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19. The Sycamore Fig Tree

The Sycamore Fig Tree / June 2006
When God placed Adam and Eve in the garden, the traditional picture of the forbidden fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is an apple. However, those who study the Bible believe another common fruit is a much better picture of the forbidden fruit. As you are about to discover, there are aspects to the fig tree and its fruit that many simply do not know. Like Eve who first considered the forbidden fruit, not understanding the consequences, there is another side to the fig and its fruit.
[Eve] saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was desirable to make one wise, she took from its fruit and ate; and she gave also to her husband with her, and he ate.
Genesis 3:6
The first effect of eating the forbidden fruit of the knowledge of good and evil was the discovery of their own nakedness.
Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loin coverings.
Genesis 3:7
It may be that the fruit of this tree was eaten and then the leaves were used to "cover it up." To this day, it is universally understood that covering one's self with fig leaves is offering "excuses" for an embarrassing event or status. Offering an olive branch is offering peace; but offering a fig leaf is to offer a temporary cover (an excuse).Before we go further, here are some botanical facts about the fig and its fruit. Some of these facts are central to understanding the other reference made in the Bible about the fig tree.Fig leaves are bright green, single, and large (up to 1 ft in length). They are more or less deeply lobed with 1 – 5 sinuses, rough hairy on the upper surface and soft hairy on the underside. While the leaf might be sufficient to cover the loin area, it remains embarrassing just the same.The forbidden tree of knowledge of good and evil had two natures – good and evil. This seems to be the nature of fig trees as well. Fig trees, like other vegetation, comes in several varieties. They are deciduous, losing their leaves each year and offering new growth seasonally. There are approximately 19 varieties grown specifically for their fruit, but the fig tree varieties also vary in size and the way they grow. Generally, fruit bearing fig trees grow to about 30 feet, but they can grow to 50 feet, offering great shade with sprawling branches. They tend to spread out horizontally as opposed to vertically. These large sprawling trees are ideal for building a tree house. It is no wonder that the personal vision of the kingdom is a man with his own vine (grapes) and his own fig tree.
"In that day," declares the Lord of hosts, "every one of you will invite his neighbor to sit under his vine and under his fig tree."
Zechariah 3:10
Fig wood is weak and decays rapidly. The trunk often bears large nodal tumors where branches have been shed or removed. The twigs are terete (cylindrical but slightly tapering) and pithy rather than woody. The sap contains copious milky latex that is irritating to human skin. The roots of a fig tree are greedy, spreading beyond the tree, often choking out other nearby vegetation. Fig trees require a lot of space away from other trees.There are giant fig trees growing in tropical areas sometimes called "strangler" figs because they grow along with other large trees, wrapping themselves around the trunks and branches "strangling" the other tree. Not only do the roots invade the area of other trees, they actually use the trunk and branches of the other tree. This is one of the variations along the theme of good and evil. These particular fig trees drop hanging vines, which become new roots on contact with the ground to feed the sprawling growth. A very eery scene is produced whenever you see a forest with strangler figs entwined with everything else. Here is another strange fact about figs trees. They have genders. The male fig tree is actually called a caprifig. Its fruit is generally not edible. It is in fact the home of a special insect – the fig wasp. These insects hibernate and reproduce within the fruit of the caprifig. If you open the fruit of the caprifig, you will find the frass (excrement) of the fig wasp. It is not at all appealing to eat. The caprifig bears three crops a year. The other gender is simply called female. It bears edible fruit twice a year – in the spring time and in the fall.The Fig tree is related to the Sycamore tree. The prophet Amos was a keeper of Sycamore trees (fig trees).
Then Amos answered and said to Amaziah, "I am not a prophet, nor am I the son of a prophet; for I am a herdsman and a grower of sycamore figs."
Amos 7:14
A fig tree in the Middle East is a welcome respite from the heat of the day for any traveler. A shady fig gives a very pleasant tropical feeling. If it is the right time of year, you can also enjoy its fruit while relaxing. Nathaniel may have experienced such a feeling when he was under the fig tree before meeting Yeshua the first time. You will remember that Yeshua shocked Nathaniel when he mentioned that fact.
Nathanael said to Him, "How do You know me?" Yeshua answered and said to him, "Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you."
