Restoration Quarterly 23 (1980): 232-38.

Copyright 1980 the Restoration Quarterly, cited with permission,




The Tree of Life




Institute for Christian Studies

Austin, Texas


In the Genesis account of the origins of humanity, a "tree of life" is

found growing in the garden of Eden both when man is placed there

(Gen. 2:9) and when he is driven out (Gen. 3:22-24). Along with so

many other figures in the narrative--the great river, the serpent, the

cherubim and flaming sword, and of course the other tree ("the tree

of the knowledge of good and evil")--this tree of life intrigues us and

leads us to ask a number of questions: What exactly is it? How does

it fit into the larger story of Genesis 2-3? Did Adam and Eve have

access to it before they were expelled from Paradise? What happened

to the tree after their departure?

The scope of this exegesis precludes a consideration of the Creation

and Fall in any detail. It is hoped that this more limited investigation

of one particular motif in that story will contribute to an understanding

and appropriation of the whole.


Historical Background and Development


As commentaries uniformly note, the concept of life-giving substances

used by both gods and mortals is found throughout the ancient world.

The "tree of life" is one such substance. Similar substances include

other types of plants; bread; and water.1 Outside the Fertile Crescent

one finds in the mythology of India a heavenly tree from which the

deities obtain a life-giving drink called "soma" in Sanskrit. From

Greece we know, of course, of ambrosia and nectar.

Within Israel's own sphere we find more than one deity in Egypt

associated with a sacred tree.


1 B. Childs, "Tree of Knowledge, Tree of Life," IDB 4 (1962), 695. Cf. H. Ringgren,

Religions of the Ancient Near East (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1973), p. 108.



Watson: The Tree of Life 233


Hathor and Nut dwelt in the great tree of heaven and supplied the souls of

the dead with celestial food, while Nut appears in a vignette of the Book of

the Dead in a sycamore. The olive-tree was the abode of Horus and the

date-palm that of Nut designed on a Nineteenth Dynasty relief with human

arms and breasts holding a jar from which two streams of water emerge and

a tray of food.2


In Sumerian mythology the gishkin tree in the temple of Enki at Eridu

"may well represent a tree of life."3 As for the Babylonian and

Assyrian literature,


Strangely enough the term "the tree of life" does not occur in any Akkadian

text . . . . On the other hand, pictorial representations are found of the king

carrying out certain rites with a stylized tree, which in modern literature on

the subject is often described as the tree of life.4


However, if no tree of life per se is found in the literature, notice

should be taken both of the Gilgamesh epic and the Adapa creation


In the latter story Adapa, following the orders of his father Ea,

unwittingly refuses the "bread of death" and "water of death"

offered to him by the gatekeepers of heaven, not knowing that had

he accepted their offer he would thereby have gained immortality. The

epic of Gilgamesh is even more instructive. In it the Noah-like figure

Utnapishtim tells Gilgamesh of a magical, life-renewing plant at the

bottom of the sea and says, "If thy hands obtain the plant (thou wilt

find new life)." Gilgamesh does a bit of deep-sea diving, secures the

plant, and tells Urshanabi, his boatman, "Its name shall be `Man

Becomes Young in Old Age.' I myself shall eat (it) and thus return to

the state of my youth." Gilgamesh's plans are thwarted, however, by a

serpent(!) who steals the plant while Gilgamesh is taking a bath.6

Thus the concept of a life-giving tree in the garden of Eden would

not have been strange at all to Israel, given the time and place in which


2 E. O. James, The Tree of Life (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1966), p. 41.

3 So Childs, p. 695. Geo. Widengren (The King and the Tree of Life in Ancient Near

Eastern Religion [Uppsala Universitets Arsskrift 1951:4; Uppsala: A.-B. Lundequistka,

1951] 6) says, "That this kiskanu-tree, in the Sumerian text gis-kin, is identical with

the tree of life is perfectly clear."

4 Ringgren, pp. 78, 79. So also Childs, p. 695. For examples of the art, see

Widengren, pp. 61-63.

5 See the translation by E. A. Speiser in Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the

Old Testament, edited by J. B. Pritchard, (2nd ed.; Princeton: Princeton University,

1955) pp. 101, 102.

6 Again the translation is by Speiser, in Pritchard, ANET, p. 96.

234 Restoration Quarterly


she lived. What is a bit surprising is the fact that relatively few

subsequent references to the tree of life are found in the Bible. Four

times it appears in Proverbs (3:18, 11:30, 13:12, and 15:4); and many

scholars think the prophet Ezekiel at least alludes to the tree of life in

such passages as Ezekiel 31:3-9 and 47:12. Beginning with Nebu-

chadnezzar's dream in Daniel 4:10-12, there is a growing use of the

tree-of-life motif in the apocalyptic literature, as evidenced by such

passages as 1 Enoch 24:4; 2 Enoch 8:3, 5, 8; 9:1; 2 Esdras 8:52;

and T. 12 Patriarch 18:10-14. Christian apocalyptic also utilizes the

motif, as illustrated by the four references to the tree of life in the

book of Revelation (2:7 and 22:2, 14, 19).


