Stories, Mythologies, and Traditions
There are scores of stories, mythologies, and traditions that give reference to the tree of life. The Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh contains the oldest surviving reference to a life-granting plant. In the story, the hero Gilgamesh, searches and recovers the plant of life, only to lose it to the water serpent.
To the Ancient Egyptians, the tree of life represented the hierarchical chain of events that brought everything into existence. In Egyptian mythology, earth and sky were said to have emerged from the acacia tree of Iusaaset, which the Egyptians considered to be the tree of life.
In ancient Slavic culture, there was a belief of one source for all rivers from the rock Alatyr, upon which a tree of life stood.
“In Assyrian iconography, the sacred tree represents the presence of the deity and also serves as a symbolic source of life. For example, an inscription found in Ashurnasirpal’s palace depicts a tree standing between two winged creatures under a winged disk, with the king picking its fruit. The king bears the title vice regent of Aššur.”1
The Quran mentioned a tree of immortality (Quran 20:120) Hinduism also has an interesting tree of life narrative. During the cyclic destruction of creation when the whole earth was enveloped by water, the eternal Banyan tree (akshaya vata) remained unaffected. The Bo tree, also called the Bodhi tree, according to Buddhist tradition, is the pipal under which the Buddha sat when he attained enlightenment.
The tree of life appears with other symbols on artifacts found at the ancient city of Troy, and on the oldest examples of Greek ceramic art. It is an important symbol in many traditions and ancient cosmologies.
In this article, we will be giving our attention to what the Bible says concerning the tree of life in both the Old and New Testaments and how it applies to our lives.
At first glance, the tree of life seems to be a minor note in the biblical narrative. It is mentioned three times in the first few pages of Genesis, four times in the Proverbs, and four times in the book of Revelation. But a closer examination will reveal that it is a major part of the biblical story.
The Tree of Life in the Old Testament
In the Creation Story
When the tree of life is first mentioned in Genesis, it is with very little fanfare or explanation. “The tree of life was in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil .” (Genesis 2:9)
Besides a basic description of these two trees, the only thing we learn is that they are placed in the midst (תָּ֫וֶךְ center) of the garden. The author is intentionally focusing our attention and framing the story this way on purpose. He wants to pique our curiosity.
Why are these two trees set apart from the rest of the trees? Why are they in the middle?
The two trees are in the middle of creation and in the middle of human existence to represent to mankind their creaturely limitations, and their need to depend on God. In his book, Creation and Fall, Bonhoeffer made this observation about the tree’s being in the middle of the garden:
“The life that comes from God is at the center; that is to say, God, who gives life, is at the center. At the center of the world that has been put at Adam’s disposal and over which Adam has been given dominion is not Adam himself but the tree of divine life. Adam’s life comes from the center which is not Adam but God.”2
Ultimately the tree’s power to convey life was due to its creator. The presence of the tree indicates that the garden enjoys life, and the eating of the fruit will result in continued life. Though Adam and Eve enjoyed the life of God through partaking of this tree, and the presence of God in this temple-like garden, they were tempted to be more than with God; they desired to be like God.
The author uses irony to display the foolishness of humanity’s fall. Though the quest to be like God was obtained (Genesis 3:5-7), it proved to be undesirable. Humanity, who was created in the likeness of God in the beginning, after the fall found themselves curiously like God, but no longer with God in the garden.
Because of humanity’s rebellion against God, paradise was forfeited.
Though there was much lost because of sin, the passage primarily stresses a loss of access to the tree of life. According to Genesis 3:22, The divine council decided to drive them out of the garden and the main reason was “lest he reach out his hand and take also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever—”
In verse 24, the passage says that God placed at the east side of the garden of Eden the Cherubim and a flaming sword that turned every way to guard the way to the tree of life. It is interesting to note that the final scene in Genesis 3 associates Eden with the later tabernacle and temple, which faced east and contained cherubim. The chapter ends with the sad reality of being exiled from the garden.
In Wisdom Literature
The phrase “tree of life” appears four times in the book of Proverbs and its usage is symbolic. Some commentators will say that there is no connection between “the tree of life” in the Genesis account and “a tree of life” mentioned in Proverbs, but I think that is too much of a distinction. To be more precise, it would be better to say that Genesis speaks literally about the tree of life; whereas Proverbs uses the concept of the tree of life metaphorically.
The tree of life in Proverbs is equated with a fulfilled desire (13:12), a wholesome tongue (15:4), and the fruit of the righteous (11:30). The tree of life is contrasted with a broken spirit (15:4) and a sick heart (13:12). With this contrast in mind, the tree of life seems to picture an emotional and spiritual renewal — an edenic experience – in the life of those who trust and fear God.
