Reflections on the Tree of Life, Part 2: The Presence of God

Truman G. Madsen once wrote: “Religious literature, ancient and modern, is replete with images of a tree of life that is to be planted in a goodly land by a pure stream.  Some typologies regard it as the link at the very navel of the earth—the source of nourishment between parent and child—and place it at the temple mount in Jerusalem, where heaven and earth meet.  The fruit of this tree is most precious.”[1]  The tree of life is often portrayed as a tree from heaven, a symbol of paradise or of God’s presence itself.  Hence, it is fitting that imagery of the tree of life is often present in the temples—places where heaven and earth meet.

The tree of life tends to be found in places where God is present.  An interesting article published in the Ensign years ago observed: “Tree of life symbolism permeates the Old Testament. The tree symbolizes not only eternal life but also God’s presence. For example, Adam and Eve’s exclusion from the tree was also exclusion from the presence of the Lord. Thus, whenever man regained God’s presence, a tree of life representation was used to symbolize that reunion.”[2]  The initial tree of life is found in the Garden of Eden, where Adam and Eve “heard the sound of the Lord God walking the garden” (Genesis 3:8).  When they were cast out from the garden and the tree, they were “cut off both temporally and spiritually from the presence of the Lord” (Alma 42:6-7).  At the other bookend of the Bible, John the Revelator stated that the tree of life “is in the paradise of God” (Revelation 2:7) and it is a promised blessing that we will partake of the fruit “to everyone who conquers” (Revelation 3:21).  In both of these situations, the tree of life is depicted as being in a location where God dwells.

In other places in the Bible, trees and plants are used as a symbol of divine presence.  Most notably, this occurs when Moses was called by the angel of the Lord “in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed” (Exodus 3:2).[3]  One Bible commentary suggests that the “bush (Heb[rew] ‘seneh’) is an unidentifiable but specific type of bush, perhaps alluding to Sinai (as also Deut 33:16), another place of divine presence and revelation.  God’s appearance in a bush may also reflect the role of plants or trees as symbols of fertility and divine presence.”[4]  The burning bush is an example of God’s presence being represented in arboreal imagery.

Other places where tree imagery and the presence of God are brought together are the tabernacle in the wilderness and the temple of Solomon.  We read that God’s presence and glory filled these structures (see Exodus 40:34; 2 Chronicles 5:13-14).  Within each of these sacred locations were placed several objects that represented of the presence of God.  Among these were the menorahs—golden lamps that burned continuously.  The description of these lamps uses tree imagery, including branches and cups “shaped like almond blossoms, each with calyx and petals” (Exodus 25:31-37).  Drawing on this fact, the New Oxford Annotated Bible notes that: “the wealth of botanical terms … suggests that in shape and decoration, it represented a sacred tree.”[5]  With the menorahs in the temple and tabernacle, symbolic trees resided in important places where God’s presence also resided.

As mentioned in a previous post, the tree of life in the Garden of Eden can be an allegory for the Plan of Salvation.  In entering mortality with its fallen conditions, we are cut off from the tree of life.  It is ultimately the goal, however, to return and to partake of the fruit of the tree and gain eternal life.  When viewing the tree as a symbol of God’s presence, the allegory works as well.  Through the Fall, we are cut off from the presence of God, but one purpose of the Plan of Salvation is to come back into God’s presence and be reconciled with Him.  This symbolism can be found in the temples.  Some scholars have even suggested that the ancient houses of God were built to reflect the layout of the Garden of Eden to symbolize this idea.  Donald W. Parry, for example, wrote that:

Anciently, once a year on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, Adam’s eastward expulsion from the Garden was reversed when the high priest traveled west past the consuming fire of sacrifice and the purifying water of the laver, through the veil woven with images of cherubim. Thus, he returned to the original point of creation, where he poured out the atoning blood of the sacrifice, reestablishing the covenant relationship with God.[6]

In this interpretation, the Hebrew temple represented the Garden of Eden and the rituals of the temple represented a reversal of the Fall of Adam and Eve.

Symbolism of the journey away from and then back towards the tree of life can be found in modern temple endowments as well.  Elder James E. Talmage noted that:

This course of instruction includes a recital of the most prominent events of the creative period, the condition of our first parents in the Garden of Eden, their disobedience and consequent expulsion from that blissful abode, their condition in the lone and dreary world when doomed to live by labor and sweat, the plan of redemption by which the great transgression may be atoned.[7]

Then, as historian Richard Lyman Bushman wrote, “At the end, the participants enter… symbolically into the presence of God.”[8]  By following the narrative of Adam and Eve and symbolically entering the presence of God at the end, the endowment follows the symbolic journey of expulsion from the tree of life and subsequent return when properly prepared to do so.

