; 63:1-6; and 65:21).
Close attention to agriculture made sense in an ancient society that saw itself embedded in creation. Since the Industrial Revolution, however, Western society has imagined itself through a more mechanistic model. We know much less than our forebears about either the cultivation of vineyards or their human meaning.
The vintner in Isaiah 5 assembles promising resources: a fertile hill, a cleared field, choicest vinestock, a watchtower and press. But defying all expectation, the grapes are bad. The Hebrew here is translated many different ways, from “wild grapes” (NRSV), as if the vines had changed species, to “rotten grapes” (Blenkinsopp), “fetid/stinking grapes” (Walsh) or, simply and pointedly, “bad fruit” (NIV).
The story begins in third person, but in verse 3 the voice of the frustrated vintner himself breaks in, proposing to destroy the worthless vineyard as deliberately as he had once built it up. Only in the final verse (v. 7) does the prophet tip his hand: this discouraged, angry vintner is none other than God. Hebrew wordplays punctuate the misses: God expected mishpat (justice) but instead found Judah’s reality two devastating letters away, mispach (bloodshed). The second miss is even nearer: God expected sedaqah (righteousness) but found se’aqah, an outcry of distress. If ancient hearers sympathize at all, they unwittingly judge themselves.
In a recent book called The Gardens of Democracy, Eric Liu and Nick Hanauer likewise employ vegetation metaphors for politics and society. According to their analysis, in order to meet large goals, a country, like a garden, needs tending by those who understand an interconnected social ecosystem. But it must also be allowed to grow, with trust in the collective interdependence of its members.
Like God in this passage, Liu and Hanauer assume that a well-tended garden will yield “good grapes.” This doesn’t always happen, since individual self-interest sometimes overrides more beneficial mutual concerns. Sadly, it is often those in most powerful positions who succumb to the temptations to pursue short-term goals—the next election cycle, the next quarterly report.
Wiser heads recognize what Liu and Hanauer contend, that cooperation strengthens a whole society. The prophets of ancient Israel tried to teach leaders that responsibility to the poor would benefit everyone. They channeled this teaching through the reward of divine approval (resulting in prosperity) and disapproval (resulting in collective disaster, as here). But such rewards aren’t immediately apparent or mechanistically doled out. Both in the ancient world and today, the shortsighted may see and seek only short-term, personal gains, harming others.
Christian readers have traditionally taken this parable to target Judah’s whole population. But its last line, and the series of woe oracles that follows, hone in on violent greed among the wealthy. Wine, grain, and oil were export products benefiting Israel’s elite. As today, gluttony for larger cash crop acreage clashed tragically with subsistence needs. Verses 8-10 warn that those who amass property at their neighbors’ expense will not profit.
The often-repeated notion that the world cannot feed its 7 billion people elicits fear of want. It also provides justification for large-scale agribusiness farming and U.S. grain exports. Yet subsidized U.S. foods destroy small farms not only here but abroad. When prices then fluctuate—for instance when ethanol competes with corn exports and global food prices rise—many whose grocery bills double can no longer afford to eat. Such practices primarily feed not hunger, but corporate greed. Starvation worldwide is not primarily due to food shortage, but to rising prices.
Limited land areas, attentively cultivated, can actually yield more food, with less nutrient drain, than large acreage farmed mechanically. When small farmers are protected, when democracy clears the ground for local growth, systems become more stable and hungry people are fed. In a subsistence economy, food is used for its root purpose—energy for daily life for all—rather than for the enrichment of a few.
Most churchgoers do not manage large food corporations that exploit hunger to serve greed. We can, however, know the consequences of our own choices. Every time we eat, we cast votes for the kind of economy we wish to cultivate. We can heedlessly fuel injustice by disregarding the U.S.’s multiyear farm bills, ignoring the ways food is produced and subsidized, and seeking low prices for our own pockets. Or we can thoughtfully cultivate human-scale economies of farmers, here and abroad, who carry out practices more closely resembling God’s own, and thus help grow vineyards, and societies, that flourish.