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B'resheet/Genesis 9:20 And Noah began to be a man of the soil and planted a vineyard.
The text opens up a number of interesting possibilities. The opening verb in the text is the Hif'il prefix 3ms form of the root . Davidson offers a list of meanings: (1) to loose, set free; (2) to profane, define or violate; (3) to open, begin or begin to be. Following the Midrash,Rashi goes for "to profane" - "and he debased himself" - suggesting that he should first have engaged in a different sort of planting. The ancient rabbis somewhat caustically ask, "Should he have not planted something of use, such as a young fig-shoot or a young olive-shoot? Instead of which he planted a vineyard" (B'resheet Rabbah 36:3). Mizrachi1 explains, "he debased himself by planting something whose effects can be harmful, before planting anything else." On the other hand, most of the other commentators choose the "to begin" meaning in this text. But if Noah began, what did he begin? Richard Elliott Friedman, like our translation above, takes the plain meaning of the words: "And Noah began to be a man of the ground", implying that Noah began to take up his responsibilities and become a farmer; most step over the two words in between and connect the two verbs - although the second is clearly not an infinitive - and say either that "Noah began to plant", or that "Noah was the first to plant".
The phrase means literally "a/the man of the soil". TheRamban explains that "he was determined to work the ground, to sow and to plant, because he found the earth had been laid waste, for whoever dedicates himself to a certain purpose is called "the man/master" of it. The meaning of the verb [and he began] is that he commenced the planting of vineyards. The preceding men had planted single vines, but Noah began to plant many rows of vines, which together comprise a vineyard." Ibn Ezra seems to agree, adding that the phrase implies, "one who is knowledgeable about working the earth". Targum Onkelos inserts another word - - 'worked', so that the phrase reads, "a man who worked the soil".
Umberto Cassuto2 alerts us that the narrator's words here confirm what was said by Noah's father, Lamech, when he was born: "This one shall bring us comfort from our labour and from the toil of our hands from the earth" (B'resheet 5:29)). Nahum Sarna agrees, pointing out that "the tiller of the soil" (JPS) is "a designation of Noah, [and] implies something well known about him, which links up with 5:29." Wine, although probably quite different from wine today and nearly always diluted before drinking by up to four-to-one with water - is considered a good thing by the Hebrew Scriptures: "new wine, which gladdens God and men" (Judges 9:13, JPS), "wine that cheers the hearts of men" (Psalm 104:15, JPS), although this is obviously not the opinion of the Sforno - "Noah began with an unsuitable project, therefore unsavoury deeds resulted from it, for indeed a small fault at the beginning will cause many more at the end" - who sees the vineyard as being the source of Noah's troubles with his son!
Sarna also informs us that the phrase "Noah ... was the first to plant a vineyard" means that "He is the initiator of orchard husbandry. The following verse implies that Noah was involved not just in viticulture, the science and art of grape-growing, but also the viniculture, the specific cultivation of grapes for wine-making." This suggests that the formal culture of vines and the fermenting and production of wine are postdiluvian practices. TheBaal HaTurim notices that the second verb - - has a masoretic note '3' and explains that "this means that this word appears three times in the Tanakh: (i) here, "and he planted a vineyard", (ii) in the second creation account, "and the L-rd G-d planted a garden in Eden" (B'resheet 2:8) and (iii) when Avraham made a covenant with Abimelech, "He planted an tamarisk tree" (21:33). This is in accordance with the midrashic teaching: From where did Noah take his vines? From Gan Eden. Similarly, Avraham took his tamarisk from the Garden of Eden." Some sources suggest that Mt. Ararat was located close to the position of the Garden of Eden, so making that a physical possibility.
Noah may have been the first person to have planted a vineyard, but he was certainly not the last. The Torah allocates damages if a vineyard is grazed by someone else's cattle (Shemot 22:4) and specifies that the gleanings of a vineyard must be left for the poor (Vayikra 19:10), although travellers may pick a few grapes to eat when passing through a vineyard so long as they do not harvest (D'varim 23:25). The historical narrative tells us that "Naboth the Jezreelite owned a vineyard in Jezreel, adjoining the palace of King Ahab of Samaria" (1 Kings 21:1, JPS). The Woman of Valour "plants a vineyard by her own labours" (Proverbs 31:16, JPS), while a lazy man's vineyard is "all overgrown with thorns; its surface covered with chickweed, its stone fence in ruins" (24:31, JPS). A vineyard requires both careful preparation and consistent care.
