Reviews of

Eating in Isaiah

In Andrew T. Abernethy, Brill, Food, Hebrew Bible, Isaiah, Rebekah Devine, review on October 15, 2017 at 5:21 pm


2017.10.21 | Andrew T. Abernethy, Eating in Isaiah: Approaching the Role of Food and Drink in Isaiah’s Structure and Message. Leiden: Brill, 2014. ISBN: 9789004270374

Review by Rebekah M. Devine

The past decade has yielded a small, yet robust crop of studies on food and drink in the Hebrew Bible. Andrew Abernethy’s contribution to this increasing yield looks at the role of food and drink in the literary structure of Isaiah, focusing on the sections that have been identified as major cruxes in the book and asking how food and drink contribute to Isaiah’s message.

Abernethy devotes the first chapter to surveying some of the recent scholarly approaches to the topic of food in biblical literature, and outlines his own method as a sequential-synchronic approach. The second chapter focuses on Isaiah 1 as an introduction to the whole book, looking at how food and drink function in its rhetoric. This study of Isaiah 1 sets the stage for later discussions on how these first food themes are fleshed out in Isaiah 2-35 (ch. 3) and 36-37 (ch. 4). 

After this survey of food and drink in Isaiah 1-39, Abernethy addresses 40-55 in association with 1-39 (ch. 5) and 65-66 as a conclusion to the entire Book of Isaiah (ch. 6), and then offers some concluding reflections on the study (ch. 7).

Abernethy sees the prospect of eating and the lack of food as major structural components of Isaiah 1. YHWH’s indictment against his people focuses on their lack of knowledge (Isa. 1:3), and this lack may relate to their ignorance of YHWH and his provision for them (p. 26). YHWH’s rebellious children, unlike the ox or donkey, do not know the owner responsible for them or where their food comes from. Because of their disobedience, foreigners (zārîm) devour the land (1:7a). Abernethy argues that while the unidentified zārîm serve as a pattern for future enemies, the narrative context of 1-39 leads readers to associate them with the Assyrian campaigns in the southern Levant (p. 27). The confiscation and destruction of food and drink was a significant part of Assyrian imperial warfare (p. 29). A common battle tactic in Assyrian military campaigns involved harvesting enemy fields or pillaging their storehouses to feed Assyrian troops. This not only deprived their enemies of physical nourishment, but served as a psychological tactic to produce anxiety from thirst and starvation in order to induce the enemy to submit (pp. 31-31).

Isaiah 1 also uses food imagery to convey the reasons for YHWH’s indictment. YHWH is “fed up” (śbʿty) with the many sacrifices of his people (1:11) (p. 34). Isaiah 1:11-14 alludes to a spectrum of sacrifices, including those accompanied by a meal (p. 35). The references to festivals evoke contexts in which sacrifices were eaten (p. 35-36). But Isaiah 1 conveys the idea that these religious rituals are not a remedy for the people’s sinful state or their desolate land (p. 38). Although YHWH has left a remnant (1:9), the rulers continue to celebrate religious feasts, hoping it will guarantee YHWH’s presence and the agricultural renewal of the land (1:10-17) (p. 49). The relationship with YHWH is broken, however, and their fate will be the same as those who eat at pagan feasts (1:29-31) (p. 49). The audience is invited to reason with YHWH to address the problem (1:18). Eating forms the rhetorical climax: if the people obey, they will eat of the good land (1:19), but if they rebel, they will be eaten by the sword (1:20).

