A Song of a Vineyard
Commentary by Kimberly J. Vrudny
During the period of the prophetic oracles of First Isaiah (c.740–700 BCE) including the one recorded in Isaiah 5, the Assyrians carted away exiles from Israel’s Northern Kingdom. The fall of Samaria took upwards of twenty years to complete, beginning under Tiglath-Pileser III (c.745–27 BCE), and finished off by Assyrian Kings Sargon II (c. 722–05 BCE) and Sennacherib (705–681 BCE).
The British Museum in London houses a classic example of contested history in its preservation of a gypsum wall relief that documents, from the Assyrian perspective, the Northern Kingdom’s fateful end. With victorious horses and chariots arrayed before him, the enthroned Assyrian king, whose face was perhaps deliberately damaged when Nineveh later fell to the Babylonians (and is further to the right of the detail shown in this exhibition), is attended by servants waving palm fronds. The king observes the capture of Lachish, a town between Mount Hebron and the coast. Israelite prisoners with stylized beards and hair—some clothed, some naked—are presented, then executed, before him. The cuneiform inscription reads,
Sennacherib, the mighty king, king of the country of Assyria, sitting on the throne of judgement, before (or at the entrance of) the city of Lachish. I give permission for its slaughter.
Literary accounts recording the trauma of this episode from the perspective of Israel survive in the Bible. Israel’s historian remembers not only its own destruction, but also its wartime successes. During Assyria’s failed siege on Jerusalem, for example, the historian records:
The angel of the Lord set out and struck down one hundred and eighty-five thousand in the camp of the Assyrians; when morning dawned, they were all dead bodies. Then King Sennacherib of Assyria left, went home, and lived at Nineveh. (Isaiah 37:36–37; cf. 2 Kings 19:35–36 NRSV)
There is no dispute, however, that Assyria had earlier conquered Samaria:
In the ninth year of Hoshea the king of Assyria captured Samaria; he carried the Israelites away to Assyria. He placed them in Halah, on the Habor, the river of Gozan, and in the cities of the Medes. (2 Kings 17:6 NRSV)
The ten tribes of Israel were lost, and Assyria rejoiced.
Birch, Bruce. 1991. Let Justice Roll Down: The Old Testament, Ethics, and Christian Life (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press)
Sweeney, Marvin A. 2005. The Prophetic Literature, Interpreting Biblical Texts (Nashville: Abingdon Press)
Commentary by Kimberly J. Vrudny
Near the end of his song, the author of Isaiah 5 interprets with exquisite clarity the meaning behind his allegory of the vineyard:
For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts
is the house of Israel,
and the men of Judah
are his pleasant planting;
and he looked for justice,
but behold, bloodshed. (v.7)
Jesus will later draw on Isaiah’s imagery. In his parable of the workers in the vineyard, Jesus has the landowner insist, ‘I am doing you no wrong’ (Matthew 20:13), dismissing the ones who protest about his decision to pay all his workers the same wage—even those who had come late to his vineyard and who delivered only a bucket or two of grapes.
In Rembrandt van Rijn’s depiction of the story, those who surround the landowner grumble about fairness, but the owner points out the obvious. The workers had agreed to work for the wage they had received. They, however, were not having it. Unlike the others who had received the same wage for working fewer hours, they had laboured in the vineyard from dawn.
Trusting that their boss was not so obtuse as to be unaware of how they had contorted and twisted their bodies to release each stubborn grape from its vine, remaining all the while cautious not to seep the fruit’s precious nectar, they pleaded with him to be reasonable. Now, out of the heat from the scorching sun, these labourers barter still with the landowner, who is seated at his desk. Catching the long rays of the setting sun, the landowner’s wife consults their ledger, even as dark shadows, created by Rembrandt’s signature chiaroscuro, give contour to the room. The room sends a chill, as the dampness held by their dirty clothes from the sweat that had trickled down their backs throughout the day turns cold, only to confirm their misery. Behind them, another group of workers and spouses talk excitedly amongst themselves as they count their money. What wonderful fortune! What amazing luck! A day’s wage for an hour’s work? How extravagant! How generous! How kind!
In these strokes, Rembrandt depicts Jesus’s radical vision of the Kingdom of God. The Lord of Hosts ‘look[s] for justice’ (Isaiah 5:7), but this justice may be something very different from what we expect.
Horsley, Richard A. 2002. Jesus and Empire: The Kingdom of God and the New World Order (Minneapolis: Fortress Press)
Schottroff, Luise. 2006. The Parables of Jesus, trans. Linda M. Maloney (Minneapolis: Fortress Press)
Commentary by Kimberly J. Vrudny
Situated majestically at the centre of the Sistine Chapel ceiling, Michelangelo Buonarroti’s famous fresco of The Creation of Adam depicts an almost tangible electricity between God’s finger and Adam’s, as if the Creator’s divine energy will be transferred to Adam upon their touch, bestowing the creature with spiritual life, rational thought, and a moral consciousness.
It is this energy that is drained out of the canvas in Samuel Bak’s painting, based on Michelangelo’s composition. Most notably, God is absent. The hole blasted open in a bombed-out building occupies the area in which Michelangelo imagined God leaning out of the heavens towards Adam. The electricity between their fingertips is now without vitality. The source of that earlier energy—the divine hand—is now replaced by a listless, empty glove hanging on a nail that maintains its fragile grip on the otherwise besieged wall. Adam, dressed both in ancient drapery and modern underclothes, appears more dazed than languid in this new context. Reclining before and beside two undetonated missiles, the ruins of war surround him in wrecked furniture, broken dishes, and burnt paper. Smoke rises ominously from two chimneys visible in the distance. They are juxtaposed with a cross that stands equally threateningly in the foreground.
