WHY WAS THE FIG TREE CURSED BY THE LORD JESUS

 

1. INTRODUCTION

 1.1   Topic

                 Why Was the Fig Tree Cursed by Jesus? (Mark 11:12-14)

 1.2   The Parable

        This incident is related by Mark 11:12-14 and, in a more compressed form, by Matthew 21:18-19. According to Mark, Jesus and his disciples spent the night following his entry into Jerusalem in Bethany. Next morning they returned to Jerusalem. On the way he felt hungry, and “seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to find out if it had any fruit. When he reached it, he found nothing but leaves, because it was not the season for figs.” Then Jesus cursed the tree, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” They continued on their way into Jerusalem, where that day he cleansed the temple; in the evening they returned to Bethany. Next morning, as they passed the same place, they saw the fig tree withered away to its roots. And Peter remembered and said to him, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree you cursed has withered!” (Mark 11:20–21)[1].

 1.3   Problems

        This miraculous action performed by Jesus in Mark’s gospel has always been a problem for commentators and preachers. The problems in the exposition of this parable are as follows:

  1. Unlike the other miracles in the gospels, for instead of pronouncing a word of salvation, which brings life, Jesus here utters a curse[2], it is a purely destructive act, which achieves no useful purpose.

  2. Mark told us that it was in any case not the time of year when figs might be expected. The whole story seems quite discreditable.

 

2. STUDY THE BIBLICAL PASSAGE

 2.1   Compare Different Translations (Mark 11:12-14)

 

The Revised Standard Version[3]

The New International Version[4]

The King James Version[5]

Analytical Greek New Testament[6]

12.

On the following day, when they came from Bethany, he was hungry.

The next day as they were leaving Bethany, Jesus was hungry.

And on the morrow, when they were come from Bethany, he was hungry:

Καὶ τῇ ἐπαύριον ἐξελθόντων αὐτῶν ἀπὸ Βηθανίας ἐπείνασεν.

13.

And seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see if he could find anything on it. When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs.

Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to find out if it had any fruit. When he reached it, he found nothing but leaves, because it was not the season for figs.

And seeing a fig tree afar off having leaves, he came, if haply he might find any thing thereon: and when he came to it, he found nothing but leaves; for the time of figs was not yet.

καὶ ἰδὼν συκῆν ἀπὸ μακρόθεν ἔχουσαν φύλλα ἦλθεν, εἰ ἄρα τι εὑρήσει ἐν αὐτῇ, καὶ ἐλθὼν ἐπ᾽ αὐτὴν οὐδὲν εὗρεν εἰ μὴ φύλλα ὁ γὰρ καιρὸς οὐκ ἦν σύκων.

14.

And he said to it, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard it.

Then he said to the tree, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard him say it.

And Jesus answered and said unto it, No man eat fruit of thee hereafter for ever. And his disciples heard it.

καὶ ἀποκριθεὶς εἶπεν αὐτῇ, Μηκέτι εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα ἐκ σοῦ μηδεὶς καρπὸν φάγοι. καὶ ἤκουον οἱ μαθηταὶ αὐτοῦ.

 

 

3. HORTICULTURAL ASPECT OF FIG TREES IN PALESTINE

3.1   The Time When Jesus Cursed the Fig Tree

           When Jesus returned to Jerusalem from Bethany (Mark 11:12-14), it was Monday, the fourth day before the Passover (cf. Mark 14:1).[7] Passover was in the middle of the month of Nisan (April).[8] The cursing of the fig tree in its time setting raises the question whether one might expect to find edible figs which are possibly early unripe figs (green knops) or late figs from the previous season at the time of the Passover.[9]           

3.2   How Many Harvests Can A Fig Tree Produce Per Year?

           In reality, figs are usually gathered in one main harvest from the middle of August well into October. These are the ‘summer figs’, and have developed from buds sprouting on the new wood of the tree. However, the ‘first-ripe fig’ is produced from buds sprouting on the old wood of the previous year. These buds, remaining undeveloped throughout the winter, swell into little green knops in March-April, followed shortly thereafter by the development of the leaf-bud. Therefore, leaves are usually to be found on the tree in April. The green knops mature in June and the first-ripe figs are considered a delicacy. Many green knops do not ripen, however, and simply drop off.[10] The so-called ‘winter figs’, which many commentators suggest are rare and, if found, inedible, are basically neglected or immature ‘summer’ figs which have survived the winter and ripened with clement conditions in the springtime. They are ‘chance finds’ which have no organic connection with the tree’s sprouting of leaves.[11]

