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Tree of Life Podcast

Trees of the Ancients

The tree of life represents God’s own life given as a gift to humanity. This image echoes across ancient Near Eastern cultures, and even today, people long for the peace and security symbolized in the tree of life. Listen in as Tim and Jon explore the meaning and context of the tree of life.
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Episode Details

January 13, 2020
58 min

Episode Details

January 13, 2020
58 min

Show Notes

QUOTE

That’s the picture of the ideal—being in this state of a relational proximity with God in which you’re transformed through God’s life inside of you. And so whatever happens in the story, we’re trying to get back to that.

KEY TAKEAWAYS

  • Humanity never received the intended life God had for them. The promise of this new life comes in the resurrection of Jesus.
  • Ancient Near Eastern cultures understood trees as sources of life tied with the divine. The biblical story has many similarities and a few key differences.
  • The tree of life shouldn’t distract us from what the tree represents—nearness to God that participates in the divine life.

Episode One Recap

In part one (0:00–5:00), Tim and Jon begin with a recap of the first episode. Jon says that trees and humans are like a rhyming pair of ideas in the Bible. Both people and trees can produce fruit, be uprooted, and be cut off.

“[The two trees] put a significant choice before the first human characters in the story,” Tim shares. “And that choice is a paradigm. It sets the whole biblical story in motion, so that later characters will also face their own garden of Eden tree moment. But very often, it won’t be in front of a tree—it will be in front of another person who represents a tree of life or a tree of knowing good and bad.”

Narrative Significance of the Two Trees

In part two (5:00-14:00), the guys talk about the narrative significance of the two trees in the opening pages of the Bible.

Genesis 2:9 Yahweh God causes to sprout every tree from the ground that is pleasing to the eyes, good for eating, and the tree of life was in the middle of the garden, and the tree of knowing good and bad.

We’re meant to notice that both of these trees are in the middle of the garden. For more on the tree of good and bad, check out this episode. After humanity chooses to reject God’s wisdom, we hear more about the tree of life.

Genesis 3:22 Then the Lord God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might stretch out his hand, and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever.”

The tree of life represents a gift that God wants to give humanity. Humans don’t have ongoing life within themselves; they need to receive it. In that sense, Adam and Eve never achieved the life God had for them. Tim shares an excerpt from scholar Bruce Waltke.

[The tree of life] represents life that is beyond the original life that God breathed into human. The first human by nature is susceptible to death…. Nevertheless, continued eating from the tree could renew life and prevent death. Apart from disobedience to God’s command, mortals had access to this tree…. The tree of life allows humanity to transcend its mortality, the state in which it was created on the sixth day, so it can move to a higher dimension… to eternal life and immortality. As one partakes of this… fruit by faith, one participates in this eternal life. This highest potency of life was available in the garden and becomes once again available to us as we reenter the temple-garden through the second Adam… and look forward to the resurrection of our bodies.

– Bruce Waltke, An Old Testament Theology, 257

The Tree of Life and Human Potential

In part three (4:00–26:00), Tim and Jon further discuss the idea that humanity never truly achieved their potential in the garden of Eden. They talk about futurism’s hopes for humanity to become more than human and how this relates to the biblical idea of resurrection life.

The way God promises to restore humanity to this hope is a “seed” (Genesis 3:15). In Jesus, we find the only human who has truly attained resurrection life, and he gives it freely as a gift, just as God did in the garden.

Sacred Trees in the Ancient Near East

In part four (26:00–50:30), Tim dives deep into the cultural context of the ancient Near East. He shares specific examples from Egyptian, Babylonian, and Canaanite culture that depict trees of life, and he shows how the biblical example is unique. He quotes from William Osborne.

As any astute tourist quickly observes, the landscape of much the Near East is predominantly stark and barren. The land is comprised of innumerable shades of brown, with only brief interjections of green and blue. The higher in elevation one goes, the greener the picture becomes. Consequently, mountains and rivers, along with the forests that adorn them, seem to be natural focal points anyone who lives or travels in these lands. The ancient peoples, from the remote western world of Egypt to the eastern river marshes of Babylonia, lived in the land, not simply on it. They were all agrarian cultures, whose livelihood was found and maintained among the shade, fruit, shelter, and beauty of their trees. As a result, there can be little doubt that this lifestyle had a significant effect on these ancient cultures and the way they perceived the world. Trees were some of the most sacred elements in ancient Near Eastern civilizations.

– Osborne, Trees and Kings, 31.

Below are several images of examples shared by Tim in this podcast episode.

Nut (pronounced Noot), the Egyptian sky goddess. She is often depicted as standing in the middle of a tree, giving gifts of fruit and water from the tree.

King Seti I, an Egyptian pharaoh. In this carving, he is depicted sitting in the middle of a tree, being crowned by the god Thoth. This was an image of a king’s role to give life to the land.

Asshurbanipal, king of Assyria. This image shows the king feasting with the gods in the middle of a garden. The garden symbolized his entire empire.

By the will of the gods, vines, fruit trees of all kinds, olive trees, aromatic trees, flourished greatly in my gardens. Cypress trees... grew tall and sent out shoots. I created a marsh for the flow of water for the gardens… Birds of the heavens, herons... boars and deer... gave birth in abundance.

[Royal inscriptions of Sennacherib, text eight]

Even the earliest drawings from the Mesopotamian, pre-Babylon era contain images of beautiful trees in gardens surrounded by either goats or cherubim eating from it. This showed that these trees were sacred (guarded by the cherubim) as well as gifts to creation.

Tim calls out one inscription found on a pot shard, called Kuntillet ʿAjrud. It was found on the Sinai Peninsula, just south of Israel, dating back to the ninth-eighth century B.C.E.

Tim shares William Osborne’s three conclusions about trees in the ancient world. Abundance and prosperity from the gods is depicted as abundant gardens and tree-filled forests. Deities and their powers to give fertility are regularly associated with tree symbols. Kings who mediate the power of the gods are either the caretakers of trees or symbolized as trees themselves.

This ancient imagery resonates with the tree of life in Genesis 2, with two key differences. In Genesis, all of humanity is stamped with God’s divine image and given the royal task of overseeing God’s creation––not just the kings. The tree of life is not itself divine; it is a symbol of divine life and abundance that is meant to symbolize proximity to God’s divine life.

The Tree of Life and the Quest for Fullness

In part 5 (50:30–end), Tim and Jon conclude by reflecting on the fullness and longing for more felt by many in Western cultures. Tim mentions a book by Charles Taylor called A Secular Age. Taylor describes “fullness” as a state of peace, security, and relational harmony. Even for Western culture today, Genesis 1-2 paints a compelling picture of our active participation in an eternal life found through the gift of relational intimacy with God.

Additional Resources Bruce Waltke, An Old Testament Theology: An Exegetical, Canonical, and Thematic Approach, 257 William Osborne, Trees and Kings: A Comparative Analysis of Tree Imagery in Israel’s Prophetic Tradition and the Ancient Near East. Terje Stordalen, Echoes of Eden Genesis 2-3 and Symbolism of the Eden Garden in Biblical Hebrew Literature. Charles Taylor, A Secular Age.

Show Music Defender Instrumental by Tents

Show produced by Dan Gummel.

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