The images and symbolism of trees have long occupied an important place in the theological as well as geographical landscape of Judaism, including the history and religion of ancient Israel. The Hebrew Bible reminds us that from the earliest stages of Israel's existence trees were associated with, or represented the highly prized concepts of, judgment, wisdom, beauty, renewal, prosperity, longevity, and even eternal life. Consider just a few examples.
• The prophetess Deborah "judged Israel. . . . And she dwelt under the palm tree of Deborah between Ramah and Beth-el in mount Ephraim: and the children of Israel came up to her for judgment" (Judges 4:4–5).
• According to Moses, the symbol of the severest form of punishment in Israel was a tree: "And if a man have committed a sin worthy of death, and he be to be put to death, . . . thou hang him on a tree: . . . for he that is hanged [on a tree] is accursed of God" (Deuteronomy 21:22–23).
• Wise King Solomon "spake three thousand proverbs: and his songs were a thousand and five. And he spake of trees, from the cedar tree that is in Lebanon even unto the hyssop that springeth out of the wall. . . . And there came of all people to hear the wisdom of Solomon" (1 Kings 4:32–34).
• The author of the Song of Solomon compared his beloved to a tree: "thy stature is like to a palm tree" (Song of Solomon 7:7).
• The prophet of messianic anticipation, Isaiah, described a millennial age of renewal and peace, saying: "I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and joy in my people. . . . And they shall build houses, and inhabit them. . . . They shall not build, and another inhabit; they shall not plant, and another eat: for as the days of a tree are the days of my people" (Isaiah 65:19, 21–22).
• Again from Isaiah: "Instead of the thorn shall come up the fir tree, and instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle tree: and it shall be to the Lord for a name, for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off" (Isaiah 55:13).
Preeminent above all varieties of trees, as the author of Judges suggests in a parable of Jotham, is the olive tree. "The trees went forth on a time to anoint a king over them; and they said [first] unto the olive tree, Reign thou over us. But the olive tree said unto them, Should I leave my fatness, wherewith by me they honour God and man, and go to be promoted over the trees?" (Judges 9:8–9). This is a reference to the use of olive oil in a wide variety of activities that were part of Israel's religious system, particularly as they related to the tabernacle and temple and to the anointing of prophets and kings. Other texts also state or imply that the olive tree is first among others. Second Maccabees explicitly connects the olive tree with the most sacred spot on earth, mentioning the "festal olive boughs of the Temple" (2 Maccabees 14:4). The pseudepigraphic Apocalypse of Sedrach 8:2 states that God himself preferred the olive tree above others. And we know that certain strands of Jewish tradition from late antiquity identify the olive tree as the tree of life.1 Thus the tree of life is given credence as the most important of all trees by its association with the olive tree.
As we examine the tree of life in the biblical, postbiblical, and medieval and early modern periods, we shall see how not only this symbol but also the meanings associated with it are a strong indicator of the values, mores, and practices that each era held in highest esteem.
The earliest biblical mention of the tree of life, ētz-hayyim in Hebrew, is found in Genesis and is referred to three times in the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. The tree of life is first described as growing up among other trees in the midst of the garden and is coupled with the tree of knowledge of good and evil: "out of the ground made the Lord God to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of knowledge of good and evil" (Genesis 2:9).
It has been suggested that one of the reasons the two trees are coupled is that they are complementary of one another, not opposites. Both are involved in the bringing of immortality to humankind. The result of eating of the tree of life is obvious, while eating of the tree of knowledge of good and evil brings not only a likeness to God by imparting knowledge he possesses, but also a "quasi-immortality through offspring"—achieved by the physical union of the man and the woman.2
After Adam's disobedience in the garden, the tree of life is mentioned twice more as God institutes protective measures by driving the man and woman out of the garden to prevent them from eating of the tree of life and imposes dramatic sanctions to bar their return.
And the Lord God said, Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil: and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever [in his new condition]: Therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from whence he was taken. So he drove out the man; and he placed at the east of the garden of Eden Cherubims, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life. (Genesis 3:22–24)
Thus in the book of Genesis the tree of life bestows immortality on all those who eat from it. It is suitable for those in an unfallen, uncorrupted state. But it brings dire consequences to those who are not fully gods and yet eat of it after eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Notice that the Lord God is quick to drive the man and the woman out of the garden so that they do not eat of the tree of life and live forever in their new, corrupted, sinful state. Once the man and the woman have partaken of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, which brings about a corrupted condition, the effects of the tree of life are "turned upside down" and it becomes a tree of damnation, a "tree of death"—spiritual death.3 The progress of the man and woman is damned. The tree of life is, therefore, bound up with the proper order of things as decreed by God.
Most modern scholars see a significant relationship between the tree of life in Genesis and similar trees or plants described in the literature of the ancient Near East. Though almost all cultures of the ancient world, especially the ancient Near East, possess some kind of reference to the tree of life and humankind's quest to enjoy its fruit, there seems to be more profound connections between the Bible and the tree of life motifs in the oldest cultures of Mesopotamia than anywhere else. From an old Babylonian seal impression, now in the British Museum, the biblical Garden of Eden scene appears to be clearly depicted, reflecting a "tradition [that] is no doubt of very ancient origin." 4 In this scene, a tree stands in the middle, its boughs stretched out. On either side of the tree, two human figures are seated, each with an arm stretched forth, presumably to take the fruit of the tree. A serpent stands erect behind the figure on the left. The tree of life and the tree of knowledge of good and evil are merged into one.5 (See fig. 1.)
