“He Tethers His Donkey to the Vine” - Judah Exported Soreqa Wine
On his deathbed, Jacob gathers his sons to his side to tell them what will befall each of them in the future (Gen 49:1). His message to Judah begins with a straightforward promise that Judah will become a powerful kingdom, defeating its foes and leading the other tribes of Israel (vv. 8–10). It then moves on to an obscure metaphor about a man tying his donkey to a grapevine:
בראשׁית מט:יא אֹסְרִי לַגֶּפֶן עִירֹה
וְלַשֹּׂרֵקָה בְּנִי אֲתֹנוֹ
Gen 49:11 He tethers his jack (donkey) to the vine,
The offspring of his jenny to the soreqa vine.
The second line, in parallel with the first, restates the phrase about the donkey and the vine using different terms. The verb in the opening clause, “he tethers,” describes the action in both lines.
The next couplet describes Judah washing his clothing in wine:
כִּבֵּס בַּיַּיִן לְבֻשׁוֹ
וּבְדַם עֲנָבִים סוּתֹה.
He washes his garment in the wine,
his robe in (the) blood of grapes.
This passage is generally understood as an exaggerated image: Judah will have so much wine that people will wash their garments in wine instead of water. More likely, it carries a sense similar to the modern use of the term “awash” to refer to being “full of or abounding in” something. Judah will be awash with wine, such that the flood of it will stain the people’s garments red.
The second part of this verse does not clarify the meaning of the metaphor in its first half: what does it mean to tether a donkey to a grapevine?
An Abundant Grape Harvest
As Nahum Sarna (1923–2005) of Brandeis University notes in his commentary on Genesis (ad loc.):
The image is problematic because an ass would soon destroy the vine to which it is tied.
Donkeys have a large appetite, so an owner who tethers his donkey to his grape vine risks the donkey eating the grapes, the grape leaves, and probably parts of the vine, too. Such an image makes little sense as a message of prosperity for Judah. Thus Sarna explains:
The idea, apparently, is that the luxuriance and productivity of the vine will be so great that the destructive proclivities of the ass will be of no significance. This is hyperbolic language, as Radak noted.
Sarna here refers to the Radak’s reading (Rabbi David Kimhi; 1160–1235 C.E.):
ובזה הפסוק שבח ארץ יהודה שתהיה טובה ודשנה עד שכל אחד מהם יאסר את חמורו לגפן אחת שיאכל ממנה ואינו חושש כל כך יהיו ענבים רבים בגפן.
The entire verse is a praise of the quality of the land apportioned to the tribe of Judah which yields such bountiful harvests that the farmer can tie his donkey to the vine, so that he can eat from it, without being all that worried since the vine has so many grapes.
After quoting a second interpretation (that of Rashi, see below), Radak ends with this summary:
וכן מרב היין אם ירצה יכבס בגדיו ביין, וכפל הענין במלות שונות.
Similarly, as he has so much surplus of wine, he washes his clothes in wine. It is the same point with different ways of expressing it.
Rashi (Rabbi Solomon b. Isaac; 1040–1105 C.E.) also interprets the lines as reflecting plenty, but the hyperbole he imagines is more muted, painting a particularly successful harvesting scene:
נתנבא על ארץ יהודה שתהא מושכת יין כמעיין. איש יהודה יאסר לגפן עייר אחד ויטעננו מגפן אחת ומשורק אחת בן אתון אחד.
He (Jacob) prophesied of the land of Judah that it would run with wine like a fountain: The people of Judah will bind one colt to a vine, and he will fully load it with the grapes of only one vine, and from the produce of only one branch (soreqa), he will load one jenny’s foal.
In this reading, the animals will be tethered to the vine only while the grapes are being gathered. In an exaggerated image of how many grapes a single vine can produce, the passage declares that each vine will produce as many grapes as a donkey can carry. (A rough calculation of grape yields for an average vine, coupled with the weight that a typical donkey could bear, suggests that the vines in question would each yield 10–15 times the normal amount of grapes for a single vine.)
While the text certainly includes some hyperbole, I would argue that it is more than just an exaggerated image of the harvest; it’s also a metaphor that draws on aspects of wine production well known to the Judahite audience. The key is in the obscure term soreqa.
Soreqah: A Grape Variety
Gefen (גֶּפֶן) is the standard term in Biblical Hebrew for “vine,” but the term שׂרֵקָה (soreqa) appears only once in the Bible. The Septuagint renders the term as ἕλικι, namely, a branch or tendril of a vine. Similarly, the Syriac Peshitta translates it as שבוקא (ܫܒܘܩܐ) “vine shoot,” and the Latin Vulgate simply translates it as vitem “vine.”
Modern translators and commentators, however, understand שׂרֵקָה (soreqa) as a reference to a vine that produces a high-quality grape variety. This interpretation is based on a related form, שֹׂרֵק (soreq), which appears three times in the Bible.
