Review: The Tree of Life: A Powerful Symbol

The Tree of Life

Edited by Douglas Estes
(Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2020), xxii + 469 pp., 44 illustrations, $298 (hardcover and eBook)
Reviewed by Ralph K. Hawkins

In 1970, Joni Mitchell released a song called “Woodstock,” in which she described an encounter with a “child of God” who was walking along the road. When she asked him where he was going, he said he was going to Woodstock, where he hoped to get back to the land and find freedom for his soul. He explained, “We are stardust, we are golden, we are billion year old carbon, and we got to get ourselves back to the garden.”

These lines allude to the Garden of Eden, a place of beauty and abundance into which God placed humankind after their creation (Genesis 2:8). Eden was not simply a garden that God planted for human habitation; it was God’s own garden (e.g., Isaiah 51:3), with the tree of life in its midst (Genesis 2:9).

The key idea in the Garden of Eden narrative is the presence of God. The garden was meant to be understood as a temple with garden-like features. As such, it was the very dwelling place of YHWH, which humans were invited to enjoy and cultivate in his presence. Since the garden was therefore a sacred space, the first couple’s task of caring for it should probably be understood in priestly terms—as caring for sacred space. The garden was God’s temple, where the first humans served as priests.

But early humankind rebelled against God and were expelled from the garden. Cherubim with flaming swords were then placed at the east entrance “to guard the way to the tree of life” (Genesis 3:24), while humankind kept moving farther and farther east (Genesis 4:16; Genesis 11:2), with the implication that they were moving farther away from God.

In many ways, the quest to get “back to the garden” is the subject of the rest of the Bible, throughout which the tree of life appears episodically as a synecdoche for the garden as a whole. This visual symbol provides bookends for the Christian canon, where it features on the front end (in the garden narrative of Genesis 2:9) and on the back end (in the vision of the New Jerusalem, in Revelation 22:2).

Despite its importance, there has been little in the way of sustained research on this image. In The Tree of Life, however, Douglas Estes has brought together 14 essays that address this lacuna by exploring the ancient Near Eastern background of this symbol, its development in various literary and artistic traditions, and its reception and theological meaning in Jewish and Christian Scripture. Two chapters, one by Charles Echols and the other by Amy Balogh, are devoted to surveying ancient Near Eastern literature and iconography in a quest for the origins of the image and an explanation for its usage in Genesis 2-3. Various kinds of vegetation and trees frequently appear in ancient Near Eastern sources in connection with eternal life and divinely sanctioned abundance, but none shares the precise function of the tree of life in the Garden of Eden, which seems to prevent the death of men and women in the present life. So while the biblical authors may have appropriated a familiar symbol, they instilled it with new and unique layers of meaning.

Two chapters are focused on the tree of life in the Hebrew Bible. Christopher Heard interprets its meaning and function in Genesis 2-3. Some scholars who have dissected these chapters with source-critical tools insist that the text contains plot contradictions that cluster around the tree of life and deny it any kind of coherent meaning. However, Heard makes the case that, ultimately, the biblical text is readable. William Osborne then examines the use of the tree of life in the wisdom literature, suggesting that it is used as a “stock image” for life and vitality. It also appears in the Psalms, where he suggests that it takes on new meaning and is used to forge together various concepts associated with the implications of a right relationship with YHWH.

The rest of the chapters explore the tree of life in Jewish-Christian legendary texts, apocalyptic literature, Enochic literature, the Book of Revelation, early Christian literature, the philosopher Philo of Alexandria, Gnostic literature, medieval iconography, Anglo-Saxon and Germanic traditions, and modern theological thought. These chapters show how the tree of life became a recurring iconic visual symbol throughout the ages.

There is much to praise about the volume. It brings a very important visual symbol out of obscurity and will certainly stimulate new scholarly interest in the topic. I regret that the volume includes only two chapters on the use of the motif in the Hebrew Bible, which features direct and allusive references to the tree of life in the Pentateuch, the historical books, and the Prophets. Future studies will surely draw attention to such occurrences. In the meantime, this volume brings this powerful symbol to the attention of contemporary readers: It is a testament to the sacred tree’s lasting importance and evolving meaning as a symbol, literary motif, and theological concept—from the dawn of history to the digital age.

Ralph K. Hawkins is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Averett University, in Danville, Virginia.

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