Other counterparts to the biblical tree of life appear in Babylonian culture, namely, the sacred cedar. It was "employed in magic rites to restore strength and life to the body [and] was also 'the revealer of the oracles of earth and heaven.' Upon its core the name of Ea, the god of wisdom, was supposed to be written. . . . The tree of life also finds a parallel in the divine soma, the giver of eternal youth and immortality, a drink reserved only for the celestial gods or the souls of the blessed." 6
In the famous Mesopotamian (Akkadian) tale entitled the Epic of Gilgamesh, the hero embarks on a quest to find the plant that bestows "new life," or immortality. As part of his epic ritual journey, he is washed, dressed in a new garment "to clothe his nakedness" after "cast[ing] off his [old] skins," and given a new headband—all in preparation to acquire the plant of new life. Tragically, as Gilgamesh goes down into a well of water to bathe after acquiring the plant, a serpent carries off the plant and Gilgamesh is left to weep.7
Nowhere were the tree of life and the paradisiacal garden in which it grew as important to the underpinnings of Mesopotamian society as they were at Eridu, in the ancient kingdom of Sumer, where, according to cuneiform texts, the "Kiskanu-tree grew in the sanctuary of Apsu near the sacred pool in the temple." 8
In a seminal study entitled The King and the Tree of Life in Ancient Near Eastern Religion, Professor Geo Widengren described the foundational role that the kiškanu tree, the tree of life, played in ancient Mesopotamian myth and ritual, and, significantly, also the close relationship between the tree of life and the "Water of Life" in that worldview. He states: "Already in the Sumerian literature provided with an Accadian interlinear translation the Tree of Life is said to be growing near the streams of Life flowing in paradise." 9 He then quotes the following well-known Sumerian text:
In Eridu there is a black kiškanu-tree,
growing in a pure place,
its appearance is lapis-lazuli,
erected on the Apsū [the primordial waters].
Enki, when walking there, filleth Eridu with abundance.
In the foundation thereof is the place of the underworld,
in the restingplace is the chamber of Nammu.
In its holy temple there is a grove, casting its shadow,
therein no man goeth to enter.
In the midst are the Sun-god and the Sovereign of heaven,
in between the river with the two mouths.10
The kiškanu tree, the tree of life, is intricately associated with the temple in this text. It grows in a "pure place." It has a special appearance, and it is "erected" or planted on or over the primordial waters. As Widengren himself notes, we have a "temple grove with the Tree of Life growing in the sanctuary [temple] as in a fine garden." 11 Furthermore, "the garden is tended by a gardener, who is associated [or equated] with the King. The King is not only the guardian of the Tree of Life, but also [possesses] a twig from the Tree of Life which is his scepter. The person of the King becomes [bound] up with the image of the tree." 12 Professor Widengren summarizes his lengthy discussion in the following two paragraphs:
The complex of ideas and customs treated by us . . . is obviously intimately bound up with the oldest strata of Sumerian culture and religion. All interest centres around the holy garden of the divinity. In this garden is found the Tree of Life, the fruits of which are eaten by man while its oil is used for the anointment of his body and especially his head. There the Water of Life is streaming from beneath the roots of this tree. Further we note the crown twined from the shoots of the tree, from its leaves and flowers, the branch cut from the trunk of the tree, a rod acting both as a sign of dignity and as an instrument for magical-medical purifications, the water drawn from the well with the Water of Life, serving for medical-religious purifications. In this garden too is erected the hut, built from branches and twigs taken from trees of this garden of paradise, the dwelling where the holy marriage is celebrated.
The king in the cultic ceremonies represents the god. For this reason he in all rites acts as the representative of the deity. In his capacity of water-drawer and gardener he surveys the cultic equivalent of the paradise-garden, i.e. the temple-grove with the cult-tree that represents the Tree of Life. He wears as his crown the garland and the branch as his rod. In the hut he undergoes some purification ceremonies before his hieros gamos [sacred marriage]. He carries out libations over the life-tree, the divine symbol, and hence is styled išib = ramku [that is, "a priest who has passed through the mis pī-ritual" ].13 By using the Water of Life and the magical rod, the twig cut from the Tree of Life, he is the great a-zu = āsū, just in the same manner as Marduk or Tammuz. Exactly like Tammuz himself he is the gutug = pašīšu, he who is anointed with the oil from the life-tree.14
In summary, then, the oldest tree of life text from Sumer describes, according to Professor Widengren, the tree of life as planted in a pure place, in the midst of the temple, in the middle of a garden, from which flows the Water of Life. It is significant that "a pond or stream of sacred water" also often lies under or near the tree of life in ancient Egyptian depictions, "with the god of writing, Thoth, inscribing the name of the king on the tree. . . . In all these examples, partaking of the fruit of the tree is a sacramental act, one that symbolizes unity with the gods." 15 (See figs. 2 and 3.) In the elaborately decorated and painted tomb of Thutmosis III (whose name means "child of the god Thoth"), located in the Valley of the Kings, Pharaoh Thutmosis III is shown being nourished from the tree of life (see fig. 4).16
In Widengren's Sumerian example, the temple is the house of the god and is where the king—who is the gardener—undergoes some purification ceremonies before the ritual of the sacred marriage whereupon he becomes like the gods. The king is equated with the tree of life. The king's scepter, his symbol of both authority and power, is cut from the tree of life, and his crown is made from leaves and flowers of that tree.
We see here that there are significant "touch points" between this Mesopotamian description of the tree of life and what is represented as well as implied in the Genesis story. We may also recognize a significant correspondence between these religious elements depicted in the oldest traditions of ancient Mesopotamia and some parallels found in the Book of Mormon (see 1 Nephi 8; 11). Regarding any ancient Israelite parallels to the Mesopotamian view of the tree of life being connected to the temple, it must be admitted up front that no Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) text, either in or out of Genesis, makes such an explicit connection. However, several scholars have proffered that the biblical menorah was a symbolic or abstract representation of the tree of life. As used in the Hebrew Bible, menorah is a technical term for the seven-branched candelabra, or lampstand, found in the tabernacle and in the first temple (Solomon's) and also for the lampstand ("candlestick" in the KJV) in Zechariah's vision (Zechariah 4:2, 11). From Leon Yarden's interesting study The Tree of Light, we read: "In general it may be said that most scholars now seem to suppose that the menorah originated from a sacred tree, more specifically the Tree of Life mythology—a primal image which can be glimpsed as early as the third millennium B.C. . . . and which played a decisive role in the tree cult of the ancient world." 17
Thus the tabernacle-temple menorah derives both its form and symbolism from the tree of life. Its origin is traced to Exodus 25:31–40, where Moses is instructed by God to make it according to the divine pattern shown him on Mount Sinai. The connection between the tree of life and the sanctity of the temple was therefore demonstrated. Moses was shown the pattern for the menorah while standing in God's presence—represented by a bush or small tree. The seven branches of the menorah surely reflect the symbolism attached to the number seven—wholeness, completeness, infinity, eternity, consummation, and perfection—in ancient times.18
From Genesis 3:8 it also appears that the Garden of Eden, in which the tree of life was placed, was something of a favorite resort of Jehovah and therefore served a similar function as the future tabernacle and later Jerusalem temple, both of which were the earthly abode of God, the repository of his divine presence. The Garden of Eden served this same purpose before physical structures were built, and, significantly, in the midst of the temple-paradise of Eden grew the tree of life. This motif, where the sacred garden and temple were intricately linked, was long-lived and widespread in the ancient Near East. It is seen, for example, in "Assyrian palace reliefs from Nineveh and Dur-Sharrukin (about 700 B.C.). Here the temple is usually depicted with a sacred grove and a river . . . , thus by all accounts a realistic representation of a temple garden." 19 The biblical Eden was nothing less than a garden temple.