4. THE OLD TESTAMENT BACKGROUND

4.1   Fig Trees Mentioned in the Old Testament

           The fig was an emblem of peace, security and prosperity (1 Kings 4:25; Isaiah 36:16; Micah 4:4). It is prominent when descriptions of the Golden Ages of Israel’s history including:

  1. the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:7);

  2. the Exodus (Psalm 105:33);

  3. the Wilderness (Numbers 20:5);

  4. the Promised Land (Numbers 13:23; Deuteronomy 8:8);

  5. the reign of Solomon (1 Kings 5:5);

  6. the reign of Simon Maccabaeus (1 Maccabees 14:12); and

  7. the coming Messianic Age (Zechariah 3:10).

           It is also prominent in the prophetic books with an eschatological import (Haggai 2:19; Zechariah 3:10; Micah 4:4).

           The blossoming of the fig tree and its giving of its fruits is a descriptive element in passages which depict Yahweh’s visiting His people with blessing (Deuteronomy 8:8; 1 Kings 5:5; 1 Maccabees 14:12). While the withering of the fig tree figures in imagery describing Yahweh’s judgement upon His people (Habakkuk 3:17; Jeremiah 5:17; 8:13; Hosea 2:12; Joel 1:7; 1:12; Amos 4:9).

           In some cases, the fig or fig tree can be used expressly as a symbol for the nation Israel itself (Judges 9:7-15; Jeremiah 24; 29:15-17; Hosea 9:10).

           The reason given for God’s judgement on Israel is her condemnation for a corrupt Temple cultus  (Jeremiah 7:11) and sacrificial system (Jeremiah 6:19-21).

           The ‘hunger’ datum of Mark 11:12 contains an allusion to Jeremiah 8:13 and that Jesus’ hungering for figs is to be seen as metaphorical in the same way as God’s search for figs (i.e. righteous fruits in Israel).[12]

           In the coming Messianic Age, there would be abundant fruitfulness, the trees would bear fruit prodigiously. The Temple would be its source with water flowing from beneath its threshold to nourish the land (Ezekiel 47:12).

           Yahweh would come to His Temple (cf. Malachi 3:1; Mark 11:15-17).

4.2   Discussion

           After studying the Old Testament background, I found that the Markan readers who were steeped in the Old Testament concepts about the symbolism of fig trees would have the following concepts in their mind when they interpreted Jesus’ cursing of the fig tree:

  1. The fig tree can be used as a symbol for the nation Israel.

  2. Jesus’ hungering for figs is to be seen in the same way as God’s search for figs (i.e. righteous fruits in Israel).

  3. In the Messianic Age, there would be abundant fruitfulness, all the trees would bear fruit prodigiously. Therefore, it is reasonable for Jesus to expect the fig tree to bear fruits for Him even though ‘it was not the season for figs’.

  4. The cursing of the fig tree by Jesus, and then the subsequent withering of the tree was an eschatological sign prefiguring the judgement upon the nation Israel.

           For Mark and his readers, the scenario had already been predicted and recorded in the pages of the Old Testament. The cursing of the fig tree by Jesus was an eschatological sign prefiguring the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple. In their actual experience, the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple was fulfilled in AD 70.

 

5.  THE LATE JEWISH BACKGROUND 

5.1   A Fig Tree Could Bear Fruits Out of Season

        The modern reader finds Mark’s story puzzling for many reasons. One of the puzzles is that Jesus should speak to the tree as if it were a person and curse it for not serving His needs.[13] However, in the world of the late Jewish literatures, such as: Haggadah, talking to trees is nothing unusual.[14] There was a story given in B.Ta’an.24a (Sonc., p.122):

“Once R. Jose had day-labourers (i.e. working) in the field; night set in and no food was brought to them and they said to his son, ‘We are hungry’. Now they were resting under a fig tree and he exclaimed: Fig tree, fig tree, bring forth thy fruit that my father’s labourers may eat. It brought forth fruit and they ate. Meanwhile the father came and said to them, ‘Do not bear a grievance against me; the reason for my delay is because I have been occupied up till now on an errand of charity.’ The labourers replied, ‘May God satisfy you even as your son has satisfied us.’ Whereupon he asked, ‘Whence?’ And they told him what had happened. Thereupon he said to his son, ‘My son, you have troubled your Creator to cause the fig tree to bring forth its fruit before its time, may you too be taken hence before your time!’”[15]

