By John A. Beck
In the last week of his life, Jesus observed in his disciples an attitude toward prayer that would not do.
Crossing from Bethany to Jerusalem, Jesus had cursed a fruitless fig tree to teach a lesson about the failure of the Jerusalem religious establishment.1 But the lesson was nearly lost on his disciples who were consumed by the rapid and unexpected withering of the fig tree.2 They were “amazed.”
Their wonder left the larger lesson about the failed temple leadership unclaimed, and it laid bare a weakness in their perspective on prayer. In response, Jesus lifts their eyes from the fig tree to the horizon for a lesson on prayer drawn from the landscape. We have that lesson in Matt 21:18–22.
The geography of the text
Three elements of geography play a role in Jesus’ lesson on prayer: (1) his route of travel; (2) the mountain that the disciples could move; and (3) the sea they could move it to.
Like many of Jesus’ lessons, this one occurs while he and the disciples are traveling. The itinerary of Jesus during passion week included two daily trips between Bethany and Jerusalem. In the evening, he would walk from Jerusalem to Bethany where he stayed at the home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. In the morning, he would leave Bethany and walk to Jerusalem where he spent the day teaching in the city.
This daily commute meant that Jesus walked the well-worn path that climbed over the Mount of Olives. We know the most likely location of that path because we know something about ancient travel and route preferences. People in Bible times walked when traveling. This meant they selected routes that avoided the more rigorous elevation changes, since those caused their thighs to burn with each step of the climb. In this case, the route of choice between Bethany and Jerusalem would have gone through the saddle in this extended ridge of the Mount of Olives. It is important to start here because if we know the route Jesus took, we will know what was in view along that route. This will help us identify both the mountain and the sea that became part of Jesus’ lesson on prayer the morning he crossed from Bethany
Identifying the mountain
Given Jesus’ location in the mountainous terrain of Judea, many mountains were in view. But he has one particular mountain in mind and uses a demonstrative pronoun to designate it: “this mountain.” Had we been there, this would have been enough language to know the mountain to which he pointed. But neither Jesus nor Matthew provide a specific place-name. This is rather typical of Matthew. He regularly makes reference to specific mountains without using their proper names. He references rising terrain with phrases like: a “high mountain” (Matt 4:8; 17:1), a “mountainside” (5:1), “this mountain” (17:20), and “the mountain” where Jesus directed the disciples to meet him (28:16). With a little interpretive digging, we can come to a reasonable identification for each of Matthew’s mountain references—including the one before us in 21:21.
Some have linked “this mountain” with Mount Zion under the assumption that the withering of the fig tree foreshadows the destruction of the temple by the Romans in AD 70.3 Others have identified “this mountain” with the Mount of Olives, linking it to the end-times prophecy of Zechariah 14:4.4 But I prefer the mountain fortress constructed by Herod the Great—known as the Herodium—for three reasons. First, the Herodium is in view from the slopes of the Mount of Olives. This desert fortress is 7.5 miles (12 kilometers) from Jerusalem, but due to its imposing stature it remains in view from the Mount of Olives even today.
Second, the Herodium is distinctive in appearance. Many mountains are in view from the slopes of the Mount of Olives, but none has the distinctive round shape, exalted architecture, and elegant symmetry of the Herodium. These qualities are intentional. Herod refashioned the natural appearance of the terrain in order to make it stand out, resembling a volcanic cinder cone rather than the typical mountain of Judea. On top of this mountain he built a monumental palace complex, including a multi-story, circular hall (207 feet / 63 meters in diameter) that encircled the perimeter of the mountain and rose five stories above the cone. On the eastern side of the complex, he built a massive tower that rose another three stories above the circular hall.5 Looking south from the Mount of Olives, the Herodium stands out on the landscape to this day, even though its superstructure is long gone. If we restored the structures it held in Jesus’ day, the Herodium would stand out even more.
