By Marcia Montenegro (page 3 of 4)
June, 2005

Trees In Paganism

Just as trees were used as a gathering place for worship of false gods, and as the wood of trees was used for idols, so has paganism throughout history attached magical or godlike powers to nature, including trees. A central component of the gnostic-like Kabbalah is its teaching on the Tree of Life, an inverted tree symbolic of the descent of God's light and power to earth, growing denser and darker as it flows downward. There are ten points, the sefirot, on this tree representing the ten attributes and emanations of Ein Sof, the Kabbalistic god, with one side being masculine, the other being feminine, and three points in the middle to balance the polarity. This tree also symbolizes man's original nature, and represents man's way back to union with the Divine (This information is a summation of teachings that can be found in several books, including Rabbi David A. Cooper, God is A Verb [NY: Riverhead Books, 1997]; Rav P. S. Berg, The Essential Zohar [NY: Bell Tower, Crown Publishing Group, 2002]; Yehuda Berg, The Power of the Kabbalah [Kabbalah Centre International, 2001]; Daniel C. Matt, Zohar: Annotated and Explained [Woodstock, VT: Skylights Path Publishing, 2002]; and Daniel C. Matt, The Essential Kabbalah: The Heart of Jewish Mysticism [NY: HarperCollins Publishers, HarperSanFrancisco, 1995]. For further information on this see the CANA article on the Kabbalah.

Modern Druids believe that their name comes from a word for "oak" and the oak tree is especially sacred for them, a doorway through which one can enter another state of consciousness (Carr-Gomm, x, 110; Teresa Moorey, Paganism [London: Hodder & Stoughton Educational, 1996], 80). Since the oak, as one of the oldest and largest trees, symbolized all trees, so "he who possessed knowledge of the oak possessed knowledge of all trees" (Carr-Gomm, xi, 110). Trees shelter and feed us, and have powers that can enrich us (Carr-Gomm, 80, 103). Druids should establish personal relationships with the trees and "their spirits" (Carr-Gomm, 107). Here we see creation used as a means for spirit contact, instead of recognizing God's hand in creation, and that his creation glorifies him.

Trees were believed to be the abode of nymphs in ancient lore (Biedermann, 351) and earth fertility rites usually centered on deciduous trees that went through cycles of losing leaves or fruits and then blooming again (Tresidder, 209). Ancient Egypt venerated the sycamore, out of which the goddess Hathor offered food and drink to the dead in the afterlife (Biedermann, 351; Cooper, 177, 178).

Thus, we see that pagans viewed trees as a source of life and sacredness, a way to connect with heaven. This is consistent with pagan patterns of seeking a life force or power that can be accessed through an object, ritual, or by invoking a spirit (often through the use of rituals and sometimes objects). In contrast to these magical and mythical views, the Hebrew Scriptures speak of life as experiential for man and as an inherent part of him as a living being, with God as the source; rather than seeing life as a vitality or magical force separate from man (TWOT, Vol. 1, 279). In the ancient near east, men tried to link with "forces of life" through nature deities or magical incantations and rituals. This accessing of a life force is also found in Taoism (called chi), which arose from early Chinese Shamanism, and in Hinduism (called prana). This belief is found in most occult teachings today. In the Hebrew Scriptures, on the other hand, life is through right relationship with God, and through his word and wisdom (TWOT, 280).

The Tree As Restoration

Through disobedience to God in eating from one tree, man was denied his original fellowship with God. But God provided a way back to himself, and so we see trees in the Bible as representative of restoration, healing, and redemption. In Exodus chapter 15, Moses and the people have just exulted over their deliverance by God from the Egyptians at the Red Sea. Three days pass without water when they come upon the waters of Marah, only to discover the waters are bitter, so the people grumble. Following God's instructions, Moses takes a tree ("tree" in NASB and NET Bible; "log" in ESV; and "piece of wood" in NIV) and throws it into the water, and the water becomes sweet (verse 25). God then declares in verse 26, "If you will diligently listen to the voice of the LORD your God, and do that which is right in his eyes, and give ear to his commandments and keep all his statutes, I will put none of the diseases on you that I put on the Egyptians, for I am the LORD, your healer" (ESV).

God is revealing himself here as Jehovah-rophecha (or Yahweh Rophe), the God who heals (Wycliffe, 65). The word rophe appears sixty to seventy times in the Hebrew Scriptures (Nathan Stone, Names of God [Chicago: The Moody Bible Institute of Chicago, 1944], 72; Ann Spangler, Praying the Names of God [Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2004], 98, 100), but from a look at Strong's, it seems that this is only the second time this word appears.