Viewing the endowment in this way also provides insights into President Brigham Young’s description of the endowment ceremony.  He taught that those who receive their endowment “receive all those ordinances in the House of the Lord, which are necessary for you, after you have departed this life, to enable you to walk back to the presence of the Father, passing the angels who stand as sentinels, being able to give them the key words, the signs and tokens, pertaining to the holy Priesthood, and gain your eternal exaltation in spite of earth and hell.”[9]  President Young draws on both the imagery of passing the angels (cherubim and a flaming sword) and walking back to the presence of the God (the tree of life).

How do we return to the presence of God?  One of the most obvious is that we will be brought into the presence of God after the resurrection for judgement, since “the resurrection of Christ redeemeth mankind, yea, even all mankind, and bringeth them back into the presence of the Lord” (Helaman 14:17).  We also aim to enter the Celestial Kingdom, where we can “dwell in the presence of God and his Christ forever and ever” (D&C 76:62).  As symbolized in the temples, life is journey away from paradise into a fallen world, but with the eventual plan being to return to live in paradise after reconciliation with God.

Another way we enter the presence of God comes to mind, though.  The Holy Spirit is a member of the Godhead and is the main means by which we experience the presence of God during our lives on earth.  When Nephi saw the tree of life, he came to understand that the tree represented “the love of God, which sheddeth itself abroad in the hearts of the children of men; wherefore, it is the most desirable above all things” (1 Nephi 11:22).  While Nephi seems to see the tree primarily as a symbol of Jesus the Christ, the description of the love of God being shed abroad in the hearts of men calls to mind the Holy Spirit as well, since “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23).  I am reminded of Joseph Smith’s description of immediate aftermath of the First Vision (another occasion where divine presence was manifested among trees): “My soul was filled with love and for many days I could rejoice with great Joy and the Lord was with me.”[10]  The companionship of the Holy Ghost is a way that the Lord can be with each of us, and thus ties into the symbolism of the tree of life.

Looking at the tree of life as a symbol of the Holy Spirit also can be used to understand how we are nourished by the fruit of the tree throughout life.  It should be noted that trees are important sources of the necessities of life.  That is why Truman Madsen stated that the tree of life was the source of nourishment between parent and child, the navel (or umbilical cord) of the world.  The olive tree, for example, produces fruit that can be eaten or used to make oil.  That oil can be used in food, as an ointment believed to hold healing and soothing properties, and as lamp oil to create light and heat.  Almond trees are one of the first trees of spring in western Asia, bursting forth in radiant white and bearing the almond nut, another food source.  Date palm trees are very important and useful, since they produce dates;[11] fronds used to make thatched roofing, baskets, and rope; wood used for construction; and shade.  Each of these trees produce products that were important to the lifestyles of the ancient Near East and each of them has been suggested as a “tree of life” because they nourish and sustain life.

Likewise, throughout life, we look to God for nourishment and sustenance.  The Holy Spirit is a means by which He gives us strength and fills us with “exceedingly great joy” (1 Nephi 8:12).  As Elder B. H. Roberts put it:

After water baptism comes the baptism of the Holy Spirit. Knowing our human weakness, knowing human inability to live unassisted upon the high moral plane projected in the ethical teachings of the gospel, God brings to our poor, human weakness the strength of God by imparting the Holy Spirit, which is the link that shall hold us to God, the medium of communication between our souls and soul of God; making, at need, God’s strength our strength, his wisdom, as we may bear it, our wisdom, and his righteousness our righteousness.[12]

When we enjoy the companionship of the Holy Ghost, we are linked to God and nourished and strengthened by that connection.  In a way, each one of us becomes a temple of God where His presence dwells when we have the Holy Spirit with us in our hearts.  That Spirit also lights our way like a lampstand in the temples of ancient Israel.

 

Footnotes:

[1] Truman G. Madsen, “The Olive Press”, Ensign, December 1982.

[2] C. Wilfred Griggs, “The Tree of Life in Ancient Cultures,” Ensign, June 1988.

[3] See also Deuteronomy 33:16. All Bible references are made using the New Revised Standard Version.

[4] Michael D. Coogan, Ed., New Oxford Annotated Bible, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 86n.

[5] Coogan, New Oxford Annotated Bible, Exodus 25:31-40n, p. 119.

[6] Donald W. Parry, Garden of Eden: Prototype Sanctuary, in Temples of the Ancient World: Ritual and Symbolism, ed. Donald W. Parry, (SLC: Deseret Book Company, 1994), 135.

[7] James E. Talmage, The House of the Lord [Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1962], pages 99–100.

[8] Richard L. Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling, p. 450.

[9] Discourses of Brigham Young, comp. John A. Widtsoe (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1971), 416.

[10] “History, circa Summer 1832,” p. 3, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed January 27, 2020, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/history-circa-summer-1832/3.

[11] As an interesting side note, syrup produced from dates is likely the honey referred to in the promised “land flowing with milk and honey” (Exodus 3:8).

[12] The Essential B.H. Roberts, ed. Brigham D. Madsen (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1999), 221.

6 comments for “Reflections on the Tree of Life, Part 2: The Presence of God

  1. Travis
    January 29, 2020 at 3:11 am

    Not much mentioned about the Tree of Life, the Burning Bush, the temple candlelight, and the Holy Spirit as being traditionally understood as feminine archetype…

    (These are feminine priesthood symbols)!

