Tree of Life: Lost but Not Forgotten
When you think about the tree of life, what are some of the things that come to mind? Even if you’re not a Bible scholar, you’ll likely make connections like the garden of Eden or everlasting life. Indeed, these represent key associations in the account of humanity’s creation and failure found in the first pages of the Bible. But have you ever wondered what the meaning of the tree is and what happened to it after all was sadly lost in the garden?
It may come as a surprise to many that the tree of life reappears elsewhere in the Bible––lots of places actually. Let’s take a look in order to discover the meaning of this biblical theme and its implications for our lives today.
The Tree of Life Planted
We are introduced to the tree of life in Genesis 2, where it is described as bearing beautiful, delicious fruit and standing prominently at the center of the garden of Eden.
Out of the ground the LORD God made to spring up every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food. The tree of life was in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. ── Genesis 2:9
God then invites the humans to eat the tree’s fruit (Genesis 2:16), and the text later states that eating from the tree will lead to everlasting life (Genesis 3:22-24). However, eternal life was not the tree’s only function.
At the heart of the garden, where it couldn't be missed, the tree of life served as an object lesson of sorts. It displayed the proper flow of life. God, the source of life, imparted some of his own life to sustain humans. In turn, they were to give life to others and creation (Genesis 1:28). In this way, the tree was a reminder of humanity’s dependence on God and their responsibility to steward the life they received. But what about the other tree in the garden?
The Tree of Life Lost
Like the tree of life, the tree of the knowledge of good (Heb tov) and bad (Heb. ra’) also stood at the center of the garden and produced enticing fruit (Genesis 2:9). But unlike the tree of life, God prohibited the humans from taking and eating its fruit. Why?
Up until this point, God had been deciding what was good (Heb tov) and bad (Heb. ra’). For example, he declared his creation to be good (Genesis 1:10; 1:12; 1:18; etc.) and Adam without Eve to be not good, that is, bad (Genesis 2:18). Will humans continue to live with God allowing him to define and teach them what is good and bad, or will they take the fruit and the power to define good and bad for themselves outside of God’s wisdom?
Unfortunately, humans ignore God’s wisdom and take the fruit, finding themselves amidst some catastrophic consequences (Genesis 3). Among the most painful of them, the first humans had to leave the garden, and the way back to the tree of life was barred (Genesis 3:22-24). Without access to the life-giving fruit, death was inevitable. So what happened to the tree of life? Was it destroyed? We are not told, but what we do know is that it lived on as a symbol of abundant life in the Hebrew Scriptures.
The Tree of Life Remembered
Israel’s teachers of wisdom used the tree of life to create colorful metaphors, for example:
She [wisdom] is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her; those who hold her fast are called blessed. ── Proverbs 3:18
In cases like this, the tree language serves as a hyperlink back to God’s ideal for humanity in Genesis 2. The biblical writers invite us to recall the tree’s association with abundance to make the connection between living wisely and enjoying a full life (Proverbs 3:18; 11:30) or the life-giving effects on others (Proverbs 13:12; 15:4).
The tree of life also reappears as a symbol in Israel's worship—first with the tabernacle and later with the temple in Jerusalem. The symbolism incorporated into the design of these sacred spaces portrays them as miniature gardens of Edens. Adorning both of these gardens was a golden lampstand, which took the form of a stylized tree. Coincidence? We think not. This garden and tree imagery once again hyperlinks to Genesis 2 and is intended to encourage Israel to remember their special part in God's plan to restore creation.
Like Adam and Eve, the nation of Israel was faced with a choice: Would they heed these reminders, obey God’s commands, and channel life to the nations around them (Genesis 12:2-3; Exodus 19:6), or would they look to other gods and seek to define good and bad for themselves?
Sadly, Israel disregarded God’s commands. They traded long and abundant life in a good land for hardship, shame, and death in exile. Fortunately, this was not the last word. From the stump of a fallen Israel would arise a shoot—the promised Messiah (Isaiah 6:13; 11:1-5). He would do what the nation of Israel could not.
The Tree of Life Replanted
When Jesus—the Messiah—came, he demonstrated an unswerving reliance on God and perfect obedience to him. That is to say, he did what the first humans failed to do in choosing to eat from the other tree in the garden and define good and evil for themselves.
Jesus’ reliance and obedience also accomplished what God’s chosen people couldn’t do—channel abundant life to the nations. The cross is actually referred to as a tree in the New Testament (Acts 10:38-40; Galatians 3:13-14; 1 Peter 2:21-25)! It is through his death and resurrection that Jesus himself becomes the source of life for those who choose to follow him. The tree of life reappears in the final chapters of the Bible (Revelation 2:7; 22:1-2, 14, 19), but not merely as a figure of speech. The tree of life is a physical feature at the center of God’s restored creation.
This new tree is described as prominently sitting upon a river emanating directly from the throne of God and the Lamb. It will produce “twelve kinds of fruit,” yield “its fruit each month,” and bear leaves “for the healing of the nations” (Revelation 22:1-2). These details demonstrate its vitality, abundance, and healing properties. The “healing of the nations” is a curious feature of this tree, likely indicating that the leaves, and presumably the tree itself, will serve as a reminder of how the nations have been healed. But how? The work of Jesus—the ultimate source of life—has healed their natural bent to disobey God and reconciled them to the Creator.
The new tree of life (and the rivers flowing from the throne of God) certainly mirrors the original tree in the garden of Eden, providing hope of sustained life with Yahweh. In this way, the tree both recalls the garden story and also provides an expectation of future hope.
The Tree of Life Pondered
We have only scratched the surface here, but even this sketch of the contours affirms the importance of the tree for God's people—past, present, and future. So what can we learn from the tree of life?
On one level, following the theme from Genesis to Revelation demonstrates that the tree of life has never been forgotten. In fact, it will continue to serve as a symbol of abundant life forever.
On another level, tracing the tree through the Bible provides us with the opportunity to reflect on God's unfolding plan to restore his creation and our place in it. It's striking how the tree of life—as an iconic part of the broader theme of creation—stands at the very beginning of the Bible (Genesis 2-3) and at the very end (Revelation 22) as part of the original creation and the coming new creation.
These “bookends” not only nicely frame the entire biblical story, but they also highlight the completion of God's redemptive plan.
For us, the new tree of life serves as a reminder that God's purposes will not be thwarted. The tree that was lost will be replanted; the creation that was lost will be restored. Therefore, we can look to the future with great confidence and hope.