Grapes were an important part of the diet of the Hebrews. A part of the harvest was preserved in the form of raisin cakes (1Sam.25.18). Grapes were also their main source of sugar. The juice of the grapes was drunk fresh and fermented.
Figuratively, the vine symbolized prosperity and peace among the ancient Hebrews (1Kgs.4.25; Mic.4.4; Zech.3.10). The vine also symbolized the chosen people, who instead of producing outstanding fruit yielded only wild grapes.
Some of Jesus’ parables relate to vines and their culture (Matt.9.17; Matt.20.1-Matt.20.6; Matt.21.28-Matt.21.33; Luke.13.6-Luke.13.9). Jesus referred to himself as the only true vine with whom his disciples are in organic union (John.15.1-John.15.27).
; LXX ἄμπελος
, LXX ἀμπελον
Viticulture in the Near East.
The vine has been cultivated in Pal. from the earliest times. The climate of Pal. is peculiarly adapted to viticulture with the country’s bright sunshine and the heavy dew of the late summer nights. The best location of a vineyard for the direct sunshine is on the gentle slopes of the hillside where most of the vines have grown throughout the centuries in the Holy Land (Jer 31:5; Amos 9:13). Of course, not all the vineyards are on hillsides. Important vineyards are on the plains, such as the Plain of Esdraelon and around Jericho.
The watchtower in the vineyard was an ancient institution. It is mentioned frequently in the OT as when Isaiah compares the daughter of Zion” as “a booth in a vineyard” (Isa 1:8). To complete the vineyard the husbandman “hewed out a wine vat in it” (Isa 5:2). This was usually cut out of the solid rock and lined with mortar. Such wine presses have been found everywhere in Pal. There were usually two, sometimes three vats, square, rectangular, or circular in shape and cut on different levels, connected with channels, the upper being the one in which the grapes were trodden out. The lower vats received the juice.
Most of the vines in Pal. trial on the ground, because it is believed that the grapes ripen more slowly under the shadow of the leaves. Too much exposure to the sun in the early period of the growth of the clusters would cause the grapes to ripen before they were fully grown. Sometimes the vines were permitted to climb along the branches of a tree (Ezek 19:11) and in some areas the vines are grown over a trellis providing a cool place where a man could sit under his vine (1 Kings 4:25).
The grapes begin to ripen in July and will continue to bear fruit into October although the harvest usually takes place in September. The fresh grapes are eaten in great quantities during the season between July and September although the early fruit is quite sour so that the “teeth are set on edge” (Jer 31:29, 30; Ezek 18:2). Besides the fresh grapes, the vineyard produces raisins and wine. In an open spot in the vineyard a smooth area is prepared where bunches of grapes are spread out to dry. They are frequently sprinkled with olive oil to keep them moist, and turned over. When the grapes have been dehydrated to the proper point they are stored usually in earthenware jars, becoming an important part of the food supply. Another product of the vine was a grape honey known as dibs by the Arabs and debash, “honey” by the Jews. It was a boiled down molasses-like treacle or jelly and very sweet. It is still used in the Near E but was more important before sugar cane came into use. References to honey in the Bible frequently refer to this product rather than to the honey of the bee.
The OT contains suggestions as to the regulations of viticulture. In accordance with the tithe the first tenth of every crop of grapes belonged to God. The Levitical instructions were that the farmer should leave the corners of his field unreaped for the poor. “And you shall not strip your vineyard bare, neither shall you gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner” (Lev 19:10). The gleanings were to be left for the needy. Another regulation said, “When you go into your neighbor’s vineyard, you may eat your fill of grapes, as many as you wish, but you shall not put any in your vessel” (Deut 23:24). One may take enough to satisfy immediate needs, but no more. The regulations required that the vineyards were to lie fallow in the year of the sabbath (Exod 23:10, 11; Lev 25:3-5). Other kinds of seeds were not to be planted in the vineyard (Deut 22:9). This was in accordance with the general principle of guarding against unnatural combinations which violate the purity of the species (Lev 19:19). Occasionally this regulation was ignored as in the case of the man whose vineyard contained a fig tree (Luke 13:6).
Vines and vineyards as symbols.
Vines and vineyards were sometimes symbols of prosperity and blessing among the ancient Hebrews. The Messianic blessing of peace and security is frequently symbolized as a time when “they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree, and none shall make them afraid” (Mic 4:4 cf. 1 Kings 4:25; Zech 3:10). Abundant and fruitful vineyards were an expression of God’s favor as in Hosea 2:15 after Israel’s spiritual restoration. In Genesis 49:22, “Joseph is a fruitful bough, a fruitful bough by a spring; his branches run over the wall.” The vine is frequently used as a symbol of Israel. Israel is compared to “a choice vine” which God brought from Egypt and planted in the land of promise where “it took deep root and filled the land” with blessing. But she became a “wild vine” (Ps 80:13; Isa 5:1-7; Jer 2:21).
