Saturday, July 12, 2008

Chapter 12 - A Withered Figment

On the first day of the week, as Jesus and his followers were approaching Jerusalem, Jesus directed two of his disciples to a nearby village to find a donkey he could ride. When the disciples arrived at the village they located an available donkey very easily. Bystanders did ask, "Why are you doing this?" The disciples' action stirred concern, because they wanted to know how the animal would be used. The seventh-year law did not allow a person to use any animal to plow the ground or carry produce to market. The answer given by the disciples, "The Lord hath need of him," assured those who were concerned that the animal would be used only for an acceptable purpose. The disciples may have alluded to the scripture found in the Prophets, "Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion; shout, O daughter of Jerusalem: behold thy King cometh unto thee: he is just, and having salvation; lowly, and riding upon an ass, and upon a colt the foal of an ass."1 But even if they hadn't, the poignancy of the moment filled the air. Those, who were hopeful, expected the coming of the Messiah during the seventh year.[2] The groundswell ushering in the "fiftieth" year raised those expectations even higher.

As soon as the donkey was brought to Jesus, garments were spread on the animal and Jesus mounted. The disciples and fellow pilgrims, overwhelmed by Messianic hopes, shouted, sang praises, and spread a covering of foliage and garments over the ground as Jesus proceeded. The garments covering the animal served as a "sabbath" saddle, while the cloaks and foliage strewn on the ground prevented the donkey's hoofs from "breaking the soil" as the animal trod along. Any act of breaking the soil would be considered an act of plowing, an act which would be rigorously avoided by any devout sabbath observer.

After Jesus entered Jerusalem, he went into the temple district, went about unhurriedly, and surveyed the entire scene. We are not told what occupied Jesus� attention. Perhaps it was the business of the temple merchants or the aftermath following the recent insurrection. Whatever his concern, Jesus was prepared to bide his time, return to Bethany with his twelve disciples, and return to Jerusalem again the next day.
On the following day, "two days" (or actually the eve) before Passover, Jesus planned to reenter the temple district. The day would be a sharp contrast to the preceding one - - a new day marked with a peculiar incident with a fig tree and a confrontation with the temple merchants, chief priests, and scribes. Numerous gospel commentators have puzzled over the incident concerning the fig tree, and have also questioned the events surrounding the cleansing of the temple.

In both cases, the careful reader is left with the sense that something is missing. Just how the proper explanation has remained undetected up to our current time ranks among the foremost mysteries of the gospels. Consider the facts: Here are two malicious acts: the cursing of a fig tree, and the ransacking of the temple traders' booths.

An incident preserved among Jewish oral traditions stresses the serious nature arising from damage inflicted upon a fig tree. A parent laments, "Our son Sakkat died for no other reason than that he untimely cut down a fig tree."[3] A disturbance within the temple district would also demand stern official action, since during a comparable episode involving the Apostle Paul, he was promptly arrested by Roman soldiers.[4]

The following passages of Mark[5] have been edited within the framework outlined by the seventh year to highlight the actual events:
�On the following day [as Jesus once more approached Jerusalem] after they had left Bethany[6], he felt hungry, and noticing in the distance a fig tree showing promise, he went to inspect it. But when he came there he found the tender shoots already breaking into leaf. He therefore said aloud for his disciples to overhear, "It is no longer the season for figs. May no one eat the fruit of the fig from the morrow henceforth.[7]
�So they came to Jerusalem, and he went into the temple and began driving out those who bought and sold [holy produce] in the temple. He upset the tables of the moneychangers and the seats of the dealers in pigeons; and he would not allow anyone to use the temple court as a thoroughfare for carrying [seventh-year] goods. Then he began to teach them and said, �Does not scripture say, `My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations'?[8] But you have made it a robbers� cave.
�The chief priests and the doctors of the law heard of this and sought some means of annulling what he had done; for they were afraid of what had happened, because the whole crowd was captured by his teachings [and the windfall they had received]. And when evening came he went out of the city.
�Early next morning, as they passed by, they looked for the tree-withered figs from the roots up[9], and Peter, recalling what had happened, said to him, �Rabbi, look the tree-withered figs10 you proclaimed unfit are gone!� Jesus answered them, �Have faith in God, I tell you this: If anyone declares [the Law of] Removal [while standing] upon this mountain it shall be done. That [aftergrowth] which is picked from its place shall be hurled into the sea. Have no inward doubts, but believe what one may [lawfully] declare as having taken place. I tell you then, Whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you are entitled to it, and that it is yours.�
��And when you stand praying, if you have a grievance against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you the wrongs you have done.�
�They came once more to Jerusalem. And as he was walking in the temple court the chief priests, lawyers, and elders came to him and said, �By what authority are you acting like this? Who gave you the authority to (enforce the Law of Removal or) act this way?��

