A Biblical Theology of Trees

Significant Trees in the History of Redemption

Many theologians explain the biblical storyline by framing its contents in four distinct movements: creation, fall, redemption, and restoration. Most would begin in the Garden of Eden, move to God’s relationship with Israel through the tabernacle and temple, proceed into the life of Jesus, and end with Revelation where all is made right. This process of framing the narrative is not only of great use when interacting with the Bible as a whole revelation, but also when investigating a particular component within the whole. One such component often overlooked is that of trees in the Bible. However unnoticed their appearances in the narrative may be, trees are given a place of importance in all four biblical movements wherein God’s presence is perhaps the primary theme. Interestingly, the four movements of the biblical storyline (creation, fall, redemption, restoration) can be reinterpreted using the significant trees of the Bible: the tree of life, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, the tree(s) of the tabernacle and temple, the tree of Christ, and the tree of life again in the time of full restoration.

Genesis: The Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil

In order to better understand the tree of life as associated with God’s presence, it is necessary to see the garden in Genesis 1–3 as a temple. Greg Beale is of major help here. First, Adam’s purpose within the Garden of Eden in Genesis 2:15 was “to cultivate and keep" the garden.[1] The pairing of these two Hebrew words (לְעָבְדָהּ וּלְשָׁמְרָהּ) “cultivate and keep,” which can also be translated as “serve and guard,” occur later in the Old Testament referring to “Israelites ‘serving and guarding/obeying’ God’s word (about 10 times) or more often to priests who ‘serve’ God in the temple and ‘guard’ the temple.”[2] It seems, then, that Adam was the first priest who was to guard the garden-temple.

Second, it is intentionally communicated that the garden-temple faces east (Gen 2:8). It seems the obvious reason for this presumably needless detail is to identify this garden with the future end-time temple, which also faces east (Ezek 40:6; [note that temples in the ancient near east faced east]).

Third, the use of arboreal imagery in the tabernacle and temples supports the conclusion that this garden is the first temple, for this clearly resembles Edenic imagery. This leads many to see the tree of life as a model for the lampstand in Israel’s temple (see below). 

Lastly, a temple must be the house of God. Beale says, “[t]he Temple later in the OT was the unique place of God’s presence.”[3] God dwelled in the Garden of Eden in a similar way that he dwelled in the tabernacle and temple. Just as the priests were able to experience God’s presence in the tabernacle and temple, so also Adam experienced God’s presence (perhaps on a higher, more pure level) in the Garden of Eden. In fact, Adam was able to walk and talk with God (Gen 3:8). There is further reasoning why one could consider Eden as a temple in regards to God’s presence. In Genesis 3:8, the same Hebrew form (hithpael) of הָלַךְ (halak “to walk”) is used to describe God’s presence in the tabernacle (Lev 26:12; 1 Sam 7:6–7).[4] This striking similarity gives reason to consider Eden as a temple.

So here we have the unique place of God’s presence as he “walked” around the garden with the man (Gen 3:8). In fact, God’s presence within the garden is the defining characteristic that allows us to see this garden as a temple. There is no dispute that God’s garden and God’s presence go hand in hand.

Getting back to the main topic (trees), Genesis makes very clear what is in the middle of this garden-temple—two trees. The importance of having trees in the middle of this temple should not be overlooked. In Genesis 2:9, both the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil were “in the midst of the garden” (בְּת֣וֹךְ הַגָּ֔ן). After Adam and Eve ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, Genesis turns to consider the tree of life. The garden is now off-limits because of the tree of life—this tree is of significant focus in Genesis 3:22–24:

“Then the Lord God said, ‘Behold, the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil. Now, lest he reach out his hand and take also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever—’ therefore the Lord God sent him out from the garden of Eden to work the ground from which he was taken. He drove out the man, and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim and a flaming sword that turned every way to guard the way to the tree of life” (emphasis added).

In Genesis, the tree of life is a reason the garden is now closed. As man is banished from the garden, he is banished not only from this tree, but moreover, from the presence of God.

The garden must be seen as the first temple in which the presence of God is uniquely found. The tree of life in the middle of the temple, and the reason for man’s expelling from the temple, communicates the sheer importance of that tree. This connects the two ideas of presence and tree. The remaining biblical storyline could be presented as a quest to restore humanity to that very tree and ultimately the presence of God. The progression from the tabernacle/temple’s tree-lampstand to the tree of Christ leads us again to the tree of life in the New Jerusalem of which we are finally allowed to eat (Rev 22:2).