Literary Considerations


Having established the fact that the concept of a life-giving tree was

quite plausible to Israel, we must now turn to the two specific passages

in Genesis 2-3 in which the tree is mentioned.7 In the first passage

(Gen. 2:9) we find trees, trees, and more trees:


And out of the ground God Yahweh caused to grow various trees that

were a delight to the eye and good for eating, with the tree of life in

the middle of the garden and the tree of knowledge of good and bad.8


The concluding verses of the narrative (Gen. 3:22-24) focus only on

the tree of life:


And God Yahweh said, "Now that the man has become like one of us in

discerning good from bad, what if he should put out his hand and taste also

of the tree of life and eat, and live forever!" So God Yahweh banished him

from the garden of Eden, to till the soil from which he was taken. Having

expelled the man, he stationed east of the garden of Eden the cherubim

and the fiery revolving sword to guard the way to the tree of life.

Even at a glance both passages present us with problems. (1) The

syntax of Genesis 2:9 is very awkward, suggesting to some commentators

either that the original text mentioned only one tree,9 or that we are

dealing with two originally separate accounts, each having a different


7 I regret that I did not have access to J. L. McKenzie, "The Literary Characteristics

of Genesis 2-3," TS 15 (1954) 541-572.

8 The translations of both Gen. 2:9 and 3:22-24 are those of E. A. Speiser as found

in Genesis (AB 1; Garden City: Doubleday, 1964) 14, 23.

9 Speiser, 20.

Watson: The Tree of Life 235


tree.10 (The syntax of the phrase "and (the) tree of the-to-know good

and bad" and the vexed question of what this "knowledge of good

and bad" in fact was cannot be considered here.)11 (2) The syntax of

Genesis 3:22 is also more difficult than Speiser's rendering of it would

indicate.12 Furthermore, verses 23 and 24 are taken by some to be a

doublet, thus giving another indication of more than one source.13

(3) The very fact that the tree of life is introduced in Genesis 2:9 and

not mentioned again until Genesis 3:22-24 seems strange. It is the other

tree-the tree of knowledge-that is at the heart of the story (Gen.

2:17, 3:5, 6).14

What are we to make of all this? Do we in fact have two originally

separate accounts now rather clumsily glued together? More recent

scholarship generally agrees that this is not the case:


It is recognized today that the architectonic structure of the pentateuchal

narratives, and particularly of Genesis, cannot be the result of chance or of

a 'scissors-and-paste' method of compilation, but represents a religious

and literary achievement of the highest order.15


If, then, the narrative is to be considered in its present integrity, how

are we to hear it? What is being said about the origins of humanity;

and precisely how does the tree of life fit into the story?

The key to the interpretation of the story lies in taking Genesis 2:9

as the conclusion to the larger unit of verses 4b-9. In this unit we are

told that man became a living being when he was formed by God from

the earth and when God breathed his own life-giving breath into man.

Thus the ultimate source of life for man was God.


10 G. von Rad, Genesis (OTL 1; Philadelphia: Westminster, 1961) 76-77. Cf. J.

Skinner, Genesis (ICC 1; 2d ed.; Edinburgh: T. & T. Clar, 1930) 52-53, 58; and C. A.

Simpson, "Genesis," IDB 1 (1952) 496.

11 For a convenient summary of the various interpretations of the phrase "good and

evil", see Childs, 696. Significant recent ,articles are by B. Reicke, "The Knowledge

Hidden in the Tree of Paradise," JSS 1 (1956) 193ff.; and R. Gordis, "The Knowledge

of Good and Evil in the OT and the Qumran Scrolls," JBL 76 (1957) 123ff.

12 See the comments by Speiser, 24, on the words rendered in the RSV "Behold"

(Heb hen) and "and now" (Heb we`atta).

13 Thus Skinner, 88-89. On the cherubim and flaming sword, see Speiser, 24-25, and

von Rad, 94-95.

14 Indeed, the tree of knowledge is said to be "in the middle of the garden" in

Gen. 3:3; but it is the tree of life that is "in the middle of the garden" in

Gen. 2:9.

15 Gordis, 129. Cf. also Childs, 696.

236 Restoration Quarterly


Having given man life, God next gives man an environment-a

garden (more nearly a park) filled with trees, at a time when the rest

of the earth had neither plants nor herbs (Gen. 2:5). And we are told

specifically that two trees-one of life, the other of knowledge-are

included in this Park of Paradise.

After inserting a geographical interlude dealing with the great river

which watered Eden and went on in four tributaries to encompass the

world, the narrator quickly returns to his main theme and focuses

attention on the last tree mentioned in Genesis 2:9, namely, the tree of

knowledge. Of every other tree in the garden man may freely eat; but

of this one he may not, on penalty of death. Verse 17 leaves the

narrator's listeners asking themselves, "What will man do? Will he eat

of that tree or not? Will he obey or disobey?"

The answer is postponed until a new theme can be introduced, that

of woman as a partner for man (Gen. 2:18-25). With Genesis 3 both

strands of the narrative are picked up and woven together in the story

of the Fall. And in the middle of both the story and the garden stands

the tree of knowledge. It stands for the tragic disobedience of both

man and woman; it is a mute witness of their unfaith.