When the incidents concerning the fig tree and the temple cleansing are viewed in their gospel context, they appear somewhat disconnected. But when viewed in the context of the seventh year in its edited version as just presented, the same, seemingly disparate incidents, adopt an entirely coherent meaning and relevance. Jesus' initial examination of the fig tree was necessary not so much to see whether there were any figs on or around the tree, but to see how far the new season's growth had sprouted forth. The Law of Removal could be declared on one hand, if a "poor" person (even if only poor for the sake of the sabbatical year, or in other words "poor in spirit"), searching in his local region, could not find any remaining tree-withered figs anywhere from the roots upward, or, if the leafy buds of the new season had opened, up to the size of crow's feet.

The domain of Israel had been divided[11] into three districts for seventh-year purposes: Galilee, Trans-Jordan, and Judaea. Each district was further subdivided into three regions: highlands, plains or slopes, and valleys. The highland region in each district served as a bellwether region. The availability of a particular fruit in the highland region regulated the permissible status of the same fruit throughout the district. The highlands were generally selected as the bellwether region, because the fruit in that region would reach maturity late in the growing season. A long-standing tradition12 explicitly explains that the region around Bethany served as the region governing figs. The particular kind of fig was also mentioned as being the "green" fig or alternately called the "winter" fig. These green figs are a triferous species of figs, which yield a crop that ripen very late in the growing season. Sometimes the fruit does not ripen until after the old leaves start falling from the tree, and it is not strange to see the withered figs that survive the winter still hanging from the tree in the springtime.

When Jesus came upon the fig tree, he noticed the appearance of the new leaves, because from that time forward the seventh-year tree-withered figs could no longer be eaten. Tradition required their complete consumption in the next twenty-four hours or disposing the aftergrowth (the fruit that remained) by either throwing it into the sea or by burning it. Once the new season commenced, the property reverted into the hands of its legal owner, who was responsible for separating the first fruits and other offerings for the temple.

The puzzling event in Mark's version describing the destruction of a fig tree deserves special attention. The Book of Deuteronomy sets the proper regard for fruit trees13, where it admonishes even those who would lay siege to a city to preserve the neighboring fruit trees. The fruit-bearing trees in the chosen land of Israel were consequently well protected. It seems likely that the only way a tree-withered fig could ever turn itself into a withered fig tree bearing a barren fruit that ripened into an ominous sign forecasting the imminent destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, would be for the gospel narrative to be transplanted into alien Roman soil where the well-being of a fig tree, especially the one standing on Palatine hill, was tied to the well-being of the state.[14]

The situation where a fig tree bears withered figs reaching over from the previous season is better suited to the circumstances at hand. The removal of withered figs or any other aftergrowth also mandates the situation where all goods or coinage exchanged for holy produce are subject to the Law of Removal.[15] When Jesus cleansed the temple he was removing the leaven, that is, the accumulated commercial profit acquired during the seventh year. He did this by scattering all the property about. In any ordinary year, temple offerings (coins or goods) found on the temple grounds were deposited in the nearest predetermined gift offering receptacle. In the seventh year, however, scattered goods were declared "hefker," or free goods. Thus, when "removal" was enforced, the pilgrim crowd could pick up the coins and other property released from the temple merchants. Anyone could claim the scattered goods, eat thereof or convert any leftover item into a consumable quantity of food, and freely partake of the general feast associated with the religious festival.

The lawfulness of Jesus' action rested firmly on the ruling contained within the oral traditions, where we learn "On the eve of the first Festival-day of Passover in the fourth and seventh years the duty of Removal was fulfilled".[16] Accordingly, when the officials from the temple confronted Jesus, the suitability of the temple cleansing was not questioned. The only stated question focused upon how Jesus had obtained his authority to act as he had done. The questions concerning authority and the questions that followed were intended to put Jesus on the defensive, so that any misstatement would have been cause for his immediate arrest. Had Jesus asserted a kingly authority the Roman loyalist temple officials would have had a clear case with which to charge Jesus, as he would be usurping the Roman prerogative that determined the prevailing nature of local authority.

