Ets Khayim: Tree of Life
The Tree of Life is a symbol that people really gravitate towards regardless of faith or creed. It’s something that people understand. Trees are life-giving; their fruit sustains us. In the Bible Eden’s Tree of Life was the ultimate garden feature, but it was not the only garden feature:
Out of the ground YHWH God caused every tree to grow that is pleasing to the sight and good for food; the tree of life [w-ets ha-khayim] was also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
Although the phrase “tree of life” only showed up only a handful of times in Scripture, the concept was central to the Bible’s narrative. The introduction to the Tree of Life, in Genesis 2, imbibed almost all further mentioning of trees with the concept of life-giving. The imagery of seeds, foliage, vines, branches, and sprouts, all pointed towards abundant, verdant growth and regeneration.
The Tree of Life, however, was more than just for nourishment on earth. There was an eternal quality to it. After Eve and Adam ignored God’s warning and ate from the other big tree in Eden (the tree of the knowledge of good and evil), the Tree of Life became a danger:
Then YHWH God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of Us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might reach out with his hand, and take fruit also from the tree of life [meh-ets ha-khayim], and eat, and live forever”— therefore YHWH God sent him out of the Garden of Eden, to cultivate the ground from which he was taken. So He drove the man out; and at the east of the Garden of Eden He stationed the cherubim and the flaming sword which turned every direction to guard the way to the tree of life [et derek ets ha-khayim].
At this point Eve and Adam had already eaten from the Tree of knowing good and evil, and so the big concern was that they would next eat the fruit from the Tree of Life and live forever. They tasted something that would kill them and they risked living forever in a state of decay. That was not how YHWH wanted His people to live! To live forever in their sin would be the greatest tragedy… and so God removed them from the Garden.
But He did not exile them to nothingness; YHWH put a plan in place to save them from their sins and redeem them so they could come back into the Garden, eat from the Tree of LIfe, and live face to face with their Creator.
This beautiful redemptive end to the story was what John saw in his vision:
Revelation 22:1-5, 12-14, 18-19
And he showed me a river of the water of life, clear as crystal, coming from the throne of God and of the Lamb, in the middle of its street. On either side of the river was the Tree of Life [Greek: xylon zoes], bearing twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit every month; and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. There will no longer be any curse; and the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and His bond-servants will serve Him; they will see His face, and His name will be on their foreheads. And there will no longer be any night; and they will not have need of the light of a lamp nor the light of the sun, because the Lord God will illuminate them; and they will reign forever and ever…
This Tree of Life bore fruit year-round, twelve different kinds of fruit in twelve months, continual, ceaseless, produce. Its fruit fed the people and its leaves healed the nations. All who returned to Eden would live in YHWH’s presence, seeing Him face to face and they would be fed from the abundance of the Garden.
All who held onto the hope of YHWH would be rewarded in the Garden; they were no longer separated and exiled from Eden, but they could enter the gates and freely eat from the Tree of Life:
…Behold, I am coming quickly, and My reward is with Me, to reward each one as his work deserves. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.”
Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they will have the right to the Tree of Life [Greek: xylon tes zoes], and may enter the city by the gates…
The Tree of Life, however, was not accessible to everyone. There were those who would not enter the gates to God’s city, and they would never taste fruit from the Tree of Life:
…I testify to everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues that are written in this book; and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his part from the Tree of Life [Greek: xylou tes zoes] and from the holy city, which are written in this book.
If we look at the story of the Bible holistically and simplistically, God is the God of Life and all that oppose Him are harbingers of Death. The Tree of Life stands as a striking symbol of joyous living. It’s vibrant, verdant, everlasting; it has life-giving fruit and it is an eternal provider; it regenerates itself with new roots, leaves, branches, seeds; it always finds a way to keep on giving.
The book Proverbs used Tree of Life symbolism to highlight things that were “life-giving”:
She [wisdom] is a tree of life [ets khayim] to those who take hold of her, and happy are those who hold on to her.
The fruit of the righteous is a tree of life [ets khayim], and one who is wise gains souls.
Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but desire fulfilled is a tree of life [w-ets khayim].
A soothing tongue is a tree of life [ets khayim], but perversion in it crushes the spirit.
Good things- righteousness, kind words, wisdom and fulfilled aspirations- were little trees of life that would help us flourish and grow… and they would help us nurture others and lead others to the Garden of God’s Kingdom:
[To the church in Ephesus:] “The one who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who overcomes, I will grant to eat from the Tree of Life [Greek: xylou tes zoes], which is in the Paradise of God.”
YHWH’s Tree of Life stood central in YHWH’s Eternal Garden. It was a beautiful promise of heaven for His children… and it’s where our life would takes us at the end of our earthly days.
Hanging on a Tree: Tree of Death
But the Bible also introduced a Tree of Death. The image of the Great Tree in YHWH’s abundant garden was juxtaposed by the stark vision of the tree of execution, the cross.
