Two Spies, a Fig, and a Prostitute

Two Spies, a Fig, and a Prostitute

Origins and History of the Fig

This month’s story begins where it all started –during the first days of human existence as told by the bible. It begins the moment when humans first exhibited their fallibility by succumbing to the serpent and taking that first bite of the forbidden fruit – a fig. A fig? A fig? Yup, a fig. Sorry to destroy your long held beliefs about of the Garden of Eden, but most of us have grown up with the misconception of Adam and Eve being deceived by the serpent to eat an apple. Many scholars believe it was quite possibly a fig that they consumed (although there is a good argument that it may have been a grape or an etrog; and some even claim that they may have eaten either wheat or a mushroom – but not an apple).

The Torah, in Genesis 3:6 states:

 And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat; and she gave also unto her husband with her, and he did eat.

This passage does not state that they consumed an apple, but uses the Hebraic general word miparih (מִפְּרִי), which is a general name for any fruit that grows on a tree. In contrast, the following sentence (Genesis 3:7) expressly states that Adam and Eve were covered in fig leaves, which confirms that fig trees existed within the Garden of Eden and was readily available to be used for food or “clothing”:

 And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig-leaves together, and made themselves girdles.

There are various theories behind how the apple became associated with the Garden of Eden. One leading theory is that the word mălum translates to “apple” in Greek, but it also means “evil” in Latin. So due to the nature of the fruit in the story, and the mistranslation of the word, an apple supplanting other fruits as the item of enticement for Adam and Eve stuck.

Fig trees may have been the first variety of trees to be cultivated by humans. Remnants of nine sterile fig trees (substantiating evidence of human cultivation occurring) have been discovered along the Jordan River dating between 9400 BCE to 9200 BCE. Figs (ficus carica) have made an appearance throughout Jewish and biblical history since the beginning of human kind. They are native to, and originated in, the areas of the Middle East and Western Asia, where most of the stories of the Torah take place. Being such a sweet and succulent fruit, it is not surprising that they are mentioned so often.

There are many references to the fig throughout the Torah. For example, in Deuteronomy 8:8, the land of Israel is described as “a land of wheat and barley, and vines and fig-trees and pomegranates; a land of olive-trees and honey.” In the Book of Kings (Kings 18), an Assyrian general tries to bribe the Jewish soldiers to dessert with the promise of figs. These are just two of many instances of figs being referenced in Judaic scripture. Figs are no stranger to other ancient texts and cultures. Figs are depicted on Sumerian stone tablets dating back to 2500 BCE; the ancient Greek priests of Dionysus (1100-1500 BCE) were associated with the symbol of the fig tree; and Buddha (between the 6th and 4th century BCE) meditated under a bodhi tree which is a variation of the common fig tree. In the Christian gospels, there is a story of Jesus cursing a fig tree bearing leaves, but no fruit. The origin of the word “sycophant” comes from the ancient Greek term sykophantes (Greek: συκοφάντης), meaning “one who shows the fig,” which is reference to someone being accused of the capital crime of stealing figs. Although all of these historical references to figs are fun to read about, for this month’s article I am focusing on one particular instance of figs in the Torah being read this month (June) – in the parsha of Shalach (פרשת שלח־לך) (Numbers 13:1-15:41).

The Spies of Moses

A fig, along with a pomegranate and a bunch of grapes, were the three items that spies brought back from the Promised Land to Moses. Don’t worry; very soon the prostitute comes into our story (I know that some of you only started reading this article because a prostitute was mentioned in the title). But first, a little bit about the spies.

Moses needed spies to scout ahead and reconnoiter the land ahead for information about the geography, inhabitants, and the armies that lay in their path. He chose twelve men, selecting a son from each of the leaders the twelve tribes of Israel, to undertake this dangerous mission. After a period of forty days the spies returned and informed Moses and the Jewish people what they had discovered. The first ten men painted a bleak future ahead for the Israelites if they continued with their current plans to enter the Promised Land (their slander of Israel, and the reaction of the Jewish people, was the spark for G-d to order the Hebrew people to wander the desert for forty years). The last two spies (Joshua the son of Nun (from the tribe of Ephraim) and Caleb the son of Jephunneh (from the tribe of Judah)), in contrast, told a different story – one of promise and hope for flourishing in this new land (as symbolized by the figs and other fruit they brought back). They too warned of giants, and massive armies in Jericho and other cities – but with the encouragement that with faith these obstacles can be overcome.

