TREE OF LIFE
(`ets chayyim; xulon tes zoes): The expression "tree of life" occurs in four groups or connections: (1) in the story of the Garden of Eden, (2) in the Proverbs of the Wise Men, (3) in the apocryphal writings, and (4) in the Apocalypse of John.
1. The Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden:
The tree was in the midst of the Garden, and its fruit of such a nature as to produce physical immortality (Gen 2:9; 3:22). After guiltily partaking of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and the sinful tendency having thus been implanted in their natures, the man and woman are driven forth from the Garden lest they should eat of the tree of life and live forever (Gen 3:22). The idea seems to be that, if they should eat of it and become immortalized in their sinful condition, it would be an unspeakable calamity to them and their posterity. For sinful beings to live forever upon earth would be inconceivably disastrous, for the redemption and development of the race would be an impossibility in that condition. Earth would soon have been a hell with sin propagating itself forever. To prevent such a possibility they were driven forth, cherubim were placed at the entrance of the Garden, the flame of a sword revolving every way kept the way of the tree of life, and this prevented the possibility of man possessing a physical immortality. It is implied that they had not yet partaken of this tree and the opportunity is now forever gone. Immortality must be reached in some other way.
The interpretation of the story is a standing problem. Is it mythical, allegorical, or historical? Opinions vary from one of these extremes to the other with all degrees of difference between. In general, interpreters may be divided into three classes:
(1) Many regard the story as a myth, an ancient representation of what men then conceived early man to have been, but with no historical basis behind it. All rationalistic and modern critical scholars are practically agreed on this. Budde in his Urgeschichte says there was but one tree, that is the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and the intimation of a tree of life is an interpolation. Barton has endeavored to show that the tree of life was really the date-palm, and the myth gathered around this tree because of its bisexual nature. He holds that man came to his self-realization through the sexual relation, and therefore the date-palm came to be regarded as the tree of life, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. But this difference came in later when the knowledge of its origin became obscured. He calls attention to the fact that the sacred palm is found in the sanctuary of Ea at Eridu. All such interpretations are too obviously based upon a materialistic evolution hypothesis.
(2) There are those who regard the entire story as literal: one tree would actually impart physical immortality, the other the knowledge of evil. But this involves endless difficulties also, requires tremendous differences between the laws of Nature then and now, vast differences in fruits, men and animals, and an equally vast difference in God's dealings with man.
(3) We prefer to regard it as a pictorial-spiritual story, the representing of great spiritual facts and religious history in the form of a picture. This is the usual Bible method. It was constantly employed by the prophets, and Jesus continually "pictured" great spiritual facts by means of material objects. Such were most of His parables. John's Apocalypse is also a series of pictures representing spiritual and moral history. So the tree of life is a picture of the glorious possibilities which lay before primitive man, and which might have been realized by him had not his sin and sinful condition prevented it. God's intervention was a great mercy to the human race. Immortality in sin is rendered impossible, and this has made possible an immortality through redemption; man at first is pictured as neither mortal nor immortal, but both are possible, as represented by the two trees. He sinned and became mortal, and then immortality was denied him. It has since been made possible in a much higher and more glorious way.
2. A Common Poetic Simile:
This picture was not lost to Israel. The "tree of life," became a common poetic simile to represent that which may be a source of great blessing. In the Book of Prov the conception deepens from a physical source of a mere physical immortality to a moral and spiritual source of a full life, mental moral and spiritual, which will potentially last forever. Life, long life, is here attributed to a certain possession or quality of mind and heart. Wisdom is a source and supply of life to man. This wisdom is essentially of a moral quality, and this moral force brings the whole man into right relations with the source of life. Hence, a man truly lives by reason of this relationship (Prov 3:18). The allusion in this verse is doubtless to Gen 2:9; 3:22. An expression very similar is Prov 10:11, where the mouth of the righteous is declared to be a fountain of life. Good words are a power for good, and hence, produce good living. Prov 11:30 has a like thought: "The fruit of the righteous is a tree of life," i.e. the good life is a source of good in its influence on others. Prov 13:12 says: "Hope deferred maketh the heart sick; but when the desire cometh, it is a tree of life." The meaning seems to be that the gratification of good and lawful desires produces those pleasures and activities which make up life and its blessings. Prov 15:4 says: "A gentle tongue is a tree of life," i.e. its beneficent influences help others to a better life.
3. The Apocryphal Writings:
The apocryphal writings contain a few references to the tree of life, but use the phrase in a different sense from that in which it is used in the canonical books: "They shall have the tree of life for an ointment of sweet savour" (2 Esdras 2:12). Ecclesiasticus 1:20 has only an indirect reference to it. Ethiopic Enoch, in his picture of the Messianic age, uses his imagination very freely in describing it: "It has a fragrance beyond all fragrances; its leaves and bloom and wood wither not forever; its fruit is beautiful and resembles the date-palm" (24:4). Slavonic Enoch speaks thus: "In the midst there is the tree of life .... and this tree cannot be described for its excellence and sweet odor" (8:3). 2 Esdras describing the future says: "Unto you is paradise opened, the tree of life is planted" (8:52).
4. The Book of Revelation:
The Apocalypse of John refers to the tree of life in three places (Rev 2:7; 22:2,14). These are pictures of the glorious possibilities of life which await the redeemed soul. In Ezekiel's picture of the ideal state and the Messianic age, there flows from the sanctuary of God a life-giving river having trees upon its banks on either side, yielding fruit every month. The leaf of this tree would not wither, nor its fruit fail, because that which gave moisture to its roots flowed from the sanctuary. This fruit was for food and the leaves for medicine (Ezek 47:12). Very similar to this and probably an expansion of it is John's picture in Revelation: "To him that overcometh, to him will I give to eat of the tree of life, which is in the Paradise of God" (2:7). This means that all the possibilities of a complete and glorious life are open to the one that overcomes, and by overcoming is prepared to become immortal in a vastly higher sense than was possible to primitive man. In his picture of the few Jerusalem, the river of water of life has the tree of life on either side (22:2). Its leaf never fades and its monthly fruitage never fails. Food and medicine these are to be to the world, supplied freely to all that all may enjoy the highest possibilities of activity and blessedness which can come to those who are in right relationships with God and Jesus Christ. In 22:14 John pronounces a blessing on those who wash their robes, who lead the clean and pure Christ life, for they thereby have the right and privilege of entering into the gates of the City and partaking of the tree of life. This means not only immortal existence, but such relations with Jesus Christ and the church that each has unrestricted access to all that is good in the universe of God. The limit is his own limited capacity.
James Josiah Reeve