John 1:48
This is the first of two incidents involving fig trees that offer great mystery to the Bible student. The second is Yeshua cursing the fig tree just before His work of redemption. The mystery with Nathaniel stems from Nathaniel's thoughts under the fig tree. He and Yeshua made some kind of connection that is not fully expressed in the Scripture, but it was enough to convince Nathaniel that Yeshua was the Messiah, the King of Israel.Fig trees also are subject to environmental elements that can cause them to wither. Insufficient water, wind damage, and frost all contribute to the withering demise of younger trees. As a result, many dead branches are found around fig trees, which make for excellent fire wood. In fact, the wood of the fig tree was the preferred fuel for the altar. A poor person would either bring salt or a piece of fig wood as their gift for the temple service.Here are some more interesting facts about the fruit of the fig. As I said earlier, the female fig tree bears fruit twice a year. The first crop is called the "breba" crop. It is in the spring bearing on the previous season's growth. That is, the branch grown in the prior summer bearing the main harvest is the same branch that bears the "breba" crop. A new branch is not grown. In the Middle East, it is considered the food for the poor. It is more starchy and is not as sweet as the fruit in the fall. The second crop is borne in the fall (October or November) on the new growth and is known as the main crop. The main crop is after the fall holidays of Yom Kippur and Tabernacles, and it is the sweetest fruit. However, the Bible frequently refers to the first-ripe fig prior to the summer several times – the "breba" crop as opposed to the main crop. The matured "fruit" has a tough peel (pure green, green suffused with brown, brown or purple), often cracking upon ripeness, and exposing the pulp beneath. You open the fruit by splitting the fruit down the center or peeling the outer peel. Depending on the variety of fig, the color of the pulp varies from white to amber. The small jellied seeds in the hollow center are also edible. Pollinated seeds take on a nutty taste, usually present in dried figs.Romans thought that figs were a sacred fruit. According to Roman myth, the wolf that nurtured the twin founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus, rested under a fig tree. But probably, the most famous story in the Bible about the fig tree is Yeshua searching for the fruit of a fig tree in the springtime, just before Passover, and finding none, supposedly cursing it. Based on what we know about figs, He was looking for the breba crop. We will address that story shortly, but let us review other references in the Bible to the fig tree and its fruit. There is a consistent theme that emerges that will lend much insight and understanding to both the garden of Eden story and Yeshua's unsuccessful search for the "breba" crop fig.The book of Judges contains a fascinating oratory by Jotham standing on one of the two famous mountains of blessing and curse – Mt. Gerizim and Mt. Nebal. It is a comparison between the olive, fig, vine, and bramble.
Now when they told Jotham, he went and stood on the top of Mount Gerizim, and lifted his voice and called out. Thus he said to them, "Listen to me, O men of Shechem, that God may listen to you. Once the trees went forth to anoint a king over them, and they said to the olive tree, 'Reign over us!' But the olive tree said to them, 'Shall I leave my fatness with which God and men are honored, and go to wave over the trees?' Then the trees said to the fig tree, 'You come, reign over us!' But the fig tree said to them, 'Shall I leave my sweetness and my good fruit, and go to wave over the trees?' Then the trees said to the vine, 'You come, reign over us!' But the vine said to them, 'Shall I leave my new wine, which cheers God and men, and go to wave over the trees?' Finally all the trees said to the bramble, 'You come, reign over us!' And the bramble said to the trees, 'If in truth you are anointing me as king over you, come and take refuge in my shade; but if not, may fire come out from the bramble and consume the cedars of Lebanon.'"
Judges 9:7-15
It is a story about who should be king and ruler, and who should make judgments for the nation. Jotham's comparison of the olive, fig, and vine was to show that good candidates with good attributes were not being selected as the leader. There is obviously more to the story, but the attributes expressed for the fig are noteworthy.Personally, I have tasted sweet ripe figs in the fall in Israel. The sweetness of the fig is almost as sweet of honey. I have also tasted the fig of the springtime. It was more like the cross-breeding of a pear and a potato. Jeremiah used a vision of good figs and rotten figs to tell the House of Judah they would soon be judged by God. The good figs were the remnant to be preserved by the Lord and the rotten figs were the king and his officials to suffer destruction.
Thus says the Lord of hosts, "Behold, I am sending upon them the sword, famine, and pestilence, and I will make them like split–open figs that cannot be eaten due to rottenness."
