Chapter five of Isaiah presents one of the most famous parables in the Bible, known as the song of the vineyard. In it, Isaiah gathers the people together to pass judgment on a disobedient vineyard. Despite the owner’s efforts to care for the vineyard that he loves (a metaphor for God’s care for the Children of Israel), it produces unripe grapes. Therefore, the owner announces that he will tear down the walls that protect the vineyard from thorns and other dangers of the forest. With beautiful word-play, Isaiah states that though the men of Judah are “the seedlings He lovingly tended,” instead of ‘justice,’ in Hebrew mishpat (משפט), they caused ‘injustice,’ mispach (משפח). Instead of ‘equity,’ tzedaka (צדקה), they caused ‘iniquity,’ tza’aka (צעקה) (verse 7). God will therefore remove His protection from Israel and allow for its enemies to enter.
As in this metaphor, grapes and vineyards play a prominent role throughout the Tanakh, or Hebrew Bible. The first cultivated plants mentioned in the Bible were grapevines: “Noach, the tiller of soil, was the first to plant a vineyard” (Genesis 9:20), and grapes are mentioned more than any other fruit in the entire Hebrew Bible. When Moses sent the 12 spies to scout out the Land of Israel, the book of Numbers (13:23) records that they returned with a sample of grapes that was so large it had to be carried on poles by strong men, an image used as the logo of Israel’s Ministry of Tourism.
Grapes, like each of the other seven special agricultural species for which the Land of Israel is praised (Deuteronomy 8:8), are symbolic of the People of Israel. The Sages teach that the vine is the weakest and lowliest of trees, lacking even a trunk. And to produce wine, which is served at royal banquets, grapes are crushed underfoot. Similarly, the Jewish people are a small, modest nation. Often, they are crushed and trampled by others, but ultimately they will be raised to royalty. Additionally, the largest grapes hang at the bottom of the cluster, similar to the greatest leaders, such as Moses, who carry themselves with great humility (see Numbers 12:3).
Contemporary author Rabbi Natan Slifkin explains that grapes can also shed light on the question of why bad things happen to good people. He explains that grapes must be totally crushed, either underfoot or in a press, to produce valuable wine. “The same is true of the righteous. The difficult question of how bad things can happen to good people is partially resolved through realizing that it is precisely through trials of suffering that latent potential is brought to fruition.” One message of the grape is that suffering and hardships are not intended merely as punishments. Rather, God hopes that the pain and anguish will eventually bring out the best in people, and inspire their return to Him.
Furthermore, the rejuvenation of vineyards in Samaria, a miracle taking place today, also symbolizes the return of life to the Holy Land. In fact, the prophet Micah uses the imagery of every man in Israel sitting under his own grapevine to describe the period of the future redemption (Micah 4:4).
Like the procedure for producing wine from grapes, salvation will take time. Winemaking requires a process involving various stages such as laborious harvesting, crushing, selecting, fermenting and ultimately waiting, before producing the finished product. So does redemption. But just as with fine wine, it is well worth the wait.