Exegetical Exercise

Image - medieval illumination

A vineyard to be satisfied with or profit from

Taking a closer look at Isaiah 5:1-7, “the song of the vineyard,” maybe adding some of the following verses (“Ah,/ Those who add house to house and join field to field, / Till there is room for none but you / To dwell in the land!” Isaiah 5:8 JPS)

I got curious about what is being said in v. 6 – some translations say “lay it waste,” some refer to “wilderness,” and I got excited thinking that perhaps this treatment of the vineyard might be some return to the wilderness experience, where the community has its beginning. No such luck, and following up on this hunch has raised many more questions than it has answered. The wilderness of the wanderings is “midbar,” of course, while the waste or desolation of Is. 5:6 is “batah,” and according to my concordance, the word only occurs this once in the Hebrew Bible. That may explain why no one talks about it. Presumably we know what it means from context … there are only a few things you can be saying when you follow it up with talk about briers, thistles, and drought. Still, this and my wondering why someone would decide to tear something down, when they find it’s not working, instead of repairing it or taking some other kind of corrective action, made me more curious about this word. The Septuagint was less help than I’d hoped. The relevant term appears to be ἀνήσω (aneso) which turns out to be a future indicative active first person singular form of the verb ἀνίημι (aniemi), which has a range of meanings: loosen, unfasten; abandon, desert; give up, cease from something.

I am still thinking about the role of destroying something in the process of creating something. In the actual context of grapes, I thought of the problem of growing grapes in the humid environment of southern Indiana. A friend of mine who has tried to do it as part of her extensive organic gardening project told me that friends of hers, who actually know something about grapes, have told her that she HAS to use fungicide or she will never have edible fruit. She won’t, so she doesn’t. But the story made me wonder whether a rationale for the tearing down of the hedge and the wall in v. 5 has something to do with undoing a “protected” environment that has, paradoxically, allowed the cultivation to become infected or corrupted, and what needs to happen is to pull up and out all of the damaged stuff so that eventually it will be fit for something new.

Another thought had to do with an entirely different form of creative activity. Sometimes, when I’m knitting or crocheting, I’ll realize the project just isn’t working the way I want it to. The stitch isn’t making up from this yarn the way it should; the whole thing really needed to be on a different size needles; there’s a serious error back in the first or second row; whatever, sometimes I just have to pull it all out and make a new start because the project just isn’t turning out well. This makes sense to me, but I think we – some of us, anyway – resist thinking of God as someone who pulls things out and starts over, who changes plans. We’ve been taught that God has all the plans nailed down, and then we read that idea back into the text. But sometimes, and I think this text may be an example, doing that causes God to come off looking a lot more punitive or reactive than seems strictly necessary.

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About HAT

Heather Thiessen (HAT) is a happily married 60-ish, Bible-reading, Presbyterian Church Sunday School teaching and choir singing, small fuel efficient car driving, still pretty much 2nd wave feminist and generally out lesbian Hoosier mom. (There are no monochrome states.) From time to time she teaches religious studies to students at a small liberal arts college in Louisville, Kentucky.
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