We can easily see why trees often take leading roles in ancient religion. Along with mountains and the sea, trees are bigger than we are; they stand when we fall and they endure when we pass away. Yet, unlike the sea and the hills, we can muster the power to overcome trees. We can chop them down and put them to use. (We can, of course, chop them down and discard them, an act which is sinful and stupid. Sin is always stupid, but that’s for another day.)
I want to reflect on the meaning of trees in the Bible, but first we should just think about trees. One of our problems in biblical interpretation lies in our inability to see the world as charged with the power and glory of God. We decide that, for example, the “tree of life” means such-and-such. Then we pretty much discard the actual tree and proceed to its “meaning.” In our world, things have lost their enchantment and their glory, and are just things. To us, a star is just nuclear fusion; a snake is just a reptile; a baby is just an arrangement of cells. We cannot see the inside — the interiority — of things. All is not lost, though, for we do experience wonder. I think of visiting the giant sequoias once in California. High-definition television cannot capture that awe. I have seen magnificent mahoganies in Honduras, and felt there the horror of tree poaching and its resulting deforestation. I have seen myriad evergreens and understood why the Black Hills are "black.” Nor is seeing our only access to arboreal wonder. We can feel trees and smell them. Did you know the sequoia has spongy bark? Oh, yes, we can taste trees, too: apricots, mangos, tangerines. Shel Silverstein’s title, "The Giving Tree," is exactly right: Trees give shade and lumber and fruit and beauty. But is that just a lucky draw, or does someone give the tree? Is giving built into the universe, or is taking the only way?
“And 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.” When we read these words in the second chapter of the Bible, we see a setup for the plot. The second named tree which God commands the humans not to use they do use. Why? Well, “The woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise.” Returning to the first quotation, we notice that God’s creation of the trees involved two goods: First, trees were pleasant to the eyes — beautiful. Second, they were good for food. Eve reverses God’s order. For her, food is first, beauty second. God had given, we are told, every tree in the garden for food, save one. They were not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. That tree, apparently, was good only for its beauty, not for its use. The woman was deceived: It is not wise to set aside beauty for food. Beauty comes first; any old animal can eat, but only we humans can adore. (Remember? Sin is stupid.) Yes, giving is built into the fabric of the universe, but we can only achieve our destiny if, before we take, we adore the giver and his gifts.
Fruit from the Tree of Life is a kind of antidote to death — a fountain of youth, so to speak. After Adam and Eve fail their test, human beings are barred from the Tree of Life. This is a good thing, since unending consumption without adoration is more or less a definition of hell. Trees then continue to play their role in the biblical story. We have fig trees and sycamores, the cedars of Lebanon (today mostly destroyed) and the shoot that grows out of a stump. Of special interest is the grapevine — not exactly a tree, yet functioning as one when Jesus tells his followers, “I am the vine, you are the branches, and my Father is the gardener.”
When we arrive at the Bible’s final chapter, we hear of a new city: “In the midst of the street of it, and on either side of the river, was there the tree of life, which bare twelve manner of fruits, and yielded her fruit every month: and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.” God’s beautiful tree of life reappears at history’s end to heal us with her beauty, bestowing fruits of the Spirit. Our hunger for that tree which towers over us gives us hope.