An Overview of the Tree of Life
In Revelation 2:7, the reward for the faithful Ephesians is striking: they will participate in the blessing intended at creation, to eat “from the tree of life that is in God’s paradise.” What was the “tree of life”? From an ancient Near-Eastern context, many parallels to Genesis 2:9 exist, and thus can further inform us on whether or not the “tree of life” is literal. Starting with the Mesopotamian tale of Adapa [dating to the 14th century b.c.], we find the main character as the first of the semi-divine sages [apkallu] who served as counsellors [ummānu] to the antediluvian kings, bringing the arts of civilization to humanity.
In the above iconography, two apkallu are depicted on the left, the bird and fish type. A sacred tree appears in the centre. The figure on the right is a king, where his rich garment is indicative of divinity. In a late formulation of this tradition, each of these kings had his own counsellor, and Adapa served Alulim, the first king. To summarize the story, Adapa is fishing one day while a south wind arises and overturns his boat, throwing him into the sea. Angered by this, he breaks the wings of the south wind so that for 7 days it cannot blow. The sky god, Anu, calls Adapa to account in heaven for this misdeed. His father, the god Ea, warns him not to eat or drink anything in heaven, as Ea fears that the food and drink of death will be set before Adapa. However, he is offered instead the food and drink of eternal life. Adapa refuses them, and thus failing to achieve immortality, he is compelled to return to earth:
“Anu’s messenger reached him, ‘Adapa, who fractured the wing of the south wind, Send him to me!’ He brought him along the road to heaven, he went up to heaven. When he went up to heaven, and drew near Anu’s door, Tammuz and Gizzida were standing at Anu’s door. When they saw Adapa, they cried, ‘Heaven help us! Fellow, for whom are you like this? Adapa, why are you dressed in mourning?’ ‘Two gods have disappeared from the land, so I am dressed in mourning.’ ‘Who are the two gods who have disappeared from the land?’ ‘Tammuz and Gizzida.’ They looked at each other and laughed and laughed. When Adapa made his approach to Anu the king, Anu saw him and cried, ‘Come now, Adapa, why did you fracture the wing of the south wind?’ Adapa answered Anu, ‘My Lord, I was fishing in the depths of the sea, for my master’s temple [Adapa’s master is Ea]. The sea was like a mirror, then the south wind blew upon me and capsized me. I spent the rest of the day in the home of the fish. In my fury, I cursed the wind.’ There spoke up for him Tammuz and Gizzida, saying a favorable word about him to Anu. His heart grew calm, he became quiet. ‘Why did Ea disclose what pertains to heaven and earth to an uncouth mortal, and give him a violent temper? Since he has so treated him, what, for our part, shall we do for him? Bring him food of life, let him eat’ [like the divine command to Adam to eat from all the trees, including the tree of life in Genesis 2:16, the offer of the food of life and the waters of life to Adapa implied an offer of eternal life]. They brought him food of life, he did not eat. They brought him waters of life, he did not drink. They brought him a garment, he put it on. They brought him oil, he anointed himself. Anu stared and burst out laughing at him, ‘Come now, Adapa, why did you not eat or drink? Won’t you live? Are not people to be immortal?’ [thus forfeiting once and for all the chance to make humanity immortal]. Ea my lord told me, ‘You must not eat, you must not drink.’ Let them take him and return him to his earth.”
Here’s a wall painting from the burial chamber of Pharaoh Thutmose III, where the ruler is suckled by a breast protruding from a sycamore tree, while an arm extending from another part of the tree supports the breast. Such trees are portrayed as objects of beauty, grandeur, and abundant fertility. They become shelters for all sorts of creatures and are a source of sustenance for all life. The concepts of a supernatural tree as a source of life via eating and drinking a substance to gain divine powers, have coalesced into the “tree of life” motif. Thus, throughout ancient Near-Eastern literature, occasional descriptions of sacred trees with magical powers are known. The kiškanû tree is referred to in Akkadian incantation and magical texts as having some special healing powers:
“In Eridu there is a black kiškanu-tree, growing in a pure place. Its appearance is lapis-lazuli, erected on the primeval waters-apsū. In the midst of the sanctuary are the sun-god Šamaš and the vegetation god Tammuz at the mouth of the two rivers.”