The first time the phrase “tree of life” appears in Proverbs is in chapter 3. The chapter begins with the writer encouraging his son to follow his instructions and to trust in God (Proverbs 3:5-6), to fear God (Proverbs 3:7), and to honor God (Proverbs 3:9). At the heart of these instructions is a call for his son to properly relate himself to God, which, according to Proverbs, is the beginning of wisdom. The subject of wisdom is exactly where the writer takes us in verse 13: “Blessed is the one who finds wisdom, and the one who gets understanding.” The writer describes the value of this God-given wisdom from v.14-18 and in v.18; he says that wisdom is a tree of life.
“She is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her; those who hold her fast are called blessed.” (Proverbs 3:18)
The pronoun “she” in the text is a reference to wisdom. According to the first edition notes in the NET Bible, “The metaphor compares wisdom to the symbol of vitality and fullness of life. This might be an allusion to Gen 3:22, suggesting that what was lost as a result of the Fall may be recovered through wisdom.” This seems reasonable, because Proverbs 3:19-20 clearly resembles the creation language of Genesis 2.
“The Lord by wisdom founded the earth; by understanding he established the heavens; by his knowledge the deeps broke open, and the clouds drop down the dew.” (Proverbs 3:19-20)
When a person honors God by complete and utter dependence on him, they will be blessed with an edenic experience that brings life. Paul says it this way in the New Testament, “If any man be in Christ, he is a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17).” Notice Paul uses creation language to speak about our regeneration in Christ. The reality of being in Christ (wisdom personified) changes everything! When a believer continues to walk in wisdom, and therefore abides in Christ, he will experience edenic moments that will ignite a longing for the restored Eden that awaits in his future. These edenic, life-giving moments will not only impact the believer, but will also impact others around him.
Notice Proverbs 15:1,4:
“A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger…A gentle tongue is a tree of life, but perverseness in it breaks the spirit.”
In this passage, we see that a wise person deescalates a tense situation by gracious and wholesome words. This deescalation is edenic because the person is taking an otherwise chaotic situation and bringing it to a place of order.
Imagine a workplace that is very tense and chaotic. Hateful words are being exchanged among coworkers. Everyone is fighting for themselves. Instead of joining the chaos or just demanding adherence to a set of rules, the leader approaches the situation with wisdom. First, he graciously asks questions and listens carefully. He doesn’t want to fall prey to answering a matter before he hears it. When he does offer a solution to resolve the situation, there is no animosity lurking beneath. He speaks honestly and confidently, yet without an edge. He is patient and kind. He leads his team from chaos to order; from hostility to unity. This is the practice of a life-giving leader. This type of leader is one that has become a tree of life for the organization.
Proverbs makes this “tree of life” thing pretty practical doesn’t it?
The passages that we have mentioned above cover all the direct references for the tree of life in the Hebrew Bible. However, it is important to note that the Septuagint and Targums occasionally expand the Masoretic Text of the Hebrew Bible by adding Edenic imagery. For example, consider these translations of Isa 65:22:
|The Hebrew Bible||Isaiah 65:22 “For the days of my people shall be like the days of a tree.”|
|the Septuagint||Isaiah 65:22 “The days of my people will be like the days of the tree of life.”|
There are also places in the Old Testament that do not specifically mention the tree of life, but the imagery is clearly present. Psalm 1 is a clear example. The blessed man refuses the advice and approach of the world and remains deeply rooted in the Torah. The passage goes on to say that this man is like “a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers.”
Some might consider this a stretch to conclude that the author was thinking about the garden of Eden and the ultimate end of the righteous when he penned Psalm 1, but that is how the Jews read this Psalm historically. In Ezekiel 47:13, Ezekiel is most likely quoting a portion of Psalm 1 in describing trees in the coming kingdom on the new earth. Speaking of the trees he said, “Their leaves will not wither, nor their fruit fail, but they will bear fresh fruit every month, because the water for them flows from the sanctuary. Their fruit will be for food, and their leaves for healing.” In Revelation 22, John quotes this same passage from Ezekiel to describe the tree of life in the new Jerusalem (Revelation 22:2).
The Tree of Life in The New Testament
The New Testament contains four references to the tree of life, all of which appear in the book of Revelation. Why are there so few references to the tree of life in the New Testament? I want to suggest a reason why the New Testament says very little about this important subject.
