the "holy land" - quarterly published by the franciscan custody of the holy land

"Holy Land" Spring 1997

`One basket had very good figs, like first-ripe figs, but the other basket had very bad figs, so bad that they could not be eaten.` (Jeremiah 24:2)

The fig tree is one of the most familiar in Mediterranean lands, where it is often seen in courtyards, hemmed in by white plastered walls and red pantiled houses. There are some eight hundred species in the genus Ficus, each having its own life cycle. Young fig trees are almost shrubby in growth with several grey-barked stems and thick twigs which exude a milky juice when cut. As they grow older one or two trunks thicken but the white wood is soft and of little use as timber. Leafless in winter, the fig tree bursts its buds in late spring and the coarse, lobed leaves are fully developed by the time the owner needs the shade during the heat of the summer months, like Nathaniel in New Testament times (John 1:48,50). To this day a fig tree and a carefully trained vine are frequently found together beside a house and one is reminded of the scriptural refrences to the security of every man who sits under his vine and under his fig tree whom none shall make afraid (Micah 4:4).


Orchards of the common fig (Ficus carica) are often seen in Palestine. On brilliant days in early spring I have seen orchards of leafless fig trees on the limestone hills, where the ground was smothered by pink Egyptian campion (Silene aegyptiaca), as well as the less conspicuous Syrian speedwell (Veronica syriaca) with rich blue flowers. The trees are spaced well apart as the roots not only penetrate the ground deeply, but spread out laterally for a great distance.When they are planted like this, fig trees have a rounded crown supported by a stout trunk. A young fig tree grows rapidly and may start to bear fruit when seven years old and continue for several decades, but fig trees usually become unprofitable after some fifty years. Mature side shoots need to be shortened in summer to encourage little fruits to develop on them which will mature the following year.


Few people realize how specialized is the life history of the fig. The primitive common fig (F. carica) has two forms which correspond to male and female. The many-seeded fig fruit is the female, which is composeed of numerous minute flowers lining the interior of a fleshy cavity, with only an obscure hole at the top through which the pollinating insect, the fig-wasp (Blastophaga psenes) creeps. The story of fig pollination is a fascinating one, and demonstrates an extraordinary interpendence between the fig and this insect.


The common fig, like the olive, grapevine, and date palm, has been in cultivation from very early times, at least since the Early Bronze Age. It originated from the wild F. carica in the Mediterranean area, but is related to many wild species growing in he region towards Afghanistan. In Palestine today wild fig trees often grow in rocky places, especially where bats congregate. As the bats fly into their caves or cliff roosts they drop the seeds of figs on which they have been feeding and some of them develop into trees. Nowadays it is difficult to tell which ones are truly wild and which are natural through bat and bird dispersal. The trees one finds in the wild are of inferior quality as they have arisen from such seeds which, when they occur in good soil, are eradicated by the farmers and replaced by better varieties raised from cuttings.


The first reference to the fig tree in the Old Testament, and probably the most famous, is that in Genesis; after eating fruit of the forbidden tree in the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve `knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves aprons' (Genesis 3:7). Hence for centuries artists and sculptors have depicted nude figures wearing fig leaves! Metaphorical references to the fig abound in the Scriptures, such as Jotham's parable of the trees `And the trees said to the fig tree, "come you, and reign over us." But the fig tree said to them, "Shall I leave my sweetness and my good fruit?"' (Judges 9:10-11).

In the New Testament Jesus used the fig tree in a parable as a sign of the times - perhaps of when He would return: `From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near' (Matthew 24:32). By `tender' he may have been referring to the abundance of milky latex present in the thick twigs during the spring. Jesus used the fig tree in another parable where the practice of manuring unfruitful trees is mentioned (Luke 13:6-9). The village of Bethphage, where Jesus cursed the fig tree (Matthew 21), actually means the `house' or `place of unripe figs', while Bethany is the `house of figs'. There are other place-names derived from figs, such as Almon-diblathaaim (Almon of dried figs) of Numbers 33:46, and Taanath-shiloh (the fig of Shiloh) of Joshua 16:6.

