Tree of life (biblical)
- See also Tree of life for other cultural interpretations, and Tree of life (disambiguation) for other meanings.
In the Book of Genesis, the tree of life is first described in Genesis 2:9 as being planted with the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Hebrew: וְעֵץ הַדַּעַת) "in the midst of the Garden of Eden" by Yahweh Elohim (Hebrew: יְהוָה אֱלֹהִים). In Genesis 3:24 Cherubims guard the way to the tree of life at the east end of the Garden. The tree of life has become the subject of much debate as to whether or not the tree of the knowledge of good and evil are the same.
The Book of Revelation uses the Koine Greek phrase xylon (tēs) zōës, ξύλον (τῆς) ζωής four times. This phrase has been identified with the Genesis tree of life in the Ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament, which literally means "wood of (the) life".
According to the one-tree theory proposed by Karl Budde, in his critical research of 1883, he outlined that there was only one tree in the body of the Genesis narrative and it qualified in two ways: one as the tree in the middle of the Garden, and two as the forbidden tree. Claus Westermann gave recognition to Budde's theory in 1976.
Ellen van Wolde noted in her 1994 survey that, typically to Bible scholars "the trees are almost always dealt with separately and not related to each other” and that “attention is almost exclusively directed to the tree of knowledge of good and evil, whereas the tree of life is paid hardly any attention."
The tree of life is represented in several examples of sacred geometry and is central in particular to the Kabbalah (the mystic study of the Torah), where it is represented as a diagram of ten points.
The Eastern Orthodox Church has traditionally understood the tree of life in Genesis as a prefiguration of the Cross, which humanity could not partake of until after the incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus.
Make ready, O Bethlehem, for Eden hath been opened for all. Prepare, O Ephratha, for the tree of life hath blossomed forth in the cave from the Virgin; for her womb did appear as a spiritual paradise in which is planted the divine Plant, whereof eating we shall live and not die as did Adam. Christ shall be born, raising the image that fell of old.
The cross of Christ is also referred to as the tree of life, and in the service books, Jesus is sometimes likened to a "divine cluster" of grapes hanging on the "Tree of the Cross" from which all partake in Holy Communion.
This theme is also found in Western Christianity. By way of an archetypal example consider Bonaventure's "biography" of the second person of the Trinity, entitled "The Tree of Life." [see Cousins, The Classics of Western Spirituality Series]
Until the Enlightenment, the Christian church generally gave biblical narratives of early Genesis the weight of historical narratives. In the City of God (xiii.20-21), Augustine of Hippo offers great allowance for "spiritual" interpretations of the events in the garden, so long as such allegories do not rob the narrative of its historical reality. However, the allegorical meanings of the early and medieval church were of a different kind than those posed by Kant and the Enlightenment. Precritical theologians allegorized the genesis events in the service of pastoral devotion. Enlightenment theologians (culminating perhaps in Brunner and Niebuhr in the twentieth century) sought for figurative interpretations because they had already dismissed the historical possibility of the story.
Others sought very pragmatic understandings of the tree. In the Summa Theologica (Q97), Thomas Aquinas argued that the tree served to maintain Adam's biological processes for an extended earthly animal life. It did not provide immortality as such, for the tree, being finite, could not grant infinite life. Hence after a period of time, the man and woman would need to eat again from the tree or else be "transported to the spiritual life." The common fruit trees of the garden were given to offset the effects of "loss of moisture" (note the doctrine of the humors at work), while the tree of life was intended to offset the inefficiencies of the body. Following Augustine in the City of God (xiv.26), “man was furnished with food against hunger, with drink against thirst, and with the tree of life against the ravages of old age.”
John Calvin (Commentary on Genesis 2:8), following a different thread in Augustine (City of God, xiii.20), understood the tree in sacramental language. Given that humanity cannot exist except within a covenantal relationship with God, and all covenants use symbols to give us "the attestation of his grace", he gives the tree, "not because it could confer on man that life with which he had been previously endued, but in order that it might be a symbol and memorial of the life which he had received from God." God often uses symbols - He doesn’t transfer his power into these outward signs, but "by them He stretches out His hand to us, because, without assistance, we cannot ascend to Him." Thus he intends man, as often as he eats the fruit, to remember the source of his life, and acknowledge that he lives not by his own power, but by God’s kindness. Calvin denies (contra Aquinas and without mentioning his name) that the tree served as a biological defense against physical aging. This is the standing interpretation in modern Reformed theology as well.
The Quran speaks about the tree of life, and it is also alluded to in hadiths and tafsir. Unlike the Biblical account, the Quran mentions only one tree in Eden, also called the tree of immortality, which Allah specifically forbade to Adam and Eve. Satan, disguised as a serpent, repeatedly told Adam to eat from the tree, and eventually both Adam and eve did so, thus disobeying Allah. The hadiths however speak about other trees in heaven.
- Encyclopaedia Britannica. Encyclopaedia Britannica Online (2013). "world tree". Encyclopædia Britannica Inc.
- Mettinger 2007, p. 5-11
- See: Proverbs 3:18,11:30,13:12,15:4
- See: Revelation 2:7, 22:2, 22:14, and 22:19.
- Mettinger 2007, p. 7
- Mettinger 2007, p. 6
- Roman, Dr. Alexander, Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden ([dead link] – Scholar search), Ukrainian Orthodoxy
- ORTHODIXIE ... Southern, Orthodox, Convert, Etc.: Word & Virgin, Mary & Child
- the Quran, an encyclopedia, page 11, Oliver Leaman, 2006
- Mettinger, Tryggve (2007). The Eden Narrative: A Literary and Religio-historical Study of Genesis 2-3. Eisenbrauns. ISBN 9781575061412.
- Jewish and Non-Jewish views