The Hebrew Bible* begins as a paradise creation myth which quickly dissolves into loss and ruin. Adam and Eve are shunned from the garden due to their defiance of God's rules and are thrown into a world with knowledge of good and evil, with life and with death. The original sin of the garden proceeds to grow as the population expands and the temptation to stray from God increases. As the story is portrayed within the New Testament, Jesus Christ is born unto Earth as the savior of mankind through his bearing and redemption of man's sin. Though an overly simplistic review of the chronicle that is the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, this main idea can lead us in one manner of dealing with the immense compilation. We will use the fig tree as a symbolic representation portraying the change wrought in humanity by the original sin. If we track the image of the fig tree from start to finish, beginning with Genesis and continuing through the ministry of Jesus, the changes which accompany the symbolism of the recurring fig tree provide one lens for viewing the varied pieces of literature within the Bible as a patchwork whole.
The first time the reader is presented with the image of the fig tree occurs directly after Adam and Eve eat the fruit of the forbidden tree in the Garden of Eden. Genesis reads, �Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves aprons� (Genesis 3:7). Thus, the first act that Adam and Eve take after defying the word of God is to cover their bodies with the leaves of a fig tree. The leaves immediately take on the symbolic weight of the sin that Adam and Eve have committed. They are worn as a type of badge confessing the new knowledge of their nakedness, equating the leaf of the fig tree with the sin, and the sign of ruined paradise with the leaf. When God questions the silence of Adam, Adam replies, � �I heard the sound of thee [the Lord] in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself�� (3:10). Using Adam's logic, the central change that takes place in his consciousness is the exposure of his nakedness. By giving the leaves of the fig tree the role of the signifier, the fig tree becomes the symbol of original sin as well as the symbol of the awareness of sin.
Once the acceptance of the sin, of humanity replacing paradise, is born through many generations, the idea of humanity is no longer, in itself, looked at as a flaw. In fact, the fig tree reverts to an image of paradise, though, this time, paradise is allowed within the human perspective. The idea of paradise becomes one of protection. As the fig leaf shielded Adam and Eve from their nakedness and allowed them to handle their shame, the fig tree evolves in the Hebrew Bible as a representation of shelter and safety. In the book of Deuteronomy, God promises to bring the followers of Moses to a land safe from persecution and struggle. He states, �For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land, a land of brooks of water, �of vines and fig trees and pomegranates�a land in which you will eat bread without scarcity, in which you will lack nothing�� (Deuteronomy 8:7-9). The fig tree is one of the many images of the promised land that can be found by following God.
Similarly, the fig tree as a sign of protection and safety is illustrated in the First Book of Kings. Under King Solomon, in a time of rare peace and security, the fig tree is one of the few symbols chosen to represent this peaceful time. The Book reads, �And Judah and Israel dwelt in safety, from Dan even to Beer-sheba, every man under his vine and under his fig tree, all the days of Solomon� (1 Kings 4:25). Although the fig tree's leaves were viewed as a foreign object when made to function as Adam's apron, the tree evolves into an acceptable human image. The idea of covering and shielding is still present within Deuteronomy and the First Book of Kings, yet as a welcomed status symbol of tranquility. Moreover, as the fig tree is associated with the rule of Solomon, Solomon's rule is linked with the characteristic of wisdom. The text states, �And God gave Solomon wisdom and understanding beyond measure, and largeness of mind like the sand on the seashore� (4:29). In this manner, the fig tree has come to represent the highest level of wise, peaceful, and pious human living. The shield that first represented the condemnation of God is transformed into one that is condoned by God as a symbol of his rule and protection of the Hebrew people under King Solomon.
The happiness and peace pervading under King Solomon is as short-lived as it is rare, however. As the reader travels further into the Bible, she notes the fading confidence and growing sense of displeasure at the way in which humans are conducting themselves in the eye of the Lord. By the time the major prophets of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel are predicting the coming of a Messiah, the lamentations of God display the need He feels for a savior. The Lord speaks through Isaiah, � Ah, sinful nation,/ a people laden with iniquity,/ offspring of evildoers,/ sons who deal corruptly!/ They have forsaken the Lord,/ they have despised the Holy One/ of Israel, they are utterly estranged� (Isaiah 1:4).