           In describing a fig tree’s response to the request of a Rabbi’s son, this haggadic tale furnishes a close parallel to our Markan story. In relation to Mark’s account, this episode constitutes a converse miracle, for here the fig tree does meet the needs of the persons involved and does so notably by bearing fruits out of season. This story demonstrates that a fig tree bearing fruits out of season was possible in a Jewish environment in the first-century. Therefore, the readers at that time would expect that Mark’s fig tree could have supplied Jesus with fruits even though ‘it was not the season for figs’.

           Apart from this, it could also be an eschatological dimension here. The father’s curse may reflect his offence at his son’s presumption in advancing the conditions that were associated with the Messianic Age, an act that was considered to be the prerogative of God Himself or His Messiah. In Mark, the fig tree is cursed for refusing Jesus fruits, so emphasizing its failure to recognize and respond to the signs of the New Age (i.e. Messianic Age) that had already begun in Jesus (i.e. Messiah).[16]

 

6. THE NEW TESTAMENT BACKGROUND 

6.1   End-time Expectation in the Early Church

           For the early church, many Jewish people expected that the Messianic Age had dawned with the coming of Jesus. Evidences for such expectation were given in the following New Testament passages:

  1. Nature was responsive to Jesus. Winds and waves had obeyed Him (Mark 4:35-41). He had walked across the water (Mark 6:45-52).

  2. Demons had been exorcised by Jesus (Matthew 12:28; Luke 11:20).

  3. The blind were made to see, the deaf to hear, the lame to walk (cf. Matthew 11:5; Luke 7:22; Isaiah 29:18; 43:8).

  4. Jesus Himself had seen Satan fall from heaven (Luke 10:18).

  5. Followers of Jesus were promised immunity from snake bites and deadly poison (cf. Mark 16:18; Luke 10:19; Acts 28:3-6; Isaiah 11:8-9; 65:25).

           The following New Testament passages indicate that the concept of ‘Messianic Age would be a time of abundant fruitfulness’ was  also entertained in New Testament times:

  1. Followers of Jesus would be repaid for their sacrifices ‘a hundredfold in this present age’ (Mark 10:29-30).

  2. The harvest expected from the sowing of the gospel would be ‘hundredfold’ repayment (Mark 4:8).

           Drawing examples from the Old Testament, the late Jewish Rabbinic literatures and the New Testament, Hiers concludes:

there is abundant evidence that many Jews, both before and after Jesus’ time, believed that in the Messianic Age, the fertility of nature would be so transformed that the ground would yield a continuous harvest, and tree and vine would be everbearing.[17]

 

7. CONCLUSION 

7.1   A Suggested Solution to the Problems

           “On the following day, when they came from Bethany, he was hungry        (v. 12). And seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see if he could find anything on it. When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs (v. 13).”[18]

           ‘he was hungry’ – Jesus may be hungry at that moment. However, the statement could also be taken metaphorically to mean Jesus’ desire for the righteous fruits in Israel (cf. Mark 11:12; Jeremiah 8:13).

           ‘seeing … a fig tree’ – When Jesus saw the fig tree, He used it to teach a symbolic lesson upon Israel, in particular the Temple and its leaders (Judges 9:7-15; Jeremiah 24; 29:15-17; Hosea 9:10).

           ‘in leaf’ – Fig trees usually produce fruits before leaves, therefore the presence of leaves attracted Jesus went to the tree in search of something to eat, and adds force to the following statement about its having ‘nothing but leaves.’

           ‘if he could find anything on it’ – Jesus expected that the tree should have fruits for Him to eat due to the presence of leaves.

           ‘he found nothing but leaves’ – This statement declares that the tree was completely barren, and it did not even have immature figs on it. Barrenness occurs in the Old Testament as an expression of Israel’s failure to produce righteousness fruits for God (Jeremiah 8:13). Similarly, Jesus’ futile quest for fruits from the barren fig tree has been seen as a parable of His quest for the righteousness within Israel. The close association of the fig tree narrative (Mark 11:12-14) with the Temple demonstration (Mark 11:15-17) suggests that this quest for righteousness should be understood as a quest for righteousness at Israel’s religious life, that is the corrupt Temple cultus (Jeremiah 7:11) and sacrificial system (Jeremiah  6:19-21).