In biblical times, just like today, spies were used to seek out information from unknown places. In the Hebrew’s conquest of the land of Israel, Joshua (in the haftorah to to Shalach; Joshua 2:1-24) also used two spies (Phinehas and Caleb) were to find out information about Jericho. After the spies made their way into the city they required a place to stay concealed (if they were discovered, they would be killed). Herein enters the prostitute into our story, and one of the most unlikely heroines of the Torah – a Canaanite harlot by the name of Rahab (רָחָב), whom is mentioned by name in the Book of Joshua. Just a short note about the world’s oldest profession in the bible – there were two types of prostitutes: cult and secular. The secular prostitute is what we are more akin to in modern times as the vocation of prostitution – an individual exchanging their bodies for money. In contrast, the cult prostitute is a woman whose body is utilized during religious ceremonies. Scholars believe that Rahab was probably a secular prostitute due to the circumstances described within the story. In addition, the Hebrew word used to describe her profession is zonah (זוֹנָה), instead of quedeshah (קְדֵשָׁה), which is the term usually inscribed in the Torah when referring to a temple/cult prostitute. In case you were wondering, the five books of the Torah (in Deuteronomy 23:18-19) only expressly forbids cult prostitutes and is silent on the profession of secular prostitution. However, according to Talmudic scholars, and guidance within other Judaic scriptures, any form of prostitution, or using the services of a prostitute (especially by a married person), is against Jewish law.

Caleb and Phinehas used the house of Rahab as a hideout (which may have been an inn, or a brothel, or both) while investigating the strength of the army of Jericho. The king of Jericho became aware that spies were in the city and deployed soldiers throughout the city to capture them. Rahab kept them hidden from the soldiers. In return for their safety, the spies accepted her pleas to keep her family safe when the Jewish army ransacked the city. Moses and his army eventually conquered Jericho (6:17-25), and Rahab’s family was spared. You may be wondering, how did the Hebrew army know which house was hers? She hung a red cord outside of her window so the soldiers would know to bypass her home. There are theories that suggest that this was the origination of the “red light” district. Before we get off the subject of Rahab, I have a few additional facts to add: the Midrash describes her as one of the most beautiful women in the world, and she may have been the first convert to Judaism. It even also attests that she betrothed Joshua and eight kohanim are descended from their lineage. Rahab may even have a connection with Christianity – although there is much dispute, some genealogist claim that Jesus was a descendent of Rahab.

The fig, as mentioned above, plays a recurring role in biblical stories, such as in the two tales touched upon above. This fruit symbolizes freedom and the sweetness of a land, and has been called one of the “seven species” of Israel, as declared in Deuteronomy 8:8: “A land of wheat, and barley, and vines, and fig trees, and pomegranates; a land of olive oil and honey.” This is why it was important that the spies brought back figs as one of the fruits they collected in their journey – to show the Jewish people what splendor and opportunities may lay ahead. This same symbolism, being a part of the Jewish psyche, came into play centuries later when a quote in Kings 5:5 relating to figs became one of the inspirations behind Theodore Herzl’s dream for the creation of a Jewish homeland:

 וַיֵּשֶׁב יְהוּדָה וְיִשְׂרָאֵל לָבֶטַח, אִישׁ תַּחַת גַּפְנוֹ וְתַחַת תְּאֵנָתוֹ, מִדָּן, וְעַד-בְּאֵר שָׁבַע–כֹּל, יְמֵי שְׁלֹמֹה

“And Judah and Israel dwelt safely, every man under his vine and under his fig-tree, from Dan even to Beer-sheba, all the days of Solomon.”