Abernethy postulates that Isaiah 2-35 develops this “imperial-retributive” schema introduced in Isaiah 1. The destruction of food sources in the Assyrian era (Isa. 1:7) and the promise of eating for the obedient (Isa. 1:19) are strategic features of the book’s introduction that set the pattern for Isa. 2-35. Abernethy explores this idea in his third chapter, paying special attention to the passages where a lack of food and drink is at issue (e.g., the scarcity of food during the siege of Jerusalem), and places where eating is anticipated as a future hope. Major sections include the siege of Jerusalem (Isa. 3), the destruction of food and drink sources in the oracles against the nations (13-23), the visions of the cosmic destruction of food sources (24-27), and the warnings to inhabitants of the exultant city that its security will come to an end and the cultivated land of the city will produce thorns (32). Abernethy then sifts the same major sections for promises of food and drink, places where the prospect of eating shows the other side of the imperial-retributive schema: the obedient are promised an era of food and drink after the destruction (p. 69).

The fourth chapter looks at Isaiah 36-37 as a literary unit, a bridge within Isaiah that is structurally significant (p. 95). After laying out some of the major arguments for seeing 36-37 as a unit, Abernethy argues that the Rabshakeh’s promise of eating in the first threat (36:16-17) and the sign about eating in the oracle (37:30) are features that contribute to this structural integrity (p. 101). He maintains that the use of “king” language in the passage sets up a contrast first between Sennacherib and Hezekiah, and then between Sennacherib and YHWH as Hezekiah responds by proclaiming YHWH as king “over all the kingdoms of the earth” (37:16).

The fifth chapter looks at Isaiah 40-55 in association with 1-39. While acknowledging that 40-55 is a discrete, organized unit, Abernethy seeks to explore how the food themes in 1-39 and 40-55 relate to one another and contribute to the whole book. Because the study’s scope does not allow a full investigation of 40-55, he focuses on 55:1-3a as an entry point to a discussion of 40-55 and surveys the three major ways it has been interpreted: as an invitation 1) to a feast, 2) by Wisdom, 3) from a merchant (p. 120). He argues that the most plausible background is the merchant’s invitation, accompanied by wisdom themes (pp. 121-123). But what does the merchant’s invitation to “come to the waters” to drink refer to? To address this question, Abernethy looks first back at images of thirst and water in 40-55.

Water and thirst are integral parts of the many metaphoric portraits that appear in Isaiah 40-55. For example, the vision of YHWH turning the wilderness into paradise uses water as an image of ecological transformation (41:17-19). When YHWH makes a way in the desert (43:12-21), this includes the provision of water to drink and safety for travelers, and this become a symbol of YHWH’s power to break into a metaphorical wasteland (pp. 126-128). Isaiah 40-55 also draws on the Exodus tradition and provision of water from the rock (Isa. 48:20-21). Images of grazing along the side of the road when YHWH’s servant renews the desolate land, along promises of not hungering or thirsting (49:8-10), Abernethy argues, create a potent message for captives awaiting deliverance: the servant is YHWH’s agent to restore his people and provide for them (p. 130). After looking at these motifs, Abernethy returns to the invitation in 55:1, where the audience is addressed as “everyone who thirsts.” By addressing the invitation to the thirsty, 55:1 invites its hearers to remember how thirst is used as a metaphor for longing for change in the previous chapters (p. 131). Will they listen to YHWH and trust he can remedy their thirst for restoration in all realms of life? (p. 131).

Abernethy sees a contrast between the uses of food and drink in Isaiah 1-39 and those in 40-55. In the former, food and drink appear primarily in the context of “imperial” rhetoric and warn about the literal depletion of food/water as punishment, and give hope for food provision as a reward for obedience (pp. 139-140). In 40-55, the uses of food and drink are most often metaphorical, focusing on bringing comfort in the wake of a corporate memory of food/water depletion (pp. 140-143). Because hunger was not a significant issue for Judah or the exiles in Babylon after 586 BCE, Abernethy suggests that the anticipation of no famine and future provision of food in 40-55 occur because the trauma of the famine and hunger their ancestors experienced during the siege of Jerusalem lingers in the current generation (pp. 135-136). The memory of terrible hunger leaves them unsettled as they come to terms with how YHWH has dealt with their ancestors (p. 136). The prospect of eating shows that the earlier days of hunger are not an indication of their future destiny of well-being with YHWH (pp. 137-139).

