We run our website the way we wished the whole internet worked: we provide high quality original content with no ads. We are funded by your direct support for ReKnew and our vision. Please consider supporting this project.

fig tree

Why Did Jesus Curse a Barren Fig Tree?

While no one argues that the NT advocates violence explicitly, many allege that some passages reflect violent attitudes toward outsiders, and especially toward non-believing Jews, while others detect an element of violence in some of Jesus’ teachings and behavior. Some scholars argue that this violent aspect of the NT laid the groundwork for later Christian violence when the church began to embrace the power of the state in the fourth century. I am dealing with a few episodes from the life of Jesus that have often been used to argue for violent acts. Today I want to look at the cursing of the barren fig tree.

Both Matthew and Mark recount an episode in which Jesus cursed a fig tree because it bore no fruit and Jesus was hungry (Mt 21: 18-22, Mk 11:12-3, 21-5). What makes Jesus’ only destructive miracle even more puzzling is that Mark informs us that, “it was not the season for figs” (v. 13). According to some, this story represents Jesus engaging in a violent attack on the tree that make him appear cruel. One writer goes so far as to speculate that Jesus must have violently cursed this tree “in a petty fit of low blood sugar or something like that.”[1] I submit that if we read these accounts in context and with any degree of charity, it becomes clear that Jesus did not curse this tree in a fit of childish, cruel, or petty anger.

Fig trees are frequently used to symbolize either spiritual fruitfulness or unfruitfulness in the OT (Isa 28:4; Jer 8:13; 24:1-10; 29:17; Hos 2:12; 9:10,16-7; Mic 7:1). In this light, Jesus’ cursing of the barren fig tree should be understood as a symbolic judgment on the nation of Israel. This is made all the more clear from the fact that Mark interjects Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple (See post), which was itself a symbolic judgment on the corrupt leaders of Israel, between Jesus’ curse of the fig tree and the time when the disciple’s notice that the tree had withered. Moreover, in both Gospels the cursing is followed by a confrontation between Jesus and Jewish authorities that concludes with Jesus telling two parables that indict these leaders (Mt 21:13-46; Mk 11:27-33; 12:-1-12). By cursing the tree, Jesus is acting out a parable as God’s spokesperson against Israel.

On top of this, I submit that there is another dimension to the symbolic destructive action of Jesus in this episode. The NT reflects the widespread Jewish apocalyptic expectation that the coming of the Messiah at the end of the age would remove the curse on creation and restore it to what God originally intended it to be (e.g. Acts 3:21; Rom 8:19-22; Col 1:18-20; 2 Pet 3:13). Moreover, in apocalyptic thought, barren or infected fruit trees were sometimes understood to reflect the corrupting influence of fallen angelic powers, and barren fig trees in particular had in some writings become symbols of this curse. In this light it is easy to interpret Jesus’ cursing of the barren fig tree as not only a symbolic pronouncement of judgment on Israel, but also as a symbolic judgment on Satan’s curse on the earth. And in cursing the curse, as it were, Jesus was once again presenting himself as the Messiah who had come to vanquish Satan (Heb 2:14; 1 Jn 3:8) and to restore God’s good creation.

[1] J. H. Ellens, ed., The Destructive Power of Religion: Violence in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, Volume 3 (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2004), 16.

Photo credit: Jackal1 via Visual Hunt / CC BY-ND

Related Reading

What About the Harsh Words of Paul? A Response to Paul Copan (#4)

This post is my fourth response to a talk given by Paul Copan at the Evangelical Theological Society in November in which he raised a number of objections to Crucifixion of the Warrior God. A major part of Copan’s critique centered on my claim that the love of God that is revealed on the cross,…

The Only Thing That Matters Is Love: The Kingdom of God (Part 3)

To say that living in Calvary-quality love is the most important thing in our life is to grossly understate its importance. This stands in distinction from how we typically define the Kingdom of God. But it stands in line with the fact that Jesus is the Kingdom of God. Paul says the “the only thing…

Atonement: What is the Christus Victor View?

Most western Christians today understand the atonement as a sort of legal-transaction that took place between the Father and the Son that got humanity “off the hook.” The legal-transaction scenario goes something like this: God’s holiness demands that all sin be punished, which in turn requires that sinners go to eternal hell. The trouble is,…

Lies, Truth, and the Holy Spirit

The root of the flesh is a lie about who God is and who we are. Satan brings us into bondage of the flesh by convincing us that God is not the loving God he says that he is. In doing this, Satan convinces us that we cannot find fullness of life by being wholly…

Sermon Clip: Keeping Christmas

Through Christ, God fulfills all his promises, and by yielding to him and giving up control, we can set ourselves free.   Full Sermon here: http://whchurch.org/sermons-media/sermon/keeping-christmas

Violent Parables?

Some try to argue that Jesus did not make loving enemies and refraining from violence an absolute mandate. They make their case on the basis of several passages from the Gospels. The first concerns the cleansing of the temple which we addressed here, while the second is about how Jesus spoke harsh words to the…