In fact, the description of what’s called the cosmic tree in Ezekiel 31 [also compare with Daniel 4] should be noted. On the left is a depiction of this cosmic tree, where the inhabited world is an enormous tree, watered by roots in the cosmic deep and rising with its top in the clouds. Every living being finds shelter in its boughs and shade. In Ezekiel 31, the reference to the “tree of life” along with “Eden” and the garden of God blend these ancient themes with the biblical creation narrative.
Hence, the Egyptian goddess Hathor [or Isis, or Nut] was portrayed as a gigantic sycamore tree with roots sunk deep down to the subterranean waters and whose top reached heaven. They provided the dead with protection and daily nourishment. Thus, the image of a cosmic tree offering nourishment and protection in Ezekiel 31 represents the Hebrew version of the Egyptian iconographic cosmic tree. The lower world [roots] is the abode of the dead. The middle world [trunk] contains the essence of all things; the real world behind our visible world. The upper world [branches] contains everything that exists inside and outside our cosmos. Thus, the equivalent of the lower world in the bible is Sheol, the abode of the dead. The equivalent of the middle world in the bible is the Earth, but more specifically as the concept of axis mundi [the navel of the world, and thus another form of cosmic tree imagery]. For the ancients, this helped them understand where the centre of the world is located. This is why temples were understood as tangible and spatial extensions of divine order and governance over the created realm in the ancient Near-East.
The importance of a temple relates directly to the notion of sacred space, a place where the human realm could intersect with the divine realm, the axis mundi that linked heaven and earth and acted as a conduit for divine presence and blessing. The meeting place between the divine realm and the human realm was often associated with elevated structures called ziggurats in Mesopotamia, stepped structures as stairways to heaven, where the deity would descend onto earth, like Babel [Genesis 11] or Jacob’s ladder [Genesis 28:12]. Thus, in Ezekiel 5:5 we see that Jerusalem was conceived as “the centre of the nations” [literally “navel of the earth”]. In contrast, here’s a 6th century b.c. Babylonian map of the world where Babylon is seen as the centre:
Thus, Babylon is from the Akkadian bāb-ilī which means “the gate of gods”. For the Babylonians, the cosmic tree had connections to the mēsu tree described in the Erra Epic:
“Where is the mēsu–wood [a dark wood used in making divine statues, probably a form of rosewood], the flesh of the gods, the proper insignia of the King of the World, the pure timber, tall youth, who is made into a lord, whose roots reach down into the vast ocean through a hundred miles of water, to the base of Arallu, whose topknot above rests on the heaven of Anu?”
Here are winged deities kneeling beside a sacred tree [the Assyrian version of the “tree of life”], from the Palace of Nimrud:
This Neo-Assyrian flanked tree provide imagery of the world order as maintained by the gods. Such symbolism is again derivative from the “tree” as a symbol of cosmic well-being and of the good life in general. It’s another way of representing humans as a microcosm of the created order. Outside this symbolism, several trees [the date-palm, the tamarisk, and the cedar] might have used to represent this “tree of life.”
Curiously, outside the ancient Near-East [in the old Japanese Shinto religion that started in the 6th century a.d.], Japan is replete with sacred trees called goshinboku [honourable god tree] and sekichu [stone pillars]. Many of the sacred trees are gnarled oaks and are believed to be the dwelling places of unnamed and unidentified Shinto gods. A shimenawa [sacred rope] is tied around the tree and from the rope are hung Shinto prayer papers called norito. Beans or rice are offered to the gods in the tree. This again represents the cosmic tree, symbolizing fertility.
In summary, all of this background imagery is to help us see that the “tree of life” in Revelation 2:7 culminates into a symbolic representation of the cross, since the Greek word xylon most often refers to either the “cross” or “tree” in the New Testament, and the two images are well connected. In other words, it is the cross of Christ that produces “life” and makes it possible to inherit “God’s paradise.” In the context of Ephesus, it contrasts with the background of the temple of Artemis, since it was originally a tree shrine, and that a symbol of Artemis was a date palm. In other words, this is also a further counter to the idolatry and immorality of Ephesus [as a fertility goddess, Artemis signified life]. Only the cross of Christ is the “tree” that eternally produces “life”! In early Church history, we see that this is exactly the thinking of early Christians, where the “tree of life” was readily identified with the cross, and therefore with Christ himself.
