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Isaiah 38:21 (ESV),

21 Now Isaiah had said, “Let them take a cake of figs and apply it to the boil, that he may recover.”

This verse is in response to the greater narrative regarding King Hezekiah's illness and his petition to God for healing, as can be found in verses 1-3.

The same story is told in 2 Kings 20 and 2 Chronicles 32.

In 2 Kings 20:7, we have the same response from Isaiah regarding the use of a "cake of figs":

7 And Isaiah said, “Bring a cake of figs. And let them take and lay it on the boil, that he may recover.”

Are we to understand the application of the "cake of figs" in this story as medicinal, that is, some innate property of the ingredients of the fig cake provided the means whereby King Hezekiah was able to heal and make a full recovery, or was the healing and full recovery miraculous and the creation and application of the fig cake is merely an object of faith, something to be done in obedience in order to engender belief in the provision of God?

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    Are we to understand it as medicinal or miraculous? Why can't it be both?
    – deep64blue
    Dec 19, 2021 at 13:10
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    Just a side note, here is another example of scripture where fig cake is used feed a starving, hungry, thirsty person( It might be a little bit of a stretch but we might even recommend people eat fig cake when they want to end a fast ): ( 1 Samuel 30:11-12 ) 11 Now they found an Egyptian in the field and brought him to David, and gave him bread and he ate, and they provided him water to drink. 12 They gave him a piece of fig cake and two clusters of raisins, and he ate; then his spirit [a]revived. For he had not eaten bread or drunk water for three days and three nights. Dec 19, 2021 at 15:55
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    Also, the story about how Jacob peeled off poplar and almond rods in water for flock that mate to give birth to speckled & spotted sheep & goats might be relevant ( Genesis 30:31-43 ) : hermeneutics.stackexchange.com/questions/35848/… Dec 19, 2021 at 16:26

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My understanding is that this action by the prophet is a kind of "sign act" to symbolize spiritual healing and atonement through the past deeds of rightous/holy Israelites. You could liken it to the Catholic tradition of a priest "annointing the sick with oil". The oil itself is a "spiritual symbol" and the priest applies it as a sign act.

To understand the specific sign act more deeply we must look at the symbology of "trees" and especially the fig tree in biblical discourse. Trees have a consistent pattern of being used as a symbol for either individual people or collections of people/nations. (Psalm 1:3, Isaiah 6:13, Psalm 52:8, John 15:1 + many more too many to list) Very often trees with special medicinal qualities were selected to symbolize God's people in scripture. Eg: Olive Tree, Fig tree, Frankincense, Myrrh etc. (why the wise men brought the gifts they did). All the products of these trees have special medicinal/sacred properties

EG: The olive tree is renouwned for its resistence to disease. Olive leaf has powerful antiseptic and antifungal properties. We still use it today in "Olive leaf extract" which is popular medicinal tool for healing colds and basic infections. These properties are used to "symbolically represent" the spiritual healing properties produced by the holy and righteous works of Gods people.

EG: Rev 22:2 And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations

Similarly the fig tree and its fruit is used numerous time to represent Israel. And the quality of the fruit it produces in connected to the behaviour of the people. Rightous actions produce Good figs. Unrightousness produce inedible bitter/vile figs. We can see this in Hosea 9:10 where the early founders are likened to good early figs on the tree. But later because of the idoltary of Israel the fruit of the fig tree is said to be turned "vile".

We see this symbology repeated again in Jeremiah 24 which calls the Israelites headed into Exile in Babylon to perform atonement as a basket of "Good figs". The remnant who refused to go into exile and perform the atonement work are called a basket of "Bad Figs" which are inedible and will be destroyed.

3 And the Lord said to me, “What do you see, Jeremiah?” I said, “Figs, the good figs very good, and the bad figs very bad, so bad that they cannot be eaten.”

4 Then the word of the Lord came to me: 5 “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Like these good figs, so I will regard as good the exiles from Judah, whom I have sent away from this place to the land of the Chaldeans. 6 I will set my eyes on them for good, and I will bring them back to this land. I will build them up, and not tear them down; I will plant them, and not pluck them up. 7 I will give them a heart to know that I am the Lord, and they shall be my people and I will be their God, for they shall return to me with their whole heart.

Here we see again the good fruit of the fig is linked with righteousness and sacrifical atonement/repentance of Israelites. Thus the cake of figs can be understood as representing the "fruit" produced by past atonement work or righteousness of Israel. It is very similar (though peraps less powerful) to the symbology of the atoning "blood of the lamb" offered through christ. It is a "healing remedy". The fruit cake being placed over the boil - symbolically acts as a "covering for sin". The boil then heals and king is granted 15 years additional life.

