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Isaiah 55:1 (NIV)

“Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost."

The verse is full of symbolic expressions , for example;

a/ "Come, all you who are thirsty."

b/ " Come to the waters."

c/ " Come, buy wine and milk."

What do the above expressions mean?

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The prophet makes explicit what he intends with the metaphor:

Give ear and come to me; listen, that you may live. I will make an everlasting covenant with you, my faithful love promised to David. (55:3, NIV)

The verse tries to stress that the covenant will be eternal and that the love is faithful.

Even without this modification, the words themselves signify this. The two words "covenant" (בְּרִית) and "love" (חֶסֶד) are used in apposition not only here but also elsewhere (such as Deuteronomy 7:12), and "love" (חֶסֶד) is also used in the context of Abraham's covenant with Abimelech (Genesis 21:23); thus the word connotes faithfulness more than love (some translations, such as NRSV, translate the word as "steadfast love" to indicate this).

Furthermore, the mention of David (in this and the next verse) strengthens the theme of faithfulness, because this is exactly what was promised to David:

I will maintain my love to him forever, and my covenant with him will never fail. (Psalms 89:28, NIV)

God seems to have abandoned his promise to Judah with the destruction of the Temple and subsequent exile (referred to in Isaiah 64:11, and probably hinted to numerous times, e.g. 40:2).

The intense desire for a renewed covenant (renewing a covenant wasn't an unusual concept, as in Jeremiah 31:31, II Kings 11:17), and for Judah's former glory ("a ruler of nations," Isaiah 55:4) is metaphorically referred to as thirst for water, wine and milk. Each one isn't a new metaphor for something else, but a repetition of the same metaphor for these same things.

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Isaiah 55:1 becomes more revealing in its context. Indeed, we need to relate it to 55:3, but there is some more. According to some commentators (see among others D.C. Flemming, Concise Bible commentary, AMG Publishers, Chattanooga, Tenn., 1994, p. 268), this is spoken during the exile, in a period of time when many of the Jews had made life tolerable for themselves, if not even prosperous, in Babylon. And were more concerned with making their living. Whereas God's blessings are free and cannot be bought with money. In addition to this, they bring more satisfaction than all the temporary benefits, earned with hard work and money.

There is also an interesting study by K. Baltzer and P. Machinist (see Deutero-Isaiah : A commentary on Isaiah 40-55 in Hermeneia-a critical and historical commentary on the Bible, Fortress Press, Minneapolis ,2001, p. 466-467) - they parallel Isaiah 55:1-5 with Proverbs 9:1–12, where “Lady Wisdom” is inviting to her banquet:

Proberbs 9:4-6

“You that are simple, turn in here!” To those without sense she says, (5) “Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed. (6) Lay aside immaturity, and live, and walk in the way of insight.” (NRSV)

Baltzer & Machinist underline the fact that common to both Isaiah 55:1-5 and Proverbs 9:1–12 is: 1. the transferred meaning of food and 2. the lesson is that (true) life is the benefit gained from this banquet (Baltzer & Machinist, 2001, p. 467).

This parallel (Isaiah 55:1-5 and Proverbs 9:1–12) have been noticed even long before and people tried out to see how things would fit together. A commentator like Jerome (cca IV-Vth century) was saying:

Jerome, Commentary on Isaiah, 15.11:

It is very marvelous how they can buy water without money and do not drink it but eat it. For he who came down from heaven is himself both bread and water.… We read that he mixed wine and wisdom in his bowl, telling all the fools of this age and the world who do not have wisdom to drink, that we buy not only wine but also milk, which signifies the innocence of little ones. The manner and type of this remains today in the Eastern churches, where wine and milk are given to the newborn in baptism.

Interesting this IV/Vth century Eastern custom, to give wine and milk to the newborn in baptism - never heard of this before. This would be off topic so we should stop with it here.

If we are looking in the Jewish exegetical lineage, we find some very interesting insights.

For water:

Avodah Zarah 5b: Rabbi Yoḥanan says in the name of Rabbi Bana’a: And the term waters is referring to nothing other than the Torah, as it is stated: “Ho, every one that thirsts, come for water” (Isaiah 55:1).

It seems there is a very solid exegetical tradition that would equate water = Torah, on the basis of Isaiah 55:1. See an example of it:

Mishneh Torah on Torah study 3:9

The words of the Torah are likened unto water, even as it is said: "Ho, everyone that thirsteth, come ye for water" (Isaiah 55:1), which is to teach you, even as waters do not gather in steep places, but flow by gravity and gather in a well, so are the words of the Torah, they are not found among the high spirited nor in the heart of all haughty but in the humble and meek spirited who embraces the dust of the feet of the wise and removes the passions and the pleasures of the age from his heart and does a little work daily for his living, if he happens to be unprovided with food, and the rest of his days and his nights he pursues the study of the Torah.

Almost the same idea in: Sukkah 52b:2; Kiddushin 30b:8; Sifrei Devarim 48:5, etc.

For wine and milk:

Ibn Ezra on Isaiah 55:1 Buy for nothing, and eat without paying. Wine and milk. Each serves both for food and drink, as medical authorities assert. The function of the drink is to dissolve the food and to accelerate its digestion; most beverages are believed to contain no elements of nourishment, but in wine and milk both properties are found, they nourish and accelerate the digestion. Wine and milk are mentioned because the Law is compared with them.

Almost the same idea in Shir HaShirim Rabbah 1:2:8. It would be interesting to see if there are other passages in the Bible + Jewish exegesis in which the Law is compared with wine and milk.

Therefore in Isaiah 55:1, the water, wine and milk offered by God himself would be symbols of spiritual blessings, offered for free to all who might be looking out for them. If we try to sum up the symbols mentioned above, these would be: Torah, wisdom, innocence. There is an idea of gradation, indeed. The good old Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible would mention this.

In the end, if we take into account this idea of gradation too, the meaning could be: thorough the study of the Torah (the Law of God), through getting to know the will of God, one would gain wisdom and reach innocence.

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