Abernethy also sees a contrast in 40-55 between the idols that are dependent on the money of their makers, and YHWH who provides for his people free of charge, as depicted through the invitation from the merchant to buy wine and milk without money (55:1). This merchant is not only issuing an invitation to experience YHWH’s provision, but to turn away from idols, exhorting the audience not to spend money what does not result in food or to labor on what does not satisfy (55:2) (p. 134). The call from the merchant to eat what is good (55:2b) is striking in light of the fact that akal only appears in 40-55 in the context of idol polemics or as a metaphor for judgement (pp. 135), not as a promise of future eating.

The sixth chapter explores eating in Isaiah 65-66 as a conclusion to Isaiah. Abernethy sees a contrast between the positive proclamations about eating and the indictments against those who feast in idol cults (p. 144). He explores the “insider/outsider” motif as it is experienced through eating and drinking. The negative uses of eating in Isaiah 65-66 center on confronting the taboo eating habits of the rebels, whether it involves participation in sacrifice to idols and/or eating unclean food (pp. 146-150). Abernethy argues that Isaiah 65-66 uses food taboos of the apostates to symbolize rebellion. Eating outside the presumed norms is a marker of exclusion from a future with YHWH (p. 152).

After looking at Isaiah 65-66, Abernethy then discusses food and drink in 56-66 as it relates to the last two chapters (65-66) (p. 162). He asks how food and drink in 65-66 draw upon 56-64 to bring it to a conclusion. He suggests that 65-66 reinforce the themes in 56-66 of YHWH’s reign, Zion’s restoration, and identifying those who will experience blessing or judgment (p. 174). It identifies those who eat abhorrently as those who will be excluded from inheritance of YHWH’s mountain, while the obedient will enjoy food and drink, feasting off the wealth of nations and enjoying festal meals when Zion is restored and YHWH rules (p. 174). As a conclusion to the whole book, Isaiah 65-66 fits the imperial-retributive ideology introduced in 1-39 (pp. 174-182). YHWH’s servants will eat, while the disobedient will not eat (p. 175). Eating clarifies the destiny of the apostates and YHWH’s servants at Zion’s restoration (p. 181). It also enlarges the boundaries of those who will eat: all those who keep shabbat faithfully will enjoy festal meals on YHWH’s mountain, even foreigners (p. 182). The eschatological future reward for obedience is the prospect of eating, while loss of food is punishment for the rebels (p. 182).

Eating in Isaiah leaves much for rumination. Abernethy’s observation about the contrast between YHWH’s “free food” for his people and the money spent on idols by their worshipers is one of many fascinating threads of thought that deserve further attention. It would be interesting to look at the relationship between food and money in biblical polemics against idolatry, and set this in the context of what is known about food offered to deities both in Mesopotamia and in the Hebrew Bible. Though reams have been written on sacrifice in the Hebrew Bible, very little attention has been paid to its gastronomic aspects: offerings and sacrifices as “food” for YHWH and (in some cases) food for the priests and worshipers. The presentation of food offerings to non-Yahwistic deities in the Hebrew Bible also remains a largely untapped area of study that could prove helpful for thinking through biblical image-fabrication passages.

This book is an incisive contribution to the uses of food and drink in the Hebrew Bible. In many ways, it reflects the unassuming character of its topic. Food is a fundamental component of human life and culture, and this fact both underscores its importance and obscures it from view: food is the detail that is missed because it is so obvious, so perpetually present. Although food studies is a flourishing field of study, it is a relatively new discipline, and its cross-pollination with biblical studies has only just begun. Likewise, Abernethy’s study is an invitation to see previously unobserved, quiet details that pervade Isaiah’s shape and undergird its structure.

Rebekah Devine

Wheaton College

rebekah.m.devine [at]


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