July 2013 Yavoh
The Cursed Fig Tree
In the days leading to Yeshua observing the Passover with His brethren and being offered up for our sins, He stayed just outside of Jerusalem in the small city of Bethany. Bethany is where His friend Lazarus and his two sisters Mary and Martha lived. Bethany means “the house of the poor.”
It happened that one morning Yeshua arose and was walking the short distance to Jerusalem when He became hungry. There was a fig tree alongside the road. Upon seeing the fig tree, Yeshua searched the tree diligently only finding leaves. There was no fruit to be found. He then did something even the disciples were stunned to see.
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. Seeing this, the disciples were amazed, and asked, “How did the fig tree wither all at once?” MAT 21:19-20
There are two questions that quickly emerge from this story. Why did the disciples marvel? Had they not seen incredible things happen with Yeshua (storms calmed, extra baskets of food from a blessing, lepers cleansed, the lame healed, and blind men see)? Why did they marvel at the tree suddenly withering?
The second question is disturbing to us all. So the tree didn’t have any fruit—why did Yeshua essentially kill the tree? Could it not have borne fruit later? Why did Yeshua curse the tree? Why didn’t He bless the tree so it would bear fruit for Him? And, why has this tree been singled out from the rest of creation?
In trying to answer these questions, I think that the disciples may have shared the second question with us. That is to say, they had never seen Yeshua really curse anything before and that may have stunned them. Not only could He heal but He could curse as well.
So let us focus on the second question (Yeshua’s curse) to understand this incident. At first glance, most people struggle with what Yeshua did. He couldn’t find any fruit to satisfy His hunger so He killed the tree. A normal person doesn’t do that. This almost seems like some suppressed anger that is vented on an innocent tree.
Let me share a few quick facts about the fig tree that plays into the answer. Fig trees bear fruit twice a year. In the springtime figs are small and called the poor man’s fruit and then in the fall they are full and juicy (the primary harvest). The altar in the temple uses wood for the fuel of the pyre. However, olive wood was never used. The preferred fuel for the altar was from the fig tree. A fig tree grows tall but it is better known for its sprawling nature. Many branches extend out from the trunk providing excellent shade. Its large three-point leaves provide extensive cover for the shade. But frequently, the weight of the sprawling limbs are jeopardized by winds and easily broken. It is common to find excellent pieces of fire wood near a fig tree from broken branches. Once the limb is broken it dries out quickly. If the tree dies completely, then there is only a reminder of the tree left (usually just the trunk reaching up some 8 to 10 feet until the roots give way).
The offering of the poor was either some salt or pieces of wood for the altar. If a fig tree were to die along the road to Jerusalem, its limbs would be stripped very quickly to supply the altar.
When the Scripture says that the tree was completely withered it means that the tree’s branches became brittle and collapsed. The only thing that remained was the base trunk and a lot of dead branches scattered about awaiting transport to the temple. A specific testimony to the tree’s destruction is given in Mark’s gospel.
And as they were passing by in the morning, they saw the fig tree withered from the roots up. MAR 11:20
Now let us fast-forward to the events that followed the withering of the fig tree. Yeshua was arrested, condemned to death, and taken to His execution on the cross. But let’s examine the methodology used by the Romans to carry out this type of execution.
Roman crucifixion was the worst form of execution. In fact, no Roman citizen was permitted to be crucified by law. It was reserved only for foreigners and the worst enemies of Rome. The typical “cross” depicted by the church today, with the upright pole and crossbar attached, was not the usual practice of the Romans. Instead, they would provide only a crossbar and then affix it to an execution stake. The execution stake was usually a large tree trunk, preferably one with no branches or leaves. The tree they would use would also need to be near a public road. The idea was to hang the victim on the execution stake so that anyone entering or leaving the village would see the torturous death and would feel intimidated into submission to Roman authority. Furthermore, the Romans would usually put a couple of victims on the same tree at the same time. This was based on the fact that the Romans would use whatever tree was available and then place multiple crossbars to the same tree. It would then become a spectacle for passersby.
The fig tree that Yeshua cursed was on the road between Jerusalem and Bethany. That road is part of the Mount of Olives. In fact, the only thing between Jerusalem and Bethany is the Mount of Olives. Yeshua was taken out of the city of Jerusalem and crucified near the road on the Mount of Olives. He was crucified with two other men.
Is it possible that the very tree Yeshua cursed was in fact the execution stake that He was taken to where His crossbar and that of two others were affixed? We cannot say for certain, but we do know that the Torah says “Cursed is He who hangs from a tree” and that Yeshua was cursed for us.
Maybe the answer to our question about why Yeshua cursed the tree can be found in the events of His death. Maybe Yeshua was preparing the tree for His own death for us.