If a man has committed a sin worthy of death, and he is executed, and you hang his body on a tree [ets], you must not leave the body on the tree overnight, but you must be sure to bury him that day, because anyone who is hung on a tree [ets] is under God’s curse. You must not defile the land that YHWH your God is giving you as an inheritance.
Death hds no place in God’s Kingdom… and the earth was (and is) very much God’s domain. A dead body on a tree was like a flag waving in the wind, announcing death’s domain. But that was not acceptable to the God of Life. There was no Tree of Death in the Garden and yet the cross, denoted as a tree, can be found in numerous New Testament passages.
Paul quoted Deuteronomy 21 (listed above) when he wrote this:
Messiah redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us—for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree [Greek: xylou]”— in order that in Messiah Jesus the blessing of Abraham would come to the Gentiles, so that we would receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.
The curse of death could only be overcome by God alone, and so He sent His offspring (His seed) to face death, feel the full weight of it, and then defeat it. The disciple Peter put it this way:
1 Peter 2:24
He Himself bore our sins in His body on the tree [Greek: xylon], so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By His stripes you are healed.”
When they had carried out all that was written about Him [Jesus], they took Him down from the tree [xylou] and laid Him in a tomb. But God raised Him from the dead, and for many days He was seen by those who had accompanied Him from Galilee to Jerusalem. They are now His witnesses to our people.
And now we proclaim to you the good news: What God promised our fathers He has fulfilled for us, their children, by raising up Jesus. As it is written in the second Psalm:
‘You are My Son; today I have become Your Father.’
In fact, God raised Him from the dead, never to see decay. As He has said:
‘I will give you the holy and sure blessings promised to David.’
So also, He says in another Psalm:
‘You will not let Your Holy One see decay.’
Yeshua hung on a wooden cross, essentially a dead tree, and it killed Him. He died, but there would be no decay. He would defeat death and rise again… and release all HIs followers from the chains of death that held them captive.
Job, who suffered far worse than most, wondered about this:
“For there is hope for a tree, when it is cut down, that it will sprout again, and its shoots will not fail.
Though its roots grow old in the ground, and its stump dies in the dry soil, at the scent of water it will flourish and produce sprigs like a plant.
But a man dies and lies prostrate. A person passes away, and where is he?
As water evaporates from the sea, and a river becomes parched and dried up, so a man lies down and does not rise. Until the heavens no longer exist, He will not awake nor be woken from his sleep.
Oh that You would hide me in Sheol, that You would conceal me until Your wrath returns to You, That You would set a limit for me and remember me!
If a man dies, will he live again? All the days of my struggle I will wait until my relief comes.
Job asked the most basic question that every human has pondered. If a man dies, will he live again? YHWH, the God of Life had the answer. “Yes!”
Back to the Garden
The plan all along was to save His people from Death. He would send His offspring to bring regeneration for His people. Yeshua, the Messiah, the Son of God would fulfill the promise. Not surprisingly, God’s Son would often be compared with life-giving plants:
- Then a shoot will spring from the stem of Jesse, And a Branch from his roots will bear fruit (Isaiah 11:1. See also Isaiah 4:2, Isaiah 11:10, Jeremiah 23:5, Jeremiah 33:15).
- Yeshua: “I am the vine, you are the branches; the one who remains in Me, and I in him bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5)
- Yeshua: “I am the Root and the offspring of David.” (Revelation 22:16. See also Romans 15:12)
Branches, vines, roots, offspring, fruit… Yeshua was life-giving. We live off of Him and, because of that, others can be nourished by us. It’s crucial that we do not let the garden die. We cannot let ourselves wither and decay; we cannot become a lifeless garden, feeding no one. Our job is to bear fruit so that others can be led to God’s great Garden that bears the Tree of Life and that houses YHWH’s Kingdom.
The Tree of Life is the grandest of images… it encapsulates regeneration and eternal living. And we get to live in a paradise… a lush, flourishing, viridescent place of LIFE and eternal living. The God of Life created us so that we could truly live with Him. That’s what it’s all about folks! We’re still on the path of life that leads to the Kingdom, and it may seem like a very long and winding road, but if we stay the course we will come Home to God… and it will be glorious:
And I heard a loud voice from the throne, saying, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is among the people, and He will dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself will be among them, and He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away.”
And He who sits on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” And He said, “Write, for these words are faithful and true.” Then He said to me, “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. I will give water to the one who thirsts from the spring of the water of life, without cost. The one who overcomes will inherit these things, and I will be his God and he will be My son.”
What a beautiful picture of LIFE that is… I hope to see you there one day!
Next week: Rise Up!
PS… If you want to take a deep dive into Biblical Tree of Life imagery, I highly recommend the 10-part podcast series (yes, TEN!) on the subject by The Bible Project which you can find here: