Open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things . . . Psalm 119:18 (ESV)
John 1:47–48 (ESV)
47 Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him and said of him, “Behold, yan Israelite indeed, zin whom there is no deceit!” 48 Nathanael said to him, “How ado you know me?” Jesus answered him, “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.”
Jesus saw Nathanael sitting under the fig tree. What did this picture say to Jesus? Consider the fig tree in the culture of Biblical times.
A tree (Ficus carica L.; Heb. tĕʾēnâ; Gk. sýkon, sykḗ) whose fruit has remained a staple in the diet of the ancient Mediterranean world since earliest times. The tree reaches an average height of 3–6 m. (10–20 ft.). Its large palmate leaves open in the early spring and fall at the beginning of winter. Normally the first fruit (cf. Cant. 2:13; Hos. 9:10) appears in February before the leaves appear in April/June. When the leaves appear the fruit is usually ripe. A tree produces two crops per year, one in early summer and the chief crop in the autumn. It is a dioecious tree, meaning there are both male and female varieties. The male (Lat. caprificus) grows wild from seeds scattered principally by birds and bats, while the female is planted from shoots of the cultivated trees and requires tending (Prov. 27:18). The fruit production of the female depends upon a process known as caprification: wasps hatched in the caprifig’s flowers bring the pollen from the male tree to fertilize the female flowers, from which the fig develops. Two- to three-year-old fig shoots will become young trees that bear the first or second year after planting. There is considerable literature on the cultivation of the fig in the Greek and Roman farming manuals (Pliny, Cato, Varro, Theophrastus, Columella).
The fig tree is the first fruit tree mentioned in the OT. The many other references to the fig indicate its significant role in the economy of Palestine. It was one of the food items that interested the Hebrews at the conquest of Canaan (Num. 13:23; Deut. 8:8), and the lack of suitability of the wilderness for the fig was a major complaint (Num. 20:5). The fruit was eaten as a delicacy fresh from the tree (Isa. 28:4), or dried individually or in strings, or pressed into cakes (1 Sam. 25:18) for the winter months. Dried figs in cakes were also used as a medicinal poltice (2 Kgs. 20:7 = Isa. 38:21).
The most common reference to the fig in the OT is metaphorical. It is generally used to depict peace, prosperity, and God’s blessing (“they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees,” Mic. 4:4; 1 Kgs. 4:25; Hag. 2:19; Zech. 3:10; 1 Macc. 14:12; cf. 2 Kgs. 18:31; Isa. 36:16; Joel 2:22), or God’s judgment (“the vine withers, the fig tree languishes,” Joel 1:7, 12; cf. Ps. 105:33; Jer. 5:17; Hos. 2:12 [MT 14]; Amos 4:9; Nah. 3:12; Hab. 3:17). Other metaphorical uses occur in Judg. 9:10–11; Isa. 34:4; Jer. 8:13; 24:1–8; 29:17; Hos. 9:10; cf. Amos 8:2.
In the NT also the dominant use of the fig tree is metaphorical (Matt. 7:16 = Luke 6:44; Jas. 3:12). It depicts the imminent end of the world(Mark 13:28 = Matt. 24:32 = Luke 21:29). The most problematical passage is Jesus’ cursing of the fig tree (Mark 11:12–14, 20–22 = Matt. 21:18–22). Because this account frames the cleansing of the temple, it appears that Mark regards it as an act of prophetic judgment on the temple cult for promising but not delivering true piety (Jer. 8:13; 24:1–10; cf. Matt. 7:15–20). In Luke 13:6–9 Jesus tells a parable about a barren fig tree that reflects the realistic features of farming in 1st-century Palestine. Luke does not provide an interpretation to the parable.
Bibliography. F. N. Hepper, Baker Encyclopedia of Bible Plants (Grand Rapids, 1992), 110–14; H. N. and A. L. Moldenke, Plants of the Bible (1952, repr. New York, 1986), 103–6.
CHARLES W. HEDRICK
Hedrick, C. W. (2000). Fig Tree. In D. N. Freedman, A. C. Myers, & A. B. Beck (Eds.), Eerdmans dictionary of the Bible (pp. 460–461). Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans.
Have you been under a fig tree lately? Where do you pray privately? Do you worship Christ each day? Do you meditate on the Word of God? The difficulties of the 21st century come at us each day. We need a private time of reflection and worship.
Cathy and Danny Sartin
y Ps. 73:1; Rom. 9:4, 6
z Ps. 32:2; [Zeph. 3:13; Rev. 14:5]
a ch. 2:24, 25
The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Jn 1:47–48). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.
The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Ps 119:18). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.
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Four decade veteran of youth ministry in churches, Youth For Christ and now is the Founder and Executive Director of Deeper Still Missions. Danny and his wife Cathy spend most of their time mentoring missionaries in Africa, Europe, Central America and North America. Future opportunities include South America and the Asia Pacific area.