I’m reading Robert G. Hamerton-Kelly’s The Gospel and the Sacred: Poetics of Violence in Mark, and am really engaged by some of the ideas he proposes. Here’s one of them.
The pericope of the fig tree has puzzled me & every commentator I’ve read. Why curse the poor fig tree? That seems so out of character for Jesus. Hamerton-Kelly observes that the story of the cleansing of the temple is set within a larger story: the fig tree incident occurs while Jesus is on his way to the temple, to drive out the money-changers. In a mimetic reading of the gospel, this act is interpreted as an interruption and rejection of the entire sacrificial system that has the scapegoat mechanism at its heart. (A number of non-mimetic readings also interpret this event as a deliberate interruption and rejection of the temple cult, rather than as Jesus losing his temper.)
Hamerton-Kelly argues, therefore, that the fig tree symbolically stands for the sacrificial system of the temple, which bears no fruit. In cleansing the temple, Jesus symbolically strikes at the root of the whole system; according to Mark, the fig tree withers “from the root.”
The larger story covers Jesus’ first full day in Jerusalem, Mk 11:12-26. It can be broken down as follows:
11:12: Coming from Bethany in the morning
11:13-14: Cursing the fig tree
11:15-18: Entering Jerusalem, cleansing the temple
11:19: Leaving Jerusalem in the evening
11:20-21: Approaching Jerusalem the next morning; seeing the fig tree withered
11:22-26: Jesus’ discourse on faith, prayer, and forgiveness
I’m attracted to Hamerton-Kelly’s proposal partly because it offers *any* reasonable interpretation of the pericope; and partly because it makes some sense of the observation that it’s not even the season for figs. The evangelists often have the disciples hung up on the literal meaning of things, missing the symbolic point that Jesus is trying to make. In this case it’s not one of the disciples, but perhaps the reader, who makes this observation. Jesus’ discourse on prayer which culminates this passage notably omits any mention of sacrifice or the temple; given that in v17 he quoted “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations,” this teaching on prayer could be seen as Jesus offering an alternative approach to prayer and forgiveness.
I also observe that the first mention of fig leaves in the Bible is Gen 3:7, “Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves aprons.” This is a scene from the first story of mimetic rivalry and scapegoating in the Bible, occurring after the incitement of desire and mimetic rivalry, and before the serial scapegoating of Eve by Adam and of the serpent by Eve.