Outside of Genesis, the only other attestations of the phrase ētz-hayyim (tree of life) in the Hebrew Bible occur in Proverbs, to which we shall turn momentarily. However, it is important to note that the Septuagint (Greek) version of Isaiah 65:22 does explicitly mention the tree of life (xulou tēs zoēs). The Masoretic Text, as reflected in the King James Version, reads (with emphasis added):
They shall not build, and another inhabit; they shall not plant, and another eat: for as the days of a tree are the days of my people, and mine elect shall long enjoy the work of their hands.
Compare the Septuagint rendition (with emphasis added):
They shall not build, and others inhabit; and they shall not plant, and others eat: for as the days of the tree of life shall be the days of my people, they shall enjoy the fruits of their labors.
In the Septuagint the enduring nature of the restoration of the Lord's chosen people in a coming millennial or new age renewal is clearly alluded to. As to why there is a difference between the Septuagint rendition of this passage and the Masoretic Text (from which much of our King James Version was translated), I think there is a probable reason. The Septuagint was translated from a Hebrew text (one extant in the third century BC) that was different from the one that has come down to us as the Masoretic Text. Evidence confirms that the Septuagint and the Masoretic Text were two different text types existing at the same time and that the Septuagint sometimes preserves an earlier, more original reading of what Christians call the Old Testament.
But whether or not the Septuagint exhibits the earlier, and thus preferred, reading in this case is unclear. The Isaiah material from Qumran (Dead Sea Scrolls) supports the Masoretic Text and does not explicitly mention the tree of life—only a "tree." However, the theological context of Isaiah 65:22 seems to me to argue in favor of the full phrase, tree of life, as the earlier (perhaps even original), preferred reading.
The tree of life has an important connection to Wisdom literature, that genre of sayings in Israelite religion that teaches about God and virtue. The image of the tree of life as a personification of wisdom in Proverbs is a critical indicator of the significance of this symbol in Hebrew thought.
The phrase tree of life in Proverbs appears as the personification or symbolic representation of the concept of wisdom. There are four passages in which the expression occurs:
• "She [wisdom] is a tree of life to them that lay hold upon her" (3:18).
• "The fruit of the righteous is a tree of life" (11:30).
• "Hope deferred maketh the heart sick: but when the desire cometh, it is a tree of life" (13:12).
• "A wholesome tongue is a tree of life" (15:4).
There is scholarly debate about how these passages would have been understood in ancient Israel. Professor Ralph Marcus argued in his brief study that in the corpus of Wisdom literature, of which Proverbs is a part, the phrase tree of life had acquired a secularized, practical meaning, the same as the late Hebrew phrase sām hayyim, "health-giving drug" or "remedy." 20 In other words, in Proverbs the expression tree of life has a medicinal meaning, with "health" replacing "life" in the conceptual framework of Israel's wisdom tradition. Marcus writes:
This non-mythological or medical meaning of the expression [ētz-hayyim] in the book of Proverbs has not, of course, escaped the notice of commentators. For example, [Professor] Toy writes, ' "Tree of Life' is a figurative expression (probably a commonplace of the poetical vocabulary) equivalent to 'source of long life and peace.' " . . .
The chief point I wish to make is that the mythological associations of the Tree of Life are preserved to a late date in eschatological literature, Jewish, Christian and pagan, while the expression [ētz-hayyim] survives only as a secularized term or faded metaphor in Jewish Wisdom literature.21
Thus, in Marcus's view, the tendency in Jewish Wisdom literature is "to reclaim some of the older mythological terminology from the eschatologists, and to present the Torah-Hokmah concept as this-worldly rather than other-worldly." 22
Though Professor Marcus's argument has much to commend it, one still cannot help but wonder if many Israelites did not see Proverbs as simply extolling the virtue of cultivating wisdom, the enduring quality of the faithful. David Stern writes that the term tree of life was simply used in Proverbs "to describe wisdom, the fruit of the righteous . . . aspects of eternal life," or qualities possessed by those who seek eternal life.23
While the Masoretic Text does not attest the phrase tree of life outside of Genesis and Proverbs, scholars believe that the book of Ezekiel alludes to the tree of life without naming it. A passage in Ezekiel 31 echoes refrains of the Sumerian motif of the king as the tree of life, being planted by the Water of Life; and, at the same time, it harks back to the Garden of Eden in Genesis. Consider these verses:
The word of the Lord came unto me, saying, son of man, speak unto Pharaoh king of Egypt, and to his multitude; Whom art thou like in thy greatness? Behold, the Assyrian was a cedar in Lebanon with fair branches, and with a shadowing shroud, and of an high stature; and his top was among the thick boughs. The waters made him great, the deep set him up on high with her rivers running round about his plants, and sent out her little rivers unto all the trees of the field. Therefore his height was exalted above all the trees of the field, and his boughs were multiplied, and his branches became long because of the multitude of waters, when he shot forth. All the fowls of heaven made their nests in his boughs, and under his branches did all the beasts of the field bring forth their young, and under his shadow dwelt all great nations. Thus was he fair in his greatness, in the length of his branches: for his root was by great waters. The cedars in the garden of God could not hide him: the fir trees were not like his boughs, and the chestnut trees were not like his branches; nor any tree in the garden of God was like unto him in his beauty. I have made him fair by the multitude of his branches: so that all the trees of Eden, that were in the garden of God, envied him. (Ezekiel 31:1–9)
Later on in Ezekiel 47 the prophet describes a vision in which he sees trees with healing properties growing alongside a river of life-giving water that flows out from the temple (vv. 1–12). Allusions here to the tree of life motif are substantial. Note again the connection between trees of life, the temple, and waters of life that flow down to "heal" or restore life to the Dead Sea (v. 8). As alluded to earlier, this intersection of images—temples, waters of life, and trees of life—is a recurring theme in ancient Near Eastern literature.24
The image of the tree of life is strongly implied in the opening verses of the Psalms: "Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful. But his delight is in the law of the Lord; and in his law doth he meditate day and night. And he shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water, that bringeth forth his fruit in his season; his leaf also shall not wither; and whatsoever he doeth shall prosper" (Psalm 1:1–3, emphasis added).
