Day 3: Jesus utters The Withering Curse

Mark Twain - Quotes, Books & Real Name - Biography
Mark Twain

In 1867 celebrated American author Mark Twain visited the land of Israel (Palestine as it was called).  He travelled across the land, writing his observations in his best-selling book Innocents Abroad.  He used the words “unpicturesque”, “unsightly”, and “desolate” to describe what he saw.  Twain wrote,

“Palestine sits in sackcloth and ashes…. desolate and unlovely.”

Innocents Abroad

Of the Jezreel valley, Twain wrote,

“Stirring scenes … occur in the valley no more. There is not a solitary village throughout its whole extent-not for thirty miles in either direction. There are two or three small clusters of Bedouin tents, but not a single permanent habitation. One may ride ten miles hereabouts and not see ten human beings.” 

Innocents Abroad

He described the Galilee as

“the sort of solitude to make one dreary … Come to Galilee for that … these unpeopled deserts, these rusty mounds of barrenness, that never, never do shake the glare from their harsh outlines, and fade and faint into vague perspective; that melancholy ruin of Capernaum: this stupid village of Tiberias, slumbering under its six funereal palms … “

Innocents Abroad

Mount Tabor …

“stands solitary … [in a] silent plain … a desolation … we never saw a human being on the whole route … hardly a tree or shrub anywhere. Even the olive tree and the cactus, those fast friends of a worthless soil, had almost deserted the country”

Innocents Abroad

Desolate Land or ‘flowing with Milk and Honey’?

Mark Twain was particularly baffled because what he saw did not match at all what he read in the Bible, where powerful kings ruled over peoples, multitudes of people thronged around Jesus, and which was described many times in the Bible as:

… a land flowing with milk and honey.

Jeremiah 32:22

What happened to the land?

It is what Jesus said and did on this Tuesday – Day 3 of Passion Week – that explains it.  Jesus used mannerisms replete with symbolism and withering criticism of the people in his day.  In doing so he demonstrated a gift for drama which we regularly witness from some similarly gifted fellow Jews even today.

Witty & Gifted Critics Present and Past

Among the most gifted and well-known today for directing withering criticism, drama loaded with irony, and symbolic denunciation are Bill Maher, Seth Rogen, Ivan Urgant, and Sasha Baron Cohen.  

Bill Maher, long running host of Real Time with Bill Maher, one of the most popular late night shows in the USA, regularly engages in political satire and social commentary, leaving none free of his withering criticism.

Seth Rogen, a Canadian comedian and filmmaker, achieved unique notoriety with his movie The Interview, portraying journalists undertaking an assassination attempt on North Korean dictator Kim Jung-un. North Korea threatened ‘merciless’ retaliation unless the movie was withdrawn.  The controversy generated wide publicity and gained Rogen prominence for his ability to needle the North Korean dictator.

Sasha Baron Cohen, the well-known British satirist who, through his wild alter-ego characters Borat– the Kazak journalist, Bruno– the gay Austrian fashion reporter, General Aladeen in The Dictator has enraged so many groups that Cohen has had to increase his security detail.

Ivan Urgant, the host of the most popular Russian late-night TV show, had his show Evening Urgant cancelled because he criticized the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Though all from different nationalities, apart from being well-known for their satirical criticism, what these four all have in common is their common Jewish heritage.  They illustrate, that though small in number, Jewish satirists are among the leaders in this genre of drama – no matter which country they come from.

Jesus likewise was a master critic.  But the criticism he levelled on that day, evoking Mark Twain’s wonder centuries later has affected human history far more than modern-day critics’ ability to arouse satire which lasts only through the next news cycle.

Jesus’ Looming Conflict

First we review the week and then look at what he did that day.

After Jesus had entered Jerusalem on Sunday as prophesied and then shut down the Temple on Monday, the Jewish leaders planned to kill him.  But it would not be straight-forward.  

God had selected Jesus as His Passover Lamb when Jesus entered the Temple on Monday, Nisan 10. The Torah regulated what to do with the selected Passover lambs

The animals you choose must be year-old males without defect, and you may take them from the sheep or the goats. Take care of them until the fourteenth day of the month, when all the members of the community of Israel must slaughter them at twilight.

Exodus 12:5b-6a

As the people cared for their Passover Lambs, so also God cared for His Passover Lamb and Jesus’ enemies could not get at him (yet).  So the Gospel records what Jesus did the next day, Tuesday, Day Three of Passion Week.

Jesus Curses a Fig Tree

17 And he left them and went out of the city to Bethany, where he spent the night.

18 Early in the morning, as Jesus was on his way back to the city, he was hungry. 19 Seeing a fig tree by the road, he went up to it but found nothing on it except leaves. Then he said to it, “May you never bear fruit again!” Immediately the tree withered.

Matthew 21:17-19
Jesus Curses the Fig Tree

Why did he do that?  

What did it mean?

The disciples were amazed, leading to a puzzling statement from Jesus about casting mountains into the sea.

20 When the disciples saw this, they were amazed. “How did the fig tree wither so quickly?” they asked.

21 Jesus replied, “Truly I tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only can you do what was done to the fig tree, but also you can say to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and it will be done. 22 If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.”