Here’s a mosaic in the Roman Catholic Basilica of San Clemente from the 5th century, showing the assimilation of the ancient Near-Eastern cosmic tree motif. The stylized vegetation of this cosmic tree spans heaven and earth in vine-like scrolls. Two liturgical lamps flank its main trunk. Humans and animals seek its shade and fruit. Baptism is shown by the water of life issuing from the base of the tree/cross in the form of the four rivers that flowed out of Eden. Two thirsty deers that represent the image of the soul longing for God [Psalm 42:1], drink from the water of life. Below them stand the Lamb in the celestial city. In this single image, the cross erected on Golgotha in the historical city of Jerusalem at a particular moment in human history is here revealed as the eternal cosmic “tree of life” prefigured from the beginning in Eden and finally revealed in all its glory in “God’s paradise.”
Here’s another example of the exalted body of Christ identified with the “tree of life” [in Eden, on Golgotha, and in the heavenly paradise], graphically [called Ottonian art] demonstrated in an esoteric 11th century Reichenau manuscript. The tree spans heaven and earth as the axis mundi. Christ’s body literally forms its entire trunk, where one hand grasps its branches, while the other hand holds an orb and is flanked by classical personifications of the sun and moon, symbols of the centre and of his cosmic sovereignty [thus the “seven stars in his right hand” in Revelation 2:1]. Jesus is clothed with a garment down to the foot [Revelation 1:13] and pictured in the midst of the seven-branched tree in a glory of divine light. The tree rises from a single source: the four rivers of Eden. Like caryatids [sculpted female figures that serve as a pillar], the personifications of the rivers support four beasts [as representative of the four gospels; Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John] who all turn toward the central mandorla [the frame of Jesus, which is called the vesica piscis in mathematics, the intersection of two congruent circles]. The object of their adoration is Jesus who is enthroned on the “tree of life.”
Finally, this 14th century version by Pacino di Bonaguida in Florence shows Christ dead on the cross, which is seen as an enormous 12-branch “tree of life” spanning all space and all time, depicted by detailed scenes starting from the creation of Adam and Eve in Eden at the base of the cosmic tree [at the centre of the earth], all the way upward to the heavenly paradise at its summit. The host shaped fruit on each of its branches enclose pictorial scenes of Christ’s earthly life, passion, and glorification, shown in chronologically ascending order. The tree therefore chronicles man’s long exile from paradise and the means of his return: by God’s descent at the incarnation.
Andrew [6th century Bishop of Caesarea] writes: “And to such as conquer in the struggle against the demons, he promised to give ‘to eat from the tree of life,’ that is, to grant them to share in the blessings of the future age, for eternal life is figuratively depicted through the tree. And Christ is said to be both, as is clear from what Solomon says and what our apostle writes in another passage. For, concerning wisdom, Solomon says, ‘She is the tree of life’ [Proverbs 3:18], while John writes about Christ, ‘This is God and eternal life’ [1 John 5:20]. If, therefore, we are allowed to attain to these things, let us accomplish the victory over our sufferings. For, most certainly proper recompense will follow our trials, by the grace and beneficence of our Lord, Jesus Christ, with whom be glory to the Father together with the Holy Spirit forever and ever. Amen.”
It shouldn’t surprise us that the biblical writers used terms, symbols, and concepts derived from popular mythology to address their audiences. It is crucial to observe that the use of such concepts did not obligate any biblical writer to adopt the theological mindset of their sources. Where the language of myth was countenanced in the Old Testament writings, it carried with it a very different meaning for Israel than for the pagan nations of the ancient Near-East. As a literary phenomenon, the usage of mythological allusions is widespread in many later cultures, and the fact that such references might appear in literary productions is no indication that the writer is necessarily committed to any underlying theology, or that he does more than merely approve of the suitability of the allusion as part of the process of human communication. It also implicitly demonstrates that Yahweh is not bound to any particular means of communicating his message; he is sovereign even over the polytheistic myths that would deny his uniqueness. This sovereignty is demonstrated most fully when biblical writers attribute to Yahweh in greater degree the positive characteristics of other ancient Near-Eastern gods!
Ephrem [4th century] summarises: “Eden is the Holy Church, and the Paradise which was in it is the land of rest, and the inheritance of life, which God hath prepared for all the holy children of men. And because Adam was priest, and king, and prophet, God brought him into Paradise that he might minister in Eden. And God made Adam and Eve to dwell in Paradise. True is this word, and it proclaimeth the truth: That Tree of Life which was in the midst of Paradise prefigured the Redeeming Cross, which is the veritable Tree of Life, fixed in the middle of the earth.”