Opening The Old Testament
A Love Song, of Sorts: Reflections on Isaiah 5:1-7
August 18, 2013
The Hebrew Bible is full of wonderful things, rich stories, mind-bending proverbs, uplifting and provocative psalms, laws that confront a close-minded society. It even has a few love poems in it, the most famous of those being the "Most Beautiful Song," known to many as the "Song of Songs" or "Song of Solomon," though the ancient king surely had nothing to do with its creation, save as its very distant inspiration. Today's love song from the 8th-century Isaiah is another kettle of fish entirely. If it is a love song, you better hope that no would-be lover ever sings one like it to you! But then again, maybe it is a song we need to hear, however great our lack of interest in hearing it.
It begins sweetly enough. "I will sing now my love song for my beloved concerning his vineyard" (Is. 5:1). Immediately, something is not quite right both with the singer and the object of the song. The object of a love song should be the beloved, not some vineyard of the beloved. But this singer tunes a harp and sits down to play, but instead of gazing dewy-eyed at the beloved while the strings are languidly plucked, turns attention to the beloved's vineyard. The words of the song are just right; it is the subject of the song that is off. The word "beloved" is dodi, a sweet word in Hebrew, and here the word appears twice, both as the name of the beloved and the song sung to him/her. The name of the famous second king of Israel, David, is a name based on this very word, so its sweetness is magnified with that royal connection. Yet, the song is not directly for the beloved, hymning her beauty, chanting his virility. The vineyard is in the mind of the singer.
"A vineyard had my beloved on the crown of a fertile hill" (Is. 5:1b). There is a pun here that cannot be rendered in English. The word I translate "crown" is keren in Hebrew, while the word "vineyard" is kerem. The former word often is translated "horn," thus suggesting the brow of a hill, as a horn crowns the head of an ox. The point appears to be that this vineyard was situated exactly right on a gentle hilltop, a place known for its fertility, and could be expected to produce abundant grapes. To ensure that the harvest is rich and plentiful, the beloved prepared the place; "he dug it and cleared it of stones and planted it with choice vines" (Is. 5:2a). In short, the owner did what any good vineyard owner would do: loosening the soil, removing impediments to growth, then choosing the finest of shoots to start the process. The Hebrew soreq, "choice vines," reminds us of the homeland of one of the Bible's lushest sirens, Delilah, who came from the "vale of Soreq" (Judg. 16:4). After such careful preparation, the vineyard owner has only now to protect the growing vines.
And so "he built a tower in the middle of it and hewed out a wine vat in it" (Is. 5:2c). The tower is for protection against thieves, whether human or animal, and the vat is dug in the soil to get ready for the harvest. The beloved rightly "expected it to produce grapes," but to the contrary, "it produced sour fruit" (Is. 5:2c). The word I translate "sour fruit" is built on the Hebrew for "shame," b'osh. There is something deeply wrong with this vineyard, something dark and shameful, despite the owner's diligent and careful work. And now the love song itself turns sour.
John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX.