The Beautiful Creatures: Trees in the Biblical Story
In the beginning, there were no trees. There were no trees, for there was no rain to nourish them and no creature to tend them. In the beginning, there was the Voice. The Voice called the earth to birth the trees. As the Voice called and beckoned, the earth brought forth and the growth began: sap rushed up, limbs stretched, breaking the moist soil, reaching for the warmth of the sun. Roots groped, stretched, moved through the crumbly earth, embraced and cleft rocks, drew nourishment. Buds formed and leaves unfurled, fluffy and small, growing as the sun dried and warmed them and as sap filled them.
The Voice said, “Be trees full of life, be strong. Grow fruit for the birds and the animals, and branches for their homes. Be pleasing to look at, shout forth the grandeur of the Word. Dig your roots deep; draw nourishment from the earth.”
And the trees became living beings.
Then the trees watched as the Voice called forth once again, as the Voice formed another creature out of the earth. “This is the earth creature,” said the Voice, “who will tend you, who will dress your figs and prune your young blossoms. This is the creature who will provide water in your youth and pruning in your old age.”
Then the Voice spoke to two of the trees. “You are the tree of life,” said the Voice to one, “And you are the tree of the knowledge of good and evil,” the Voice said to the other. “You are set apart for the covenantal meal I will share with my image bearer—the meal that will bring life, and, eventually, knowledge.”1
The trees rejoiced in their calling, but not so much that they didn’t hear the words spoken to the image, the words that made the trees wonder at the gravity of their calling: “Do not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for in the day that you eat of it you will die.”
The trees wondered at how it had all gone wrong so quickly. Oh, they knew what had happened, all right. They had overheard the conversation as they surrounded the serpent, the woman, and the man. They bore mute witness as the wisest of the animals discussed the words of the Voice with the woman. They watched in silence as the image took the fruit, the fruit that belonged only to the Voice, and ate it. They knew that if their gifts were taken at the wrong time, there would be no nourishment; they knew that grasping would result in death, not life.2
Before the Voice returned in the cool of the evening, the trees had already begun to mourn.
She was a young tree, as far as trees go, but she had already heard most of the stories of the land in which she stood. Some were stories of care and nurture, of a time when the earth creatures had given rest to the trees, when instruments had been fashioned from her wood to give praise to the Voice, when those who bore the image of the Voice had ensured that the fruit was dressed and the pruning done. They were stories of hospitality given under the shade of the tamarisk tree and shelter given in the shade of the broom.
But even in those stories, she saw the seeds of brutality. She had heard of Abraham, planting the great tamarisks for shelter, providing hospitality in their shade. She had also heard of Hagar, sent by that same Abraham out to the brutality of the desert, placing her son in the shelter of a broom tree as she waited for his death. The deep sweet shade of hospitality and the desperate last shade of the starving and parched.
The young tree knew the other trees in Israel—the tamarisk, whose size and water droplets create a uniquely refreshing shade; the white broom tree, whose fallen branches provide embers that never go out and bedding for a night in the desert; the sycomore, whose fast growing branches sustain many harvests for light, strong beams and whose dressed fruit provide food for the hungry; the saltplant, whose leaves provide a quick meal; the yitran tree, whose bark makes strong and sturdy rope.3 She knew the yearning of the trees to freely provide nourishment, shelter, and wood for the earth creatures who imaged the Voice.
But she knew that such gifts were scorned. She had heard how the king had conscripted forced labor out of his people, how he had taken the men from the nurturance of the land and the trees to quarry stone for the temple and palace. But not only were the people enslaved, so were the trees. No regenerative sycomore from the land of Israel for the buildings of this king. Rather, whole forests cut from other lands and used for walls and floors and roofs—cedar and cypress, the proudest of the trees of Lebanon. She had heard how one of the king’s houses was called the House of the Forest of Lebanon—a forest sacrificed and re-created for the splendor of the king.4
The trees felt silenced, shunned not only for building, but also for praise. The king brought wood from afar—almug wood—to make trusses and beams and steps, to shape into lyres and harps (I Kgs. 10:11-12; 2 Chron. 9:10-11).
The young tree knew that even though her fellow trees were not being shaped into instruments of praise, they could still send forth praise to the Voice. And she knew that she provided sustenance and shelter for many creatures besides those who bore the image of the Voice. But still she mourned, for there was more than neglect. There was abuse.
She had seen the idolatry of those who ceased to nurture the trees but rather worshipped them, of those who formed unwilling trees into the sacred groves. She had smelled the scent of the cakes, baked on reluctant embers and offered to a god who had no voice. She had seen the practices of those who worshipped under the young trees, in the groves. They did not allow the trees to fulfill their calling: providing shelter and warmth and food. Instead, they carved the trees into unwilling images—the earth creatures who were supposed to be the image themselves! They used the wood of the trees to make their false weights and their short measures with which to defraud the poor. They used the wood for the stalls for their warhorses, and the crafting of beds for their opulent leisure. And they took wood not to cook food, but to put their children in the fire of sacrifice (2 Kgs. 16; 2 Kgs. 17:10 ff). The trees were no longer the sustainers of life, but the bringers of death.
She did not hear the Voice, the word of life, through these people who neglected and abused her, who brought death and not life to the land. The earth had become like iron and the sky like copper: no one provided dressing for her fruit or tender pruning in the spring. No one granted the trees their Sabbath for rest and glory. Her fruit withered on the limb. She cried out, groaned. So she was not sorry when the armies invaded and the people of the land were taken away. The people were captured but the trees were free.5
At first, the trees rejoiced in their newfound freedom. No more was the axe heard in the forest; no more was the sound of sawing and chopping in the land. The trees enjoyed their rest; they grew to maturity once again; birds inhabited their branches, and animals ate of their fruit. The trees clapped their hands with joy. But then the land began to change. It turned from rest to wilderness. The thistles began to strangle out the seedlings and the vines began to bind the branches, choking out the sunlight, soaking up the water. Limbs that were unwieldy began to crack and drop. The shoots of the olive roots began to weaken the parent trees, and the side shoots on the fig began to sap their strength.6
The elder trees told the stories, then, of the earth creatures, made by the Voice to care for the trees, to cut the vines and root out the thistles, to transplant the new shoots to places of space, and to prune the saplings and weak limbs. The trees began to long for the coming of such creatures, for the return of those obedient to the Voice (Lev. 26:34-26, 43; Isa. 64:10; Ezek. 6:14).
Then, one morning the trees heard the Voice once again. It was a voice of power, a voice of love, a voice of gladness. But not a light gladness. The gladness of this voice was deep as if it had known deep sorrow and suffering, yet once again saw reason to be joyful. It was like the beginning again. The Voice called to the trees, “Awake, awake, awake.”
The sap began to answer, drawing itself up through the trees to respond to the Voice. Buds began to form leaves and then blossoms. And with the blossoms, birds came, eager for a drink of nectar and a meal of insects. Fruit formed, grew plump and ripe, and with the fruit, animals came, eager to take and eat. The trees rejoiced in the calling of the Voice; they clapped their hands, and the Voice whispered the promises. “They are coming once again. You will be tended and cared for; no longer shall the thistle choke your young and the vine bind your elders. Myrtle and cypress will shoot forth. Stumps will give birth to branches and trees. The dead shall bear life. There will be peace. You will provide shelter once more; the earth creatures will sleep securely among you (Ezek. 34:25; Ezek. 36).
“And you trees,” said the Voice, “will have a new task. No longer will you be just for food. Your fruit will be for food, but your leaves, your leaves, they will be for healing.
“My creatures are broken,” said the Voice, “they are in need of healing.” And the trees saw a great river come from the Voice, and the waters of the river nourished their roots. And their leaves sprang out, green and firm and tender—the leaves for healing.
The earth creatures began to return. The trees saw that they were broken. And they began to call as the Spirit gave them voice, “Come, all you weary, we have healing for you” (Isa. 11:55; Ezek. 34:25-27, 36:22-30, 47:3-12; cf. Ezek. 17:22-24).
At first the trees believed what the Voice had said. At first they trusted. At first the renewal seemed to come. Sabbaths were practiced once again. The land and the trees were rested and tended. They were fruitful, and they flourished. And then the wars began.
The trees saw their strongest and straightest taken for weapons, for barricades, for crosses. The trees were once again instruments of oppression, instruments of curse. They groaned under the weight of the death they were called to witness and to bear.
After a while, the war ended. But in peace, the reconstruction began: trees to rebuild houses, trees to line the temple, trees to line the palaces.
Then there was war again. And then peace. But for the trees, peace or war, the violence never stopped. They knew now that death, not healing was the only end to the story the Voice had told. The elders could not even begin to whisper the promises of healing, or the story of the earth creatures who had imaged the Voice.
* * *
The night was very dark, and the shepherds avoided the darkness of the trees, keeping their flocks to the plain. It was exceedingly dark. And then, in the darkness, there was light. Suddenly there was singing in the spheres, the heavens alive and lighted and the music of the spheres singing, “Glory to the Voice and peace on the earth where God’s favor rests.”
It was a song the trees had long forgotten. But after that night, they began to sing it once again, “Glory, glory and peace.”
For years they sang it, and occasionally a tree would experience that peace, that glory. For there were whispers that the earth creature had come, the one who would truly image the Voice, the one who would tend and bring healing to the trees. There were stories that he had sought shelter in the desert under the white broom trees for a time, along with the wild animals. There were stories of teaching he gave in the shade of the trees. There were sycomore trees who provided sight when he came to teach.