Here the relationship between obedience to God and immortality is expressed in the analogy of the tree, again planted by the rivers of water, whose leaf does not wither (Psalm 1:3). The obedient, unrebellious, Torah-centered man becomes as a tree of life. The language of this text recalls the Garden of Eden in Genesis 2–3, wherein the same relationship between obedience and enjoyment of the fruit of the tree of life—immortality—is implied.
Some scholars see extensions of, and direct allusions to, the tree of life in other Old Testament episodes. "The tree [of life] symbolizes not only eternal life but also God's presence. . . . Thus, whenever man regained God's presence, a tree of life representation was used to symbolize that reunion. When Moses went to the mountain of God, the Lord spoke to him out of a bush that burned with fire but was not consumed. (See Ex. 3:1–6.) The rod of Aaron similarly represented that God was with Moses and Aaron as it swallowed the rods-turned-serpents of the Egyptian magicians. (See Ex. 7:10–12.)" 25 Thus the burning bush and Aaron's rod are seen as symbols of the tree of life. It will be remembered that God later caused Aaron's rod to bud and yield almonds—a sure sign that the rod was continually filled with life (Numbers 17:2–10). The images of planting and almond trees also appear in Jeremiah's prophetic call (Jeremiah 1:10–12).
Professor Wilfred Griggs believes that messianic prophecies in the Old Testament often speak of the Messiah in terms of a tree of life. For example, Isaiah prophesied that a rod would come out of the stem of Jesse and a "Branch" would grow out of his roots (Isaiah 11:1). Zechariah saw in vision that Joshua the high priest would walk with the Branch, or Messiah (Zechariah 3).26
By the end of the biblical or Old Testament period (after 400 BC), Israel, or rather its surviving Jewish remnant, had been through periods of apostasy and exile. But the tree of life remained a powerful and vibrant image and cultural icon.
In the words of one scholar, the postbiblical literature of the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha took the tree of life and transplanted it, so to speak, "from the Garden of Eden to paradise in the afterlife." 27 It should not be surprising that such a powerful image was attached to the concept of the afterlife since discussions about the latter became a passion among postbiblical leaders and teachers, owing, undoubtedly, to the challenges and confrontations Jews increasingly encountered and, thus, the need for encouragement leaders felt they had to give to everyone to remain steadfast and anticipate a better existence beyond mortality. Generally speaking, the authors of the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha, as most all Jews of this period, regarded the tree of life in a literal sense. The attribute of being able to convey immortality was still inherent in the tree of life, but it was reserved only for the righteous who would enjoy God's presence in a risen state.
An interesting bridge between the Genesis story and intertestamental descriptions of the paradisiacal conditions of the afterlife, wherein is found the tree of life, comes from the pseudepigraphic Testament of Levi:
Then shall the Lord raise up a new priest. And to him all the words of the Lord shall be revealed; and he shall execute a righteous judgement upon the earth for a multitude of days. . . . And he shall open the gates of paradise, and shall remove the threatening sword against Adam. And he shall give to the saints to eat from the tree of life, and the spirit of holiness shall be on them. (Testament of Levi 18:2, 10–11)
As noted by one of the true experts on intertestamental literature, R. H. Charles, the tree of life is "one of the striking features of the heavenly Paradise on which the apocalyptists love to dwell." 28 The conditions of the future age of joy and immortality are described in several other pseudepigraphic works. From 4 Ezra (2 Esdras), where the prophet is assured that his lot is with the blessed and that he should think about their glorious condition rather than the fate of sinners, we read:
For for you
is opened Paradise,
planted the Tree of Life;
the future Age prepared,
plenteousness made ready;
a City builded,
a Rest appointed;
Good works established
The (evil) root is sealed up from you,
infirmity from your path extinguished;
And Death is hidden,
Hades fled away;
sorrows passed away;
and in the end the treasures of immortality are made manifest.29
Here one discerns striking connections to Isaiah's discussion of millennial conditions. Explicit mention of the tree of life in the Septuagint version of Isaiah 65:22 fits well with the paradisiacal environment with which the intertestamental authors were so taken.