But the narrator has not forgotten (nor, one would suspect, has his

audience) the other tree, the tree of life. Can disobedient man remain

in the garden and still live forever by eating of its fruit, thus escaping

his sentence of death? By no means. Man should not have eaten of

the tree of knowledge; now he cannot eat of the tree of life. He is

banished--absolutely, permanently--from Paradise.

Thus the narrative functions as a harmonious whole: Of all the

trees in the garden, two are singled out for special notice. One becomes

the symbol of the decisive choice man must make in response to the

divine command. Once man makes his decision, the other tree becomes

the symbol of all man's shattered aspirations, his dreams of what

might have been, forever in his memory but always out of his reach.


Theological Significance


We may introduce our final considerations of the tree of life and

how it functions theologically in Genesis 2 and 3 with this question: If

Adam and Eve had access to the tree while they were still in the

Garden, and, if they had eaten of it, would it not have been too late

for God to cast them out? Would they not already be immortal?

Some have taken the position that eating of the tree of life was not

a once-for-all event, but rather a matter of regular eating. This

interpretation, which cites many parallels in comparative religions,

Watson: The Tree of Life 237


takes the Hebrew word gam in Genesis 3:22 as "again" rather than

"also." But such an interpretation misses the urgency of verse 22 and

the decisiveness of verse 24. Whatever logical difficulties it may present

to the modern reader, the clear implication of verse 22 is that man

has in some sense already become like God by having eaten of the tree

of knowledge. But of the tree of life he has not eaten; nor will he eat.

How then are we to understand God's act of denying man access to

this tree? One interpretation suggests that God was, in effect, doing

man a favor, since eternal life coupled with a knowledge of good and

evil would be intolerable.16 However, the clear implication of

verses 22-24 is that a punishment is being carried out and not that a

favor is being shown.17 Another interpretation suggests that the tree of

life somehow represents a false substitute for the genuine life offered

by God and defined as a harmonious coexistence with him.18 But

again, the tree of life as it first appears in Genesis 2:9 does not seem to

be a mythical and ultimately unsatisfactory substitute for real life,

but rather the symbol of it.

As has been observed, Genesis 2:4-9 pulsates with life itself. God

creates man and infuses him with life. God then prepares the perfect

environment for life in the form of a beautiful park at the very center

of which is nothing less than the tree of life. Man may thus anticipate

living indefinitely, with God, in Paradise.

But is man willing to live such a life in such a place on God's terms?

That is the unavoidable question put to man in the form of the tree

of knowledge and God's restriction concerning it. To his everlasting

regret, man is not content with God's arrangements and must have

"knowledge." "Knowledge" man acquires; but in the process he loses


At this point some of the observations of Dietrich Bonhoeffer seem

particularly cogent. In commenting on Genesis 3:22-24, he says,


The whole story finally comes to a climax in these verses. The significance

of the tree of life, of which so remarkably little had been said earlier, is only

really comprehensible here. Indeed, it is now obvious that the whole story

has really been about this tree. . . . Adam only reaches out for the fruit of

the tree of life after he


16 J. Willis, Genesis (Living Word Commentary; Austin: Sweet, 1979) 135-136.

17 Von Rad, 98, says: "All in all, it (the narrative) closes in profound sadness."

18 B. Childs, 696-697.

238 Restoration Quarterly


has fallen prey to death.... Adam has eaten of the tree of knowledge, but the

thirst for the tree of life, which this fruit has given him, remains

unquenched. . . . The tree of life is guarded by the power of death; it

remains untouchable, divinely unapproachable. But Adam's life before the

gate is a continuous attack upon the realm from which he is excluded. It is a

flight and a search upon the cursed ground to find what he has lost, and

then a repeated, desperate rage against the power with the flaming sword.

That this sword of the guard cuts, that it is sharp--this the biblical writer

says, not without reason; Adam knows this, he feels it himself time and

again: but the gate remains shut.19


As dismal as the concluding verses of Genesis 3 are, however, they

are not the final word of God. Even before they are separated from the

tree of life, Adam and Eve anticipate the procreation and thus the

continuation of human life; and God himself provides for them the

clothes they will need outside the Garden (Gen. 3:20, 21). Try as he

will, Adam cannot regain access to life on his own; witness the

pathetic efforts of Adam's descendants at the tower of Babel

(Gen. 11:1-9). But God, who provided life initially and who sponsors

the continuation of that life even if it is now life-in-death, can and

will himself bring man back to life--life that is once more abundant

(John 10:10) and eternal (John 3:16). Man shall in fact have access to

the tree of life once again, not by overcoming the cherubim who guard

it but by being allowed to share in heaven's victory over death:


To him who is victorious I will give the right to eat from the tree of life that

stands in the Garden of God. . . . Happy are those who wash their robes

clean! They will have the right to the tree of life ..." (Rev. 2:7; 22:14).


19 D. Bonhoeffer, Creation and Fall (London: SCM, 1966) 89-92.




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