Disclaimer: I wrote this post before starting graduate biblical studies. As a result, I must admit that while the ideas seem plausible, I would not write this article the same if I were writing it today. However, I’ve left it up for the now because I think that the scriptural connections are still worth thinking about.
In Matthew 21:19-22 (and also in Mark 11) we find the story of Jesus cursing a fig tree because he couldn’t find any fruit on it. This at first seems inane. Why would the supposed Son of God get so upset over not finding any fruit that he would lash out and curse it, a seemingly careless abuse of his God-given powers? Did he have a lapse of judgment? Or was this action, as was every action, a carefully planned and perfectly executed teaching for his talmidim (disciples)? But what does it mean?
If you want to understand a teacher, first endeavor to understand their teaching methods. If you do not understand how they taught, then their points will largely go over your head. You may be able to get the broader concepts, but the fine points will be lost to you. Rabbis in the time of Jesus had specific teaching styles they used, and if you understand them, you will understand their teachings. Jesus is one such rabbi.
There is a rabbinical teaching method known as pardes, where the consonants stand for four different teaching methods: p’shat, remez, drash, and sod. The rabbis have said that each passage of scripture contains all four progressively deeper understandings of the text. P’shat is the plain and simple meaning of the text. Remez is one of the methods that Jesus used quite often when he quoted scripture, which is a teaching method by which the teacher quotes a verse from the Bible but the point he is making is from the verses surrounding the one he quoted. The third level, drash, is the use of an allegory when quoting scripture; comparing it to mean something today that it did not mean then (Matthew does this in Matt 2:23). Do not mistake drash as parables; parables and pardes are two separate teaching methods in the rabbinic style. The final level, sod (pronounced: sohd), is the mystical understanding (usually arrived at by operating on the numerical values of the words in the scriptural text). In this post I will discuss one of Jesus’ most famous uses of the drash and remez teaching styles together in a single teaching, a use which I had not previously seen – the cursing of the fig tree.
The Fig Tree
Before getting into a discussion about what Jesus’ cursing of the fig tree means, we need to understand the symbolism of the tree he chose to use. The fig tree is one that runs very deep in Jewish religious significance.
We first see the fig tree in the Garden of Eden as the choice of covering for Adam and Eve after they disobey God. But interestingly there is perhaps more. The Bible leaves out the type of fruit produced by the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil (even though it is commonly falsely assumed to be an apple) and then very conspicuously tells us what kind of leaves Adam and Eve made clothes from.
“And they sewed the leaves of the fig [te’enah] together.” R. Simeon b. Yohai said; “That is the leaf which brought the occasion [to’anah] – for death – into the world.”
— Genesis Rabbah 19:6c
R. Simeon and other rabbis have made the conjecture that the detail of what kind of leaf they made clothes out of is mentioned specifically to clue us in to the type of fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. Their sin was not without its implications, and the way the writer of the Bible relays this is by having Adam and Eve cover up their new-found nakedness with the implement of their sin. Note that this doesn’t prove anything, because it’s not explicitly stated in the Bible, but understand that this idea (Tree of Knowledge was a fig tree) has been the understanding in most Jewish traditions.
The next thing to know about the fig tree is that it is one of the seven species which God spoke to the Israelites about being in the Promised Land.
For the LORD your God is bringing you into a good land—a land with streams and pools of water, with springs flowing in the valleys and hills; a land with wheat and barley, vines and fig trees, pomegranates, olive oil and honey.
–Deut. 8:7-8 (emphasis mine)
This is interesting because much later, in Jeremiah, we see God revoking their right to this promise regarding the Promised Land because of their sin.
I will take away their harvest,
declares the LORD.
There will be no grapes on the vine.
There will be no figs on the tree,
and their leaves will wither.
What I have given them
will be taken from them.
–Jeremiah 8:13 (emphasis mine)
And it is here that we come to two things. First, this passage should immediately strike you because it sounds alot like what Jesus does in the Gospels when he curses the fig tree. This is the passage from which he bases his teaching from – we’ll get to that in a moment. The second thing is that after the Babylonian Exile the fig tree became a messianic symbol, and the fig tree bearing fruit became a sign of the coming of the messiah, as figs feature prominently in many of the prophecies of the minor prophets.
Every man will sit under his own vine and under his own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid, for the LORD Almighty has spoken.
“In that day each of you will invite his neighbor to sit under his vine and fig tree,” declares the LORD Almighty.