Jeremiah 29:17
Isaiah, the prophet to the House of Judah, had a particular judgment against the House of Israel under the leadership of Ephraim. He was not complimenting them. Instead, he referred to the leadership of Ephraim as drunkards, reeling to and fro with their judgments and leadership. In the midst of his rebuke he made mention of the breba crop of the fig.
And the fading flower of its glorious beauty, which is at the head of the fertile valley, will be like the first–ripe fig prior to summer; which one sees, and as soon as it is in his hand, he swallows it.
Isaiah 28:4
I mentioned earlier that the fig of the springtime is the food of the poor. Isaiah seems to be telling Ephraim and the House of Israel that they will eat the food of the poor instead of the crops of a fertile valley under their control.The prophet Amos was a contemporary of Isaiah. Whereas Isaiah was a prophet to the House of Judah who spoke about the House of Israel, Amos was specifically directed to the House of Israel. Amos began his book proclaiming God's judgment upon several peoples and regions with this expression, "for three transgressions … and for four I will not revoke this punishment." He ultimately spoke of God's judgment upon the House of Israel – their dispersion to the nations.Compare Amos's prophetic message of judgment from God with Yeshua's telling of a parable about a man who had a fig tree and a vineyard.
And He began telling this parable: "A certain man had a fig tree which had been planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it, and did not find any. And he said to the vineyard–keeper, 'Behold, for three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree without finding any. Cut it down! Why does it even use up the ground?' And he answered and said to him, 'Let it alone, sir, for this year too, until I dig around it and put in fertilizer; and if it bears fruit next year, fine; but if not, cut it down.'"
Luke 13:6-9
Did you note the comparison of the three then the fourth from Amos? The reason Yeshua told this parable about the fig tree was to show God's balance of mercy and justice. He was explaining that men do not judge matters as God does. In the previous verses (1-5) of Luke's gospel, He had just said that all the Galileans were sinners, when a comparison was made among the Galileans alone. He explained that all those in Jerusalem were sinners, when a comparison was made of just them also. He was trying to show that men fail to judge and discern the things of God properly. Immediately after this parable, He healed a woman oppressed for eighteen years: her back was not able to keep her erect and she was constantly bowed. When she stood erect, Yeshua was condemned by the leader of the synagogue for healing on the Sabbath. The leader of the synagogue misjudged what Yeshua had done. But Yeshua showed that the judgment of men did not compare either in mercy or justice to God. Even if the fig tree bore no fruit for three years, they should give it a fourth year. Oh by the way, the Torah teaches that an Israelite is not to eat the fruit of a tree grown in the land until the fourth year. Yeshua's judgment was based on the principles of the Word of God – the Torah. Men judge on outward things and fail to consider fully the inward things to determine the truth.Throughout the Bible, this is the repeated message of the fig tree. On the one hand it is a strong tree offering cover and a sweet fruit to man. This is the good part. On the other it is a symbol of poorness and fuel for the altar. All this contrast seems to speak of judgment – measuring good and evil, balancing mercy and justice. Man appears to be consistently incapable of making a correct judgment. This is the warning about the forbidden fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Let's now address Yeshua's last encounter with the fig tree just prior to His work of redemption and see if the theme of judgment bears out.As Yeshua approached Jerusalem, He stayed in the small town of Bethany with His friends Lazarus, Mary, and Martha. Bethany is southeast of Jerusalem beyond the Mount of Olives. Bethany means "the house of the poor." Between Bethany and Jerusalem was another small community near the Mount of Olives. That community was called Bethphage. Bethphage means "the house of the unripe figs" – the food of the poor. It was in this area that Yeshua encountered the fig tree in route to Jerusalem the day after His joyous entry on the colt.
Now in the morning, when He returned to the city, He became hungry. And seeing a lone fig tree by the road, He came to it, and found nothing on it except leaves only; and He said to it, "No longer shall there ever be any fruit from you." And at once the fig tree withered. And seeing this, the disciples marveled, saying, "How did the fig tree wither at once?" And Yeshua answered and said to them, "Truly I say to you, if you have faith, and do not doubt, you shall not only do what was done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, 'Be taken up and cast into the sea,' it shall happen. And all things you ask in prayer, believing, you shall receive."
