It’s been a beautiful Labor Day weekend so far and looks to continue that way for the holiday tomorrow. It’s a great time to take a walk or a bike ride. I took my bicycle to Secor Metropark a couple weeks ago. As I was riding through the woods, I came to a spot where some enormous trees formed an archway over the path. I felt like I was riding down the center aisle of a church. I stopped for a few moments, just soaking in the stillness and the feeling of reverence that filled that space. My eyes followed the tree trunks up and up and up into the leafy tops and on to the sky above. As I gazed upward, this verse came to mind: “I lift mine eyes to the hills, from whence cometh my help.” (Funny how the King James Version always bubbles up when beauty and poetry are called for.)
As I rode on, I thought about how trees do the same thing that hills and mountains do: they draw our eyes upwards, to that place where our human minds picture God residing. Trees have their own majesty and beauty which can lead us into contemplation of God. And, they are a lot more accessible to many of us than hills, especially here in northwest Ohio. I started wondering, “What does Scripture have to say about trees?” As I began searching, I found a whole scriptural arboretum. So, I’d like to invite you to come along with me for a walk among the trees of the Bible and allow them to draw our eyes toward God.
As we walk along, the first thing we’ll notice is that there are a lot of different kinds of trees in the Bible. Some are familiar, if not by sight then from the Bible stories we know so well—figs and olives, palms and cedars. Of course, we’ll see the sycamore tree that Zacchaeus is famous for climbing, and the mustard tree Jesus compared the Kingdom of God to. We’ll smell the aroma of ripe apples and pomegranates. There are almond trees, and the mulberry trees my mother hated because of the purple stains they left on my brothers when they pelted each other with the berries.
We’ll walk beneath trees that we know well but may be surprised to find in the Bible: firs and oak trees, plane trees and broom trees. Some of the trees will be unfamiliar, and we’ll need to read those little signs that identify them, like the “holm tree”—a kind of evergreen oak whose name comes from the ancient word for “holly,” or the “tamarisk”—the tree Abraham planted in Beer-sheba and which is the only tree that can grow along the Dead Sea.
This variety reminds us of how creative our God is. Both creation stories in Genesis tell us about God’s creation of trees. The first one describes fruit trees of every kind that bear fruit with the seed in them. The second creation story enlarges on that. It tells us that God created “every tree,” and it observes that trees don’t produce food just for our bodies; they pleasant to look at as well.
As we walk among the trees, we need to be careful not to make the same mistake so many people in the Bible did. Both pagan peoples and God’s own people often began treating the trees as though they were gods—sacrificing to them and worshiping them. They are usually described as “green trees” in the Bible—probably because they were luxuriant evergreens. On our walk, we will see many of these trees; their lush foliage and towering trunks may cause us to feel a sense of awe. Admire their beauty. Allow them to teach you something about the nature of God. But never forget who created them.
As we continue our walk among the trees, we’ll find two that are very special. They’re right there in the midst of the garden, surrounded by all the other trees. One has a sign: “Don’t eat the fruit.” These are the trees we learn about in the second creation story. They are the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Of course, we remember that The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil came with a warning: God tells Adam, “You can eat from every tree in the garden except that one. Don’t eat from that tree. The day you do, you’ll die.” We all know what happens next. Eve is convinced by the snake to eat some of the fruit. She offers some to Adam. He ignores God’s warning and eats some, too. We’ll stay away from that tree.
But let’s take a closer look at the Tree of Life. God didn’t give any instructions about that tree. And yet, Genesis tells us, after Adam and Eve ate from the forbidden tree, God’s great worry was that they would “reach out and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever.” It was that possibility that caused God to put Adam and Eve out of the garden and to put a special security system around the tree of life itself.
This puzzles me. If God didn’t want Adam and Eve to eat of that tree, why not warn them about it, too? Why did God inflict so severe a punishment, not for disobediently eating from the tree they knew about, but because they might eat from the tree of life? And what does this story have to say to us?
