Restoration Quarterly 23 (1980): 232-38.
Copyright © 1980 the Restoration Quarterly, cited with permission,
The Tree of Life
Institute for Christian Studies
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
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
deities obtain a life-giving drink called "soma" in Sanskrit. From
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
Sumerian mythology the gishkin tree
"may well represent a tree of life."3 As for the Babylonian and
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
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 [
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:
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).
Having established the fact that the concept of a life-giving tree was
quite plausible to
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
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
in the Tree of
of Good and Evil in the OT and the
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
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
After inserting a geographical interlude dealing with the great river
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
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.
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
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
(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
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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