Good Soreq Grapes Go Bad
Isaiah’s Song of the Vineyard uses the metaphor of YHWH planting a vineyard of שֹׂרֵק vines to describe his choosing the Israelites and establishing them in Canaan:
ישׁעיה ה:ב וַיְעַזְּקֵהוּ וַיְסַקְּלֵהוּ וַיִּטָּעֵהוּ שֹׂרֵק וַיִּבֶן מִגְדָּל בְּתוֹכוֹ וְגַם יֶקֶב חָצֵב בּוֹ וַיְקַו לַעֲשׂוֹת עֲנָבִים וַיַּעַשׂ בְּאֻשִׁים.
Isa 5:2 He broke the ground, cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines (שֹׂרֵק). He built a tower in the midst of it, and he hewed out a wine press in it. He expected it to produce good grapes, but it produced stinking grapes.
After planting his soreq vines, the vintner is surprised when their produce proves disappointing.
Jeremiah also draws on soreq as a desirable vine variety to depict YHWH’s expectations of his chosen people:
ירמיה ב.כא וְאָנֹכִי נְטַעְתִּיךְ שֹׂרֵק כֻּלֹּה זֶרַע אֱמֶת וְאֵיךְ נֶהְפַּכְתְּ לִי סוּרֵי הַגֶּפֶן נָכְרִיָּה.
Jer 2:21 I planted you with noble vines (שֹׂרֵק), all with choicest seed. Alas, I find you changed into a base, an alien vine!
As in Isaiah 5, YHWH plants his soreq with expectations of producing a fine vine, and again he is surprised when the vine disappoints him (though in this metaphor, it is not the grapes that go bad, but the vine itself.) In these passages, YHWH’s expectations of success suggest that soreq vines generally grew well and produced good fruit.
The third instance of soreq occurs in Judges 16:4, as a place name: נַחַל שׂרֵק, the Sorek Ravine (known also as Wadi es-Sarār), which lies to the west of Jerusalem. The name of the ravine and the name of the grape variety are likely connected: soreq grapes grew in the Sorek Ravine.
Indeed, when Samson marries the woman from Timnah (Tel Batash), which lies just to the south of the Sorek Ravine, the narrative describes Samson arriving at כַּרְמֵי תִמְנָתָה “the vineyards of Timnah” (Judg 14:5). In fact, excavations at Timnah have identified a probable winepress at the site dating to the 6th century B.C.E. Finally, the valley has “sloping hills,” access to water, and a soil type that would have provided good growing conditions for grape vines.
For most of the biblical period, the Sorek Ravine was in the territory of Judah, and thus it makes sense that the blessing in Genesis 49:11 would explicitly connect these high quality soreq vines to Judah, which would have been an ideal export product.
The Wine Trade in the Ancient Near East
Fine wines are often named after the region where the grapes are grown and the wine produced; Bordeaux, Chablis, and Champagne are some well-known modern examples. Such wines are exported all over the world for customers willing to pay for the superior product. The same was true in ancient times.
Textual evidence from the ancient Near East suggests that wines were identified, in part, by the region in which they were grown. Egyptian wine jars from the late second millennium B.C.E. appear to have been marked with information about the wines they contained, including ratings of the quality or type of wine and details about the region or vineyard that produced it.
Akkadian Kurunnu: Fine Wine
The Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II (604–562 B.C.E.) brags in his inscriptions about importing fine wines from several named locations to offer to the Babylonian gods:
Sweet kurunnu wine, “mountain beer,” the purest wine, (and) wine of the lands Izalla, Tuʾimmu, of Ṣimiri, of Ḫilbūnu, Arnabānu, Sūḫu, of Bīt-Kubāti, and Bītāti—countless (amounts), like water of a river—I copiously provided (all of this) for the table of the god Marduk and the goddess Zarpanītu, my lords.
Wine from Izalla
Izalla appears at the head of Nebuchadnezzar’s list of wine imports, indicating its importance. Ezekiel may also mention Izalla. The MT to Ezekiel 27:19 opens with the untranslatable phrase: וְדָן וְיָוָן מְאוּזָּל, “And Dan and Yavan from Uzal.” This line may represent a corruption from an original text that read: ודני יין מאיזל (wedannay yayin meʾizal), “and casks of wine from Izalla.”
Wine from Helbon
Ezekiel also mentions wine from Helbon (i.e., Ḫilbūnu in Nebuchadnezzar’s inscription) when describing Tyre profiting from trade:
יחזקאל כז:יח דַּמֶּשֶׂק סֹחַרְתֵּךְ בְּרֹב מַעֲשַׂיִךְ מֵרֹב כָּל הוֹן בְּיֵין חֶלְבּוֹן וְצֶמֶר צָחַר.
Ezek 27:18 Because of your wealth of merchandise, because of your great wealth, Damascus traded with you in Helbon wine and white wool.
Both place names refer to a valley in Syria that lies to the northwest of Damascus. The association of wealth and the wine of Helbon in this passage suggests that the wine was a prestige product and a profitable export for Damascus. That reputation apparently held for centuries: “More than half a millennium later, Strabo (62 B.C.E.–24 C.E.) claimed that the wine was so good that it was served to the kings of Persia.” Wine from the grapes grown in the Sorek Ravine, would have been another example of such a product.
