Friday, December 01, 2017

Glimpses of Grace: The Tree of Life

Another parallel between the Garden of Eden and Christ has to do with the mysterious “Tree of Life,” mentioned in Genesis 2:9 and 3:22. I say that it’s mysterious, because although it is clearly important, it serves almost no narrative purpose whatsoever, except to explain the reasoning behind Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden. All that we know about it is: (1) it stood in the center of the Garden, along with the tree of the knowledge of good and evil; (2) unlike the latter tree, God did not prohibit Adam and Eve from eating its fruit (although, by inference, it seems that they did not); and (3) when Adam and Eve were expelled, the reason given is that they should not be permitted to eat from the tree of life while in their sinful state (and the inference in that passage is that eating the fruit of this tree confers eternal life). As a side note, the early church fathers often pointed out that Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden was not necessarily a punishment, as it’s usually presented in Western art and theology; in some respects it was a mercy. Look at 3:22 again: “And the Lord God said, ‘The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.’” God’s action in expelling Adam and Eve was a mercy because it prevented them from making their sinful state an eternal state. Whereas before they had not been prohibited from eating of the tree of life, now they were, because if they had done so in their fallen state, then sin would have been eternal. So to save us from that fate, God barred the way to the tree of life until the problem of sin could be dealt with.

It’s pretty clear in the story what the tree of the knowledge of good and evil represents. It stands for humanity’s intimate acquaintance with sin. In Adam and Eve’s previous existence, they obeyed God in the same way that the angels do. But once they had disobeyed and eaten the fruit, then they knew the difference between good and evil, not in the sense of “head knowledge,” but of intimate acquaintance with both. They had tasted both good and evil, experienced it, and it had become a part of them.

But the meaning of the tree of life is rather more opaque. That doesn’t mean that it was unimportant, though. Both Jewish and Christian tradition picked up the theme of the tree of life in some important ways. Jewish theology taught that certain elements of the Temple furnishings (the candle-trees, for instance) were symbolic representations of the tree of life. And in Christian theology, the tree of life actually pops up again in the biblical narrative, in the final, heavenly scene of salvation history: “On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be any curse.” (Rev. 22:2-3a)

In the Christian tradition, the tree of life was consistently interpreted as a foreshadowing of the Cross. It was on the cross, the “tree” on which Jesus died, where the problem of sin and death and separation from God were finally and completely dealt with. The effects of the fall, coming from our disobedience at the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, were finally undone. And because that tree solved the problem of our sin, now we once again have access to eat the fruit of the tree of life: salvation through Jesus Christ, and our participation in his death and resurrection, leading to eternal life. The tree of life does indeed confer eternal life on us once our sins are washed away through the blood shed at Calvary.

One other interesting connection here is in the association of eating as the action implied toward the tree of life. It’s worth noting that our main ritual connected to the cross is also a ritual of eating—the Lord’s Supper (sometimes called Communion or the Eucharist). This connection between the eternal-life-giving nature of the tree of life’s fruit and the elements of Communion has long been noted: one of the very first of the early church fathers, Ignatius of Antioch, calls communion “the medicine of immortality.” That doesn’t mean that Communion magically gives eternal life to anyone who eats it, but that it represents the way that we eat the fruit of the tree of life by partaking in Christ’s death on our behalf.

So the tree of life is a prefiguration of the cross, and every time we celebrate the Lord’s Supper we are partaking, in a symbolic way, of the “fruits” of that tree. And the result of the salvation wrought for us there is eternal life.