Saturday, August 27, 2011

Theories about the Tree of Life

Alice C. Linsley

Biblical anthropologist Susan Burns has written a fascinating piece on the Hyphaene Thebaica or Doum Palm. She makes a case that the author of Genesis had this tree in mind as the "tree of life."  According to Coptic tradition Adam brought this tree from Paradise. 

Ostracon showing an Egyptian harvesting fruit from a Doum Palm.

Unlike the Date Nut Palm (tamar) which symbolizes the Feminine Principle, the Doum Palm symbolizes masculine strength. Eight baskets of 3,000-year-old doum fruit were found in King Tutankhamun's tomb.

The Tree of Life is a very old idea, as is evident from the wide diffusion of the motif across Africa, Asia, Australia and South America. The principle of diffusion holds that the oldest culture traits, beliefs or practices are those that are most widely diffused across the earth. We may assume that the Tree of Life motif is indeed very ancient.

The Tree of Life archetype is as old as the serpent archetype and the two are often portrayed together, as in the image of Re's cat killing the giant water serpent. The Nile region appears to be the point of origin of both the Tree and the Serpent archetypes.

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 was portrayed as emerging from the Tree of Life.

The association of the tree and serpent is found in the story of Moses' rod which the people were to look upon and be saved when they were being bitten by vipers in the wilderness.  In John 3:14, Jesus refers to this image when He spoke of his passion, saying: "As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life."

The Tree of Life is also associated with streaming water or the water of Life.

We find the Tree, Serpent and Water symbols in Genesis and Revelation, at the beginning and the end of the biblical history.

Other possible candidates

The Ijebu of Nigeria regard the Igi-Ose tree as the likely candidate for the "tree of Life."  The leaves of this tree are not to be touched except by the chief and priest. They are used to install Ijebu rulers ands to adorn shrines and other sacred places.

The Gikuyu of Kenya place their first parents on a ridge north of Muranga, a town south of Nyeri. One can visit the site Mukurwe Wa Nyagathanga and see the Tree of Gathanga. To the Gikuyu, Mount Kenya is God's seat on earth and fig trees 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).

Another likely candidate is the Baobab tree which stores water.  Again we find the association of the Tree of Life with water. The bark of the Baobob 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 tree

This legend surrounding the baobab describes what happens if you are never content with what you are:

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 Church Fathers regarded the Tree of Life in the midst of the Garden to be a symbol of the Cross upon which Jesus Christ died to give life to the world. 

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