Trees are significant in biblical symbolism. A study of trees in Genesis helps us to understand the ancient world of Abraham and his ancestors. Trees provided shade, were sources of water in arid places, and brought forth edible fruits. They marked boundaries, such as the Oak of Zaanannim, which marked the northern border of the territory of the Naphtali clans (Joshua 19:33).
Once Lebanon was forested with cedars and the Judean palm forests stretched over a range of 7 miles across the Jordan valley from the Sea of Galilee in the north to the shores of the Dead Sea in the south. The trees grew to a height of 80 feet and had branches all year round.
The trees known to have grown in the region of Abraham’s people include acacia, cedar, date nut palms, sycamore fig trees and baobab. These figure prominently in biblical symbolism, although not all are mentioned in Genesis. Acacia and cedar were used in the construction of the Ark and the Tabernacle. The baobab tree is likely the origin of the idea of waters flowing from a tree as in Revelation 22:1-2.
Six trees are especially important in the symbolism of Genesis: the Tree of Life; the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil; fruit-bearing trees; the prophet's oak at Mamre, the "trees" used to built Noah's ark, and the date palm (tamar) which grew around water shrines.
The Tree of Life
The “tree of life” in the Garden of Eden (as in Revelation 2:7; 22:2, 14) is a symbol of communion with God at the metaphysical sacred center. The Church Fathers regarded this tree as representing the cross upon which the Son of God died. In fact, the cross is four times spoken of as a ‘tree’ (Acts 5:30; 10:39; 13:29; 1 Peter 2:24). Deuteronomy 21:23 says that “anyone who is hung on a pole [or tree] is under God’s curse.” Quoting this verse, the Apostle Paul explains that Christ bore that curse, “becoming a curse for us” (Galatians 3:13).
The Tree of Life archetype is as old as the serpent archetype and the two are often shown together, as in the image (below) of Re's cat killing Apophis, the giant water serpent. The point of origin of both archetypes appears to be the Nile, the region from which Abraham's ancestors came. Re's cat is perhaps the prototype of the Lion of Judah. Note in the image how the serpent's head is under the cat's paw.
The Church Fathers view the Tree of Life is a symbol of Jesus Christ and the serpent is the symbol of His adversary. We meet both in Genesis and in Revelation, at the beginning and at the end of the biblical story.
Both the Tree of Life and the serpent are associated with the first man and the first women. At the Horite shrine of Heliopolis, the first couple Isis and Osiris were said to have emerged from the tree of life.
The Gikuyu, a Nilotic people, place their first parents on a ridge north of Muranga, a town south of Nyeri in Kenya. One can visit the site. A sky-blue gate marks the entrance to Mukurwe Wa Nyagathanga—the Tree of Gathanga. Inside the gate are two mud huts, one for Gikuyu and one for Mumbi. The site looks toward the cloud-shrouded Mount Kenya (formerly called "Mount Kirinyaga"). To the Gikuyu, Mount Kenya is God's seat on earth and fig tress grow in abundance on the slopes of the mountain.
The Gikuyu call the creator Ngai and when Ngai created Gikuyu he told him: “Build your homestead where the fig trees grow." This is why many believe that the Tree of Life was a fig tree. The fig tree plays a significant role in revealing Jesus as the Son of God in the Gospels (Mark 11, Matthew 21 and Luke 13).
In the Gikuyu creation story we are told that at the beginning It was, our elders tell us, all dead except for the thunder, a violence that seemed to strangle life. It was this dark night whose depth you could not measure, not you nor I can conceive of its solid blackness, which would not let the sun pierce through it. But in the darkness, at the foot of Mount Kerinyaga, a tree rose. At first it was a small tree and it grew up, finding a way even through the darkness. It wanted to reach the light and the sun. This tree had Life. It went up, sending forth the rich warmth of a blossoming tree - you know, a holy tree in the dark night of thunder and moaning. This was Mukuyu, God's tree.
Now you know that at the beginning of things there was only one man (Gikuyu) and one woman (Mumbi). It was under this Mukuyu that He first put them. And immediately the sun rose and the dark night melted away. The sun shone with a warmth that gave life and activity to all things.
Tree of Knowledge
Cyrus Herzl Gordon suggested that the phrase “good and evil”( טוֹב וָרָע ) is a figure of speech whereby a pair of opposites refer to something greater than the constituents, as in the phrase, "they searched high and low", meaning that they searched everywhere. This figure of speech is called a “merism.” Merisms are a common feature of biblical language. For example, in Genesis 1 the phrase “the heavens and the earth” speaks of God’s creation of the whole universe. Such language isn’t merely a literary device. It also represents the binary worldview of the ancient Afro-Asiatics. Similarly, "male and female" constitute the whole of humanity. In the biblical worldview there is no gender continuum!
The tree of the Knowledge of good and evil can therefore represent all things, and all things pertain to God alone; thus the prohibition or boundary. This is a boundary that we continue to violate, attempting to make ourselves as God.
The Tree of Life is mentioned in Genesis 3:22 as distinct from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Both trees are mentioned in The Book of Enoch, a text sacred to Coptic Christians. In chapter 31 we read:
The tree of knowledge also was there, of which if any one eats, he becomes endowed with great wisdom. It was like a species of the tamarind tree, bearing fruit which resembled grapes extremely fine; and its fragrance extended to a considerable distance. I exclaimed, How beautiful is this tree, and how delightful is its appearance! Then holy Raphael, an angel who was with me, answered and said, This is the tree of knowledge, of which your ancient father and your aged mother ate, who were before you; and who, obtaining knowledge, their eyes being opened, and knowing themselves to be naked, were expelled from the garden.
