In Mark 11: 12 – 25 we read the story about Jesus speaking a curse to a fig tree. It’s not like Jesus used a four letter word in Aramaic. He just said “May no one ever eat fruit from you again“. This story is often given as an example from the unbeliever that Jesus was not the kind and loving savior his disciples claim. For as it says in verse 13, it was not the season for figs. And yet Jesus cursed this tree for not having fruit when it was not the season for figs. And as backwards as this sounds just a little bit of research cleared up this confusing story. You just need to know a little bit of the horticulture of fig trees.
I have two references to help explain the arboricultural workings of a fig tree, and I’m sure you can find many more. The first reference comes from the Song of Solomon 2:10 – 13. It’s obvious from verses 11 and 12 that it is talking about the spring time: “for behold, the winter is past; the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth.” Then in verse 13 it says “The fig tree ripens its figs, and the vines are in blossom; they give forth fragrance.” So this passage reveals that the first figs can ripen in the spring time (as it was less than a week before Passover in Mark’s story).
The next reference comes from The Bible Almanac written by J.I. Packer, Merrill Tenney, and William White Jr. In the section titled “Plants and Herbs” (page 267) it says:
“Cultivated from very early times, figs grew on low trees with thick spreading branches. The pear-shaped fruit of the green fig appeared before the leaves. When the leaves obtained some size their interiors filled with small white flowers. If the leaves came out and no fruit appeared among them the tree would remain barren for that season.”
In today’s lingo this early fig is called the breba and appears on last season’s branches. They may also be called the first fruits of the fig tree (Hosea 9:10). This early fruit that appeared before the leaves was smaller, less sweet, but still edible.
Since Jesus was a native of the area (not to mention that He is the creator of every tree), He would know that seeing a fig tree with leaves would mean it should have fruit even though it was not the time of harvest. There was a second and main crop of the fig tree that was typically harvested around August.
Side notes: I think it interesting that in Hosea 9, the same chapter that talks about the first fruits of the fig tree, verse 16 says “Ephraim is stricken; their root is dried up; they shall bear no fruit.” Was this a prophecy fulfilled in Mark’s story? Maybe it had a double meaning? Also in my research I found that the Sycamore is a type of fig tree. Did Jesus see Zacchaeus as a potential fruit of his ministry? I think so.
So with this knowledge of fig trees, we see that Jesus was not demanding the impossible of this fig tree. He was expecting to see the first fruits of the tree (the breba) that should be there since it had leaves. Some claim that the fig tree represents Israel. I don’t. I think instead it represents all disciples of Christ. If you are a disciple of Christ you should bear the fruit of the Spirit of God (Galatians 5:22-23), otherwise examine your heart and see where your priorities lie.
Another significance of cursing the fig tree has to do with death and resurrection. (Read my blog on the week of Jesus’ crucifixion here.) Of course Jesus’ ultimate reason for going to Jerusalem was to die for us all then rise from the dead. And any fruit bearing tree is a metaphor for this death and resurrection. The fruit falls to the ground; seeds are buried in the ground (death); and sprout again to make a new tree (resurrection). This barren fig tree was unable to fulfill the metaphor without fruit and seeds.