In the passages above, sitting under a fig tree is representative of the Messiah’s reign. Jesus confirms this interpretation when he teaches his disciples about the mystery of the messiah’s first and second comings:
“Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. Even so, when you see all these things, you know that itis near, right at the door.”
And so Jesus, the master teacher, carefully chooses a fig tree to teach his disciples, knowing all of the tradition and messianic connotations it holds, and knowing that his disciples understood this too.
And with a context in mind, we now we come to the Gospel text to understand Jesus’ meaning. I’ll use Matthew’s version.
Seeing a fig tree by the road, he went up to it but found nothing on it except leaves. Then he said to it, “May you never bear fruit again!” Immediately the tree withered.
When the disciples saw this, they were amazed. “How did the fig tree wither so quickly?” they asked.
Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only can you do what was done to the fig tree, but also you can say to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and it will be done. If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.”
Jesus approached the fig tree and hoped to find fruit, even though it was out of season. Why? Certainly it wasn’t the fig tree’s fault that it wasn’t the season for figs, and also certainly Jesus knew it was not fig season. Was it just to show his disciples what asking God can do? It seems rather rash that Jesus would curse a fig tree and only use it as an example of the kind of power a believing disciple can wield. On the surface this story seems like an absurd abuse of power. Doesn’t there seem like there would be more to this story? I think so.
Jesus, through action, pulls the text out of Jeremiah 8 and uses it as an allegory to his disciples. I would argue that Jesus’ words and then the subsequent withering of the fig tree would have (at the very least) recalled the words of Jeremiah 8 in the minds of the disciples. Jesus looking for fruit on the fig tree out of season signified the messiah coming to the people out of season. Jesus came as messiah, but was not what they expected, and so they turned their backs on him and produced no fruit. The fig tree, whose bearing of fruit signifies the coming of the messianic age, was barren, thus signifying that the messianic age was not yet to come. Jesus in turn, curses the tree to wither. In Jeremiah 8, the curse of the fig tree withering is because of the people’s unfaithfulness and thus God withers them as a people, destroying their cities and exiling them to distant lands.
The allegory is this: just as the people of Jeremiah’s day had no faith, but turned their backs on God and worshiped idols, so too the people of Jesus’ day had no faith and turned their backs on the messiah, and thus the messiah would not be accepted. The curse on the fig in Jeremiah meant the destruction of the people of Judah. The curse upon the fig tree by Jesus was allegorical to the same destruction that would be brought onto Jerusalem because they would not accept the messiah – because the fig tree had no fruit. This curse was realized in 70 AD at the fall of Jerusalem. Israel, as a nation (not as a people), withered.
Do not mistake this drash for replacement theology. I do not interpret this to mean that God is done with Israel as a people. Why? Because God wasn’t done with them in Jeremiah, rather, he took back a remnant which he compared to a basket of ripe figs while those who would be destroyed were compared to a basket of rotten figs (Jeremiah 24). Coincidence? I think not. God isn’t done with Israel as a people, rather, He destroyed them as a nation, just as He did in Jeremiah, because they turned away from Him. In this case, it’s not accepting the Messiah.
Remember that remez is when the teacher quotes a verse (or part of a verse) and his point is in the surrounding verses, often the verse before or the verse after. So after Jesus curses the fig tree in a beautiful drash, he then explains to his disciples that they must have faith and not doubt, the very thing that Israel suffered from in both Jeremiah’s day and Jesus’ day. The part of the verse that Jesus used in his live-action teaching was:
There will be no figs on the tree,
and their leaves will wither.
So what’s the very next part of the same verse?
What I have given them
will be taken from them.
I find this to be too meaningful to be coincidental. Jesus curses the fig tree and then explains that they must have faith to “receive whatever you ask for in prayer”. The remez is thus (this is a James paraphrase): “Israel will not accept me as messiah, and so what they have been given will be taken from them. But you who believe in me, have faith, and whatever you ask for will be given to you.” Do you see the connection between Jesus’ words and the passage in Jeremiah? To me, it’s too clear to be coincidence, and I don’t believe in a God of coincidence.
Jesus didn’t curse the fig tree in a fit of irrational anger at not finding fruit on a tree out of season. Jesus withered a fig tree to make a real impression on his disciples and teach them something important. He taught them that the messiah would be rejected, that the nation-state of Israel would be destroyed just as it was in Jeremiah, and for the exact same reasons. But there is hope, because while what the nation-state of Israel had would be taken away from them, whatever the believer in the messiah (Jew or Gentile) asks for will be given. It’s a rallying cry to accept the messiah, one which I hope the whole world will take up.
Peace to you,