I tried to find an answer to these questions in scholarly books and articles. I found plenty pf opinions, although none of the answers satisfied me. But as I think about those trees, it seems to me that they represent a choice. God gives us a choice between life and death. The tree of life represents all that is life-giving: a world that provides for us, other people to love and to be loved by, intimacy with God, and the certainty that God loves us. It represents all that is good—healthy relationships, peace within ourselves, a confidence that God is with us. The fruit of that tree is life-giving, life-enhancing, life-sustaining.
The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil represents what is death-dealing. Look at what happens when Adam and Eve eat its fruit: They become ashamed of their bodies and rush to cover them up. They are afraid of God and hide when God comes for an evening stroll. Adam blames Eve for what has happened; we can imagine what that did to their relationship.
Eating the fruit from that forbidden tree brought about what we know as sin: they were no longer the people God had created them to be. It caused a separation between them. And it brought about a rupture in their relationship with God. Adam and Eve chose the death-delivering tree—the tree that delivered fear and shame and blame.
Like Adam and Eve, we are given the opportunity to choose between things that are life-giving and things that are death-dealing. We can’t live fully if we choose things that are deadly—things that bring death to our bodies, to our emotional health, to the natural world, to our relationships with other people, to our relationship with God. The fruit of the tree that brings life and the tree that brings death are mutually exclusive. You can’t eat both at the same time.
When Adam and Eve chose the deadly tree, God didn’t totally abandon them. God made clothes for them. They were sent out into a world that was watered by the rivers that flowed out of Eden and was populated by other people. But God did take away their access to the fullness of life offered by the Tree of Life. Their physical lives didn’t end that day, but their ability to live fully did.
As God cared for Adam and Eve, God cares for us in our sinfulness. God gave us access to another tree that gives us another chance to choose life. This is our next stop on our walk among the trees. As we near it, you may wonder why such an ugly tree is planted in such a prominent place—on a rocky hill away from the other trees. It looks dead—lifeless. It’s completely bare of leaves and flowers. No birds nest in it. No squirrels scamper through it.
It has only a vertical trunk and two horizontal branches. It’s marked by red stains and jagged holes. The Old Testament speaks of this tree as the place where defeated enemies and those convicted of capital crimes were to be punished, a practice the Romans whole-heartedly embraced. It represented death at its most shameful, until a man named Jesus chose to face death on this tree in order to secure eternal life for anyone who believes in him.
Jesus came so that we might have life and have it abundantly. But those who didn’t believe he was the Son of God saw him as an enemy to begotten rid of. They manipulated the crowd and then convinced the Romans in charge to punish him in the most shameful way possible. He didn’t have to accept his fate, but his commitment to his Father’s mission and to those he came to save led him to that tree. As he died there, that tree was transformed from a symbol of evil into a symbol of something beautiful: the selfless love of Jesus. And that love turned that tree of sin and death into a tree of forgiveness and life.
Our walk is almost over. There’s just one more tree to see. It’s the tree of life we read about in the Revelation. The water of life flowing in a bright river through the New Jerusalem will be lined by trees—the tree of life. This tree produces twelve kinds of fruit, month after month. John tells us that this tree is for the healing of the nations. From the Tree of Life in Eden, where all was at peace, to the tree on which Jesus died to bring peace to the world, we come to the final tree which marks the ultimate peace of wholeness and unity to come when God’s kingdom is completed here on earth.
Since this is the Labor Day weekend, perhaps you’ll have some time to take a walk among the trees near your home. Or, maybe you’ll visit one of our parks to walk among the trees there. Wherever you choose to walk among the trees, allow their beauty to soothe your soul. Allow the sound of the breeze in their leaves to delight you. Allow them to draw your eyes upward, to the place where we imagine God to dwell. As you walk among the trees, allow them to be a symbol of all that God has created. Allow them to be a sign of what God did for us in Jesus Christ. Allow them to be a promise of what God has in store for our future. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young