Jesus was far too experienced to allow himself to be entrapped into a political crime. He was also well aware of the protection he must receive from the Jewish law governing religious life. Although the civil rights concerning the accused in a trial involving capital punishment have been well explored in the context of the impending "trial", other legal regulations regarding the acceptable year of the Lord have been ignored. As we can plainly observe, Jesus was not only protected by his soaring popularity among the people, he was also protected by the law, which stated no dealer of seventh year produce could act as a witness before the courts of Israel. Furthermore, since no one could prevent another from receiving his share of the holy produce, no one could obstruct what Jesus had done.


[1] Zechariah 9:9
[2] Babylonian Talmud, Megillah, Rodkinson Volume 4, Festivals, Part III, pg. 46,
"And why did they mention Redemption in the seventh Benediction? Said Rabha: Because it is known they will be redeemed in the seventh year (in Sanhedrin it is said that in the last of the seventh yearB Messiah they will be redeemed)."
B. Megillah 17b. "In the seventh year the son of David will come."
[3] Babylonian Talmud, Beba Bathra 26a.
[4] Acts 21:30-36
[5] Mark 11: 11-28
[6] Bethany - an abridgment of Beth Te'enah (place of the fig tree) A small village on the southeast spur of the Mount of Olives, nearby the village Beth Pagi (place of green figs).
[7] Shebiith 9:8
"If a man still had Seventh Year produce and the time came for Removal, he must allot food for three meals to every person [in his household]. The poor may eat [of such produce] after the time of Removal, but not the rich. S R. Jose says: Poor and rich alike may eat after the time of Removal."
[8] Here, Jesus quotes part of a sabbath-oriented haftarah, Isaiah 55:6-56:8, which is read nowadays during the Jewish fast days, and the 9th of Av. The latter date commemorates both the first and second destruction of the Temple.
[9] Babylonian Talmud, Pachim, "Figs may be eaten [during the seventh year] until the last fall off the trees at Beth Hini. ... This means to say, that if a poor man cannot find any, neither on the branches not at the roots of the tree."
[10] The fig tree and its fruit are designated in Hebrew by the same word "te'enah", the plural "te'enim" indicating the fruit as distinct from the tree.
[11] Shebiith 9:2-4
2. "Three countries are to be distinguished in what concerns the law of Removal - - Judea, beyond Jordan and Galilee; and each of these are divided into three lands. [Galilee is divided into] upper Galilee, lower Galilee, and the valley: from Kefar Hanania upwards, wheresoever sycamores grow, is lower Galilee; the region of Tiberias is the valley. And in Judea are the hill country, the plain and the valley. The plain of Lydia is deemed to pertain to the plain of the south, and the hill-country near by is like to the king's hill-country. From Beth-horon to the sea is deemed a single district."
3. "Why have they spoken of three countries? That they may eat [of Seventh Year produce] in each country only until the last [of the Seventh Year produce] in that country is ended. R. Simeon says: They have of three countries only in what concerns Judea; the rest of the countries are as the king's hill-country. All these countries are alike in what concerns olives and dates."
4. "They may eat [Seventh Year produce which they have collected into their houses] only so long as it is found free in the fields, but not so long as it is still found watched over [in private ownership]. R Jose allows it also when it is still found watched over [in private ownership]. They may continue to] eat [Seventh Year produce] by virtue of [the continuance in the open field of] late-ripening grain, or of trees that bear twice in the year, but not by virtue of winter grapes. R. Judah allows this if they began to ripen before the summer [of the Seventh Year] was over."
[12] Tosephta Shevi'ith 7:14 "Man may eat ripe figs [during the Seventh Year] until the Season for green figs of Bethany has terminated."
[13] Deuteronomy 20:19-20
[14] Frazer, The Golden Bough, Chapter ix, The Worship of Trees.
"But nowhere perhaps, was this antique form of religion better preserved than in the heart of the great metropolis [Rome] itself. In the Forum, the busy centre of Roman life, the sacred fig-tree was worshipped down to the days of the empire, and the withering of its trunk was enough to spread consternation through the city."
See Pliny, Natural History, Book XV, xx, 77-78
Tacitus, Annals, XIII, 58
[15] Mishna, Shebiith 7.1
An important general rule has been laid down concerning Seventh Year produce: whatsoever is food for man or for cattle or that is a species of dying matter, if it is not left growing in the ground, the Seventh Year law applies both to it and to its money substitute. ..."
[16] Maaser Sheni 5:6

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