In a world without Fig Newtons, figs and grapevines were easily understandable symbols of fertile soil and abundance. Or desolation and barrenness brought about by God’s curse.
When God sends locusts as a punishment for Israel’s national naughtiness, chomping down on figs and grapevines is one of the first things they do.
What the cutting locust left, the swarming locust has eaten. What the swarming locust left, the hopping locust has eaten, and what the hopping locust left, the destroying locust has eaten. Wake up, you drunkards, and weep; and wail, all you wine-drinkers, over the sweet wine, for it is cut off from your mouth. For a nation has invaded my land, powerful and innumerable; its teeth are lions’ teeth, and it has the fangs of a lioness. It has laid waste my vines, and splintered my fig trees; it has stripped off their bark and thrown it down; their branches have turned white. (NRSV Joel 1:4-7)
He shall judge between many peoples, and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more; but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid; for the mouth of the LORD of hosts has spoken. (NRSV Micah 4:3-4)
There is, however, one viney twist: in Habakkuk’s ruminations on the inscrutability of God’s ways in allowing the wicked to prosper while his people suffer, the prophet ends by que sera, sera-ing a divinely ordained fig- and grape-less state of affairs:
Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines; though the produce of the olive fails, and the fields yield no food; though the flock is cut off from the fold, and there is no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD; I will exult in the God of my salvation. (NRSV Habakkuk 3:18-19)
Throughout the Minor Prophets, a recurring sign of God’s favor is the health of fig trees—fig trees bearing fruit is God’s “Like” button, but figless fig trees mean that God is giving them a big thumbs-down. The twelve Minor Prophets mention figs a total of twelve times. It’s an image that pops up again in the New Testament. When Jesus curses the barren fig tree in Mark 11:12-14, he’s Hosea with superpowers.