The Politics of the Vineyard of Israel—Isaiah 5:1-7; Psalm 80:7-15; Matthew 21:33-46 (Alastair Roberts)
Let me sing for my beloved
my love-song concerning his vineyard:
My beloved had a vineyard
on a very fertile hill.
2 He dug it and cleared it of stones,
and planted it with choice vines;
he built a watch-tower in the midst of it,
and hewed out a wine vat in it;
he expected it to yield grapes,
but it yielded wild grapes.
3 And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem
and people of Judah,
judge between me
and my vineyard.
4 What more was there to do for my vineyard
that I have not done in it?
When I expected it to yield grapes,
why did it yield wild grapes?
5 And now I will tell you
what I will do to my vineyard.
I will remove its hedge,
and it shall be devoured;
I will break down its wall,
and it shall be trampled down.
6 I will make it a waste;
it shall not be pruned or hoed,
and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns;
I will also command the clouds
that they rain no rain upon it.
7 For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts
is the house of Israel,
and the people of Judah
are his pleasant planting;
he expected justice,
but saw bloodshed;
but heard a cry!
The prophet introduces this passage as a love song sung for the sake of his friend (‘beloved,’ NRSV), concerning his friend’s vineyard. Yet any romantic expectations on the hearers’ part are soon dashed as the love story the prophet sings swiftly turns sour.
In the text three sets of imagery are artfully fused, romantic, arboreal, and legal images interplaying with each other. The vine is also a bride and the defendant in a lawsuit and the planter is also a bridegroom and the wronged party. The prophet is both the singing friend of the bridegroom and a prosecutor of his friend’s case against an unfaithful spouse, with the inhabitants of Jerusalem and Judah as the jury (verse 3). As in Nathan’s story of the ewe lamb delivered to David in 2 Samuel 12, the party being judged is presented with a parable calling them to pronounce judgment upon themselves—you are the vine!
The imagery of the song is artfully chosen. The imagery of vineyards and gardens on hills are associated with love poetry as in Song of Songs (e.g. 1:14; 2:15; 8:10-12), but also recall Eden, Noah’s vineyard, and are related to the Temple—‘he built a watch-tower in the midst of it.’ The blessed and good wife is elsewhere compared to a fruitful vine in the centre of the garden of her marriage, bearing good fruit (Psalm 128:3).
The chosen vine was to provide the owner with the necessary grapes by which to make high quality wine. Yet when the fruit was gathered, the fruit was that of wild, uncultivated grapes, perhaps subtly hinting at marital infidelity. YHWH challenges the inhabitants of Jerusalem and Judah: ‘What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it?’
The sentence upon the vineyard swiftly follows. Its hedge and wall of protection will be destroyed and it shall be rendered a wasteland bearing thorns and thistles, parched for lack of rain. In the destruction of the vineyard the painful themes of the Fall in Eden are recalled: thorns and thistles will grow where once a well-watered and beautiful garden lay.
If the hearers of Isaiah’s parable were in any doubt, its point is made explicit in the conclusion: ‘The vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting.’ The indictment is summed up with a deft poetic twist: ‘he expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!’ Gene Tucker observes:
These concluding lines continue the sophisticated rhetoric by means of plays on words, determined by the Hebrew words for “justice” (משׁפט mišpāṭ) and “righteousness” (צדקה ṣĕdāqâ). He expected mišpāṭ (“justice”) but saw משׂפח (miśpāḥ, “bloodshed”), ṣĕdāqâ (“righteousness”) and heard צעקה (ṣĕʻāqâ “a cry”). [The Book of Isaiah 1-39 in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume VI (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2001), 88]
7 Restore us, O God of hosts;
let your face shine, that we may be saved.
8 You brought a vine out of Egypt;
you drove out the nations and planted it.
9 You cleared the ground for it;
it took deep root and filled the land.
10 The mountains were covered with its shade,
the mighty cedars with its branches;
11 it sent out its branches to the sea,
and its shoots to the River.
12 Why then have you broken down its walls,
so that all who pass along the way pluck its fruit?
13 The boar from the forest ravages it,
and all that move in the field feed on it.
14 Turn again, O God of hosts;
look down from heaven, and see;
have regard for this vine,
15 the stock that your right hand planted.
In Psalm 80, the prophetic image of Israel as a vineyard is further developed by the psalmist. Here the nation is identified with a specific vine, transplanted from the vegetable garden of Egypt (cf. Deuteronomy 11:10). Where Isaiah spoke of the clearing out of the stones from the fertile hill, the psalmist speaks of the driving out of the nations.
Unlike the prophet, the psalmist tells of a period of prosperity and growth prior to the falling of judgment. Under YHWH’s blessing, the vine of Israel formed deep roots, grew to fill the land, and gave shade to the entire region. However, as the rulers of Israel tried to turn the vineyard and vine of Israel back into an Egyptian vegetable garden (the story of Ahab and Naboth’s vineyard in 1 Kings 21 fizzes with symbolic significance on this front), the walls protecting it were torn down and it was abandoned to the wild beasts of the surrounding nations.
Languishing in the land of Babylon, where the eagle of Ezekiel’s vine parable (Ezekiel 17) had transplanted the vine of Israel, the psalmist calls for YHWH to restore his people’s fortunes, to remember his vine. YHWH’s determined action in delivering the vine from Egypt and the former prosperity of the vine in his land, watered by the rains of heaven (cf. Deuteronomy 11:11), are both appealed to as reasons for YHWH to restore his vine.