During the transition from a protected and loved people to corrupted and estranged, the followers of Judaism become more and more enraptured with the material possessions of their earth and less concerned with the teachings from heaven. One of the largest problems that God continually stresses to his prophets is man's devotion to earthly objects and lust. The fig tree is employed a few times during the changing attitude to help the reader envision the perversion taking place. We see this tendency in the love poems of the Song of Solomon. One song expresses, �The fig tree puts forth its figs,/ and the vines are in blossom;/ they give forth fragrance./ Arise, my love, my fair one,/ and come away� (Song 2:13). This verse highlights the fruit of the fig tree and in doing so implies the sexual innuendoes that were first insinuated in the garden. The leaves of the fig surround the fruit as the apron constructed in Genesis hid the fruit of man's newly found sexuality. The sexual perversion of God's paradise was the real knowledge gained in the understanding of what it was to be naked. The same chapter states, ��for I am sick with love�/ O that his left hand were under my/ head,/ and that his right hand embraced/ me!� (2:5-6). The reader cannot miss the overwhelming emphasis on physical pleasure and material obsession. Physical touch is desired most by the lover in Song of Solomon, as the fig represents the focus of man on his sexual and material wants.
Isaiah's commentary concerning the materiality of mankind is harsher seeing as it comes from an angered God, as discussed earlier, rather than from a lover. Through Isaiah, God stresses man's nature to succumb to passions and earthly mores. By employing the image of the fig tree as one of the recurring metaphors used to explain and lament man's tendencies, God expresses the declining faith of man and the ruin man is encountering. He cries, �The proud crown of the drunkards/ of Ephraim/ will be trodden under foot;/ and the fading flower of its glorious/ beauty,/ which is on the head of the rich/ valley,/ will be like a first-ripe fig before the/ summer:/ when a man sees it, he eats it up/ as soon as it is in his hand� (Isaiah 28:3-4). As in the Song of Solomon, the fruit of the fig tree is accentuated, symbolizing the passionate and uncontrollable behavior of man, snatching up the ripe fruit and instantly eating it. Sexuality is indicated as man's earthly flaw, hanging upon him as the �fading flower� of God's once peaceable kingdom.
The symbol of the fig tree is further involved with the evolution of man's sin and is invoked in the book of Isaiah to describe God's fury and plan for change. The text explains, �For the Lord is enraged against all/ the nations,/ �All the host of heaven shall rot/ away,/ and the skies roll up like a scroll./ All their host shall fall, as leaves fall from the vine,/ like leaves falling from the fig tree� (34:2,4). Perhaps in the most symbolic gesture thus far, the leaf that had originally broadcasted man's sin is described by God to be falling away. In His attempt to change the ways of man, the book of Isaiah prophesies the coming of a Messiah. The fig tree reference of chapter 34 sets up a symbolic shedding of the original fig leaf in preparation for the redemption proclaimed in the coming of Christ. Isaiah reads, �They shall see the glory of the Lord,/ the majesty of our God./'say to those who are of a fearful/ heart,/�Be strong, fear not!/ Behold, your God/ will come with vengeance,/ with the recompense of God./ He will come and save you�� (35:2,4).
As Isaiah is seen as a prophet of the coming of Jesus, the fig leaf can be understood to illustrate the weight of sin accrued by man through his awakened sexuality, materiality, and perversity that must fall away as God prepares for the next coming. The image of protection that the fig tree seemed to embody within the First Book of Kings is removed so that God can work to redeem the qualities of man which had required shielding. The Lord exclaims about the new time, �They shall eat up your harvest and/ your food;/ they shall eat up your sons and/ your daughters;/ they shall eat up your flocks and/ your herds;/ they shall eat up your vines and your fig trees;/ your fortified cities in which you/ trust/ they shall destroy with the/ sword� (Jeremiah 5:17). Nothing is to remain sacred.
The metaphorical function of the fig tree is no less significant or enlightening in the New Testament. In fact, through the fig tree's role in the parables and other teachings of Jesus Christ, many of God's threats toward the end of the Hebrew Bible become clearer as they seem to fall within a symbolic progression. Jesus uses the fig tree and the meaning it has accumulated throughout the Hebrew Bible to teach the importance of faith in God in a manner that highlights directly the cause and effect of power, materiality, and small-mindedness.