The vine was also sometimes a symbol of adversity and God’s judgment (Deut 28:30; Amos 5:11; Zeph 1:13). The identification of the so-called “vine of Sodom” (Deut 32:32) has been debated. It has been identified with the Colocynth, a herbaceous vine called also “bitter gourd” and “bitter apple,” from which is prepared a powerful cathartic, but this is uncertain. In Deuteronomy 32:15-38, Israel is compared to a vine whose fruit is bitter and poisonous. The thrust of the statement is that Israel’s sins are the inevitable result of their corrupt nature, a stock comparable to the corruption that led to the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.
International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)
1. Hebrew Words:
(1) gephen, usually the cultivated grape vine. In Nu 6:4; Jud 13:14 we have gephen ha-yayin, literally, "vine of wine," translated "grape vine" (Numbers) and "vine," margin "grape vine" (Jgs); 2Ki 4:39, gephen sadheh English Versions of the Bible "wild vine"; De 32:32, gephen cedhom, "vine of Sodom."
(2) soreq, in Isa 5:2, "choicest vine"; soreq, in Jer 2:21, "noble vine"; soreqah, in Ge 49:11, "choice vine"; compare SOREK, VALLEY OF (which see). The Hebrew is supposed to indicate dark grapes and, according to rabbinical tradition, they were unusually sweet and almost, if not quite, stoneless.
(3) nazir, in Le 25:5,11, "undressed vine," the King James Version "vine undressed," margin "separation." This may mean an unpruned vine and be a reference to the uncut locks of a Nazirite, but it is equally probable that nazir should be batsir, "vintage."
For the blossom we have peraq (Isa 18:5), "blossom"; nitstsah, either the blossom or half-formed clusters of grapes (Ge 40:10; Isa 18:5); cemadhar, "sweet-scented blossom" (So 2:13,15; 7:12).
2. Greek and Latin:
In Greek we have ampelos, "vine" (Mt 26:29, etc.), staphule (Sirach 39:26, "blood of grapes"; Mt 7:16, "grapes," etc.), and botrus (Re 14:18), "cluster of the vine." In the Latin of 2 Esdras vinea is "vine" in 5:23 ("vineyard" in 16:30,43); botrus (9:21) and racemus (16:30) are "cluster"; acinium (9:21) and uva (16:26) are "a grape."
3. Antiquity and Importance:
Palestine appears to have been a vine-growing country from the earliest historic times. The countless wine presses found in and around centers of early civilization witness to this. It is probable that the grape was largely cultivated as a source of sugar: the juice expressed in the "wine press" was reduced by boiling to a liquid of treacle-like consistency known as "grape honey," or in Hebrew debhash (Arabic, dibs). This is doubtless the "honey" of many Old Testament references, and before the days of cane sugar was the chief source of sugar. The whole Old Testament witnesses to how greatly Palestine depended upon the vine and its products. Men rejoiced in wine also as one of God’s best gifts (Jud 9:13; Ps 104:15). But the Nazirite might eat nothing of the vine "from the kernels even to the husk" (Nu 6:4; Jud 13:14).
The land promised to the children of Israel was one of "vines and fig trees and pomegranates" (De 8:8); they inherited vineyards which they had not planted (De 6:11; Jos 24:13; Ne 9:25). Jacob’s blessing on Judah had much reference to the suitability of his special part of the land to the vine (Ge 49:11). When the leading people were carried captive the poor were left as vine dressers (2Ki 25:12; Jer 52:16), lest the whole land should lapse into uncultivated wilderness. On the promised return this humble duty was, however, to fall to the "sons of the alien" (Isa 61:5 the King James Version).
4. Its Cultivation:
The mountain regions of Judea and Samaria, often little suited to cereals, have always proved highly adapted to vine culture. The stones must first be gathered out and utilized for the construction of a protecting wall or of terraces or as the bases of towers (Isa 5:2; Mt 21:33). Every ancient vineyard had its wine press cut in a sheet of rock appearing at the surface. As a rule the vinestocks lie along the ground, many of the fruit-bearing branches falling over the terraces (compare Ge 49:22); in some districts the end of the vine-stock is raised by means of a cleft stick a foot or more above the surface; exceptionally the vine branches climb into trees, and before a dwelling-house they are sometimes supported upon poles to form a bower (compare 1Ki 4:25, etc.).
5. Vine of Sodom:
The expression "vine of Sodom" (De 32:32) has been supposed, especially because of the description in Josephus (BJ, IV, viii, 4), to refer to the colocynth (Citrullus colocynthis), but it is far more probable that it means "a vine whose juices and fruits were not fresh and healthy, but tainted by the corruption of which Sodom was the type" (Driver, Commentary on Deuteronomy).
Three of our Lord’s parables are connected with vineyards (Mt 20:1 ff; 21:28,33 ), and He has made the vine ever sacred in Christian symbolism by His teaching regarding the true vine (Joh 15).