In the Enoch narratives, the noted seer saw the tree of life in a visionary journey to the ends of the earth. It was planted on the mountain of God's throne, incredibly beautiful and fragrant (1 Enoch 24:6–25:6). The archangel Michael explains to Enoch the nature of God's mountain throne, the tree of life, and the fruit thereof, which provides nourishment to the righteous and the holy ones (i.e., the saints). Michael acts as tutor and revealer because he is caretaker of the grove of trees encircling God's throne—an image somewhat reminiscent of the trees in the midst of the garden described in Genesis. Enoch learned that no mortal is allowed to touch the tree of life until after the great judgment, when God will "bring everything to its consummation for ever" (1 Enoch 25:4). Continuing with verse 5 of this Enoch passage, we again see the connection between the tree of life and the temple, similar to the connection drawn in Sumerian literature between the tree of life and the temple of the god-king. Says Michael to Enoch in 1 Enoch 25:5–7:
It [the tree of life] shall then [after the great judgment] be given to the righteous and holy. Its fruit shall be for food to the elect: it shall be transplanted to the holy place, to the temple of the Lord, the Eternal King. Then shall they rejoice with joy and be glad, and into the holy place shall they enter; and its fragrance [from the tree of life] shall be in their bones, and they shall live a long life on earth, such as thy fathers lived: And in their days shall no sorrow or plague or torment or calamity touch them. Then blessed I [Enoch] the God of Glory, the Eternal King, who hath prepared such things for the righteous, and hath created them and promised to give to them.
Other Enoch narratives describe similar things. In the Secrets of Enoch 9:1, the seer beholds the heavenly abode of the righteous, wherein is placed the tree of life.
This place, O Enoch, is prepared for the righteous, who endure all manner of offence from those that exasperate their souls, who avert their eyes from iniquity, and make righteous judgement, and give bread to the hungering, and cover the naked with clothing, and raise up the fallen, and help injured orphans, and who walk without fault before the face of the Lord, and serve him in the midst of Paradise, and a place unknown in goodness of appearance.
Every tree sweet-flowering, every fruit ripe, all manner of food perpetually bubbling with all pleasant smells, and four rivers flowing by with quiet course, and every growth is good, bearing fruit for food, and the tree of life is at that place, at which God rests when he goes up into Paradise, and that tree is ineffable for the goodness of its sweet scent, and another olive tree alongside was always discharging the oil of its fruit.
In 1 Enoch 25:5 the fruit of the tree of life is described as being food for the elect. Only the elect will enjoy eternal life. No color of the fruit is mentioned. However, in a text called the Creation Apocryphon, "the tree of life is described as a cypress that has fruit that is perfectly white." 30 As Professor Hugh Nibley notes, because this is not a common image, it is a striking one.31 Indeed! That is why Book of Mormon statements about the tree of life deserve so much more of our attention, especially the perfect whiteness of the tree and its fruit: "the whiteness [of the tree] . . . did exceed the whiteness of the driven snow" (1 Nephi 11:8), and "the fruit thereof was white, to exceed all the whiteness that I had ever seen" (8:11).
Rabbinic literature, specifically the collections of Midrash (exposition of scripture), is very interested in the tree of life and provides graphic commentary on its physical size. The tree was so huge that it "spread over all living things." 32 In another comment, R. Judah ben R. Ilʿai said it took five hundred years to encircle the tree of life: "The tree of life covered a five hundred years' journey, and all the primeval waters branched out in streams under it. . . . Not only its boughs but even its trunk was a five hundred years' journey." 33 It seems it would require the sustenance provided by the fruit of the tree for a person to live long enough to make such a circumferential journey! Rabbinic descriptions of the size of the tree of life may be a symbolic way to emphasize its importance, its centrality in God's divine scheme.
A midrashic explanation of Exodus 16:14—"Behold I will cause to rain bread from heaven for you"—interprets the tree of life as being the source of divine nourishment: "He [God] will bring them fruit from the Garden of Eden and will feed them from the Tree of Life." 34
Perhaps the most interesting of the midrashim relating to the tree of life is the explication of Song of Solomon 6:8, "There are threescore queens, and fourscore concubines, and virgins without number": "R. Judah b. R. Ilʿai applied the verse to the Tree of Life and the Garden of Eden. There are threescore queens: these are the sixty companies of the righteous who sit in the Garden of Eden under the Tree of Life and study the Torah."35
Thus, as might be expected, the rabbis connected the tree of life to the study of Torah—the central activity of their world after the destruction of the temple. The next step in the interpretation of the tree of life is taken by a text called the Targum Neofiti, wherein "the Law is a Tree of Life to all who study in it, and those who guard its commandments will live and rise up like a Tree of Life in the world to come." 36
Archaeological evidence is instructive in helping us to understand how certain Jews viewed the tree of life during the first centuries of the Christian era.
In 1921 an ancient city was discovered in the desert plains of southern Syria, on the west bank of the Euphrates River, halfway between Aleppo and Baghdad. Its discovery was made accidentally by a British officer during operations against the Arabs. Systematic excavation of the site took place from 1928 to 1937 by Yale University.
Now known as Dura Europos, the locale was originally a Roman military outpost—hence the term Dura, which preserves a Semitic term for "fortress." Among the finds were pagan temples, a Jewish synagogue, and a Christian church. All four walls of the synagogue, discovered in 1932, were covered with paintings or murals in five horizontal, parallel bands. The three middle bands consist of at least twenty-eight panels portraying fifty-eight biblical scenes. The bands of murals converge on the image of the Torah shrine on the west wall of the synagogue. These paintings, dated to AD 249, have been called "the most exciting and revolutionary discovery of early Jewish art." 37 It is here we turn to Professor Erwin R. Goodenough, whose massive multivolume reference work, Jewish Symbols in the Greco-Roman Period, has become a standard in the field:
Before the discovery of the Dura synagogue in 1932 anyone would have been thought mad who suggested that Jews could have made such a place of worship[,] . . . but we do not return to sanity when we force the synagogue to conform a priori to Jewish literary traditions.38
Why? Because the most important figures in the Dura synagogue paintings do not conform to "normative" or rabbinic literary patterns—the dominant Judaism of that period. Professor Goodenough explains: "In an atmosphere where identification [with other cultures] rather than distinctions, [where] mingling rather than separation, ruled the thoughts of men . . . [we see that] out of the Torah shrine . . . grew the tree of life and salvation which led to the supernal throne." 39
High in the branches of the tree of life we see the familiar figure of Orpheus as he sits playing his lyre to a lion and a lamb. Goodenough believes that this Orpheus image probably represents David, through whose "heavenly, saving . . . music . . . Israel could be glorified." 40 In addition, "[the artist is] trying to show . . . the glorification of Israel through the mystic tree-vine, whose power could also be represented as a divine love which the soul-purifying music of an Orpheus figure best symbolized." 41
Furthermore, above the tree of life in this final mural there is depicted the throne of God itself, in which God is shown enthroned in heaven, surrounded by his heavenly hosts. Professor Goodenough finds the idea both surprising and compelling: "The enthroned king surrounded by the tribes in such a place reminds us much more of the Christ enthroned with the saints in heaven . . . than of any other figure in the history of art. Let me repeat," says Goodenough, "that before the discovery of the synagogue all sane scholars would have agreed that 'of course' no such synagogue paintings as these could have existed at all." 42
At Dura Europos we seem to have an artist who understood his Torah differently and who valued eclecticism. Jewish, Greek, and Christian cultural constructs combine in a mix designed to emphasize salvation in God's presence as understood in the syncretistic world of interwoven cultural images in the Near East in late antiquity. And front and center in the murals, associated with the throne of God and the divine presence, is the expansive image of the tree of life with its overflowing boughs.
