Wednesday, October 27, 2010

I'd Have Cursed the Fig Tree Too

Almost thirty years ago, Walter Bruggemann contrasted Israelite visions of peace and prosperity involving the motif "vines and fig trees". There is the prophetic version (Mic 4), looking to the eschaton, the state version (I Kings 4), legitimating the status quo, and the revolutionary version (I Macc 14), that does the latter in belief that it has achieved the former.

The prophetic version is straightforward:
"In days to come, the mountain of the Lord's house shall be established... People shall beat their swords into plowshares, their spears into pruning hooks. Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore. But they shall all sit under their own vines and fig trees, and no one will make them afraid." (Mic 4:1-4)
Standard stuff from a prophet like Micah.

The state version demands reading between the lines:
"Judah and Israel were as numerous as the land and sea; they ate and drank and were very happy. Solomon was sovereign over all the kingdoms from the Euphrates to the land of the Philistines, even to the border of Egypt; they brought tribute and served Solomon all the days of his life... Judah and Israel lived in safety, from Dan even to Beer-sheba, all of them under their vines and fig trees." (I Kings 4:20-25)
Bruggemann noted the glaring irony, since Solomon's military bureaucracy did anything but fulfill the dream of "all" Israelites. His reign was in fact a nightmare in which people were drafted away from any vines and fig trees, into the army, or just taxed out of the possession of their small farms in order to support the king's splendor, including his 40,000 stalls of chariot-horses (v 26) and the provisions supplied for elites who feasted at his table (v 27).

The Maccabean passage is interesting.
"The land had rest in the days of Simon. He sought the good of his nation, and his rule was pleasing to them. He extended the borders of the nation and gained full control of the country... They tilled their land in peace... Old men sat in the streets talking together of good things, and the youths put on splendid military attire... All the people sat under their own vines and fig trees, and there was none to make them afraid." (I Macc 14:4-12)
The Hasmoneans may have thrown off the yoke of tyranny, and undoubtedly Simon's reign was more benevolent that Solomon's, but images of "youths in splendid military attire" are ominous -- and don't exactly square with Micah's vision of everyone beating their swords into plowshares.

One might say the prophetic version is positively naive, the state version tyrannically propagandist, the revolutionary version fraught with contradictions. No wonder Jesus just cursed the damn fig tree altogether (Mk 11:12-14). In its Markan context, he was actually cursing Israel, the temple, and the Jewish leadership. (The nation hasn't borne fruit, for its leaders are incapable of recognizing the messiah and the fact that the temple has become a den of robbers.) What more appropriate vessel to bear the curse than a tree that seems too problematic for Israel's own good?

[Bruggemann's article is "Vine and Fig Tree: A Case Study in Imagination and Criticism," Catholic Biblical Quarterly 43(1981): 188-204, reproduced in A Social Reading of the Old Testament: Prophetic Approaches to Israel's Communal Life, pp 91-110.]


Post a Comment

<< Home