The prophet Isaiah describes howHaShem planted a vineyard: "My beloved had a vineyard on a fruitful hill. He broke the ground, cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines. He built a watchtower inside it, He even hewed a wine press in it; for He hoped it would yield grapes" (Isaiah 5:1-2, JPS). A significant investment of labour and capital, on which He expected a return: a good yield. Yet it yielded only sour or wild grapes - why when He hoped for sweet grapes, did it yield only sour ones? The prophet challenges the people to recognise the situation: "Now, then, dwellers of Jerusalem and men of Judah, you be the judges between Me and My vineyard" (v. 3, JPS). So HaShem turned against the vineyard - "Now I am going to tell you what I will do to My vineyard: I will remove its hedge, that it may be ravaged; I will break down its wall, that it may be trampled. And I will make it a desolation; it shall not be pruned or hoed, and it shall be overgrown with briers and thistles. And I will command the clouds to drop no rain on it" (vv. 5-6, JPS) - explaining that "the vineyard of the L-RD of Hosts is the House of Israel, and the seedlings he lovingly tended are the men of Judah. And He hoped for justice, but behold, injustice; for equity, but behold, iniquity!" (v. 7, JPS).
In a startling re-telling of Isaiah's parable, one that would have left His hearers in no doubt about its origin and meaning, Yeshua challenged the Chief Priests and Pharisees in Jerusalem: "There was a farmer who planted a vineyard. He put a wall around it, dug a pit for the winepress and built a tower; then he rented it to tenants and left" (Matthew 21:33, CJB). In Yeshua's parable, the owner rents out the vineyard to tenants, who are to pay him a rent consisting of part of the crop. At the right time of year, the owner sends servants - who are mistreated or killed - to collect his share, finally sending his son whom the tenants also recognise and kill, thinking that the owner will give up and go away, leaving them in possession of the vineyard. Then in exactly the same way as Isaiah, Yeshua asks His audience to judge what has happened: "'Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?' They answered him, 'He will viciously destroy those vicious men and rent out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him his share of the crop when it's due'" (v. 40,41, CJB). Yeshua agrees; He tells them there will be consequences: "Therefore, I tell you that the Kingdom of G-d will be taken away from you and given to the kind of people that will produce its fruit!" (v. 43, CJB). The destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple by the Romans in 70 CE and the persecution and exile from the land of Israel of the priests and their successor rabbinic leaders who rejected Yeshua in the following several hundred years could be seen as a fulfilment of Yeshua's words.
The Book of Acts opens with a strong connection to our text from the Torah: "In the first book ... I have dealt with all that Yeshua began to do and teach" (Acts 1:1, ESV). Like Noah, Yeshua began; He began His ministry and that ministry continues to this day: inviting people to enter the kingdom of G-d, to accept His rule in their lives and find peace, relationship with G-d, forgiveness for sin and a place in the world to come. Yeshua planted a vineyard and has left it in the hands of tenant farmers: us. Like Noah, He saw that nothing was growing, so He prepared the ground, marked out rows in order, set up walls and a watchtower to establish a boundary for the vineyard and dug a winepress; He did this by His own labours and completed the work Himself on the cross. Then He planted vines from the Garden of Eden, drawn from the Tree of Life itself, saying, "I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener" (John 15:1). But Yeshua extended the parable, telling the disciples, "I am the vine and you are the branches" (v. 5); the Father is looking for fruit from His vines, fruit that that we are to bear to glorify Him (v. 7). We are to be a fruitful vineyard yielding choice clusters of good, sweet fruit, not overgrown with torn-down walls, or hoarding the fruit for ourselves.
1. - A super-commentary on Rashi's Torah Commentary, by Elijah Mizrachi of Constantinople, 1455-1526 CE, the Grand Rabbi of the Ottoman empire.
2. - Umberto Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Genesis, Part Two - From Noah to Abraham, Magnes Press Jerusalem 1984, 965-223-540-7, page 115
Further Study: Isaiah 27:2-6; Jeremiah 12:10-13; 1 Corinthians 9:7-10
Application: Are you actively engaged in the viticulture of the kingdom - planting, tending and watering the vines? Are you taking part in the viniculture of the kingdom - selecting, blending and maturing fine wines? Yeshua invites everyone to be a part and to take part. Where are you and what are you doing?
© Jonathan Allen, 2015
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