In Isaiah 5, the author speaks of Israel and Judah as YHWH’s ‘pleasant planting’ (5:7), and in God’s lament—‘What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it?’ (v.4)—we may hear a cry of unrequited love. But the passage goes on to announce a retraction of this favour: because of its ‘wildness’ (v.4), ‘I will make it a waste’, God says (vv.5–6). The vineyard, and all it stands for, will be undone.
The eye returns again and again in Bak’s image to negative space, to the absence of God. In that void, Bak raises timeless questions about evil and about human suffering. If Michelangelo and his patrons were confident about God’s existence—about God’s presence behind and in creation, and about God’s desire for a just society to be revealed through a covenant signed and sealed with the Jewish people—Bak depicts its undoing. Creation of Wartime III is an image of uncreation. A theology that sees divine purposes at work in the horrors of war, a theology that still affirms the reality of a covenant with Israel, even the barest belief in the very existence of God: for Bak, it was all undone in the Shoah.
Langer, Lawrence. 2012. Adam and Eve in the Art of Samuel Bak (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press)
Nolan Fewell, Danna, Gary A. Phillips, and Yvonne Sherwood (eds). 2008. Representing the Irreparable: The Shoah, the Bible, and the Art of Samuel Bak (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press)
Unknown Assyrian artist :
Captives with camel and baggage on their way into exile, detail of the Assyrian conquest of the Jewish fortified town of Lachish (battle 701 BCE), part of a relief from the palace of Sennacherib at Niniveh, Mesopotamia (Iraq), 700–692 BCE , Gypsum wall panel relief
Rembrandt van Rijn :
The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard, 1637 , Oil on panel
Samuel Bak :
Creation of Wartime III, 1999-2008 , Oil on canvas
Entering the Vineyard’s Gate
Commentary by Kimberly J. Vrudny
Believers make choices everyday about the God they will follow—the One who calls us to our better angels, or the One who endorses our worst. Isaiah 5, written in the form of a love song, aspires to our better angels insofar as it affirms that God desires justice for the poor and oppressed, and to our worst, insofar as it suggests that God acts through instruments of war to punish people for moral failure.
According to the song written by the one whom scholars refer to as ‘First Isaiah’, the Lord of history allowed the Assyrians to destroy Israel because it had ‘despised the word of the Holy One of Israel’ (5:24). Written during a period when the Northern Kingdom was under threat by the Assyrians who ultimately swept in and conquered it, the prophet attributed YHWH's approval of Israel’s destruction to the people’s sinfulness. This is the episode memorialized in the Assyrian relief, which celebrates its nation’s military prowess with ceremony and pageantry. To the victor goes the spoil.
But unlike the Assyrians who celebrated their victory, Israel, the conquered ones, wondered whether God had abandoned them. To this question, the prophet’s answer was a resounding no. God had not abandoned them. Rather, God had handed them over to their destruction because they had not maintained their covenant with him by practising justice. In Isaiah 5, Isaiah situates all of this in the allegorical language of a vineyard that fails to bear fruit.
Maybe what is wise in the text is an acknowledgement that suffering, destruction, and dislocation arise as a natural consequence of injustice. But this is not the whole of Isaiah’s theology. Isaiah also believes that God controls history, and that it was God’s doing to raise Assyria up for the punishment of Israel.
In his painting Creation of Wartime III, Samuel Bak demonstrates precisely why this theology of the prophet Isaiah can be found wanting. What kind of a God punishes a population through war? What kind of a God uses the forces of Israel’s enemies to penalize them through the exercise of destructive power? The distant setting of ancient Assyria makes the vindictive theology in Isaiah seem plausible if not palatable—but the context of Nazi Germany during the Second World War illuminates the horrors of such an interpretation of God’s involvement in human history. Would God empower such agents as these to punish anyone for unrighteousness, even for injustice? Should such a God be worshipped? Is such a God worthy of praise?
Bak invites his viewers to think about these questions. His work suggests that it might be preferable to believe that such a God doesn’t exist (indeed, has never existed). The space from which God was once imagined relating to humankind from the heavens— now a negative void delineating God’s absence—invites contemporary viewers to think about what image of God might adequately fill it.
Like his ancient predecessor, and as an observant Jew, Jesus must have had Isaiah’s love song in mind when he told the parable of the workers in the vineyard, as it expresses a theological imagination similar to Isaiah’s—that the Kingdom of God is like a vineyard that ought to produce the fruits of justice and righteousness. Jesus imagines the vineyard to be maintained by a manager who is reckless in generosity for those who contribute to its creation, whether they labour all day or just a little. Rembrandt’s imagination follows Jesus’s in picturing what responses this recklessness might awaken. Leaving aside the question of the fate of those who never enter the vineyard, or those who enter but allow the vineyard to spoil, Jesus focuses on a vineyard that thrives. Because they reap what they sow (Galatians 6:7), everyone benefits from a society that is more just. The Kingdom of God is like that, Jesus teaches.
Considered together, the images of the relief celebrating Assyrian victory over Israel, Bak’s image of a more recent episode of destruction, and Rembrandt’s painting depicting Jesus’s prophetic parable, raise before faithful ones the question about which imagination they are living into: the shrivelled vineyard Isaiah laments, or the lush vineyard Jesus envisions. Jews and Christians, alike, worship a God who, finally, desires justice for the poor and liberation from oppression. Will we enter such a vineyard, or will we plant ourselves outside its fences?
Friedlander, Saul. 2008. Nazi Germany and the Jews, 1939–1945: The Years of Extermination (New York: Harper Perennial)
Vrudny, Kimberly. 2016. Beauty’s Vineyard: A Theological Aesthetic of Anguish and Anticipation (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press)