For instance, one can find a very similar story concerning the power of Jesus that incorporates the fig tree in the books of Matthew and Mark. As Matthew relates, �And seeing a fig tree by the wayside [Jesus] went to it, and found nothing on it but leaves only. And he said to it, �May no fruit ever come from you again!� And the fig tree withered at once� (Matthew 21:19). Jesus uses this instance of control over a fig tree to emphasize the potential power of one's convictions. He answers the wonderment of his disciples, ��Truly, I say to you, if you have faith and never doubt, you will not only do what has been done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, �Be taken up and cast into the sea,� it will be done�� (21:21). Jesus is utilizing a simple fig tree by the side of a road in order to reveal to his disciples the power of the word as an instrument of faith.
Jesus further explains his intentions in displaying this power of belief to his disciples in the rendition of the same story in the Book of Mark. After a similar metaphor concerning the fig tree, the mountain, and the sea, Jesus declares, ��Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you receive it, and you will. And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against any one; so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses�� (Mark 11:24-25). The notion of believing that something will come to pass through faith in order to receive is one of Jesus's main convictions and is repeated in varying forms throughout the books of the apostles.
The fig tree of Jesus is treated in a completely different manner than it was last treated in the Hebrew Bible. Jesus approaches the fig tree because he is hungry and looking for its fruit (11: 12-13). Therefore the fig tree is portrayed as a nourishing, life giving body. In fact, without this life giving component, the leaves, which had contained so much symbolic weight in the Old Testament, do not satisfy Jesus and he curses the tree. The leaves that had announced the sin of Adam and Eve, shielded the kingdom of Solomon, and exposed the fruit of perversity in the Song of Solomon, truly have fallen away as the Lord predicted in the prophecies of Isaiah and Jeremiah.
Shed of the symbolism inherent in the Hebrew Bible, the fig tree signals the coming time of redemption. The books of Matthew, Mark, and Luke depict Jesus explaining the second coming to his disciples through a parable of a fig tree. Jesus describes the events that will take place and prepares them by pronouncing, ��Now when these things begin to take place, look up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.� And he told them a parable: �Look at the fig tree, and all the trees; as soon as they come out in leaf, you see for yourselves and know that the summer is near. So also, when you see these things [of the second coming] taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near�� (Luke 21:28-31). By equating the blossoming of the leaves on the fig tree to the coming of the kingdom of God, the symbolism of the fig tree has been completely renewed. No longer proclaiming sin or shelter, the new birth of the fig tree leaves can be seen as replacing the leaves of the Hebrew Bible. The fig leaves become a harbinger for the dissolution of heaven and earth in the time of redemption and Jesus advises his disciples to be prepared and watchful for the signs that will become apparent. He warns, ��But watch at all times, praying that you may have strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of man�� (21:36).
The Book of John also connects the fig tree with the kingdom of God, but is not satisfied to leave it as such. Instead, the text stresses that a simple sign gathered from a parable should not be enough to provoke the strength of faith and knowledge that God intends. Though the reader would likely understand the teachings of Jesus within the other books as symbolic along the lines we have discussed, John makes sure to chastise anyone who is too quick to believe and follow the symbolic gestures taught within the parables. His book contains fewer parables and metaphors than the others and provides an early example of the change in approach. The text relates the story of a common man, Nathanael, who is taken to see the Messiah. When first told of the man believed to be the Christ, Nathanael is filled with doubt. However, upon Jesus� recognition of the man, Nathanael suddenly and fully believes in Jesus as the foreseen Messiah. Jesus replies to the rapid reversal of belief, ��Because I said to you, I saw you under the fig tree, do you believe? You shall see greater things than these...Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man�� (John 1:50-51). Thus, although John supports the tool of the fig tree as a precursor to the kingdom of God through the instrument of faith, he is sure to advise fuller and deeper convictions than the parables can portray.
The recurring image of the fig tree throughout the Hebrew Bible and New Testament leads one to wonder what the significance of this specific tree would have been to its readers at the times it was written. Likely, the fig tree was a type of tree that was common in the Middle East where the stories of the Bible took place and thus it was not strange for teachers to refer to it, for people to sit under it, or for parts of the tree to be used in the various ways we have encountered. The interesting symbolic weight that has become attached to the image within our analysis is due more, however, to the events and themes to which the fig tree has been related than to the assumed use of the fig tree when the book was written. The fig tree functions marvelously well as a metaphor, simile, emblem, harbinger, and educator within the context of illustrating the story of the Hebrew people and the alleged Messiah. From the awareness of original sin to the shield of God to the emblem of perversion to the enlightened teaching tool of Jesus, the utilization of the fig tree allows the reader to follow a more consistent storyline and adds a colorful lens through which to view the changes in man and his perception of God.