33‘Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watch-tower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. 34When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. 35But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. 36Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. 37Finally he sent his son to them, saying, “They will respect my son.” 38But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, “This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.” 39So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. 40Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?’ 41They said to him, ‘He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.’
42Jesus said to them, ‘Have you never read in the scriptures:
“The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone;
this was the Lord’s doing,
and it is amazing in our eyes”?
43Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. 44The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.’
45When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. 46They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.
Read alongside Isaiah 5, it is very clear that Jesus intends his hearers to hear his parable against its background. Jesus’ parable, which follows another vineyard parable aimed at the chief priests and elders, begins in a familiar fashion: ‘There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watch-tower.’ His hearers knew how this story went.
While clearly standing in line with Isaiah, Ezekiel, and the composer of Psalm 80, Jesus offers a new and surprising twist upon the established genre of vine parables. Once again, it is the fate of the vineyard of Israel that is in question. However, here it is not principally the vineyard itself or the vine of Israel that is judged, but the wicked tenant farmers to whom the vineyard had been entrusted.
It is not that the vineyard is failing to produce grapes, but that it is being controlled by tenants who deny the vineyard owner its harvest and treat his emissaries violently. The character of the prophetic friend of the vineyard owner is now developed: he is not just the singer of a tragic love song, or the prosecutor of a divine lawsuit, but is also a servant seeking his master’s produce from his tenants. The history of the vineyard is now retold as the history of wicked tenants rejecting the prophets sent to them (cf. Jeremiah 7:25-26).
The effect of Jesus’ reframing of the prophetic narrative is to shift the emphasis: it is no longer the vineyard itself that is the focus of the divine judgment, but the wicked tenants, who are refusing to give the vineyard owner its produce. The judgment that will befall the vineyard will not be the destruction of the vineyard itself, but the violent dispossession of the wicked tenants.
In a further twist upon the tale, Jesus introduces the character of the beloved son. As Richard Hays observes, ‘with eerie regularity, the beloved son in Israel’s scriptural stories becomes the victim of violence, either intended or accomplished’ [Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2016), 43]. The language used by the wicked vinedressers directly recalls the language of Joseph’s brothers when they sold him into Egypt (Genesis 37:20): ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.’
However, as Hays recognizes, this echo foreshadows the tenants’ doom. Joseph, sent by his father to inspect the work of his brothers, was violently rejected yet went on to rule over the entire land of Egypt. So the rejection of the beloved Son of Jesus’ parable is the prelude to a radical turning of the tables: as in the case of Joseph, this story of a beloved son who becomes a victim ends dramatically—with resurrection.
The rejected stone—the rejected Son—will become the chief cornerstone, the basis for a new building. The vineyard of God’s planting, delivered from the wicked tenants, will be fruitful and its produce will be delivered up to its owner. In Jesus’ retelling of the vineyard parable, we finally see the prospect of a restored and fruitful vineyard under faithful tenants. The eschatological wine might finally begin to be produced (cf. Revelation 14:17-20) in preparation for the coming wedding feast.
As the vast drama of the nation of Israel is allegorized in prophetic parables of vines and vineyards, the hearers of the prophetic message are granted an unusual vantage point from which to regard the history of their nation. This fecund matrix of symbolism can give birth to insight, as it enables the hearers of vineyard parables to regard the nation and their place within it from a revealing perspective. The nation is figured as a unified collective agency which ought to respond fruitfully to the generous providential hand of God over the course of its history. The leaders of the nation are responsible to tend to its fruit and to deliver its produce to its owner. The proper response to the parable is one of recognition and judgment in the hearer, an epiphany in which they appreciate the part that they are playing in the narrative and interrogate their performance accordingly.
The reader of these parables in our modern context might be struck by the fact that the perspective they afford to their hearers is one rather strange to us. Although we may regard our nations as possessing a quasi-agency, this agency is typically depersonalized and abstracted from our own. Viewing ourselves as a people with a collective moral agency, responsible to answer God’s generous rains of blessing with good fruit, offers us a surprising and rather unsettling perspective upon our histories.
Within such as frame, our nation is a unified intergenerational moral project in which we all play our parts and within which we are all implicated. While talk of ‘systemic’ injustices can easily be a means by which individuals absolve themselves of responsibility for depersonalized forces beyond their control, a recovery of a sense of the nation as a collective moral agency in which we all participate offers a more challenging way of viewing things.
Some limited element of this sense of peoplehood has been retained in the practice of national days of prayer in the USA. National days of prayer, during which a nation turns—or returns—to God as a nation in thanksgiving, fasting, and humiliation, capture something of the reality of a nation’s unified peoplehood over the course of its history and enable us to grasp a deeper sense of our responsible parts in its agency.
Reading the vine parables of Scripture, it is important to notice that the perspective they afford their hearers can only truly be visible from a theological vantage point. It is precisely from the parables’ presentation of a ‘God’s eye view’ over history and of the unity of God’s providential dealings within it that any deep sense of our unified and personal moral agency within it can arise. Within the immanent frame of secularism, which excludes any God’s eye view, national agency dissipates in our conception, fragmenting into the herd dynamics of the masses, the self-interested endeavours of the movers and shakers, and the impersonal operations of the mutating systems and power structures in which we are all entangled. In pointing beyond this asphyxiating horizon, theology might just be able to give the nation its self back.
Alastair Roberts is the contributing editor of the Politics of Scripture.