“The appetite for studies on food and drink in the Old Testament is growing” (1). It’s a bad pun, but an interesting point which opens up a fascinating monograph by Andrew Abernethy, Associate Professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College.
In his book, Eating in Isaiah: Approaching the Role of Food and Drink in Isaiah’s Structure and Message (Brill, 2014), Abernethy makes a strong case for exactly this point — symbols and metaphors of food and drink offer the reader key structural hints within each section.
Here’s a summary (184–185):
In Isa 1–39, there are many announcements that YHWH will use foreign powers (Assyria and then Babylon) to punish his people for disobedience by depleting their food and drink supply (1:7; 3:1, 7; 4:1; 5:14; 7:15, 21–23; 8:21; 16:7–10; 17:10; 30:20; 32:9–14; 36:12). This judgment through the depletion of food sources is aimed at Israel and Judah, the nations, and the entire cosmos (24:7–11), establishing coherence concerning the destiny of all nations between Isa 1–12, 13–23, 24–27, and 28–35. By doing so, the prophet is presenting YHWH as sovereignly using imperial tactics to punish a continually hardened people for disobedience. Not only does Isa 1–39 anticipate the destruction of food sources, there is the enduring promise that YHWH will provide food for the obedient (1:19; 3:10; 4:2; 25:6–8; 30:23–25; 32:20; 33:16; 37:30). At the climax of this vision is a feast that King YHWH will host for all nations upon Zion’s establishment (25:6–8). In light of Isa 36–37, these promises of eating by YHWH contrast with the offers of a wannabe king who wishes to usurp YHWH as provider for his people. Eating in Isa 1–39, then, takes on an “imperial-retributive” perspective as it warns of food destruction and promises food provision in a way that highlights YHWH’s sovereignty, the need for a response, and its relevance for all nations throughout all of time.
In Isa 40–55, food and drink passages have an exclusively comforting tone. Announcements of coming judgment in the realms of food and drink are absent. These chapters assume that the devastation of food and drink sources anticipated in Isa 1–39 has occurred (51:19). To bring hope to the weary, promises of food and drink arise in highly metaphorical language to convince the disheartened that YHWH will make all things new (41:17–20; 43:20; 44:3, 9–10; 48:21; 49:8–10; 51:14, 17–23). With water and food operating metaphorically to highlight YHWH’s ability to transform, Isa 55:1–3 uses eating figuratively to urge the audience to listen and turn to YHWH, not other gods, as they await restoration in all realms of life, including food and drink. In contrast to Isa 1–39, the use of the topic of food and drink in Isa 40–55 is highly metaphorical, focused on bringing comfort, and contributes in a greater degree to anti-idolatry polemics.
In Isa 56–66, exhortation continues from Isa 55, but it uses food and drink to announce judgment along with salvation in more of a material, eschatological, and universal fashion. In particular, food and drink establish boundaries between who will and who will not enjoy the benefits of God’s coming work of salvation. Those who engage in pagan eating practices (Isa 57:7; 65:3–4, 11; 66:3, 17) and ignore the hungry and thirsty (ch. 58) will experience hunger and thirst in the end (65:13). YHWH’s servants, however, regardless of ethnicity, will have the opportunity joyously to dine with YHWH (56:7; 61:6; 62:9; 65:13; 66:23) and see threats to their daily food production disappear (62:8–9; 65:21–22a).
As you can pick up in glints and glimmers in this quote, another major theme of Abernethy’s work centers on how these food and drink metaphors spotlight God’s sovereignty over all things, all peoples, and all nations. All that to say, when reading Isaiah, don’t pass too fast over the food and drink metaphors.