A Fig Tree without Figs

No, not mine; my fig tree continues to thrive.  I’m already contemplating what to do with the growing figs–all four of them–when they are ripe:  Will I eat them raw, or will I grill them?  And when will they be ripe enough to eat?  I squeeze them every few days to check (probably not a good idea).

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(This is a photo of my fig tree taken today.)

As I watch the figs on my fig tree grow bigger with each passing day, I’m reminded of another fig tree in the Bible: the one that Jesus encountered on the road between Bethany and Jerusalem during what has come to be called  ‘Passion Week’. The encounter is described in both Matthew’s and Mark’s Gospels (Mt  21:18-19, 20-22; Mk 11:12-14, 20-25).  The encounter went like this:  As Jesus was returning to Jerusalem after spending the night in Bethany, he became hungry.  Spotting a lone fig tree by the side of the road, he went over to it to get some figs to eat, but he found no fruit on the tree, only leaves.

Until I had a fig tree growing in my own backyard, I had no idea just how unusual that would be.  As I observed my own tree after the period of winter dormancy had ended, I noticed little green swellings–immature figs; leaves made their appearance after.  This growth pattern would be true of the fig trees that grew in Judaea as well.

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(This is what my fig tree looked like back in April.  Jesus’ encounter with the barren fig tree occurred just prior to the Passover in the Hebrew month of Nisan (our March/April).

If there were leaves on the fig tree encountered by Jesus, there should have been evidence of fruit.  Finding no fruit, Jesus said to the tree: “May no one ever eat fruit from you again!” (Mk 11:14). In Matthew’s account, the fig tree withered immediately (21:19).  In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus and his disciples observe the withered tree the next morning as they head back into Jerusalem (11:20). At first glance, Jesus’ destruction of the fig tree seems like a gross over-reaction.  After all, as Mark notes, Jesus found nothing but leaves for it was not the season for figs (11:13).  The first crop of figs does not ripen until June.

To make sense of Jesus’ harsh reaction, Bible scholars suggest that we think of it as a prophetic gesture, or sign-action.  Hebrew prophets not infrequently dramatized their messages in order to get their points across. Often their actions took bizarre forms.  Consider Jeremiah, for example, who was directed by the Lord to buy an earthenware jar, then take some of the elders and some of the senior priests, and together go out to the valley of Ben-hinnon.  There, Jeremiah was to break the jar in front of them to illustrate how God was going to break the people and the city of Jerusalem in judgment (Jer 19:1-15).

Jesus’ prophetic gesture was directed at a fig tree in the company of his disciples.  Why a fig tree?  The answer lies in the writings of the Hebrew prophets Jeremiah, Hosea, Joel, and Micah where Israel is not infrequently pictured as a fig tree.  In the book of Hosea, God says:  “I found Israel like grapes in the wilderness; / I saw your forefathers as the earliest fruit on the fig tree in its first season” (9:10).  In Joel, God calls Israel “my fig tree” (1:7).

History confirms that Jesus’ destruction of the fig tree was indeed a prophetic sign-action.  In AD 70, thirty-seven years after Jesus’ crucifixion (believed to have taken place in AD 33), Roman armies penetrated Jerusalem’s walls, destroying the Temple and razing the city. Not one stone of the magnificent Temple was left standing on another, just as Jesus had predicted (Mk 13:2). Sixty-five years later,  in AD 135, the Roman emperor Hadrian founded a pagan city, Aelia Capitolina, on the ruins of Jerusalem.  Jews were forbidden access to the new city built now according to Hellenistic plans.  Where the Jewish Temple once stood, Hadrian had a temple erected to the pagan god Jupiter Capitolinus.  And, in order to erase all Jewish connection to the land, Hadrian renamed what was once the Roman province of Judea as Syria Palaestina.  The fig tree had indeed withered to its very roots!

That Jesus’ ‘cursing’ of the fig tree was a predictive act is clear.  That said, it was obviously an indictment of Israel’s spiritual barrenness as well.  Not only had Israel’s religious leaders failed to recognize Jesus as their Messiah, they had become his fiercest opponents.  There was an outward display of religiosity–like the showy leaves on the fig tree–but no faith.  That would be true of many churches today as well.

