September 21, 2010

It Pays to Know Your Figs

More than a few readers of scripture have been troubled by Jesus' cursing of the figless tree recorded in Mark 11:12-14.  Jesus has been accused of being ill-tempered and irrational for cursing a tree because it had not produced any fruit even though it was not the season for fruit.  Is it wise, though, to be so energetically critical of the Christ?

According to F. F. Bruce, such criticism is the product of insufficient acquaintance with fig trees.  In his The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable?, Bruce points out that, "When the fig leaves appear about the end of March they are accompanied by a crop of small knobs, called taqsh by the Arabs, a sort of forerunner of the real figs." (73).  Peasants and others hungry folks would eat these taqsh, which would drop off prior to the growth of the full fig.  The important point for understanding Jesus' curse of the tree is that when taqsh do not appear along with the leaves, there will be no figs from that tree that year.  Thus, Jesus was not looking for the full fig but the taqsh.  And when he did not find it, he knew the tree would bear no fruit.  As Bruce says, the tree was both "fruitless and hopeless." 

As it turns out, both Jesus and Mark knew a bit more about Palestinian fig trees than do many modern day commentators, which serves as a warning to those who think they know better than Jesus.

6 comments:

ἐκκλησία said...

Matt, If F. F. Bruce's acquaintance with fig tress results in the conclusion about that suggests Jesus' actions were simply about fruitlessness and hopelessness, F.F. Bruce's acquaintance with (biblical) fig trees itself is insufficient.

What do your instincts tell you about Jesus' actions? What do you think the fig tree represents, and who was his example for (given that even his own disciples didn't understand it)? {hint: let the Bible interp. the Bible)

Matt O'Reilly said...

I take the fig tree to be a parable or illustration of the judgment Jesus pronounces on the temple in the next paragraph. Bruce agrees with that I believe. He's not negating that interpretation. His point was to support the reliability of the account of Jesus cursing the tree b/c of its fruitlessness. It didn't have fruit or the indicator that fruit would come at the right time. Likewise the temple system was fruitless and condemned.

ἐκκλησία said...

Matt there's more to it than that. God is not inconsistent in His prophetic language. Figs (and grapes) are absolutely obvious prophet symbols used consistently throughout scripture. Judgement yes, but we can do better than that, in our understanding.

Starting in [Jer 24:3-10] (and explained somewhat in [Jer 29:15-18]) we can discern this symbol clearly. The symbols of grapes and figs are repeated again in [Hos 9:10] and [Joel 1:7,12] as well as other spots. (Although prophetic, the same symbol represents the faithful female lover, the bride in [Songs 2:13]. Its application is still the same.) But if that isn't clear enough, the fig tree, or the vine, which appears in the vineyard of the Lord can be seen described in [Isaiah 5:1-5,7]. So if we see with our eyes and hear with our ears, we should have no reason to miss what the fig tree and the figs represents, nor can we miss who tends the vineyard. We see this same scene reappear in [Matt 20:1-2][Matt 21:33][Luke 13][Luke 20] etc.

Before looking too much further though, there is another symbol here which isn't as obvious, but it's worth noting. The ancient word for hedge (and also the word booth (actually booth of woven branches)) was the word סֻכָּה (sükkä H5221). (Think of “I am the vine, and you are the branches”). This word 'hedge' is also where the word “succoth” comes from. The idea we shouldn't miss is that the assembly of Israel (or the ἐκκλησία as it would be in Greek) was the habitation of the Lord. So seeing the Biblical references to the Feast of Booths (of woven branches), which was also known as the Feast of the Tabernacle, we can't miss that it was a celebration that God indwelled Israel, and that his vineyard was hedged in (protected). When you see the hedge being taken away in [Isa 5:5], it represents God removing his protection (removing his tabernacle) to allowed Babylon and Assyria to enter in. This should immediately raise thoughts of Rome's later conquest of Jerusalem after Jesus had been crucified.

With that, lets look again at Jesus' parable in [Luke 13:6-7] where the master of the vineyard could find no fruit on the fig tree that was planted in the midst of the vineyard. (Also in Matt 21:33-41]) We already know the prophetic symbol for the fig tree, figs, and the vineyard, and we know who the man is; so what figs did Jesus find within the city He entered immediately after cursing the fig tree? Why was He crying over the city? Clearly his parable in [Luke 13:6-7] was related to the fig tree he cursed (in both Mark and Matthew) and represented those he was about to face, and their fate (as you say - judgement!).

Finally by looking at the warning in [Matt 21:43] to the bad figs, we see that God is about to fulfil what He said he would in [Jeremiah 24:3-10] as the remnant who cared more for their Babylonian religion [Jer 29:15-18] than the living God who walked among them [Lev 26:12].

Lets ask ourselves this; has that figurative 'fig tree' in the midst of the vineyard, produced figs since it was cursed or has it been nothing but a curse itself ever since? There is much more here we could see if we cared to look (for example how the meaning of [Matt 24:32] and [Luke 21:30] are related to [Isa 28:4] and [Micah 7:1])

Ultimately, our understanding will either be weaned from milk or from meat. Communicating it to others will likewise so be. F. F. Bruce should look less at botany and more at biblical symbol (and prophetic language) to obtain that acquaintance he so advocates.

Matt O'Reilly said...

I agree with how you've interpreted the passage. I was trying to keep my comment brief before.

I think your criticism of Bruce is unfair. His aim in the book I cited was not to provide a full interpretation of Jesus' action in the temple. Neither was that my aim in the original post. His aim and mine were to point out a common criticism of Jesus and show how it was not very well informed. As I wrote this post, I began working on an interpretation of the larger immediate context but then decided not to because it was beyond the scope of what I wanted to do. Likewise, it would be unfair to criticize Bruce for not going beyond the specific aim of that section of his book.

ἐκκλησία said...

Yes, you're quite correct. It's far easier to be harsh than gracious.

I hope that you and Bruce are far more forgiving than I was gracious.

ἐκκλησία said...

That Strong's reference should have been H5521 rather than what was posted above.