Supplemental Note on Isaiah 24-27 (2): Isa 27:2-5

Isaiah 27:2-5 (and 5:1-7)

Verses 2-5 of chapter 27 represent the second of the two “day of YHWH” stanzas for the poem in 26:7-27:6. The first stanza (27:1, cf. the previous note) dealt with God’s Judgment on the nations; the second stanza here focuses on God’s people Israel. It involves the illustration of a vineyard to represent Israel, a symbolism found elsewhere in Scripture (cf. Psalm 80:9-17; Jer 2:21; 12:10-11; Ezek 15:1-8). In addition, the vineyard featured as a motif earlier in the book of Isaiah (1:8; 3:14), and especially the poem in 5:1-7; indeed, the vineyard poem in 27:2-5 clearly draws upon the earlier one in 5:1-7. This is an example of intertextuality (the citing or referencing of Scriptural texts) in chaps. 24-27, based here, in particular, on the critical theory that the Isaian “Apocalypse” was composed in the 6th century B.C., and develops, in various ways, the older Isaian traditions, such as the vineyard poem of chap. 5. In any case, 5:1-7 certainly is the older poem, and a proper understanding of 27:2-5 requires that we examine it first.

IsaIAH 5:1-7

“I will sing, now, for my beloved [y®¼î¼]
a song of my love [dô¼î] for his vineyard.”

So the poem begins with this couplet in verse 1a, involving some wordplay that continues to trip up commentators. Two related roots are involved—y¹¼a¼ (dd^y`) and dô¼ (doD)—each of which has the fundamental meaning “love”, especially in the context of romantic/sexual love. It is one of many examples in support of original biconsonantal roots that were expanded or developed into triconsontal roots in Hebrew (by the inclusion/addition of weak consonants, here w/y); in this case, the fundamental root would be dd (dd). The noun dô¼ can mean either “love” in the abstract sense or the object of love (i.e. “beloved”); here it must be understood in the former sense, as the context and the expression “song of love” (i.e. love song) makes clear.

It may seem odd to sing a love song for a piece of land, like a field or vineyard, but it was a common device in ancient love poetry. In traditional farming societies, the association between sexuality and agricultural fertility was natural and obvious—i.e. the (male) sky/heaven ‘impregnating’ the (female) earth through rain. A field or vineyard thus came to be a standard symbol for the “beloved”, the (female) object of love. It is well-attested in ancient Near Eastern love poetry, for which we need look no further than the Old Testament Song of Songs (1:6, 14; 2:3, 15; 4:12-16; 7:6-13; 8:12).

The “song” itself is brief, occurring in vv. 1b-2:

“There was a vineyard (belonging) to my beloved,
on a (mountain) horn, a son of fatness;
and he dug through it and removed (the stones from) it,
and planted it (with) red-flowering (vines);
and he built a great (high) place [i.e. tower] in its midst,
and also a (wine-)trough he cut out in it;
and he waited for (the) making of (good) grapes,
and it made (only) stinking [i.e. rotten] (one)s (instead).”

Some of the idioms and vocabulary may be a bit obscure to us, but the sense of the song is clear enough. The vineyard was planted in a choice location (the expression “son of fatness” means that it is characterized by richness and fertile [soil]). Moreover, the owner took great care to manage and tend the vines, and yet they only produced foul, rotten grapes. In verses 3-4, it is the owner of the vineyard (i.e. God) who speaks, in the first person. The illustrative meaning of the song follows in vv. 5-7; in particular, verse 7 interprets the vineyard as the kingdoms of Israel and Judah (and their people), and the ‘rotten’ fruit it produces is the wickedness—the injustice, violence, and oppression—prevailing in the land.

The illustration serves to announce the coming judgment, on the northern kingdom of Israel, in particular. The poem is addressed to the people of Judah (v. 3), the southern kingdom, and this suggests that the primary announcement is of the coming Assyrian conquests in the north (c. 734-721 B.C.). The south would face invasion as well, but the fate of the north here serves as a warning for Judah, implying that there is still time for repentance. In all likelihood, this poem was composed prior to the fall of the northern kingdom (described in the oracle that follows in vv. 8-24), meaning sometime before 722/1 B.C.