Third, the Herodium is the only mountain in view that had a history of being moved—a fact Jesus alludes to in his lesson. Herod directed his builders to remove part of the mountain adjacent to the Herodium in order to provide material to create an artificial slope, which ran from the circular hall down to the base of the Herodium. Pitched at 32 degrees, this slope gave the Herodium a symmetry not found in the natural world and created a structure unique to the Hellenistic-Roman world.6 With its high elevation, unique shape, distinctive architecture, and history of being moved, the Herodium is the most likely referent of “this mountain” in Matthew 21:21.
Identifying the sea
When Matthew refers to a “sea” or “lake,” it is almost always the Sea of Galilee. But this connection would not make sense in this case, as Jesus was delivering his lesson from the Mount of Olives in Judea, far from the Sea of Galilee.
The one inland lake that is in view from his teaching location was the Dead Sea, located just east of the Herodium. Because of the Dead Sea’s high chemical content, the aquatic life we typically associate with an inland lake is nonexistent. This lifeless quality may have played a role in a recommendation offered in the Mishnah (traditional rabbinic writings) for Jews who happened upon an unholy object in the Holy Land: The rabbis directed that utensils with pagan figures on them and any wood associated with pagan worship should be discarded into the Dead Sea (m. Avodah Zarah 3:3, 9).
The lesson on prayer
This is the geography Jesus integrates into his lesson on the effectiveness of prayer. He chose the Herodium not only because it was easily seen from the Mount of Olives, but also because of what it symbolized for the disciples. Places have connotations; we think about certain things when we visit a place, and hearing its name mentioned makes us feel a certain way. Some public places, like the Lincoln Memorial, create very positive and respect-filled thoughts and feelings.
For the disciples, the Herodium generated a negative response. They, along with other working-class folks of the land, paid taxes that were used to create opulent structures such as the Herodium. But they could only watch as the privileged few swam in its large swimming pool, sauntered through its lower palace gardens, and climbed the 200 marble stairs to the upper palace complex. Built by the Roman-backed king, Herod the Great, the Herodium represented the Roman occupation of the promised land and was the poster child of pagan corruption. From the disciples’ perspective, the Herodium represented everything that was wrong in their society. But what could they do? They were little more than peasants caught up in the large and menacing machinery of the Roman world.
After these men marveled at the sudden withering of a fig tree, Jesus calls for them to lift their eyes from the tree to the horizon, to the mountain that symbolized what needed fixing in the world.
If they would pray in faith, they could accomplish so much more than causing a fig tree to wither. They could ask that the Herodium and all it represented be thrown into the place where all pagan objects belong—the Dead Sea—and it would happen.
And that brings this lesson from the landscape to the block on which we live. It is easy to focus at ground level and marvel over the accomplishments of an organization or person greater in stature than us. We get caught up with the withered fig tree, feeling that accomplishments like this are beyond us. Perhaps these words come to our lips: “If only I could …” And that is when Jesus taps us on the shoulder and lifts our eyes from the fig tree to the horizon. He points to the real challenge out there—our Herodium—and invites us to think differently about prayer than we have before.
Perhaps the biggest obstacle standing in the path of the church and the advance of God’s kingdom is not what is out there on the horizon but what is within us. When we underestimate the power of faith-filled prayer, we leave Herodiums standing in our culture which need to be retired to the Dead Sea. Jesus’ words are meant for us as well.
“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. If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.” (Matt 21:21–22)
Scripture quotations are from the New International Version. Bethany photo by Daniel Warner, © 2004 The Virtual Bible, used with permission.
1 R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), 792.
2For information on the life cycle of the fig tree of Israel and its multiple sets of fruit, see John A. Beck, “Fig,” in Zondervan Dictionary of Biblical Imagery (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), 85–87.
3J. Daniel Hays and J. Scott Duvall, eds., The Baker Illustrated Bible Handbook (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2011), 535.
4Craig S. Keener, A Commentary on Matthew (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 505; France, Matthew, 795. But see the refutation by D. A. Carson, “Matthew,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984), 8:446.
5Ehud Netzer, The Architecture of Herod, the Great Builder (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008), 183–86.
6Netzer, Architecture of Herod, 188–89.