  2. Chad Nielsen
    January 29, 2020 at 9:00 am

    Travis, I’d love to hear more about that, especially if you have some good sources to look to on the subject.

    For some reason, I had trouble finding solid sources outside of mentions that the trees were also symbols of fertility and that some scholars speculated that stylized trees might represent Asherah as a female consort of Yahweh. The closest thing I could find that seemed solid was that the groves of trees that the prophets in the Bible were so eager to cut down were places for worshiping the Phoenician fertility goddess Ashtoreth (AKA Astarte, Ishtar, etc.).

    I’m also aware that the Holy Spirit was considered female in Syriac Christianity, but for some reason didn’t make the connection with this subject until you mentioned it.

  3. Wondering
    January 29, 2020 at 9:08 am

    Travis, Whose tradition?

    The tree of life has long been traditionally understood in Judaism as the Torah, to “wisdom”. See Proverbs 3:18. Yes, I know “wisdom” is sometimes treated as a feminine deity, but in Judaism the tree of life has been understood as meaning the Torah for centuries. “The tree of life is also represented symbolically in some Jewish publications as the burning bush, which bore the voice of God to Moses. The Temple Menorrah of solid gold was the representation of the living word of God, with its burning lamps to recall the burning bush, constantly illuminating the holy room, just in front of the Holy of Holies.”

    In Christian traditions the tree of life is commonly understood as both the cross on which Christ died and as Christ himself (the Eucharist and salvation both the fruit of that tree) — but sometimes also as Mary, the mother of Jesus, he being the fruit of the tree. The first two of these Christian traditions being derived at least in part from Acts 5:30 and Revelation 2:7 and developed further by various Church fathers, e.g.:
    St. Ephraim 306-373 AD, “The Pearl” 6, Hymn 4 — The thief gained the faith which gained him, and brought him up and placed him in paradise. He saw in the Cross a tree of life; that was the fruit, he was the eater in Adam’s stead.”
    St. John Damascene, b. 676 AD, “Exposition of the Faith”, 6 Book IV, Chapter 11 (6th paragraph) — “The tree of life which was planted by God in Paradise pre-figured this precious Cross. For since death was by a tree, it was fitting that life and resurrection should be bestowed by a tree.” And in hymns, e.g. one by Pécselyi Király Imre (ca. 1590-1641) included in an English paraphrase here: http://www.holycommunion.org/notes/posts/the-gardener-of-second-chances
    and with a prose translation of the Hungarian original here: https://www.morningstarmusic.com/pdf/50-3000%20Brink%20article.pdf

    And, e.g., in the 18th century poem/carol “Jesus Christ the Apple Tree” called in its first found publication “The Tree of Life My Soul Hath Seen.” And in modern hymns such as Stephen Starke’s (see https://medium.com/congregational-song/hymn-reflection-the-tree-of-life-by-stephen-starke-b1d3dd8fb63). And in contemporary choral pieces, e.g., by Pepper Choplin (text selected from the Bible) and another by Mack Wilberg (text by David Warner). See Warner’s text here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FWnKXxIDN_c

    See also such paintings as Giovanni da Modena’s “Christ On the Tree of Life”.

    “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.” “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”

    Announcing that the tree of life and the burning bush are feminine priesthood symbols without saying to whom or in what context is not particularly helpful when they have symbolized something else in Judeo-Christian cultures for centuries. A symbol or archetype such as the tree of life can be made to mean many different things. To whose tradition do you refer?

  4. Travis
    January 30, 2020 at 12:20 am

    Chad, the most immediate/relevant/accessible texts:

    The Mother of the Lord, Margaret Barker;
    The Burning Bush, Sergei Bulgakov;
    The Holy Grail and Eucharist, Sergei Bulgakov;
    The Tree of Life, John Welch & Donald Parry, Ed.;
    Keter, Arthur Green
    The Gospel of Thomas, Samuel Zinner
    Egyptian Icons in Midrash, Rivka Ulmer

    For the sake of conversation, and because the emphasis here is on archetype of the tree of life, we can look at the temple/tree motif deconstructed. If we accept the temple and the tree of life as incorporating the highest sacred essence—both symbols for housing the presence of the Lord, both symbols aligned with Creation, Covenant, and Wisdom, and both symbols central to the high priest’s ritual-atonement— then we can begin to reduce the day-of-atonement ordinance to a ritual that restores the Creation by means of procreation. Here is where we find the Tree of Life and Her role with the High Priest.

    Can provide more explanation if interested.

  5. Wondering
    January 30, 2020 at 11:02 am

    Travis, Now that list is helpful. Thanks.

  6. Chad Nielsen
    February 9, 2020 at 9:32 am

    Thank you, Travis. That gives me some good materials to look into. Also, thank you Wondering, for providing a few more potential sources for the final Tree of Life post in the series that I’m working on.

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