The curious incident of the cursing of a fig tree by Jesus, recorded in Matthew 21 and Mark 11, is an interesting case which has been explained in various ways. H. V. Morton, whose observations on the fig have often been quoted by other writers, thought that Jesus, seeing the small male figs that had come through the winter (called tagsh by the Arabs, probably paga in Hebrew), assumed the tree to be barren. But Asaph Goor (1968) thinks that the tree could have been a wild one, or a Greek variety which is known to need caprification. This does not explain, however, what a fig tree was doing in leaf at the time of Passover, which is too early to find a normal tree in leaf. Professor F. F. Bruce (1970) comments that for all the show of foliage, it was a fruitless and hopeless tree. He considers it to be an acted parable: the fig tree, green but barren, spoke of the city of Jerusalem where Jesus found much religious observance, but no response to His message from God. The withering of the tree was thus an omen of the disaster which, as He foresaw and foretold, would shortly fall upon the city.


From the various references to figs in the Bible and other historical literature, there is no doubt that the fruit formed a very important part of the diet of ancient civilizations in the Near East. It was one of the seven fruits of the Promised Land (Deuteronomy 8:8). Figs may be eaten fresh or died, but the first ripe fig was reckoned a very dainty morsel. Isaiah graphically pictures the first ripe fig: `when a man sees it, he eats it up as soon as it is in his hand' (Isaiah 28:4). Both Hosea (9:10) and Nahum (3:12) use a similar analogy. Jeremiah contrasts the wholesome first ripe figs to overripe bad figs, which are only fit for destruction,and likens them respectively to Judah in captivity and that part of Judah remaining in Jerusalem (Jeremiah 24:1-10). The basket of `summer fruit' (Heb. qayits) of Amos' vision (Amos 8:1ff.) is usually understood to be a basket of overripe figs, and is probably a play on another Hebrew word, qets, meaning `end', which fits the theme of the vision. Destruction of the fig trees and other fruits was a calamity: `For a nation has come up against my land... It has laid waste my vines, and splintered my fig trees; it has stripped off their bark and thrown it down; their branches are made white' (Joel 1:6,7).

In the dried state, figs were an important food all the year round and valuable in wartime, especially during sieges. Supplies were stored in fortified cities and strongholds, such as Masada, where remnants have been found during excavations. The best figs were dried individually, the second best were strung together and dried, while ordinary figs were pressed into lumps (Heb. debhela). These caked figs were commonplace and ready at hand; hence Abigail could send David two hundred cakes of figs together with other offerings (1 Samuel 25:18), and later David's men gave a piece of one of these to the hungry Egyptian (1 Samuel 30:12). Isaiah apparently found the application of a cake of figs beneficial to Hezekiah's boil (2 Kings 20:7; Isaiah 38:21). In this respect it is interesting to note that in ancient Assyrian medicine the fig was used in plasters and there is evidence that it was efficacious.


The Scriptures also mention another kind of fig - the sycomore - which has a different life cycle. To many people the sycomore is known only from the reference to it in the New Testament when Zacchaeus climbed into one to see Jesus entering Jericho (Luke 19:4). Zacchaeus was a small man who could not see over the shoulders of other people, but he would have had little difficulty climbing up one of the massive sycomore trees as their knobby trunks often branch near the ground. Presumably this tree was planted beside the road in Jericho, just as the sycomore is used as a street tree in modern Tel Aviv.

Although the sycomore is a kind of fig (Ficus sycomorus), in Egypt and Palestine during biblical times it was more important for its timber than for its fruits. Perhaps that explains Isaiah's statement (Isaiah 9:10) that the cut down sycomores would be replaced by cedars, which could be used for better timber. It has now declined in frequency in most parts of the Eastern Mediterranean as the fruits are inferior to the common fig.

Although the sycomore is known to have occurred in Egypt since predynastic times, before 3000 B.C. it is reckoned to be of tropical African origin. It thrives only in warmer areas such as the Nile valley, the Jordan valley and in western Palestine, where it was very common in Old Testament times (1 Kings 10:27, 2 Chronicles 1:15; 9:27). The psalmist recalls the disastrous effect of cold in Egypt: `He destroyed their vines with hail, and their sycomore trees with frost' (Psalm 78:47 KJV). Trees were planted near villages and towns, so that the fruit was readily available and advantage could be taken of its shade. The coarse heart-shaped leaves persist on the tree throughout the year, except in certain areas, where they may be lost in cold weather. For instance I have seen a tree in Thebes covered with leaves in February, yet the large trees in cooler windswept Tel Aviv were almost bare in March.

© copyright 1997

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