Exodus: The Tree-Lampstand

Within Exodus, “עֵץ” (tree) has a very narrow scope of meaning. Twenty-six of its thirty-one occurrences refer to the materials that make up the tabernacle. On this point, James Jordan sees a connection between trees or wood and the presence of God: “[t]hus, God reveals Himself in connection with trees and wood frequently in the Bible, because the Tabernacle and the Temple, made of wood, are themselves arborescent theophanies.”[5] A certain aspect of God’s presence can only be manifested in the tabernacle/temple. Therefore, it seems intentional that garden-like imagery, such as the tabernacle materials or the contents within, is used to remind the reader of the first garden. So, within the biblical storyline, the tabernacle is God’s next major dwelling place among people after the garden. The tabernacle and what it housed was the clearest vision of the presence of God for the Israelites. As will be seen, God will progressively reveal himself to his people at trees until we reach the New Jerusalem which houses the tree of life—where God’s presence is at its fullest.

At this current stage of redemptive history, the tabernacle is where God’s presence resides. Within this tabernacle is the lampstand in the holy place. There can be no doubt that the lampstand in Exodus 25:31–32 is portrayed as a tree:

“You shall make a lampstand of pure gold. The lampstand shall be made of hammered work: its base, its stem, its cups, its calyxes, and its flowers shall be of one piece with it. And there shall be six branches going out of its sides, three branches of the lampstand out of one side of it and three branches of the lampstand out of the other side of it….”

The plant-like imagery causes most commentators to identify this lampstand with a tree of some sort. John Durham says using such language suggests a “growing tree”[6] and finds significance in the construction of this tree in pure gold: “[t]he Lampstand, like the Table and the Ark, was a symbol of the immediate Presence of Yahweh and so was constructed with pure gold.”[7] However, he does not identify this lampstand with the tree of life.

Other commentators see parallels with the tree of life. Douglas Stuart says that the lampstand has a trunk like an olive tree and branches like an almond which leads him to think that “it was thus a special tree, unlike no single tree in nature but having several characteristics from more than one of them as a way of representing the idea of a tree of life.”[8] James Jordan finds significance in the burning lampstand and the burning bush of Exodus 3, where God’s presence caused the ground to be holy.[9]

In sum, the point here is that most identify the lampstand with a tree of some sort. This “tree” (within a tree-built complex) is closely connected to the presence of God. Further, this arboreal atmosphere would continue in Solomon’s temple (1 Kgs 6:18, 29, 32, 35). As the biblical narrative unfolds, Jesus will next reveal God’s presence even more vividly at the tree on Golgotha.

The New Testament: Christ’s Tree

We now come to the tree of the Christ.[10] Before moving on into detail about this tree, a note on Jesus must be stated. After Solomon’s temple was destroyed, one may think that there would be no hope. But there is good news. “When the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son…” (Gal 4:4). “And the Word became flesh and tabernacled [ἐσκήνωσεν] among us…” (John 1:14).[11] The verbal form of ἐσκήνωσεν (eskēnōsen “dwelt”) with reference to the Word “means that the Word pitched his tabernacle, or lived in his tent, amongst us.”[12] This is often linked to either the tabernacle (Exod 25:8–9) or the tent of meeting (33:9). Whether ἐσκήνωσεν (eskēnōsen) refers to the former or to the latter, the result is the same: “God has come to take up residence among his people once again.”[13] This renewed dwelling of God amongst his people shifts from the temple of Jerusalem to the body of Jesus. This new temple would meet its destiny on a tree.

Peter capitalizes on this tree imagery in 1 Peter 2:24: “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.” As the use of “tree” to refer to the cross is rare, Peter intentionally used it here. Likely he had in mind the “tree-curse” of Deuteronomy 21:22 (see below). It also seems he had in mind the first garden where trees played a major role. Peter says, the purpose (ἵνα) of Jesus bearing our sins on the tree was so that “we might die to sin and live to righteousness.” Just as Adam and Eve ate of that first tree and died, so the tree of Christ causes us to die. Thankfully, the object is reversed. As Adam and Eve died to righteousness and lived to sin, here we die to sin and live to righteousness. The death and life language should transport the reader right back to the garden—the use of “tree” only fortifies this conclusion. Just as Adam and Eve were banished from the presence of God in the garden, through Christ’s death on the tree the believer is ushered back into God’s presence, which will find full expression at the end of time. This is signified at the result of Jesus’ cry of dereliction (“my God, my God why have you forsaken me”): the curtain of the temple was torn from top to bottom (Mark 15:38). Now, all peoples could enter into God’s presence!

