Friday, May 11, 2012

The Fig Tree in Biblical Symbolism

Luxor figs, detail from Usarhet's tomb
Usarhat, a high ranking official, was "Overseer and Scribe of the Cattle of Amun."

Alice C. Linsley

The fig tree is one of the oldest known fruit trees, as attested by the discovery of figs in an 11,400-year-old house near Jericho.

Illustrations of fig trees are found on monuments and tombs of ancient Egypt. The Sycamore Fig grew in abundance along the Nile, the region from which Abraham's cattle-herding ancestors came. This tree was the plant totem of Hathor, the mother of Horus. The oldest sycamore tree in Egypt is in Matarria and is known as the "Virgin Mary Tree".

Zohary and Hopf, authors of Domestication of Plants in the Old World (Oxford University Press), assert that Egypt was "the principal area of sycamore fig development." They note that "the fruit and the timber, and sometimes even the twigs, are richly represented in the tombs of the Egyptian Early, Middle and Late Kingdoms. In numerous cases the parched sycons bear characteristic gashing marks indicating that this art, which induces ripening, was practiced in Egypt in ancient times."

In ancient Egyptian iconography the Sycamore stands on the threshold of life and death, veiling the threshold by its abundant low-hanging foliage. The caskets of some Egyptian mummies were made from the wood of the Sycamore Fig tree. Pharaohs called the Sycamore Fig Nehet.

With one striking exception, the fig tree symbolizes life, prosperity, peace, and righteousness throughout the Bible. Micah 4:4 reads: “But they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree; and no one shall make them afraid.”

Jesus alludes to this image of the righteous man enjoying God's peace under his own fig tree when he said to Nathaniel, "Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile!" Nathaniel said to him, "How do you know me?" Jesus answered, "Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you."

The fruit bearing tree is also an allusion to the crucifixion and to the third-day resurrection of Jesus Christ. On the third day, God said, “Let the earth put forth grass, herbs yielding seed and fruit trees bearing fruit.” The third day signals the exercise of divine power, or in more mystical terms, the arousal of God. In this, trees and pillars have similar symbolism. Both rise from the earth and stretch upward toward heaven. Jesus who was lifted up on the tree is the sign of God's power to draw all to Himself.

The Fig Tree's Association with Hathor

The fig tree is associated with the "Seed of God" (Gen. 3:15) in ancient Horite Hebrew symbolism. The sycamore fig was Hathor’s tree. Hathor conceived HR (Horus) by the overshadowing of the Sun. That is why she is shown with the solar image resting between the cattle horns on her head. In ancient Egyptian, Horus was called HR, meaning "Most High One". 

Hathor’s tree was regarded as a ‘tree of life.’ The drink made from the fruit was said to make one wise. This is the tradition behind Genesis 3:6:  "When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desireable for gaining knowledge, she took some and ate it."

The fruit taken by Eve might have been a fig from the Sycamore Fig tree (Ficus sycomorus) which grew in abundance along rivers in the region of Eden. This tradition is represented in paintings by the fig leaves covering Adam and Eve's private parts (Gen. 3:7). G. E. Post (1902), a botanist specializing in the fauna of Syria and Palestine, believes that the leaves used by the first couple were from the common fig. It ranged from the Atlantic coast of Nigeria to the Indian Ocean and was cultivated along the Nile, the Red Sea and in Trye and Sidon.

Present range of the Sycamore Fig Tree

In Palestine and North Africa some fig trees bear a first crop in June. These are usually so ripe that they are easily shaken from the trees. Likely, this is behind the warning of Nahum 3:12, “All thy strongholds shall be like fig trees with the first-ripe figs: if they be shaken, they shall even fall into the mouth of the eater.”

The edible fig was called tena in Aramaic and tin in Arabic. The Hebrew word teena signifies the fig tree near which another is planted, as the fig and the caprifig (wild fig). It also refers to the union of male and female such as results from caprification. Caprification is a technique in which flowering branches of the wild fig are hung in the orchards of cultivated fig trees. This allows wasps to carry pollen from the flowers of the caprifig to those of the edible varieties to pollinate the cultivated trees.

In Deuteronomy 8:8, Yahweh brings the Israelites into a land of olive oil, honey, wheat, barley, vines, pomegranates and fig trees. The importance of figs may be judged from the account of Abigail, who went out to meet David with an offering of two hundred fig cakes.

The Failure to Produce Fruit

In its natural habitat, the Sycamore Fig bears large yellow or red fruit year round, peaking from July to December. Jesus “cursed” the fig tree that failed to produce fruit. All fruit bearing trees were created to produce fruit, but this particular tree failed to do what it was created to do.

The next day as they were leaving Bethany, Jesus was hungry. Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to find out if it had any fruit. When he reached it, he found nothing but leaves, because it was not the season for figs. Then he said to the tree, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard him say it. (Mark 11:12-14)

Jesus uses this to instruct His disciples that they were created to bear fruit and failure to do so would mean sharing the destiny of a dead tree. What does not produce fruit is eventually cut down and thrown into the fire.


  1. Dr. Linsley,
    The fig tree is called in central Africa mulemba. Your map correctly indicates where to encounter it in the central Africa region. Mu is a prefix used in many Bantu languages to denote the preposition “of”. In this case it means of Lemba. It produces white liquid (latex) that is interpreted as mother’s milk. Lemba stands for maternal side of an individual. Not surprising, this same word Lemba denotes an ethnic tribal that has been traced back to Hebrews. Malemba nkulu for instance stands for the ancestry.

  2. Robert, Thanks for this good information!

    Lem appears in many Biblical names: Lemech and Lemuel are two examples. What do you think these names mean?

    1. I've heard that "Lamech" means "despairing". It looks an awful lot like the English word "lament", which has a similar meaning. If it's true that Lamech means "despairing", then it has interesting connotations for the Lamech from Cain's line, who despaired to his wives the song of vengeance, and the never-ending blood feud. As well as the Lamech from Seth's line that paradoxically found hope in the destiny of his son, Noah (which name means comfort or rest), when he said, "This same shall comfort us concerning the ground which the Lord God hath cursed."

    2. Lamech is a royal name. It is related to the Hebrew word Melech, meaning king. See this:

      The lines of Cain and Seth intermarried, so Abraham, Moses, David and Jesus are descendants of both rulers. See this:


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