Matthew 21:18-22
This incident has plagued most Christian theologians for centuries. Critics of the Gospel accounts have cited this event as negative evidence against His Messiahship and the truth. The disciples were mostly taken by the ability of Yeshua to summarily judge the tree for no fruit. However, critics have challenged the righteousness of His judgment. (What about the parable He told of waiting until the fourth year? Giving the tree another year and some fertilizer? Quick answer: it was the fourth year and it still did not have any fruit.)Some Christian theologians offer this explanation for Yeshua judging the fig tree: the tree represents Israel and since it had no fruit for Him, Israel would soon be judged to bear no more fruit. Israel (the House of Judah) was in fact judged by God at the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. by the Romans. While I agree that the Messiah was speaking of judgment, it is narrow minded to think of God judging Israel and not including the rest of the world. In fact, those who reference the fig tree as a symbol of Israel are proving they are men judging others from a very shortsighted point of view. It is not a Godly judgment. If the world does not bear fruit for the kingdom they are subject to the same judgment Israel has and will suffer. (Remember Yeshua explaining that we are all sinners whether we are from Galilee (the way of the Gentiles) or Jerusalem (the Jews))?The Olive tree is clearly the symbol of the nation of Israel. The vine and the grape are symbols of God's kingdom. The fig tree represents God's judgment upon all – Israel and the nations. Israel has and will have much fruit for the future kingdom. Fig trees will be in the kingdom; Israel will be in the kingdom. This is why Yeshua taught earlier from the Mount of Olives (and Bethphage) the parable of the fig tree. In fact, the teaching of the fig tree was given in the days immediately before the cursing of the fig tree.
Now learn the parable from the fig tree: when its branch has already become tender, and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near; even so you too, when you see all these things, recognize that He is near, right at the door. Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.
Matthew 24:32-34
The timing of the Day of the Lord is prior to the main harvest of the fig tree. The Fall Holidays of Yom Kippur and Tabernacles occur in late summer and early fall while the figs are unripe. It is late summer when the figs are unripe. This is the timing of the parable of the fig tree, not early in the springtime. Yeshua is saying that His return, the Day of the Lord, is consistent with the Fall Holidays in a future year prior to figs becoming ripe.This parable was given immediately after He explained the signs of the end of the ages, the great tribulation, the sign of the Son of Man coming, and our gathering to His kingdom.
For then there will be a great tribulation, such as has not occurred since the beginning of the world until now, nor ever shall. And unless those days had been cut short, no life would have been saved; but for the sake of the elect those days shall be cut short.
Matthew 24:21-22
But immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from the sky, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken, and then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky with power and great glory. And He will send forth His angels with a great trumpet and they will gather together His elect from the four winds, from one end of the sky to the other.
Matthew 24:29-31
The actual Day of the Lord and the judgment that will fall on all men is described in the Revelation as:
And the stars of the sky fell to the earth, as a fig tree casts its unripe figs when shaken by a great wind.
Revelation 6:13
Figs that are picked early from the tree do not ripen. They remain unripe and become rotten. Let's review. The fig tree seems to have a two-sided testimony. There are two genders – one you don't want to eat and one that you do. Of the one you do eat, there are two crops – one in the springtime (for the poor) and one in the fall (sweet and desirable). Fig trees make for beautiful shade and a tropical pleasure, but in the tropics fig trees are "stranglers" that choke out other trees. Fig trees are hearty and able to grow in difficult terrain, but they can also wither quickly. The wood of the fig tree was the primary fuel for the altar and yet, we are promised the pleasure of the fig tree in the kingdom. In the Bible, fig trees are specifically mentioned beginning with the garden of Eden to the coming of the Lord. The spiritual illustration is a righteous judgment of good and evil. It seems that our world is like the fig tree. Some choose to follow the Lord and they bear sweet fruit to the Master. Others seem to have their fruit infected with fig wasps (mixing man's traditions with God's commandments). Still others are like strangler figs, although massive, they soon wither and are fuel for God's fire. Their fruit is rotten ripe and corrupted.When Yeshua said the fig tree would bear no more fruit, I believe he was referring to a part of the world that will not recognize Him as Master. They simply bear no fruit at all. There is a day of judgment coming when they shall be withered and serve as the fuel for God's consuming fire. The Messianic Age is a time when much fruit-bearing will occur. The Scripture says that there be "no end to the increase." Fruit trees that bear no fruit simply won't be there.Since we are the last generation and the Messiah is soon coming to establish His kingdom, this might be a good time to examine our own fruit. Can any be found? Is our fruit sweet and ready for the Lord? Or do we just have a lot of fig leaves (excuses) instead?

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