Just as the tree of life scene is the high point in the Dura murals, so it is in Lehi's and Nephi's vision recorded in the Book of Mormon. And Nephi's comment reads even more like it could have been a caption for the central image of the Dura murals: when the angel asks Nephi about the tree of his vision, "Knowest thou the meaning of the tree which thy father saw?" the young man answers, "Yea, it is the love of God, which sheddeth itself abroad in the hearts of the children of men; wherefore, it is the most desirable above all things" (1 Nephi 11:21–22); and hence, I would add, because the tree of life is desirable above all other things, it is the centerpiece of the Dura synagogue paintings.
Medieval and Modern Periods
Among the ancient writers, only Philo seems to have interpreted the tree of life completely allegorically.43 He foreshadowed the medieval Jewish philosophers who interpreted both the tree of life as well as the entire Garden of Eden allegorically. One of these was Maimonides.
As one of the greatest intellects of the age, Maimonides included comments on aspects of the Garden of Eden story in his Guide to the Perplexed. He was concerned with the questions about what constituted Adam's sin and why Adam's condition changed. Man's sin was that he pursued his own desires. His punishment was the loss of the power of intellectual apprehension. "In its place, he acquired the power to apprehend generally accepted opinions and became absorbed in 'judging things to be bad or fine' . . . instead of contemplating intelligibles."44 The tree of life represented man's opportunity to attain the state of complete intellectual comprehension.
During the later Middle Ages, interest in the tree of life underwent a resurgence, becoming a cardinal symbol for Jewish mystics and Kabbalists. Kabbalah is rich in tree of life imagery, though it interprets the tree of life in a mystical-allegorical manner. Kabbalah is a Hebrew word meaning "received tradition." It is a form of Jewish mysticism that attempts to reveal hidden, esoteric insights about the text of the Hebrew Bible. According to Kabbalistic tradition itself, Kabbalah dates from the time of Adam.
Adherents maintain that Kabbalah began with secrets that God revealed to Adam. When read with true understanding, the Torah's description of the creation reveals mysteries about the nature of God, Adam and Eve, the Garden of Eden, the tree of life, and other hidden truths. However, modern scholarship dates Kabbalah to the twelfth century. In the Book of Bahir, the oldest known Kabbalistic text, written in southern France around AD 1180, God's powers and the revelations about them are described as forming "a succession of layers and are like a tree." 45 In fact, one of the fascinating aspects of the configuration of the tree of life in the Kabbalistic worldview is that it possesses both "roots," extending downward, as well as "branches," extending upward. Most, if not all, other depictions of the tree of life do not emphasize the roots, which, for Kabbalists, connect earth and heaven in an unbroken continuity but can only be understood (though not completely) through receipt of mystical information as one enters into a state of communion with the Divine.46 In the most important Kabbalistic text of all, the Book of Zohar, composed by Moses de León in the thirteenth century, we read: "Now the Tree of Life extends from above downwards, and is the sun which illuminates all."47
Thus at the heart of Kabbalistic thought is the tree of life, consisting of, or disclosing, ten Sefiroth, the so-called ten enumerations or emanations of God, ten outward manifestations of God's inner being and his world. These Sefiroth, or "spheres of God," may be thought of as divine attributes and powers arranged into three categories or groups called "pillars." (See fig. 5.)
There are three vertical columns: the Pillar of Judgment, consisting of Binah (Intelligence), Din or Gevurah (Judgment), and Hod (Splendour); the Pillar of Mercy, consisting of Hokhmah (Wisdom), Hesed (Love) and Netsah (Firmness); and between them the reconciling column, the Middle Pillar, sometimes called the Balance, consisting of Kether (Crown), Rahamin (Compassion) or Tifereth (Beauty), Yesod (Foundation) and Malkuth (Kingdom). These also read across to form the three interdependent worlds of Intellect (Kether, Binah, Hokhmah), Imagination (Din, Hesed, Tifereth, Hod, Netsah and sometimes Yesod) and Matter (Yesod and Malkuth). There is, further, a sexual symbolism evolved in the web of relationships between these ten Sephiroth, for each represents a masculine and active or a feminine and passive potency of God.48
The ten Sefiroth do not come close to describing all that God is, his unfathomable essence, or the infinite nature of his world, what the Kabbalists call the En Sof, the Endless or Infinite. Human (and therefore finite) consciousness cannot comprehend that which is infinite and, ultimately, incomprehensible in our sphere of existence. The symbolic nature of the mystical tree of life is intended to convey this recognition of the En Sof.
In addition, the Zohar interprets Adam's fall as the result of his failure to understand the nature of the tree of life, specifically the unity that exists among the ten Sefiroth, and therefore his flaw of worshipping something different. He worshipped the Shekhinah (literally "dwelling"), which is equated with the Sefirah known as Malkuth and which refers to God's presence in space and time. The Shekhinah is also most closely identified with the material world. "By worshipping the Shekhinah and failing to understand its unity with the other Sefirot, Adam became attached to the temporal, material world as opposed to the values that world instantiates or represents. In this way he worshipped the Tree of Knowledge (of good and evil) and ignored the 'Tree of Life' (the sefirotic values embodied in the Torah)." 49
Another strand of Jewish mysticism, standing alongside that found in the Zohar, is represented by a work entitled Raya Mehemna and is much more anti-legalistic in its orientation, as noted by the great twentieth-century expert on Jewish mystical thought, Gershom Scholem.
