Does the fig tree refer to Israel?




Is it true that the fig tree Jesus refers to is Israel?  Can you explain this?


You really did not give me much of a clue as to what you were referring to, but I did a quick search on the Internet in order to discover what is a common doctrine dealing with fig trees and Israel.  The reason I had to look on the Internet is because I have never espoused any significant doctrinal issue dealing with fig trees and Israel, so this is all new to me.

As I understand the doctrine, the question centers on a statement Jesus made in Matthew 24:32-35, "Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. Even so, when you see all these things, you know that it is near, right at the door. I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away."  The doctrine says that because Joel 1:7 and Hosea 9:10 both equate the fig tree to Israel, that must therefore imply that Jesus is also referring to Israel in this passage. From there, the doctrine that I saw tries to make several points about Israel's role in the future, specifically as it relates to the end of the world.

There are several problems with this, though.  First, Joel 1:7 is only mildly shadowed in metaphors and even the most liberal reading I could give it still only refers to fig trees that are within Israel.  That is a very tough way to look at a metaphor.  If the fig trees are within Israel, how could they represent the whole of Israel?  Second, in Hosea 9:10, Hosea compares the way Israel used to be to a fig tree.  It says, "When I found Israel, it was like finding grapes in the desert; when I saw your fathers, it was like seeing the early fruit on the fig tree. But when they came to Baal Peor, they consecrated themselves to that shameful idol and became as vile as the thing they loved."  It is certainly a stronger relationship than what is in Joel, but it is still a long way from saying that the fig tree is Israel.  I would say that fig tree in Hosea represented Israel when they were righteous and holy before God.  What they had become by the time of the prophesy was something vile that no longer reminded God of the fig tree.

I also always wonder when people try to create a doctrine by substituting one set of analogies with another one.  Do they pick and choose their references so that they come out they way they want?  To answer this question I decided to look up "fig tree" everywhere it is used in the Bible.  Here is a compilation of how it is used in the Old Testament:

Judges 9:10-11.Used metaphorically to represent righteous people.
I Kings 4:25. Used allegorically of a time of peace.
II Kings 18 31. Used allegorically of a time of peace.
Proverbs 27:18 Used allegorically to represent any thing that requires work or service.
Song of Solomon 2:13 Used metaphorically to represented springtime or beauty.
Isaiah 34:4 Used metaphorically to represent decay, death and destruction.
Isaiah 36:16 Used allegorically of a time of peace.
Hosea 9:10 Used metaphorically to represent righteous people or a time when Israel was righteous.
Joel 1:7,12 Used either literally to mean a fig tree or metaphorically to denote ruin, judgment, or destruction.
Joel 2:22 Used either literally to mean a fig tree or metaphorically to denote renewal or rebirth.
Habakkuk 3:17 Used either literally to mean a fig tree or metaphorically to represent famine.
Haggai 2:19 Used allegorically to represent famine.
Zechariah 3:10 Used allegorically of a time of peace.

In general, I would say that the use of the fig tree in poetic works of the Old Testament focus on the fig tree being one of the survival plants of the Israelites.  It makes a good analogy tool because its fruit is sweet and highly prized, it produces fruit early in the season (and also late because it produces twice a year).  If left unharvested, its fruit rots quickly.  I figure that is why it is at the center of both a sign of renewal and springtime because after a long winter, its fruit is highly prized.  It is also a figure of death because if left untended, its fruit is rotten and worthless.

In Matthew 24, Jesus is pointing to a "springtime version" of the fig tree.  He is saying "read the signs and it will come about as you read them".  The only reason to attempt to interject Israel into the discussion (for which there is no support in the passage) would be to try to get the passage to say or reveal something for which there is no mention. 

So, to answer the original question:  No, the fig tree that Jesus refers to does not refer to Israel.

Darrell Hamilton

See also:

Questions and Answers regarding Terminology in the Bible
Understanding Matthew 24