IN THE SHADOW OF LIFE AND DEATH: TREES AND THE CREATOR

By Marcia Montenegro (page 1 of 4)
June, 2005

I think that I shall never see
 A poem as lovely as a tree.
 A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
 Against the earth's sweet flowing breast;
 A tree that looks at God all day,
 And lifts her leafy arms to pray;
 A tree that may in Summer wear
 A nest of robins in her hair;
 Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
 Who intimately lives with rain.
 Poems are made by fools like me
 But only God can make a tree.
 ~ Joyce Kilmer, "Trees"

There are over 235 references to "tree" or "trees" in the Hebrew Scriptures that involve trees as poetry, metaphor, pagan worship, parables, rebukes from God, and as pictures of God's restoration. The word translated as "wood," when coming from a tree, is usually the same Hebrew word as tree, and there are at least 110 references using this word. God often uses the image of trees in his word to vividly illustrate his teachings, reprimands, and prophecies.

Wood was used for fire, worship, shelter, and commerce (J. I. Packer, M. C. Tenney, eds., Illustrated Manners and Customs of the Bible [Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publisher, 1980], 256). God even shows a special regard for trees in Deuteronomy 20:19 when He forbade the Israelites from chopping down trees that bore fruit in time of war, "for you may eat from them, and you shall not cut them down. For is the tree of the field a man, that it should be besieged by you?" (New American Standard Bible, hereafter referred to as NASB)

Looking at the earliest moments of man, we see that trees played a crucial role.

Two Trees in the Garden

The Hebrew Scriptures, in the story of creation, introduce us to two trees that play a role in man's destiny and are woven as themes throughout the Bible. In Genesis 1:11, God creates vegetation, including trees; and Genesis 2:8 and 9 tells us that God planted a garden in which he caused trees to grow from the ground, "trees that were pleasing to the eye, and good for food" (New International Version, hereafter referred to as NIV). Trees were objects of beauty and a source of nourishment.

Genesis 2:9 also tells us that in the middle of the garden, called Eden, were two trees: the tree of life (Note from NET [New English Translation] Bible: "In light of Gen 3:22, the construction 'tree of life' should be interpreted to mean a tree that produces life-giving fruit (objective genitive) rather than a living tree (attributive genitive)," p. 7) and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. God told Adam and Eve they could eat from any tree in the garden but they were forbidden to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. However, Adam and Eve failed this test, succumbing to the temptation of the serpent and desiring to be as God, as promised by the serpent, "knowing good and evil." Having eaten the fruit from the forbidden tree, their eyes were opened and they knew evil first-hand, a consequence of disobeying God. Full of shame, they sewed fig leaves together to cover their nakedness. They had chosen to believe the forbidden fruit was good, rather than believe God.

It's ironic that Adam and Eve used leaves from a tree as a covering, after having experienced separation from God through eating from a forbidden tree. Could the forbidden tree have been a fig tree, and could Adam and Eve have possibly used the leaves from that tree? In some Gnostic and Islamic traditions, the two famed trees in the Garden were the fig tree and the olive tree, with the olive tree being the tree of life, thus making the fig tree the tree of knowledge (Hans Biedermann, Dictionary of Symbolism: Cultural Icons and the Meanings Behind Them [NY: Meridian, Penguin Books USA Inc., 1994; Translation copyright, NY, NY: Facts on File Inc., 1992], 128; Jack Tresidder, Dictionary of Symbols [San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1998; Duncan Baird Publishers, 1997], 148) and in many pagan beliefs, the tree of knowledge is a fig tree (J. C. Cooper, An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Traditional Symbols [London: Thames and Hudson, Ltd, 1978], 66) .

There are three-dozen references to fig trees in the Bible (Leland Ryken, James C. Wilhoit, Tremper Longman III, eds., Dictionary of Biblical Imagery [Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, 1998], 890) and in most cases, their productiveness and ability to give needed shade in arid lands is a sign of God's favor, peace, and prosperity (Ryken, 283; Packer, 254; Fred H. Wight, Manners & Customs of Bible Lands [Chicago: Moody Press, 1953], 202; Merrill F. Unger, The New Unger's Bible Dictionary, ed., R. K. Harrison. [Chicago: Moody Press, 1988], 1331. Also, see I Kings 4.25, Micah 4.4, and Zechariah 3.10).

Shaking a fig tree brings the ripe figs down easily (Nahum 3:12). The fruit and leaves come into bud together on fig trees, so if many leaves appear, fruit is expected to be there as well (Wight, 201). Since God made everything good and the trees in the Garden were perfect, one can assume that much fruit and many leaves were on them. Given the references to fig trees throughout the Bible, and Jesus' curse on the fruitless fig tree in Mark 11:13, one can wonder, but not know, if perhaps the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was a fig tree. But this is just speculation.

Disobeying God brought about man's fall and his expulsion from the garden, "lest he reach out his hand and take also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever--" (Genesis 3:22b, English Standard Version, hereafter referred to as ESV), and God appointed cherubim to guard the tree of life. However, before this happened, immediately following God's declaration of punishment on the man, woman, and serpent, verse 20 tells us that Adam calls the woman Eve, because she is the mother of "all the living" (NASB). Eve has not had any children at this point, nor has she been named until now.

Eve's name is given in the biblical account at a point right between God's verdict for man's sin and man's banishment from the Garden and the tree of life. This is interesting in light of the fact that it is the woman whom the serpent approached and tempted, it is the woman who first ate the fruit from the forbidden tree (Genesis 3:6), and it is the woman who was named as the "mother of the living." God's promise of redemption is given to the couple in verse 15; it is through the woman's "seed" that this redemption will come, thus making her name "mother of the living" especially noteworthy. Man has been banished from the Garden and lost access to the tree of life, but the woman, who played a major part in this eviction, will be the very vehicle for access back to life and fellowship with God through the future birth of the Redeemer. A tree of life is denied, but promise of future redemption will come through the mother of "all the living."

Commentators see the tree of life as access to eternal life, and some believe that forbidding Adam and Eve from eating from the tree of life after the fall was an act of mercy, because otherwise, they would have been had an endless physical life in a fallen world; also, this represents losing perfection through sin and having to experience death (Trent C. Butler, ed. Holman Bible Dictionary [Nashville: Holman Bible Publishers, 1991], 1367; Ryken, 889). Scripture compares a tree of life to wisdom in Proverbs 3:18, to the fruit of the righteous in Proverbs 11:30, to hope fulfilled in Proverbs 13:12, and to a soothing tongue in Proverbs 15:4, all showing that life comes from God and through a right relationship with him. Additionally, one scholar states that some believe that the golden lampstand in the Tabernacle in Exodus 25:34 represented the tree of life (Ryken, 890).

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