Some trees had felt his presence, experienced his touch, felt bondage lifted when he spoke. The trees again began to hope. And it truly was hope, for the brutality continued. The building progressed. The crosses were shaped. But hope came.
And then one day the trees felt their branches seized, and they were caught up in the voice of the crowd as it exclaimed, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord—the King of Israel!” And the song they had been singing since that dark night on the plain was finally sung by all of creation.
Until the day of the twilight of the world. The trees knew that a violence greater than any the world had ever seen was in the air. They heard the plots. They were in the garden, silent witnesses as the image of the Word prayed to be let out, let out of the violence. They were there for the kiss, the soldiers roughly leading the image away. One of them was forced to be the instrument of torture. One of them was forced to bear the death of the only faithful earth creature, the image of the Voice, the one who had called them to life once more. Now they were complicit in the death of life itself. One of them bore the wounds, soaked up the blood, stood firm and tall until death came. When the sun refused to shine, the trees were there, weeping.7
The trees were also in the garden at dawn. They saw the beings who rolled away the stones. They were waiting when the creature, the image, emerged. But they saw that the creature was an image that had changed. Like the trees, the image was wounded. And coming to the trees, the image began to tend them, digging in the earth, shaping branches, touching wounds with his wounds. The trees knew that the ancient promises were coming true after all. Death had come, and with it, hope was fulfilled.
Here was the image who had borne death, who still bore the wounds of brutality and violence, living and giving healing. And the Voice came once more: “There will be a river of life from my throne, from the heart of my suffering rule. Go, find nourishment in that river, stand on its banks, drink water without price, draw its life into your roots, produce fruit in abundance, every month of every year. And your leaves, your leaves will be for the healing of all creatures.
“My creatures are violated, raped, betrayed, killed, and tortured,” said the Voice. “They are in need of healing.”
It was the promise of old. But this time it came after the death of the world, and the trees knew that life had conquered.
As the image tended the trees, a woman came and recognized him as the gardener. The trees knew that he was the gardener, for the Voice was one who tends and heals (Jn. 20:11-18; Rev. 22:1-2).
The trees have noticed a small difference. They have seen, here and there, those who share their groanings, who want to end the violence, who are like that one who so completely imaged the Voice.
The violence has not ended. But the trees once again tell the story in hope. And in that story, their wounds find a place in new life; they too bring life and healing. But even in that healing, they await the coming of the one who will make all things new. And in that hope they rejoice, clapping their wounded hands (Rom. 8:18-25; Isa. 55:12).
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1. For this interpretation see Nicholas John Ansell, “The Call of Wisdom/The Voice of the Serpent: A Canonical Approach to the Tree of Knowledge,” Christian Scholars Review 31.1 (2001): 40-43 (whole article: 31-57).
2. Ibid. This interpretation is also depicted in C. S. Lewis, The Magician’s Nephew, where the witch takes the apple that can give life in a way that is illegitimate and greedy.
3. These trees and their uses are described in a fascinating book: Nogah Hareuveni, Tree and Shrub in Our Biblical Heritage (Israel: Neot Kedumim, 1984).
4. Hareuveni describes how the trees would have been reconstructed with the clever placement of mirrors so it looked as though those standing in the room were standing in the middle of a forest (1 Kgs. 7:2-5), in Hareuveni, Tree and Shrub, 100-104.
5. 1 Kgs. 5:13-18, 6:9-38, 7:1-8; Isa. 57:1-6; Jer. 2:20, 3:6-10, 17:2; Ezek. 6:11-14, 20:28; Hos 4:12-13; Lev. 26:4, 26:18-20; Deut. 11:13-17; Hos. 4:1-3; Lev. 26:34-36,43; cf Isa. 14.8. See also Susan Griffin, Women and Nature: The Roaring Inside Her (New York, NY: Harper and Row: 1978), 56-64, for a description of the modern exploitation of trees.
6. Hareuveni describes how the offshoots of the olive tree are pruned out, except for a few that are kept and nurtured for new stock. The offshoots of the sycomore are pruned as well, but are not useful for starting new saplings. Tree and Shrub, 83-88.
7. See “The Dream of the Rood” (700-1000), in The Middle Age (700-1500), ed. Michael Alexander and Felicity Riddy (New York, NY: St Martins Press, 1989), 13-18. My thanks to Pauline Head for bringing this piece to my attention.
Sylvia C. Keesmat is an adjunct professor of biblical studies at the Institute for Christian Studies and the Toronto School of Theology. She lives on an organic solar-powered farm in rural Ontario where she teaches gardening workshops and is involved in environmental education.