Isaiah 27:2-5

In light of the earlier poem in 5:1-7, we can now consider the comparable vineyard-poem here in vv. 2-5 of chap. 27.

“On that day [bayyôm hahû°]—
a vineyard of delight, sing for her!” (v. 2)

There is a clear allusion to the earlier “song of love” for the vineyard, though the specific love-poetry context is obscured somewhat by the peculiar detail in this brief line. The expression “vineyard of delight [µeme¼]” captures the sexual/romantic metaphor of the vineyard (on which, see above). Also we have the feminine suffix (here and throughout vv. 3-4), even though the noun kerem (“vineyard”) is masculine. It has been suggested that here h– stands for the masculine suffix o-, using the older (pre-exilic) script. This is possible, and indeed such confusion is evident at many points in the transmission of Old Testament poetry. However, in my view, the use of the feminine gender, in this instance, simply preserves the love-poetry setting, with the vineyard metaphor (= the female beloved).

“I, YHWH, (am the one) guarding her,
(and) at (each) moment I give her to drink,
(so) that no (one) should visit (harm) upon her—
(yes,) night and day do I guard her.” (v. 3)

These lines correspond to the devoted care given to the vineyard by the owner in the original song (5:1b-2, see above). Only now the harsh and bitter juxtaposition of the owner’s care vs. the failure of the vineyard has largely disappeared. Instead, YHWH declares something more along the lines of an unconditional concern for the welfare of the vineyard (Israel). The fate of the vineyard still depends on the fruit it produces, but this is expressed in more hopeful terms:

“There is no hot (anger) for me (about her)—
who would give me thorn and thistle-brush,
I will rush (out) in battle on her,
I will consume her in a blaze as one.” (v. 4)

The message of the vineyard’s failure has softened considerably, represented by its producing “thorn and thistle-brush” rather than “rotten/stinking (grape)s”. There is also no mention of the wickedness in Israel and Judah that will bring about the terrible judgment of conquest and exile. The main reason for this has to do with the presumed 6th century (exilic) setting of chaps. 24-27. The message for Israel/Judah is one of hope and promise for restoration. Indeed, the focus in the Isaian “Apocalypse” is not on the immediate judgment of conquest/exile (by Assyria or Babylon), but on the Judgment that is coming for all nations, at the end of this Age. The warning for God’s people is that they must remain faithful, or risk experiencing the same judgment that faces the wicked nations.

If Israel produces “thorns and thistles” of faithlessness, then it is no human army, but God Himself, who will wage war against her, even as He will against the nations (with His great sword, v. 1). She would then be burnt up in the fire that will consume the earth at the end-time.

The curious syntax in v. 4 may be intended to express this idea that the judgment will come on the wicked/faithless ones in Israel, and not on the land or people as whole. The wording in the second line of v. 4 is: “who(ever) will give me thorn and thistle-bush” —these are the ones, thorns and weeds in the midst of the vineyard, who will be attacked and burned up, “as one” (i.e. all together). In other words, it is not the entire vineyard, but only those parts that produce thorns/weeds. This eschatological message, involving the separation of the righteous and the wicked, is comparable to Jesus’ parable of the weeds in Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43; cf. also his vineyard parable in Luke 13:6-9, and also the vine-illustration in John 15:1-5.

The overriding message of hope, rather than judgment, in this poem (compared with that of 5:1-7) is indicated especially in the closing lines of verse 5:

“And (so) he shall [i.e. let him] take hold of my place of strength,
(and) he shall make peace to(ward) me,
(yes,) peace he shall make to(ward) me.”

The feminine gender (see above) has shifted back to the masculine, indicating that the love-poetry setting has disappeared, and that it is now a more direct reference to Israel as a people. The imperfect verb forms have jussive force, i.e. “let him take hold…”, “let him make…”. The precise meaning of the noun š¹lôm (<olv*) here is a bit difficult to express in English translation. The rendering “peace” (i.e. “make peace”) does not entirely capture the sense, which has more to do with the idea of safety and security, in light of the emphasis on YHWH’s “place of strength” (m¹±ôz zoum*) in the first line. It might perhaps be better rendered “he shall make (himself) safe with me”. By trusting in YHWH, and taking firm hold of Him as a place of refuge, the people of Israel find peace with God and are kept safe from the coming Judgment.

 

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