Figs are not merely used for their symbolic character in Jewish history; they are actually delicious to eat and healthy for you as well. As Maimonides explained in the 12th century, “[f]igs, grapes and almonds are always the best fruits whether fresh or dried.” This great scholar and physician also wrote about the health benefits of this fruit, such as fighting constipation, strengthening the blood, and assists with a person’s vitality. Modern science backs up these assertions declared 800 years earlier. Figs have proven to contain a high amount of many essential nutrients such as: potassium, iron, fiber, and plant calcium. They are also used for medicinal purposes as a diuretic and a laxative. In fact, fig rolls (rolls stuffed and baked with figs) were often prescribed by doctors in the late 18th century to cure digestion problems (which they believed caused illnesses throughout the body). A baker named Charles Roser capitalized on this idea and invented (and patented) a machine that placed a fig paste into a pastry dough – and in 1891, the first batch of these cookies were baked in the town that provided its name, Newton, Massachusetts. Fig Newtons have been enjoyed by millions ever since (or technically until 2012, when Nabisco removed the word “fig” from the product’s name because the manufacturer claims that figs have become “uncool” in today’s culture).

The Recipe

Researching the first component of this article on the history of figs was a great deal more interesting than I had originally anticipated, and the words for this topic flowed easily onto the page. The much tougher part has been trying to identify a fig-related recipe for this article. Although fresh and dry figs have been exported for many centuries around the globe (figs were first brought to the Americas by the Spaniards in 1520), and were commonly eaten during the earlier days of this country’s existence (for a detailed history of the fig within American history, I would suggest visiting:, it is an ingredient not as widely utilized in today’s modern American kitchens (including my own). This makes my experience with using figs very limited. So I am going to go with a recipe that is fairly simple, does not contain many ingredients, and can be prepared in only a few simple steps – Baked Ricotta-Stuffed Figs. It is also a very versatile dish that can be served as an appetizer, a side dish, or as a dessert.

Ingredients      (serves 4)

8 large             Figs (Mission figs, but any will do)

1/3 cup              Sugar

3 tbs                Water

½ cup              Marsala Wine (sweet)

1/3 cup              Heavy Cream

1/3 cup              Ricotta Cheese

1 tsp                Cinnamon

1 tsp                Brown Sugar (you can use regular sugar)


Step #1: Preheat Oven to 350 degrees.

Step #2: Spread open the figs (you can do this by cutting an X into the top of the fig, then push the sides apart) and place on a baking tray.

Step #3: Put the water, then sugar into a small saucepan. Heat on stovetop until sugar dissolves. Remove from heat, add the marsala wine, and stir.

Step #4: Pour the marsala /sugar water over the figs. Then place into the oven for about 18-20 minutes (or until the figs are tender – do not over-cook)

Step #5: While the figs are in the over, in a small bowl mix the heavy cream, ricotta cheese, brown sugar, and the cinnamon.

Step #6: When figs are ready, arrange them on a serving tray and scoop some of the cheese mixture into the middle of each. If there is any juice left in the tray, drizzle it on top of the figs.

Step #7: Optional – I have never added this myself, but when I was looking at similar recipes on the Internet, someone suggested sprinkling grated chocolate over the dish for a little added decadence.

Alternative Recipe Ideas

The inspiration for the above recipe comes from another recipe I had where the cheese was goat instead of ricotta. The problem is that with the goat cheese, you would have to put the cheese mixture into a blender to get the right consistency. It would still taste great, and be more “Mediterranean.” You can also drizzle some honey over the dish for some extra sweetness and extra level of taste. You can also simply place the slices of goat cheese on top of the figs before baking, sprinkle a little oil and a dash of rosemary and let it bake – then add a little honey afterwards, if desired. For a “nuttier” taste, add a tablespoon of chopped almonds to the mixture in Step #3 and a ½ teaspoon of vanilla extract to Step #5.

A healthier alternative would be to bake the figs with only a touch of honey and cinnamon, then serve them over a dish of non-fat yogurt. In this manner you can add sweetness to the yogurt, while providing the contrast of the silky yogurt to the firmer figs, while also contrasting the cool yogurt to the warm fruit. To add an additional layer of both taste and texture, you may also want to sprinkle granola atop this dish. Low-fat or non-fat cottage cheese may also be another healthy variant of this dish to use instead of the yogurt.

Next month my article will turn to the subject of love with aphrodisiacs being the highlighted food for thought.

Keep on cooking,

Chef Lon E


Religious Text

  • Deuteronomy 8:8-10
  • Deuteronomy 23:18-19
  • Genesis 3:6 & 3:7
  • Joshua 2:1-24
  • Joshua 6:17-25
  • Kings 5:5
  • Mark 11:12-20
  • Numbers 13:1 – 15:41 (Shelach)

Online References

A special thank you to Michael B for his help as a consultant on this article.


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