Reading Thematically: Trees of Life and Death

Even when my siblings and I were younger, our parents would take us to art museums. A lot. (Yes, we were homeschooled.) I remember some of those trips where I wasn’t quite sure what was going on and I certainly recognize that some pieces were easier to appreciate and “like” than others. My confusion, however, was (comparatively!) short lived: we studied art history, we learned about da Vinci and Donatello and Michelangelo and Raphael. This did two things: instilled a love for Renaissance art in me that you probably have noticed in my picture selection on the blog (or in my classes and PowerPoints!), and my love of the Ninja Turtles (which I don’t think we were technically allowed to watch as children. Did I mention I was homeschooled?).

But as I learned more about art, whether we’re talking about ancient Greek sculpture or Byzantine Christian art or modern art, the more I learned to appreciate it. In his book on reading the Bible as art (in this case, literature), Robert Alter explains that reading art well is based on:

…an elaborate set of tacit agreements between artists and audience about the ordering of the artwork is at all times the enabling context in which the complex communication of art occurs. Through our awareness of convention we can recognize significant or simply pleasing patterns of repetition, symmetry, contrast: we can discriminate between the verisimilar and the fabulous, pick up directional clues in a narrative work, see what is innovative and what is deliberately traditional at each nexus of the artistic creation (The Art of Biblical Narrative, 55).

Or, if you want the readers’ digest version: art only works when we get what it’s doing and the more we know about what it\’s doing, the more likely we are to appreciate it. But this isn’t true only of paintings or sculpture or architecture; it’s also true of literature and film and all sorts of other creative endeavors, including the Bible.

One of the ways that reading the Bible as literature is that we can and should learn to recognize some of these “tacit agreements” and better uphold our end of the deal. A few of the ways that we can do this is by recognizing intertextuality, recognizing type scenes, or by reading thematically. I’ve talked about intertextuality and type scenes in the past, so let’s take a look at what I mean by themes today and look at a single image from the Bible: Trees.

Trees are part of our everyday lives and, unless we’re arborists, we probably don\’t give them too much thought. But a quick consideration of how trees work in the Bible reveals that we have quite a few stories where trees play a significant role in the narrative: the Garden of Eden has the Tree of Life (Gen 2–3); Moses is confronted by a burning bush in the wilderness (Exd 3–4); the tabernacle houses lampstand in the shape of a tree which also burns (Exd 25.31–40); and the righteous are compared to trees (Psa 1.3–4). On the opposite side of things, the Garden also plays host to the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil (Gen 2–3), and those who partake of its fruit are cursed, as are those who are hung on trees (Dtr 21.33; 2 Sam 21.1–6; Est 5–7); idols are made from and placed under trees (Dtr 16.21; Jgs 6; 1 Kgs 14.23; 16.33; 2 Kgs 16.4; Isa 44.9–20); and, most famously of all in Christian tradition, Jesus is crucified on a tree (make sure to read Peter William\’s thread on “Tree“!). Now, I\’m not the first person to have picked up on some of these concepts. Indeed, many go back all the way to the Church Fathers! But, I think the Bible Project does a great job of summarizing some of this in a quick video. I’d encourage you to check it out, now!

But let’s see if we can go a bit further.

What we see when we consider these stories is that trees in the Bible fit in one of two categories: they either give life or they give death. But it’s more than just that. It\’s that the life that the “good” trees provide is life tied to being made in the image of God and receiving life from him and the death the “bad” trees provide is death tied to becoming gods and ruling your own world. This remains consistently (if not constantly!) true.

When the Serpent comes and offers Adam and Eve the tree, he offers them the temptation of godhood: “You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Gen 3.1–7), but their eating results in a curse for man (Gen 3.17a, 19), woman (Gen 3.16), the serpent (Gen 3.1–15), and the ground itself (Gen 3.17b–18). They are expelled from the Garden into a wilderness. Later, when the Israelites are in bondage and death in Egypt, God meets with Moses in the wilderness to offer to bring Israel back from exile and into a New Garden with new life, and shows this with a contrary image: a tree that will not be consumed by fire (Exd 3–4), life defying death (the very point Jesus makes in Luke 20.37–38). But Israel, throughout its history, consistently does as Adam and Eve did–they chose to try and become gods who rule their own world. They set up Asheroth which are goddesses represented by tree (this is actually more complicated than that, but we don\’t have time to go into it right now!) (Dtr 16.21; Jgs 6; 1 Kgs 16.33), they place idols on top of “evil hill and under every tree” (1 Kgs 14.23; 2 Kgs 16.4) and carved their idols out of trees (Isa 44.12), and–in the mind of many of the biblical writers–this was because they wanted to become gods themselves rather than submit to YHWH. It\’s for this reason that those who hang on trees (rather than receiving proper burial) are cursed and leaving them hanging curses the land (Dtr 21.33; cf. 2 Sam 21.1–6), because eating from the tree brought a curse on the land (Gen 3.17–19)!

If you look carefully, you can see that the connections between the trees plays a key role in this art as well!

But that dichotomy of life and death illustrated on top of Mt. Sinai is also present in the Gospels and helps answer a question that I sometimes ask my students to answer: Why did Jesus have to die on a Cross? There were lots of other deaths that he could have died, at different times and in different ways; would not any of them have brought a cleansing from sins? Not according to Paul, who says:

Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree”—in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we would receive the promise of the Spirit through faith (Gal 3.13–14).

Or, to put it differently, if we read the idea of trees throughout Scripture thematically, we might say:

Through sin on a tree, humanity chose to become gods themselves (Gen 3.1–7), and brought on death and exile and destruction for themselves and for the world. Through sin on a tree, humanity  again chose to become gods themselves (Mat 21.33–46), and sacrificed the Son on a Cross, and brought on life and restoration and renewal to themselves and the world.

Christ on the Cross is YHWH in the Burning Bush: burning but not burned up, killed but not saying death, so that death might be swallowed up by life. For the only way to reverse the curse that came on humanity and the world when we ate of the fruit of the cursed tree was to sacrifice Jesus upon it and thus gain access, once again, to the Tree of Life (Rev 2.7; 22.1, 14, 19).

Published by Jared Saltz

Biblical Studies Faculty (Florida College). PhD candidate at HUC-JIR. Husband, father, student.

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