As I read the story of the withered fig tree, I can’t help but think how differently I must view it compared to someone reading it in, say, 1017 or 1517 or 1917.  Unlike earlier generations of Bible-readers, I am part of that generation which has witnessed the return of the Jewish people to their historic homeland; the creation of the modern state of Israel; and the re-taking of Jerusalem.  To me, these events say that the story of God’s ‘fig tree’, Israel, is still unfolding.

 

 

 

 

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My Fig Tree Is Making Scripture Come Alive

Last summer I was given a small fig tree to grow in a container in my backyard.  I hadn’t  realized that such a gardening feat was even possible until I saw a fig tree with ripening figs, growing in a container on a friend’s small wooden deck.  I knew then that I wanted one for my back yard, too.  Watching an exotic tree grow would be fascinating, I thought, and if all went well, in time I might have the satisfaction of eating a couple of my own home-grown figs.

There were no visible changes in my little fig tree before it shed its few leaves and went dormant for the winter.  With the coming of spring, my fig tree suddenly came to life!  First there were barely-discernable tiny green bumps on the two stems, signs of fruit to come; then leaves began to sprout.  No visible flowers, though.  The tiny, green flowers produced by a fig tree grow inside a receptacle called a syncomium, which eventually becomes the fig.

As I watched the transformation unfolding before my eyes, I was reminded of Jesus’ response to his disciples who wanted to know when the prophesied destruction of the Jerusalem Templewould take place:  “[L]earn the parable from the fig tree:  when its branch has already become tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near, ” he had said to them (Mark 13:28).

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My Fig Tree As It Begins to Grow Fruit and Leaves in the Spring

As I thought about this, other occurrences of fig trees in the Bible, both literal and figurative, came to mind.  The first mention of a fig tree comes in the third chapter of Genesis in the story of ‘the Fall’.

The Garden of Eden must have been indescribably beautiful:  “the LORD GOD made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground–trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food” (Ge 2:9). Only two trees in the garden are named:  the tree of life standing in the very middle of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (2:9).  Out of all the trees in the garden, only one was ‘off limits’ to Adam and Eve:  the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  If they were to eat of it, God warned them, they would die (2:17).

Nevertheless, our first ancestors, seduced by the lies of the crafty serpent, did eat the fruit (3:6). (What kind of fruit it was, we don’t know, but it probably wasn’t an apple.)  Instead of finding themselves clothed in fine white linen like gods, Adam and Eve discovered that they were stark naked, and so they sewed fig leaves together to cover themselves up before running off to hide from God among the trees (3:7-8).

Growing up on the prairies and thus having no idea what a fig tree looked like, I had envisioned Adam and Eve frantically stitching together leaves about the size of arugula to make some sort of covering.  Their leafy creations have been translated variously by Bible translators:  aprons (KJV), loincloths (ESV), loin coverings (NASB), and coverings (NIV).  Knowing now just how big fig leaves get to be, even on a tree as small as mine, I think they were able to put something together quite quickly.

My Fig Tree at the Time of Writing This Blog

The primordial pair chose what was no doubt one of the largest leaves among the trees in the garden  The suggestive shape of the leaf may have had something to do with their choice as well!  Medieval artists seem to have thought so.  Adam and Eve and their fig leaves were depicted frequently in medieval art.

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A Painting of Adam and Eve by Albrecht Durer (1471-1528) (Public Domain)

Making coverings from fig leaves was an act of desperation by the primordial couple, experiencing shame and fear for the  first time.  Sin had entered the picture, ending their intimate relationship with God.  Yet, even before God drove them out of the garden, He announced His plan to restore that relationship.   He cursed the serpent and declared war on him:  “…I will put enmity / Between you and the woman, / And between your seed and her seed; / He shall bruise you on the head, / And you shall bruise him on the heel” (3:15).  Christians believe that the “seed of the woman” is a reference to Jesus and, thus, this passage has come to be known as the Protoevangelium, the ‘first gospel’.  The good news:   the estrangement between God and humans will not be permanent.