The Curse of the Fig Tree


In Matthew 21:19-22 (and also in Mark 11) Jesus cursed a fig tree because he couldn’t find any fruit on it. Why would Jesus get so aggravated at a tree that has no fruit? As a side note, the parable in verses 33-46 of Matt 21 goes with this.

Part of the equation might be in understanding his teaching methods. We tend to miss things, and have things go over our heads because Rabbis in Jesus day had specific teaching styles and methods they used. So to understand their teachings and points, it is sometimes crucial to understand their strategy. Jesus is a Rabbi that fits this mold.

Pardes - an acronym of consonants that represent four different teaching methods:

P’shat - the plain and simple meaning of the text.

Remez (hint) - one of the methods that Jesus used quite often when he used his Bible (the OT better referred to as the Hebrew Scriptures) 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 either before or after (context), and because the audience of Jesus knew their text (and context), they got his meaning and message loud and clear, even if it was not plain (you have to know your book to participate).

Drash - using an allegory when quoting the text; comparing it to mean something today that it did not mean then (example in Matt 2:23) to be clear, parables and pardes are two separate teaching methods in the rabbinic style.

Sod - (pronounced sohd) the more mystical use of teaching and text usage (usually by using numerical values of the words in the scriptural text-Matt uses this in the first few chapters of his gospel in Jesus Genealogy where you find 777777777777).

Rabbis have said that each passage of Scripture contains all four continual deeper and fuller understandings of the text.

This is a very brief overview of something that the Scriptures speak to in depth. There is so much that could go along with this. Much of what the Gospel writers record of Jesus’ words, send us into the Hebrew Scriptures to find more context of that which he speaks.
The fig tree is no exception and has much symbolic meaning and “roots” in the Jewish/Hebrew culture. The first mention of the fig tree is in Genesis when Adam and Eve made coverings from its leaves…

“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

In Jewish tradition, R. Simeon and other Rabbis as well, said that the fig tree is mentioned in Genesis, to make a connection to the tree of knowledge. The implication is then that they are naked and are covering themselves with the very object of their sins. It is not stated in the Bible in this fashion (as typifies the western approach)this is how Hebrew literature and the exegete work. It has also been tradition (perhaps there is merit or not). The midrash is there either way and does not change the outcome of the message (it just makes it a bit leafier).
The fig tree was one of the seven kinds of tree which God made reference in relation to 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

God, later on through his servant Jeremiah revoked their right to the Promised land saying: 

“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

After the Jews returned from the Babylonian exile, the tree (fig) became a symbol of the Messiah (also of the leadership of Israel, among other things) and bearing fruit was specifically a sign of the coming of the messiah and the messianic period called (among many things) “the age to come”. Figs are referenced in some of the Minor Prophets. For example: 

“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.”–Micah 4:4 

(which probably alludes to 1 Kings 4:25 and the Davidic and Solomonic golden age reigns, to which the messianic reign will be akin). Also, 

“In that day each of you will invite his neighbor to sit under his vine and fig tree,” declares the LORD Almighty.–Zechariah 3:10. 

With this as a backdrop for a history, we now come to where Jesus might be getting the idea for cursing the fig tree.

Jesus teaches this when telling his disciples about the messiah’s 1st and 2nd coming…

“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 it is near, right at the door.”–Matthew 24:32-33. 

He uses the tree that has meaning of Messianic symbols to show his disciples, and something that they would have understood well.

Now we get to the part about the curse. The tree was out of season, so why curse a tree that is just doing what it is supposed to do? Jesus knew it was not fig season. It is obviously a teaching moment.

Through his action of cursing the tree, would the disciples have gone to Jeremiah 8? It appears that this is the base passage he is referencing. A direct rebuttal of the leadership is what the disciples would have seen in this. Would they perhaps have realized that their leaders (Sadducees) time would come, and because of their leaders refusal to obey (such as in the time of the exile) 70 A.D. and the fall of Jerusalem would be the ultimate outcome? Ezekiel spoke (prophesied) about the irresponsible shepherds to which Jesus then makes reference in another place (but that will have to wait until another time).

After cursing the tree, he tells his disciples that they must have faith and not doubt, which was the very thing that Israel suffered from in both Jeremiah’s and Jesus’ day. 

“There will be no figs on the tree, and their leaves will wither…” –Jeremiah 8:13.

And what is the very next part of the same verse? 

“What I have given them will be taken from them.” –Jeremiah 8:13. 

He cursed the tree and explained that there must be faith to ask and receive in prayer.

Then in vs 43, 

"Therefore I say to you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you, and be given to a nation producing the fruit of it." 

There were other teachings of Jesus very akin to this as well.

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