Fine Wine from Judah
Egyptians long recognized Canaan as a land of good wine. An Egyptian tomb at Abydos, dated to the late 4th millennium B.C.E., included a large cache of wine jars. The features of the pottery and an analysis of the wine and grape remains suggest that the wine was imported from the southern Levant.
In the early second millennium B.C.E. Egyptian text, “Sinuhe,” the protagonist speaks of serving his master in Canaan:
It was a good land, called Yaa. Figs were in it and grapes. It had more wine than water. Abundant was its honey, plentiful its oil. All kinds of fruit were on its trees.
If the soreq grapes were as good as the biblical text seems to suggest, then wine made from them may also have been profitable as a trade item.
Logistics of Transporting Wine
Exporting wine in ancient times was difficult. Wine skins, and especially wine jars, were heavy and relatively fragile, making over-land transport both costly and risky. Since the expense and risk of shipping wine by land generally outweighed the potential for profit, the economic viability of the wine trade often depended on the availability of water transport.
Syrian wine producers shipped their products by river to southern Mesopotamia. Records found in excavations at Mari allow us to reconstruct the 18th century B.C.E. workings of the trade along the Euphrates River from Carchemish in the north to Mari.
By one estimate, traders could purchase wine in Carchemish, ship it down river, and sell it in Mari for up to three times the price they had paid. The value of one liter of wine could be equivalent to as much as 75% of a common worker’s daily wage. Thus, the wine trade was primarily for the benefit of the wealthy and elite.
Egyptian records from the mid-second millennium B.C.E. indicate that wines from Canaan were routinely shipped to Egypt from the seaport in Gaza. Coastal Ashkelon, which was a major wine producer in the seventh century B.C.E., would also have transported its wine by sea.
Land-locked Judah had no direct access to bodies of water for transporting wine outside of its own territory. Nevertheless, evidence of wine trade in Judah does exist. How would the wine get to the sea port in Gaza? This is where the donkeys in Genesis 49:11 come in.
Donkeys as Pack Animals
The standard word for “donkey” in biblical Hebrew is חֲמוֹר (ḥamor), but the text here uses the obscure term עַיִר (ʿayir). The exact meaning of the term, as well as its Akkadian cognate (ḫ)aiarum, has been debated.
Moshe Held (1924–1984), the late professor of Semitic languages and cultures at Columbia University, argued that the term means “colt,” i.e., not a full-sized donkey, and thus not a pack animal. One of his reasons for this interpretation is that the term is paired with “offspring of a jenny,” בֶּן אָתוֹן here and elsewhere in the Bible, as well as in Mari ritual texts.
Nevertheless, Kenneth C. Way, in his 2011 monograph, Donkeys in the Biblical World, argues that “offspring of a jenny” is not meant to communicate age but purity of species. The word ayir, he argues, can refer either to a male donkey or a male mule. Mules are the result of breeding a jack (=male donkey) with a mare (=female horse), so by noting that the ayir is the son of a jenny (=female donkey), the text clarifies that the beast is a purebred and not a mule.
Following Way’s understanding, ayir should be rendered as “jack,” a full-grown male donkey, an animal often used to carry travelers and transport trade goods.
Isaiah describes the king of Judah using jacks (עֲיָרִים) as pack animals to transport riches to Egypt in a bid to engage Egypt’s help against Assyria:
ישׁעיה ל:ו מַשָּׂא בַּהֲמוֹת נֶגֶב בְּאֶרֶץ צָרָה וְצוּקָה לָבִיא וָלַיִשׁ מֵהֶם אֶפְעֶה וְשָׂרָף מְעוֹפֵף יִשְׂאוּ עַל־כֶּתֶף עֲיָרִים חֵילֵהֶם וְעַל דַּבֶּשֶׁת גְּמַלִּים אוֹצְרֹתָם עַל עַם לֹא יוֹעִילוּ.
Isa 30:6 The “Beasts of the Negeb” Pronouncement. Through a land of distress and hardship, of lion and roaring king-beast, of viper and flying seraph, they convey their wealth on the backs of jacks, their treasures on camels’ humps, to a people of no avail.
Camels were more efficient pack animals for long distance transport, but camels’ footpads were less suited to hilly, rocky terrain. The Judahites would probably have used donkeys to transport their wines for the short trip from the hill country, where their vineyards were located, to a seaport, probably in Philistia, from which they could be shipped overseas.
Rich in Fine Wine for Export
Thus, the imagery of loading donkeys with grapes is not a general expression of plenty, but is meant to communicate that Judah will profit abundantly from its high-quality grapes, sending donkey after donkey loaded with soreqa wine down to the coast. From there, Judah’s wine would be sold to connoisseurs around the Mediterranean, who would appreciate this high-quality Judean vintage.
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Dr. Tina M. Sherman is an Editor for TheTorah.com. She holds a Ph.D in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies from Brandeis University. She is currently lecturing in Bible at the University of Minnesota and finalizing the manuscript for her first book, which explores how the prophetic authors used plant metaphors to construct national identities for Israel and Judah. She is also the author of the “Biblical Metaphor Annotated Bibliography” (2014) and co-author, with Bernard M. Levinson, of “Law and Legal Literature” in The Wiley Blackwell Companion to Ancient Israel (2016).
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