This beautiful reversal is only possible because Christ became accursed for us. In Galatians 3:13, Paul utilizes the tree curse of Deuteronomy 21:22: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree…’” At this tree, God most fully revealed himself as never before in redemption history. The justice of God was unmistakably revealed at the cross as the consequences of sin are clearly seen, but so too was the love of God, as Jesus became the curse for us. This took place in order that God may be both just and the justifier (Rom 3:26).

At this second tree of the post-fall state, God’s presence is most clearly felt and seen. God had never revealed himself so vividly to his creation after the fall. Now, after dwelling in a tabernacle and temple, God revealed himself in the person of Jesus who came to enable us to live to righteousness. As Christ followers, we are now escorted into the very presence of God yet again, but this will fully take place when God ushers in the new heavens and earth.

Revelation: The Tree of Life

The tree of life seen in the Garden of Eden again makes its appearance in Revelation. Within this book, the “tree of life” is mentioned 5 times. In extreme contrast to the tree of life in the Garden of Eden, believers are healed by this tree (Rev 22:2), have a right to it (22:14), and have a share in it (22:19). It is a main focus in Revelation 22:2, which also vividly displays the progress from Genesis to Revelation: “through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.” The tree of life is again in the middle of this “new garden” signifying its importance. However, the original purpose to close the Garden of Eden was to keep mankind from eating of the tree of life (Gen 3:24). Now, through the death of the Son on a tree, God allows us to partake from the tree of life. We are ushered back into the garden-like paradise to enjoy the presence of God most fully—“to ‘eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God’ is a picture of forgiveness and consequent experience of God’s intimate presence (Rev 22:2–4).”[14]

Conclusion

After the fall, man was cut off from the tree of life and more importantly the intimate presence of God. The rest of history is the story of redemption to restore humanity into the presence of God. Oren Martin frames it as follows:

“Scripture is about God’s restoring paradise for his glory after humanity lost it. As paradise, the new Jerusalem is the fulfillment of what Eden was designed to be. For example, both Eden and the new Jerusalem reference the waters of life (Gen. 2:10–14; Rev. 22:1–2), the tree of life (Gen. 3:22–24; Rev. 22:2), precious stones (Gen. 2:11–12; Rev.22:18–21; cf. Ezek. 28:13) and God’s presence with his people (Gen. 3:8; Rev. 21:3–5, 22–23; 22:4–5). In contrast to Eden, however, this paradise is free from sin, securely protected from evil and the evil one, and permanently filled with God’s presence.”[15]

To accomplish this restoration, God gradually revealed himself to his creation. In the OT, God’s limited presence with his people primarily existed through the tabernacle and temple, both of which utilized tree-imagery. In the NT, God’s presence is more vividly felt as the living person of Jesus came and “tabernacled” with his people. Jesus then died on the cross-tree to give all of humanity the clearest vision of God’s presence this side of heaven. Finally, Christ and his life will allow us to enter most fully into the presence of God in the New Jerusalem—the new Eden.


– Revised and expanded by David A. Larson



[1] Note, these two words can be translated as “serve and guard.”

[2] Gregory K. Beale, “Eden, The Temple, and the Church’s Mission in the New Creation,” JETS 48 (March 2005): 8.

[3] Ibid., 8.

[4] Ibid., 7.

[5] James B. Jordan, Through New Eyes, (Brentwood: Wolgemuth & Hyatt, Publishers, Inc., 1988), 85.

[6] John I. Durham, Exodus, World Biblical Commentary 3, (Waco: Word Books Publisher, 1987), 364.

[7] Ibid., 364.

[8] Douglas K. Stuart, Exodus The New American Commentary 2 (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2006), 577.

[9] Translation and emphasis mine (David).

[10] The New Testament’s 20 uses of “ξυλον” always refer to something physically wooden. Five times it is used to refer to the cross upon which Christ died, five times to the tree of life in Revelation, and five times it is paired with “swords” to make the common phrase “with swords and clubs” (μετὰ μαχαιρῶν καὶ ξύλων). Four times “ξυλον” is used to refer to building material wood (two of which are in Revelation) and once for the “stocks” Paul and Silas are put into in Philipi.

[11] D. A. Carson, The Gospel according to John (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 127.

[12] Andreas J. Köstenberger, John BECNT (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004), 41.

[13] Jordan, Through New Eyes, 86.

[14] Gregory K. Beale, The Book of Revelation NIGTC, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 234.

[15] Oren Martin, Bound for the Promised Land, (Downers Grove: InterVarstiy Press, 2015), 154.