Rophe (Strong's 7495, rapha) means to heal, restore, cure, and make whole, not just in the physical sense, but in the moral and spiritual sense as well because it is sin that has caused man's original separation from God, and healing or full restoration also encompasses redemption (Stone, 72-74; Spangler, 100). In contrast to ancient man's belief that disease was caused by evil spirits, thus calling for magical incantations or potions for relief, God is declaring here that what prevents disease and brings healing is following his commands (Spangler, 101-02). A vivid portrait of this lesson is God's power to change the bitter taste of water to a sweet taste, and he uses part of a tree as the instrument to represent his power, just as he used Aaron's staff, or rod, with the Egyptians. It is not that the piece of wood is magical, but that it represents God's power and authority, because the power is clearly in and from God.

This piece of wood that turned bitter waters to sweet is a foreshadowing of the cross (Stone, 76), which, of course, came from a tree as well. The New Testament, quoting the Deuteronomy passage in Galatians 3:13, refers to the curse of being hung on a tree as becoming the means of redemption: "Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us--for it is written, "CURSED IS EVERYONE WHO HANGS ON A TREE" (NASB; also, see 1 Peter 2:24). In fact, some have seen the cross as symbolically being made from the wood of the tree of knowledge as a sign of restoration and redemption (Biedermann, 351; Cooper, 178).

Just as God showed condemnation through passages that described the trees drying up, so God paints a picture of the restoration of Israel using the imagery of productive and flourishing trees: "And the trees of the field shall yield their fruit, and the earth shall yield its increase, and they shall be secure in their land. And they shall know that I am the LORD, when I break the bars of their yoke, and deliver them from the hand of those who enslaved them" (Ezekiel 34:27 ESV; also see Isaiah 41:10; Ezekiel 36:30; Hosea 14:4-6; and Micah 4:4). A dramatic prophecy comes in Ezek. 47:12: "On both sides of the river's banks, every kind of tree will grow for food. Their leaves will not wither nor will their fruit fail, but they will bear fruit every month, because their water source flows from the sanctuary. Their fruit will be food and their leaves for healing" (ESV). The King James Version uses the word "medicine" instead of "healing," but these words come from Strong's 8644, deriving from a word for healing (BAGD, 930; TWOT, 839).

This prophecy in Ezekiel appears to be predictive of the total restoration and healing that will come through the final redemption as described in Revelation 22, a scene believed to be descriptive of heaven (seen also as the restored Eden, or Paradise regained): "Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations" (verses 1-2 ESV).

The tree of life, denied to man after the fall, is now available to the one who "conquers:" "To the one who conquers I will permit him to eat from the tree of life that is in the paradise of God" (Revelation 2:7 NET Bible). But who conquers? It is the one who trusts in Christ: "No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us" (Romans. 8:37 ESV).

The true source of life is God, not creation, not one's self, not magical objects or forces, not even the tree of life, which only represents God's life-giving nature. In rebuking those who had turned to idols, God tells them, "O Ephraim, what more have I to do with idols? It is I who answer and look after you. I am like a luxuriant cypress; from Me comes your fruit" (Hosea 14:8 NASB). God declares himself as the very source of life; the trees with their fruit and leaves depend on Him, just as Israel does. When one departs from God, trees do not yield their fruit and leaves wither; however, the man who trusts in God will be like "a tree planted by the water that sends out its roots by the stream. It does not fear when heat comes; its leaves are always green. It has no worries in a year of drought and never fails to bear fruit" (Jeremiah 17:8 NIV; similar passages are in Psalm 1:3 and 92:12).

A prophecy of redemption through the Messiah in Isaiah 11:1 uses a branch as imagery, stating, "There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit" (ESV). A similar passage is found in Zechariah 3:8b: "Behold, I will bring my servant the Branch," and verse 10 promises that iniquity will be removed and that "In that day, declares the LORD of hosts, every one of you will invite his neighbor to come under his vine and under his fig tree" (ESV).

Another reference to the Branch in Zechariah 6:12 has this commentary, "The epithet "Branch" (tsemakh) derives from the verb used here (yitsmakh, "will sprout up") to describe the rise of the Messiah, already referred to in this manner in Zechariah 3:8 (cf. Isa 11:1; 53:2; Jer 33:15). In the immediate context this refers to Zerubbabel, but the ultimate referent is Jesus" (NET Bible, 1670). Through the Branch, that is the descendant, there will be fruit, peace, and healing. The trees themselves, once used for pagan worship and to fashion pagan images, poetically rejoice: ". . . and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands" (Isaiah 55.12b ESV).

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