Every Fruit-bearing Tree
In is on the third day that God said, “Let the earth put forth grass, herbs yielding seed and fruit trees bearing fruit.”
The third day signals the exercise of divine power, or in mystical terms, the arousal of God. Trees are the pillars that rise from the earth by God's command. So Jesus who was lifted up on the cross also rose from the ground; a sign of God's great power.
The Baobab is one of the trees that Abraham's ancestors likely had in mind when speaking of fruit-bearing trees. The bark is used for cloth and rope and the leaves for condiments and medicines. The baobab’s fruit is called "monkey bread."
|1000 year old baobab|
The baobab was among the first trees to appear on the land. Next came the slender, graceful palm tree. When the baobab saw the palm tree, it cried out that it wanted to be taller. Then the beautiful flame tree appeared with its red flower and the baobab was envious for flower blossoms. When the baobab saw the magnificent fig tree, it prayed for fruit as well. The gods became angry with the tree and pulled it up by its roots, then replanted it upside down to keep it quiet.
In the wet months the baobab stores water in its thick, corky, fire-resistant trunk for the long dry period ahead. The water is tapped when drinking water becomes scarce and by this tree life is sustained in the arid months. Likely, this is the origin of the idea of a tree from which a river flows for the healing of the nations (Rev. 22:1-2), an image of the restoration of Paradise.
The Oak in Mamre
In Genesis 12:6 we read that upon his arrival in Canaan Abraham sought guidance from the Moreh (prophet) when he pitched his tent at the Oak of Moreh. The word "Torah" is usually rendered guidance or instruction, but Torah also is associated with a prophet sitting under a tree.
Males prophets sat under firm upright tress such as oaks whereas females prophets sat under soft flowing trees such as date nut palms, called "tamars." Judges 4:4-6 says, “Deborah, the wife of Lappidoth, was a prophet who was judging Israel at that time. She would sit under the Palm of Deborah, between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim, and the Israelites would go to her for judgment."
Genesis 12 that tells us that the Oak of the Moreh was at the sacred center between Bethel and Ai (an east-west axis). Deborah's Palm was between Ramah and Bethel (a north-south axis). The Tree of Life was in the middle of the garden. If the sacred center is the place where the east-west axis and the north-south axis intersect, we have the image of the Cross.
Many Bibles render the oak of Genesis 12 as the terebinth (Pistacia terebinthus), also called turpentine tree. It is a small deciduous tree or shrub related to the pistachio and likely the earliest known source of turpentine. It is also possible that the word in the original telling was the "tree of the daughter of Terah." Terah was the father of both Abraham and Sarah. This is a reasonable explanation and it suggests that when Abraham and Sarah left Haran they went first to a place where they had kin on their father's side. Arabic is older than Hebrew and the Arabic word bint (بنت) means "daughter of" and tera or Terah is a royal title that means priest. Also related to the name Terah is the word teraphim, which were ancestors figurines of Terah's ancient Horite family.
The Tree of Weeping
Rebecca's nurse, Deborah, was buried at Bethel under a tree known as the “Oak of Weeping" (Gen. 35:8). The type of tree is not specified. It is named allon-bachuth, which means “tree of weeping.” Although allon is often translated oak the word can refer to a large tree of any species. Here it probably refers to an oak, a terebinth or a sycamore fig. The sycamore fig was associated with Hat-Hor, the virgin mother of Horus and there is some evidence that graves were placed beneath sycamore fig trees.
There is a natural association between the fig tree and the name Deborah which means bee or wasp. The wasp lays its eggs inside the ripening figs.
Gopher Wood (גפר gofer)
Noah's ark was made of this material according to Genesis 6:14. Since this word does not appear elsewhere in the Bible, it is uncertain what material is indicated. However, archaeology and anthropology provide adequate information about boat building in Noah's time in east Africa to safely say that the material used was reeds or sedge such as the boat shown in the masthead of Just Genesis. This is supported by the fact that the word translated "ark" in Genesis 6:14 is found only one other place in the Bible: in the story of Moses' mother putting him in a reed basket (Exodus 2:3). The Schocken Bible reads: "Make yourself an Ark of gofer wood, with reeds make the Ark...", Vol. I, p. 35.
Sedge is a grass-like plant which grows in wet areas, such as the Nile region. At the time of Noah much of the Sudan was wet. In ancient Kush sedge reeds were used to construct boats, baskets and sandals. Bas-reliefs of the Fourth Dynasty show men cutting reeds to build a boat; similar boats are still made in the southern Sudan. As Noah's sons and their descendants spread across the ancient Afro-Asiatic Dominion, they spread their ship building technologies so that reed boats exactly as those made along the Nile are also found in Pakistan and India.
The Tamar (Date Nut Palm)
The association of palm trees (tamars) with rulers and prophets is a common among many Africans and Arabians and is found in the Bible. Fresh palm tree fronds are used ceremonially at the installation of rulers and are used to decorate places of worship. The tamar as a sacred symbol is the complement of the oak tree. Male prophets sat under oaks while female prophets sat under date palms.
Jebu (Jebusite) rulers are installed with palm branches. Jude Adebo Adeleye Ogunade writes in his memoir about growing up Ijebu. He was warned not to touch the leaves of the Igi-Ose tree because, as his Mama Eleni explained, "That tree is the tree whose leaves are used to install Chiefs and Kings of Ijebu and as your grandfather was a custodian of the rites of chieftaincy and kingship you must not play with its leaves." This explains the greeting of Jesus with palm fronds as he entered Jerusalem.