Majestic, mystical trees at the heart of scripture

Trees are such majestic, mysterious, living things. Walking through a forest can fill you with awe – there is something almost mystical about being surrounded by soaring trees enveloping you while reaching out to the heavens.

Apr 26, 2020

By Anil Netto
Trees are such majestic, mysterious, living things. Walking through a forest can fill you with awe – there is something almost mystical about being surrounded by soaring trees enveloping you while reaching out to the heavens.

Trees are a major recurrent theme in scripture, in the beginning, in the middle and at the end.

The Garden of Eden had both the Tree of Life, which was in the middle of the garden, and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (Genesis 2:9).

In Genesis 2: 16-17, “Then Yahweh God gave the man this command, 'You are free to eat of all the trees in the garden. But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you are not to eat; for, the day you eat of that, you are doomed to die.”

The difference between the old Adam/Eve and Jesus is that, while the former sought knowledge through disobedience, Jesus was obedient to the will of God even if it meant his death on a tree. Jesus put his faith in God and passion for the kingdom first - even at the cost of his own life. But it brought forth abundant new life. In Proverbs, the Tree of Life represents wisdom and understanding, even righteousness and justice.

In Proverbs 3: 13, 18, 30: “Blessed are those who have discovered wisdom, those who have acquired understanding! ...She is a tree of life for those who hold her fast, those who cling to her live happy lives…. The fruit of the upright is a tree of life: the sage captivates souls.”

And don’t forget Noah’s ark. It was the wood of many trees that saved Noah and his family and all the creatures. The ark was said to have been built from “resinous wood” and “of reeds” (Genesis 6:14). This word is said to be gopher wood, which could have been  cedar wood or wood from cypress trees.

Ezekiel Chapter 47 speaks of a vibrant river, teeming with life. On each bank of the river was “an enormous number of trees”.

In 47:12 — “Along the river, on either bank, will grow every kind of fruit tree with leaves that never wither and fruit that never fails; they will bear new fruit every month, because this water comes from the sanctuary. And their fruit will be good to eat and the leaves medicinal.”

So the leaves of these trees have healing properties as well.

In the Gospels, we see how the tax collector Zacchaeus had to climb a sycamore-fig tree to get a clearer view of Jesus. This is a tall shady tree that can grow up to a height of 20-25 metres.

Just before he died, Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane (oil press) surrounded by olive trees, which under good conditions can live for up to a thousand years. Today, olives are considered as a health food.

When Jesus was executed, the cross on his back was perhaps made of cedar, pine and cypress, according to Eastern tradition.

His death on the cross not only reconciled heaven and earth, it healed the broken relationship between us and our fellow human beings. More than that, it also healed the broken bond between us and Creation, symbolised by the tree on Jesus’ back.

This cross, from a tree(s) broken and dead, would, from then on, be transformed into  a symbol of glorious triumph over death. How ironic that the tree(s) that was chopped down, lifeless, to support the back of lifeless Jesus, would forever be associated with the vindication of Jesus on the cross, his triumph over death.

The Resurrection meant that the kingdom of Jesus could not be snuffed out. That kingdom, which Jesus likened to a tiny mustard seed, probably the black mustard variety, would spread rapidly and even, beyond expectations, grow into a tree, providing a resting place for birds and other creatures.

Note that the black mustard is also used in homeopathy for treating a variety of ailments. In Revelation, the Tree of Life is also described as a cure for the nations.

Speaking of birds, St Francis is said to have preached to birds perhaps perched on an olive tree or an oak tree. The birds listened attentively and even exulted with great joy.

Perhaps it is no surprise that it was another Franciscan, in the 13th Century, Bonaventure, who came up with the Lignum Vitae (Tree of Life) metaphor to creatively associate events in Christ’s life in the form of an imaginary tree bearing 12 fruits eg the third fruit is the loftiness of Jesus’ power and the eighth fruit, his victory over death.

Today, it is scientifically documented that being close to nature, lots of trees and greenery are therapeutic and can even improve mental health and wellbeing.

Unfortunately, we also have to contend with the prevailing culture of greed, which has resulted in large-scale deforestation.

The chopping of massive swathes of forests has forced creatures out and made the likelihood of pandemics such as the coronavirus, even more likely. This poses a great threat to humanity.

Not only that, the loss of forests through extensive logging, eg in the Amazon and in Sarawak, has contributed to global warming and climate change. The recent fires in the Amazon and Australia are serious symptoms revealing that all is not well with nature. Nature is hurting.

Revelation 2.7 at the end of Scripture tells us: Let anyone who can hear, listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches: those who prove victorious I will feed from the tree of life set in God’s paradise.”

Revelation 22.1-2 is reminiscent of what we read in Ezekiel 47: “Then the angel showed me the river of life, rising from the throne of God and of the Lamb and flowing crystal-clear.

“Down the middle of the city street, on either bank of the river were the trees of life, which bear twelve crops of fruit in a year, one in each month, and the leaves of which are the cure for the nations”.

Yes, our majestic, mystical trees are at the heart of Scripture — and can heal our ecosystem. Think of the respite that nature is enjoying from our current lockdown.

These trees are the symbol of wisdom and righteousness. But such wisdom, symbolised by the cross, is foolishness in a world driven by greed, which would much rather destroy these trees, a gift from God.

Today, these same trees provide a healing path out of our current mess – provided we plant new trees and refrain from chopping down what’s left of our existing forest.

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