Here whats important to recognize is that though the natural product - the fig cake produced by the tree - may have healing properties itself - in prophetic symbology they aren't actually whats being used to do the "miraculous healing" and extension of life. They are merely "symbols" to represent the atonement work of Israel's "good fruit" being used as a "salve" for the unrighteousness of the individual being treated - King Hezekiah. As such it should very much be considered a miraculous or spiritual healing.

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The Cake of Figs: Medicinal or Miraculous?

The Cake of figs can be translated differently, but it would seem to indicate that a fig poultice was applied to the wound.

For Isaiah had said, Let them take a lump of figs, and lay it for a plaister upon the boil, and he shall recover. - Isaiah 38:21

It seems figs may have some medicinal properties after all.

Ficus carica, Ficus racemosa, Ficus bengaalensis (Common name: Fig; Family: Moraceae)

In some rural areas of Iran, a traditional method for the treatment of warts comprises the use of fig tree (F. carica) latex. A study conducted in patients with warts has revealed that this therapy of warts offers several beneficial effects including short-duration therapy, no reports of any side-effects, ease-of-use, patient compliance and a low recurrence rate. Although, exact mechanism of the antiwart activity of fig tree latex is unclear it is likely to be the result of the proteolytic activity of the latex enzymes. F. recemosa L. bark powder is used externally in case of pimples, itches and scabies and F. bengaalensis L. bark powder is also used externally to cure scabies.

A fig poultice seemed to be a thing in ancient days.

Health benefits of the fig

Known since Greek and Roman times, the fig was the most important fruit in the diet of ancient civilizations around the Mediterranean area, on par with dates, olives and grapes. Black, green or violet, figs offer a surprising diversity of vitamins and minerals and could contribute to preventing many diseases.

With high levels of carbohydrates, fiber and protein, fig is very nourishing, easy to digest and laxative. It is recommended in case of occasional constipation, and to persons vulnerable to dyspepsia (who experience discomfort in the higher digestive tract).

Emollient and soothing, fig soothes cough and hoarse voice (especially in case of colds or bronchitis) as well as pertussis and pneumonia.

Gargling fig decoction (3.5 oz (100 g) dried fig for 1 quart (1 liter) water) has shown itself to be very effective against inflammations and abscessed teeth. You can even apply half a warmed fig as a type of poultice between cheek and gum to alleviate pain. The milky sap that a fig tree secretes contains a very effective enzyme against corns and warts. Cut fig tree leaves and apply sap twice a day on warts and corns to help them disappear.

Fig poultice – boiled in water or milk, figs make for perfect poultices to make abscesses and boils mature.

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a) Regardless of the medicinal properties of the Fig, it is very clear from the context that Hezekiah was going to die, (2 Kings 20:1) but that God postponed his death after the king entreated Him. Perhaps it was pointless to try and treat the boil previously, but now it was like saying "go ahead and treat the boil, it will work now with God's blessing".

b) 2 Kings 20:5,6 says that God specified he was adding 15 years to Hezekiah's life. That is certainly not within the power of any poultice!

Consider: Would Isaiah been sent under divine inspiration to tell the king to "put his affairs in order" withholding the knowledge of a cure?

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  • Welcome to BHSX. Thanks for your answer. Please remember to take the tour (link below) to better understand how this site works. I am struggling to see how this specifically answers the question. Can you be any more specific or quote some references?
    – Dottard
    Dec 18, 2021 at 21:42
  • @Dottard which part don't you understand? The OP is saying that although it may have been medicinal it was clearly still in the realm of the miraculous.
    – bach
    Dec 19, 2021 at 1:01
  • @JessNoticed - nobody suggests that the poultice add 15 years to Hezekiah's life - the poultice was to cure the boils.
    – Dottard
    Dec 19, 2021 at 1:07
  • @Dottard I suppose the narrative mentioned in Isaiah 38 , 2 Kings 20 & 2 Chronicles 32 about King Hezekiah's healing is evidence of overlap of God's influence in both the divinely miraculous aspects and the worldly practical aspects Dec 19, 2021 at 17:53
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King Hezekiah's fig-cake remedy sounds like some kind of antidotal spiritual vaccination: That a weakened copy of a bad thing can be curative. If so, the original source of the boil could have been the consumption of too much sugar. Especially fructose, which there is plenty of in figs, especially in dried figs. A fruit cake would have massive amounts of sugar in general; glucose and the probably poorer fructose in particular.

Accordingly, it could have been that King Hezekiah got convinced about the source of his problem through Isaiah's prophetic recipe act, and therefore stopped eating, or at least stopped over indulging in fig cakes, resulting in that his body got the upper hand in sorting out the imbalance that he had in his blood, consequently leading to his speedy recovery.

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  • “Diabetics are more prone to boils (bullosis diabeticorum), and other skin conditions”: Livestrong/Nadia M Kahn MD, Illinois. Dec 22, 2021 at 1:12

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