Matthew 21: 20-22

The meaning of the Fig Tree

The earlier prophets explain it to us.  Notice here how the Hebrew prophets used the Fig Tree to picture Judgment on Israel:

The prophet Hosea went further, using the fig tree to picture and then curse Israel:

10 “When I found Israel,
    it was like finding grapes in the desert;
when I saw your ancestors,
    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.

Hosea 9:10

16 Ephraim is blighted,
    their root is withered,
    they yield no fruit.
Even if they bear children,
    I will slay their cherished offspring.”

17 My God will reject them
    because they have not obeyed him;
    they will be wanderers among the nations.

Hosea 9:16-17 (Ephraim=Israel)

The destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BCE fulfilled these and Moses’ curses (see the history). 

When Jesus cursed the fig tree, he symbolically pronounced another coming destruction of Jerusalem and Jewish exile from the land.  He cursed them into exile again.

After cursing the fig tree, Jesus re-entered the Temple, teaching, debating and clarifying his curse, especially on the Jewish leaders.  The Gospel records it this way.

Not an empty one – The Curse takes hold

We know from history that this destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple, along with the expulsion of the Jews into worldwide exile happened in 70 C.E. 

With the Temple destruction in 70 CE Israel’s withering occurred, remaining withered for thousands of years. 

https://en.satyavedapusthakan.net/wp-content/uploads/sites/3/2020/10/romans_destroy_temple.jpg
Roman Destruction of Jerusalem Temple in 70 CE. Preserved Roman sculptures show them looting the Temple and taking the Menorah (large, 7-place candle)

This curse does not reside simply in the pages of the Gospel story.  We can verify it happened in history.  This Withering Curse pronounced by Jesus lasted many generations.  The people of his day ignored him to their destruction.

19th Century panorama view of Jerusalem – desolate
The destroyed Temple ruins visible today

 The Curse will Expire

Jesus later clarified how that curse would come and how long it would last.

24 They will fall by the sword and will be taken as prisoners to all the nations. Jerusalem will be trampled on by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.

Luke 21:24

He taught that his curse (exile and Gentile control over Jerusalem) would last only ‘until the times of the Gentiles (non-Jews) are fulfilled’, predicting that his Curse would expire, explaining this further on Day 4.

The Curse Lifted

https://en.satyavedapusthakan.net/wp-content/uploads/sites/3/2020/10/Jewish-History-including-exiles.jpg
Historical Timeline of the Jews on larger scale – featuring their two periods of exile 

This timeline shows the history of the Jewish people with further details here.  Coming to our modern day, the timeline shows the end of the exile.  In 1948, from a UN declaration, the modern state of Israel was founded.  In the 1967 six-day war the city of Jerusalem, now the capital of Israel, was regained.  We see the ‘times of the Gentiles’ coming to a close in modern-day news events.

https://en.satyavedapusthakan.net/wp-content/uploads/sites/3/2020/10/jews-praying-before-Temple-mount.jpg
Jews now pray again at Temple Wall

 The beginning and expiration of Jesus’ curse, uttered symbolically to the fig tree and then explained to his listeners have not remained as simply fiction on the pages of the Gospel.  These events are verifiable, making news headlines today (ex., USA moved its embassy to Jerusalem).  Jesus taught profoundly, voiced authority over nature, and now we see that his curse left its imprint on nations for thousands of years.  We ignore him at our peril.

Aerial view of Jerusalem today – from wikimedia

Summary of Day 3

The updated chart shows Jesus cursing the fig tree on Day 3, Tuesday, while taken care of as God’s Selected Lamb. We see on Day 4 he foretells his coming return, coming to set right many wrongs.

Day 3: Jesus Curses the Fig Tree

 Postscript on the Day 3 Withering Curse

Jews have a reputation of leading in many areas of human undertaking, regardless of whether they are Israeli or part of the world-wide diaspora of Jews. But this is not true in agriculture. Only Israeli Jews carry this distinctive.  Israel has carved out a hard-earned reputation as a leader in agricultural technology, starting when the first Jews made Aliyah to Palestine over a hundred years ago, forming kibbutzim and moshav (essentially different kinds of co-operative communal farms).  The Galilean north was swampy, the Judean hills were rocky and the south was desert – exactly as Mark Twain had experienced it. So the first settlers had to drain malaria infested swamps, clear land and learn to irrigate.  

Blossoming Green in Today’s desert

Today Israel is a world leader in drip irrigation technology, growing and exporting many fruits, vegetables, grain and dairy products.  This is true in spite of the fact that Israel is not naturally conducive to agriculture and over half the land is natural desert.  With water shortage being a major and continual problem in that part of the world, Israeli farmers have become world leaders in irrigation technology.

That Israeli farmers in just this last generation have been able to transform the land from a barren, withered landscape into literally a panorama of green can be seen from the satellite view in Google Maps, which compares their desert land with the five borders they share with their neighbours. On Day 4, Jesus prophesied this would occur and would hold a specific meaning.

Israel-Egypt border (red highlight) with irrigated circles prominent on Israeli side
Israel-Jordan border (red highlight) with green irrigated fields visible on Israeli side
Demarcation line between Israel and Syria. Israelis have greened their landscape
Lebanon – Israel border: The cultivated block of fields on Israeli side  basically follows the border
Northern Gaza border with Israel.

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