           ‘for it was not the season for figs’ – Why would Mark have added this comment? This comment serves two functions:

  1. It prevents the readers to have a false impression that Jesus (as the Creator of the Universe) did not know about the horticultural aspect of fig trees. In other words, Jesus was well aware of the normal season of having the main harvest of figs. He really expected the tree could bear fruits even though it was out of the normal harvest season (Haggadah B.Ta’an.24a).

  2. It reflects a concern for chronological details, and shows that Mark understood the story as an actual event located in the context of Passover rather than merely as a symbolic gesture. [19] In this connection, the story of Jesus’ cursing of the fig tree should be taken as a real historical event.

           In the Messianic Age, there would be abundant fruitfulness (cf. Ezekiel 47:12; Mark 4:8; 10:29-30). Therefore, Jesus (i.e. the Messiah) could expect the fig tree to bear fruits for Him even though ‘not in the season’. In addition, since nature was responsive to Jesus (Mark 4:35-41; 6:45-52), the fig tree should also be responsive to Jesus’ quest for fruits. Since the tree failed to bear fruits for Jesus, it was actually guilty of disobedience to its Messiah.

           Jesus used a fig tree to teach an eschatological lesson prefiguring the judgement of the nation Israel (in particular the Temple and its leaders).          

7.2   Summary

           Jesus was looking for a fig at a time when no one could expect an eatable fig. In refusing Him fruit at this time, the fig tree proved that it was wrong, not Jesus, for it failed to recognize the advent of the Messianic Age and was thus rightfully condemned. The statement ‘not in the season’ showed that Jesus was not ignorant about the normal harvest of figs, and the story was an actual historical event.

           The fig tree represents the nation Israel (in particular the religious leaders), unresponsive to Jesus as He came to it with the message of God, and thereby incurring judgement.


[1] Kaiser, W.C., Hard Sayings of the Bible, Downers Grove, Il: InterVarsity 1997, 441.

[2] Hooker, M.D., The Gospel According to Saint Mark, Black’s New Testament Commentaries, London: Hendrickson Publishers 1999, 263.

[3] Catholic Biblical Association (Great Britain), The Holy Bible: Revised Standard Version, Catholic Edition, New York: National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA, 1997.

[4] The Holy Bible: New International Version, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996.

[5] The Holy Bible: King James Version, Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1995.

[6] Friberg, B.,  Friberg, T., Aland, K., Analytical Greek New Testament, Baker's Greek New Testament library, Cedar Hill, Texas: Silver Mountain Software, 2001.

[7] Wuest, K.S., Wuest's Word Studies from the Greek New Testament: For the English Reader, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997, Mk 11:12.

[8] Walvoord, J.F., Zuck, R.B., & Dallas Theological Seminary, The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1983, 1985.

[9] Kittel, G., Friedrich, G. & Bromiley, G.W., Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans, 1995, 1100.

[10] Bromiley, G.W., The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Revised, Wm. B. Eerdmans, Vol. II, 1988,  302.

[11] Hunzinger, C.H., Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Vol. 7, Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans, 1971, 753.

[12] Schweizer, E., The Good News according to Mark, Transl. D.H., Madvig. London: SPCK, 1971, 104.

[13] Haechen, E., Der Weg Jesu, Berlin: Alfred Topelmann, 1966, 380.

[14] Derrett, J.D.M., Figtrees in the New Testament, HeythJ, 14, 1973, 252.

[15] Goldschmidt, Der babylonische Talmud, III, 496.

[16] Telford, R.W., The Barren Temple and the Withered Tree, Journal for the Study of the New Testament Supplement Series 1, Sheffield, JSOT Press 1980, 189.

[17] Hiers, R.H., Not the Season for Figs, JBL, 87, 1968, 395.

[18] Catholic Biblical Association (Great Britain), The Holy Bible: Revised Standard Version, Catholic Edition, New York: National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA, 1997.

[19] Evans, C.A., Mark 8:27-16:20, (Word Biblical Commentary 34b), Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 2002, 153.

 

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