Though the tree of life is a literal tree in the garden of Eden, and will be a literal tree (or tree orchard) in the restored Eden, remember, it is emblematic of the life that comes from God. The reason for not using this metaphor in the NT, in my estimation, is because of the incarnation of Christ. In other words, the metaphor of eternal life was replaced with the man who authors eternal life.
From a Jewish perspective, immortality was lost because of being separated from the tree of life, which pictured being separated from the life of God. But something happened that changed everything for these Israelites. God delivered them from the tyranny of the Egyptians and revealed his powerful presence at Mount Sinai when he gave them His law. This law, the Torah, over time became metaphorically a tree of life to these people. The Hebrew term etz chaim (Literally “tree of life”) is a common Jewish phrase used often to refer to the Torah.
What does this have to do with Jesus and the New Testament’s use of the tree of life?
Listen to the word of Jesus given to the Jewish leaders of his day.
“You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me.” (John 5:39)
Jesus is addressing a wrong conclusion they held. The Torah isn’t the true tree of life but it does testify about the one who is – Jesus! He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of God’s nature (Hebrews 1:3). He is the author of life and he has come into the world to give life and to give it abundantly (John 10:10). What was lost in the fall (the tree of life) was regained in Jesus (the true vine).
How was it regained?
Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree.” (Galatians 3:13)
Our access to the tree of life was regained because Christ was willing to endure the tree of death. We were dead in our sins, but in Christ, we have been made alive. The body of sin that resides in us has been rendered powerless (Romans 6:6). The very life that filled the tree of life in the garden has been infused into our life by the power of the Holy Spirit. Our life is hid with Christ in God (Colossians 3:3).
In Apocalyptic Literature
The book of Revelation contains all four direct references to the tree of life in the New Testament. In this eschatological context, the tree of life functions as a future source of healing and immortality for the faithful. In Revelation 2:7 and 11, the saints who emerge victorious in Christ through testing are promised the tree of life (Rev 2:7) and deliverance from the second death (Rev 2:11). An expanded version of this promise is detailed for us in a later vision in Revelation 21-22. Beginning in Revelation 21, John sees a vision of the new heaven and new earth and the new Jerusalem coming down to earth. He hears the word of Jesus say, “Behold, I am making all things new.” From Revelation 21:9 to Revelation 22:5, John describes the new Jerusalem. It is in this section that we have the longest description of the tree of life.
“Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb 2 through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.” (Revelation 22:1-2)
This is an allusion to Ezek 47:12, which the author has subtly modified by changing “all kinds of trees” on both sides of the river flowing from the sanctuary to the collective term ξύλον ζωῆς, “tree of life.” The term ξύλον, “tree” is collective because numerous trees are found along both sides of the river. So the imagery is of a canopy of trees bowed over this beautiful crystal-like river proceeding out of the throne of God. This tree orchard yields twelve different kinds of fruit, and the leaves are for the healing of the nations.
This passage is refreshingly attractive, but it does raise some questions. Will we need to continue to eat this tree to possess everlasting life? What is with these leaves that heal nations?
In Apocalyptic literature, you have to be careful not to press the details too much. This was written to severely persecuted believers that needed to be reminded of their glorious end. This vision was given to lift their spirits, and to set their minds on the joy that was set before them. They will conquer! They will rule and reign with Christ in the New Jerusalem. The tree of life in the New Jerusalem will most likely not be essential for everlasting life, nor are the leaves essential for healing the nations, because believers are forever joined to the true vine – Jesus. However, it will serve as an everlasting reminder for the people of God of where they have come from, and what They now have forever in Jesus Christ.
One Final Warning
John stresses again in v.12 that believers (those who wash their robes) are privileged to have access to this tree. After a brief invitation from the Spirit and the bride to believe in Jesus, one final warning is given. John testifies a solemn warning that the words of the prophecy of this book are not to be tampered with. It is probable that this warning is primarily addressing future scribes or copyists which was a common practice (i.e. the letter of Aristeas in reference to translating the Septuagint). The warning is not to add or take away from this prophecy or else God will add to them the plagues of this book (Revelation 15:6) and take away access to the tree of life.
There are things in this book of prophecy that can be difficult to understand or even fathom. It would be easy for someone to tweak this message to make it more reasonable for the hearer. Instead of tweaking the prophecy to make it more understandable or more palatable, we are called to trust in the revelation of God. This book should cause us to believe in Jesus, to worship Him, and to allow his life to be manifested through us as we anticipate His coming kingdom.
1. Lanfer, Remembering Eden, Oxford University Press, 38–39.
2. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Creation and Fall, Fortress Press, [Kindle Verson] 863-865.