[Heb., teʼe·nahʹ; Gr., sy·keʹ, syʹkon].
Along with the olive and the vine, the fig tree (Ficus carica) is one of the most prominent plants of the Bible, receiving mention in more than 50 texts. (Jg 9:8-13; Hab 3:17) The fig is native to SW Asia, Israel, Syria, and Egypt and is noted for its remarkable longevity. While the tree will grow wild, to produce good fruitage it needs cultivation. (Lu 13:6-9) It is quite adaptable to various kinds of soil, even doing well in rocky soil. It may reach a height of about 9 m (30 ft), with a trunk diameter of about 0.6 m (2 ft), and it has wide-spreading branches. While it is primarily appreciated for its fruit, it is also highly valued for its good shade. (Joh 1:48-50) The leaves are large, measuring as much as 20 cm (8 in.) or more in width. The first mention of the fig is in regard to the sewing together of its leaves for use as loin coverings by Adam and Eve. (Ge 3:7) In some parts of the Middle East, fig leaves are still sewed together and used for wrapping fruit and for other purposes.
Early and Late Crops. There are, basically, two crops of figs produced annually by the trees: the first ripe figs, or early figs (Heb., bik·ku·rahʹ), which mature in June or early July (Isa 28:4; Jer 24:2; Ho 9:10), and the later figs, which grow on the new wood and make up the main crop, generally maturing from August onward. The early figs may be easily shaken from the tree when ripe, and they are prized for their delicate flavor.
About February, the first fruit buds appear on the branches from the previous season, and these precede the leaves by about two months, since the leaves do not usually appear until the final part of April or in May. (Mt 24:32) At Song of Solomon 2:13 the first signs of maturity in the new green figs (Heb., pagh) are mentioned in connection with the flowering of the grapevines, which flowering begins about April. Hence, by the time the tree is in full leaf it should also be bearing fruit. The fig tree that Jesus Christ cursed seems to have been abnormally early with its leaves, inasmuch as it was then Nisan 10 of the year 33 C.E. Its appearance gave basis for hoping it might also be unseasonably early in producing fruit suitable for eating, and the record at Mark 11:12-14 indicates that Jesus approached the tree with that thought in mind even though “it was not the season of figs,” that is, the time for the fruit to be gathered. The tree’s having nothing but leaves showed it was not going to produce any crop and was, therefore, deceptive in its appearance. Jesus cursed it as unproductive, causing it to wither.
Food and Medicinal Use. Figs were a staple source of food in Bible times and continue to be such in several Middle Eastern countries. They were formed into “cakes of pressed figs” (Heb., deve·limʹ), which were convenient for carrying. (1Sa 25:18; 30:12; 1Ch 12:40) Such a cake was used as a medicinal poultice for King Hezekiah’s boil, and cakes of this type are still employed in this manner today in the Middle East.
Figurative and Prophetic Use. The fig and the vine are mentioned jointly in many texts, and Jesus’ words at Luke 13:6 show that fig trees were often planted in vineyards. (2Ki 18:31; Joe 2:22) The expression ‘sitting under one’s own vine and fig tree’ symbolized peaceful, prosperous, secure conditions.
In view of this prominence of the fig tree in the life of the people, it is understandable why it was so frequently used in prophecy. Because of its importance to the nation’s food supply the utter failure of the fig crop would be calamitous. Thus, the fig tree received special mention when destruction, or ruination, was foretold for the land.
The nation of Israel itself was likened by Jehovah to two kinds of figs. (Jer 24:1-10) To illustrate how false prophets could be recognized by their bad fruits, Jesus cited the impossibility of getting “figs from thistles.” (Mt 7:15, 16; compare Jas 3:12.) The fig tree’s ‘putting forth its leaves’ toward the middle of the spring season was used by Jesus as a well-known time indicator. (Mt 24:32-34) Finally, the ease with which the ‘unripe fig’ (Gr., oʹlyn·thos) is shaken to the ground by high winds is used as a simile by the writer of Revelation.