The latter [Raya Mehemna] is full of references to the "two trees": the "tree of knowledge of good and evil" which dominates our world age, and the "tree of life" which is to preside over the coming Messianic aeon. The difference between these two cosmic forces is vividly described, and it is obvious that the writer [of Raya Mehemna] is greatly fascinated by the idea of the coming liberation from the yoke of commandments and prohibitions. Nothing of the sort is to be found in the genuine Zohar. Nor is a very pointed social criticism in an apocalyptical vein typical of the Zohar, whereas it is an outstanding feature of the Raya Mehemna whose burning hate of the oppressive groups in contemporary Jewish society is unmistakable.50
Much more recent attempts to explore and describe Jewish mysticism have theorized that some of the oldest aspects of Kabbalah go back to ancient Assyrian civilization. This has involved comparing the Sefiroth of the Kabbalistic tree of life with the gods of Assyria and the characteristics and descriptions ascribed to them in their ancient cultural setting. The Assyrians assigned specific numbers and values to their gods, somewhat similar to the numbering of the Sefiroth. Corresponding ultimately to the Hebrew En Sof was the god Assur, usually positioned above the Assyrian tree of life. A reconstructed Assyrian antecedent to the Kabbalistic tree of life and its Sefiroth has been the work of Dr. Simo Parpola, who has noted parallels to the Assyrian pantheon.51
However, such reconstructions strike one as a poorly aimed attempt to read Kabbalah back into Assyrian civilization of the ancient Near East. The idea that the Kabbalistic tree of life, with its concepts of ten Sefiroth, originated with the Assyrians (ninth to seventh centuries BC), was transferred to Judaism, and then existed undocumented for some eighteen hundred years when it surfaced with the publication of the Book of Bahir seems far-fetched indeed. Kabbalah as phenomenon can be traced to a specific period. It started to develop seriously only in the late Middle Ages and is undocumented as a cohesive system prior to the twelfth century.
The tree of life has remained a powerful and profound image and symbol throughout all the periods of Israelite and Jewish history up to modern times. It has always, at some level, conveyed the concepts of immortality and God's divine presence. But the tree of life also became associated with, and a symbol for, other themes or central cultural concepts that faded in and out of dominance during the successive periods of Israelite-Jewish history. Thus, the tree of life served as an object of accommodation to emphasize the prominent religious issues of the day.
During the biblical period, the tree of life not only was the premier symbol of humankind's quest for immortality, the kind of existence experienced by God, but it also represented the sanctuary or temple of God, the repository of his presence. At some point, the tree of life became the symbol and personification of wisdom. It also stood for health and well-being, which derive from wisdom's path; it moved away (in some Jewish circles) from the connotation of immortality and acquired a practical sense of wholeness.
The postbiblical period witnessed the transplanting of the tree of life, so to speak, from Eden to the afterlife so that it became the embodiment of the promises made to the righteous. Intertestamental Jewish thought was preoccupied with the concept of rewards and punishments in the world to come, and that preoccupation forms an important link with New Testament apocalyptic expressions of the tree of life. As reported in postbiblical apocryphal literature, the tree of life and the paradise of God were intertwined in the multiple visions of the next life, which culminate in John's revelation to the Christian community: "To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the tree of life, which is in the midst of the paradise of God" (Revelation 2:7). Such a statement might have been plucked straight out of Enoch's narratives.
Given the postbiblical Jewish fixation on rewards for righteousness, it seems only natural that the rabbis would wed the study of Torah with the image of the tree of life so that, eventually, the tree of life and the Torah were one. As Targum Neofiti says, "The Law is a Tree of Life to all who study in it, and those who guard its commandments will live and rise up like a Tree of Life in the world to come." 52
Medieval and early modern Jewish literature disclose two strains of thought on the tree of life. One is allegorical but rooted in this world, and the other mystical, rooted in the otherworldly. Central to Kabbalah is the tree of life—the representation of the En Sof, the ten emanations of God, the Sefiroth, "the outward manifestation of the inner world of God," 53 all of which are knowable only through a kind of personal revelation that brings humans into communion with the Infinite. To express this system of thought, the tree of life was the perfect image, "for, just as the seed contains the tree, and the tree the seed, so the hidden world of God contains all Creation, and Creation is, in turn, a revelation of the hidden world of God." 54
Perhaps the most compelling context in which we find the
tree of life image is the murals at Dura Europos. In that syncretistic setting—pagan,
Jewish, and Christian—the tree of life serves as a kind of metaphor
for what it had become throughout Jewish history: the great symbol of peace and
rest and everlasting life in God's presence.
Andrew C. Skinner, former dean of Religious Instruction at Brigham Young University (2000–2005), served as executive director of the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship at BYU from 2005 to 2008. A professor of ancient scripture and a member of the international editorial group working on the Dead Sea Scrolls, he is the author of the acclaimed three-volume series Gethsemane, Golgotha, and The Garden Tomb. He holds MA degrees from the Iliff School of Theology and Harvard University in Hebrew Bible and theology and a PhD in European and Near Eastern history from the University of Denver. He pursued graduate studies at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He has served as a member of the LDS Church's Materials Evaluation Committee and as a member of the Sunday School General Board.
1. See the Babylonian Talmud, Hagigah 12b; Pirque Rabbi Eliezer 35; Jerusalem Talmud, Berakot 1:9b; and Book of the Secrets of Enoch (2 Enoch) 9:1.
2. Raymond E. Brown, Joseph A. Fitzmyer, and Roland E. Murphy, eds., Jerome Biblical Commentary (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1968), 13.
3. Benedikt Otzen, "The Paradise Trees in Jewish Apocalyptic," in Apocryphon Severini (Aarhus, Denmark: Aarhus University Press, 1993), 140.
4. J. H. Philpot, The Sacred Tree or the Tree in Religion and Myth (London: Macmillan and Co., 1897), 130.
5. Philpot, Sacred Tree, 131.
6. Philpot, Sacred Tree, 131.
7. Epic of Gilgamesh, Tablet XI, lines 240–90, in James B. Pritchard, ed., Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, 3rd ed. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969), 96.
8. E. O. James, The Tree of Life: An Archaeological Study (Leiden: Brill, 1966), 69.
9. Geo Widengren, The King and the Tree of Life in Ancient Near Eastern Religion (Uppsala, Sweden: A.-B. Lundequistka Bokhandeln, 1951), 5.
10. Widengren, The King and the Tree of Life, 5–6.
11. Widengren, The King and the Tree of Life, 10.
12. This summary is found in Brant Gardner, "Nephi's Tree of Life," 2, http://www.al-qiyamah.org/pdf_files/tree_of_life-nephi's_(highfiber.com).pdf (accessed March 15, 2011).
13. Widengren, The King and the Tree of Life, 14 n. 1.
14. Widengren, The King and the Tree of Life, 59–60.
15. C. Wilfred Griggs, "The Tree of Life in Ancient Cultures," Ensign, June 1988, 29.
16. Mohammed Nasr, Valley of the Kings (Luxor: Tiba Artistic Production, 2003), 50.
17. Leon Yarden, The Tree of Light: A Study of the Menorah, the Seven-Branched Lampstand (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1971), 35.
18. For the symbolism associated with the number seven, see Marvin H. Pope, "Seven, Seventh, Seventy," in The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, ed. George Arthur Buttrick (New York: Abingdon Press, 1962), 4:295. For the number's relation to the menorah, see Annemarie Schimmel, "Numbers: An Overview," in The Encyclopedia of Religion, ed. Mircea Eliade (New York: Macmillan, 1987), 11:16.
19. Yarden, Tree of Light, 38.
20. Ralph Marcus, "The Tree of Life in Proverbs," Journal of Biblical Literature 62/2 (June 1943): 119.
21. Marcus, "Tree of Life in Proverbs," 119–20.
22. Marcus, "Tree of Life in Proverbs," 120.
23. David H. Stern, Jewish New Testament Commentary (Clarksville, MD: Jewish New Testament Publications, 1992), 795.
24. See, for example, John M. Lundquist, "What Is a Temple? A Preliminary Typology," in Temples of the Ancient World: Ritual and Symbolism, ed. Donald W. Parry (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1994), 88–89.
25. Griggs, "Tree of Life in Ancient Cultures," 27–28.
26. Griggs, "Tree of Life in Ancient Cultures," 28.
27. Geoffrey Wigoder, ed., The Encyclopedia of Judaism (New York: Macmillan, 1989), 714.
28. R. H. Charles, Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament (Oxford: Clarendon, 1913), 2:597.
29. 4 Ezra 8:52–54. See the alternative translation in Bruce M. Metzger and Roland E. Murphy, eds., The New Oxford Annotated Apocrypha: The Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books of the Old Testament (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 323: "Because it is for you that paradise is opened, the tree of life is planted, the age to come is prepared, plenty is provided, a city is built, rest is appointed, goodness is established and wisdom perfected beforehand. The root of evil is sealed up from you, illness is banished from you, and death is hidden; Hades has fled and corruption has been forgotten; sorrows have passed away, and in the end the treasure of immortality is made manifest."
30. Hugh Nibley, Temple and Cosmos: Beyond This Ignorant Present, ed. Don Norton (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1992), 244.
31. Nibley, Temple and Cosmos, 244.
32. Midrash Rabbah Genesis 15:6, in H. Freedman and Maurice Simon, eds., Midrash Rabbah, 3rd ed., trans. S. H. Freedman (New York: Soncino, 1983), 1:122 (subsequent references to the Midrash Rabbah are to this and other volumes edited by Freedman and Simon).
33. Midrash Rabbah Genesis 15:6, 1:122.
34. Midrash Rabbah Exodus 25:8, 3:310.
35. Midrash Rabbah Song of Songs 6:2, 9:266.
36. Targum Neofiti commentary on Genesis 3:24, in Derek R. G. Beattie and Martin J. McNamara, eds., The Aramaic Bible (Sheffield, England: JSOT Press, 1994), 64.
37. Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, supplementary volume, 68.
38. Erwin R. Goodenough, Jewish Symbols in the Greco-Roman Period (New York: Pantheon, 1953–1968), 10:197.
39. Goodenough, Jewish Symbols, 10:200, emphasis added.
40. Goodenough, Jewish Symbols, 10:201.
41. Goodenough, Jewish Symbols, 10:201.
42. Goodenough, Jewish Symbols, 10:201.
43. Philo Judaeus, Questions and Answers on Genesis, trans. Ralph Marcus (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1929), 6 (1.10).
44. Kenneth Seeskin, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Maimonides (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 265.
45. Quoted in Roger Cook, The Tree of Life: Image for the Cosmos (New York: Avon Books, 1974), 18.
46. Here I use communion in a broad sense, "sharing one's thoughts and emotions with another"—in this case the Other—and not in the ritual sense in which some Christians use the term.
47. Quoted in Cook, Tree of Life: Image for the Cosmos, 18.
48. Quoted in Cook, Tree of Life: Image for the Cosmos, 19–20.
49. Sanford L. Drob, Symbols of the Kabbalah: Philosophical and Psychological Perspectives (Northvale, NJ: Aronson, 2000), 368.
50. Gershom G. Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (New York: Schocken Books, 1961), 180.
51. Simo Parpola, "The Assyrian Tree of Life: Tracing the Origins of Jewish Monotheism and Greek Philosophy," Journal of Near Eastern Studies 52/3 (1993): 161–208.
52. Targum Neofiti commentary on Genesis 3:24, in Beattie and McNamara, Aramaic Bible, 64.
53. Cook, The Tree of Life: Image for the Cosmos, 18.
54. Cook, The Tree of Life: Image for the Cosmos, 18.