The Tree of Life – Literal, Symbolic, or Both…?

A while back I asked the readers of this blog to give me their “2 cents” on what they thought the Tree of Life is. The idea was that I would incorporate these comments into upcoming blog posts about the Tree of Life. There were a range of different answers all focusing on different elements. And since then I have done one post entitled Christ, the Tree of Life that incorporates the comments of three bloggers that subscribe to this blog.

Today I would like to consider whether the Tree of Life was Literal, Symbolic or Both…?

Some of the comments connected to this aspect were as follows:

Nic, blogging here at I call you Friend

I asked my wife what she thought the tree of life was. She said that if we believe the garden was a real garden, then we should really believe the tree was a real tree. Good point!

Lynley, blogging at The Honest One

I think with all things in scripture there is the literal and the deeper meaning. Personally I think it was a literal tree (remembering that heaven and earth were connected at that point). That said, within heaven (where God is) I believe though the tree can be a literal tree, it does not mean Christ is a tree. It could simply mean that Christ is representing Himslef in the tree to us, because we derive an understanding of a tree.

Tobie, blogging at Natural Church

Ahh… The Tree of Life. Here’s some thoughts for consideration (Hope it’s worth two cents!):

1. If it’s a tree, then it’s a thing (an “it”, if you wish), which cannot be, as God does not allow his life to dwell in things.
2. If it’s not a tree, we have a problem. I don’t need to tell you why. Good, solid fundamentalists like John MacArthur will do so. Besides, as an earlier commentator has pointed out, then it also may not be a real garden. Or a serpent. Or an actual woman. Or… You get the point.

This means that it has to be a tree, but it cannot be a tree containing the actual life of God (or any other type of spiritual life, for that matter, for all life comes from God and originates in him). And so, I suspect, the way out of the dilemma is not to see an enchanted tree, but an actual tree functioning as a symbol. (To see the rest of this comment please go here and scroll down to the bottom of the page)

It is clear that all of us see the Tree of life as both a real tree that actually existed. But was it?

I did some research on this topic to discover what the “truth” is behind these questions. So I asked a few people questions relating to this and one person that I trust and respect in particular pointed me in the direction of what is known as Narrative Theology.

Narritive theology is associated with the idea that we are not primarily to learn principles, rules or laws from Scripture, but rather we are to learn to relate to God. In other words, the Bible’s stories are not designed to teach us scientific or theoretical facts, but are there to teach us truth. We are supposed to learn from those truths, and apply these lessons to our lives. As such, we should interpret and apply these stories according to the original intentions of the authors of Scripture—this is why the stories have been preserved for us (see Romans 15:4). (For more on Narritive Theology and how it relates to Systematic and Biblical Theology go here. Also, see N.T Wright on Narrative Theology)

So, with that in mind, what was the original intention of the author/s who wrote Genesis?

Well, from what I have picked up through my readings, it is suggested that Moses wrote the book of Genesis while he was traveling through the Wilderness with the Israelites. It is inferred that he got most of the information from the Israelites themselves who conveyed their history to him as they had carried it on through stories (illiterate cultures have been found to have a very good memory, especially with regards to the history of their culture and family trees). However, the actual creation account in Genesis 1 and 2 could not have been retold by the Israelites and for this reason most biblical scholars assume that God relayed this information directly to Moses just like the angel told John what to write in the book of Revelation.

Fundamentally then, the 5 books that Moses wrote/compiled, known as the Pentateuch or Torah (which means “to teach”) were written to do just that… teach the Israelites about their history and most importantly, their journey and relationship with God. Hence, it was written in the form of a story book. It was designed in many ways to be read like we would read stories to our kids today. The stories are often imaginative, but carry within them certain meanings and lessons that are passed along to the hearers.

Now, I am in no way suggesting that the events in Genesis are not true or historical fact, just that they were written in the form of a story and should therefore be read and interpreted in that light. For this reason, I believe that instead of asking the question, “what is the tree of life?” or “was it a real tree?” a more appropriate question considering the intention of the book would be “what do we learn from the tree of life? or “what was God’s intention for man in the Tree of Life?” These would better bring out the LIFE that is embedded in the book of Genesis.

Therefore, trying to figure out what the tree of life actually was is in some ways futile, for it is going down a path that the writer of the book never intended one to pursue. Like trying to determine whether Pinocchio was a real boy. Whether he was or was not really does not matter. What matters is what his life and story teaches little kids (not to lie, amongst other things). And therefore what we learn from the tree of life is what is most important. And that is in many ways simple: God desires to dispense Himself into man so that man can live by his uncreated life. God desires to be eaten. To be partaken of. To be enjoyed like food. And we can know Him in this way today in Christ, our Tree of Life!

So,what is the answer the question: “is the Tree of Life literal, symbolic or both…?”

It does not matter!

Check out this video for another great take on what I have just covered in today’s post:

The Whole Sweep Of Scripture from The Work Of The People on Vimeo.

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One Response to “The Tree of Life – Literal, Symbolic, or Both…?”
  1. Are you suggesting that Pinocchio was not a real boy? 🙂

    I really like your conclusion, Dylan. I have a parable that I tell students, and it goes something like this: The problem with many theologians is that they are like people who get free tickets to a concert on the rise and fall of the Roman empire, but then spend the entire evening wondering how real the swords and armour are. Eventually, their curiosity gets the better of them. They slip out before the end of the show, climb through a backstage bathroom window and break into the costume room. There they satisfy their curiosity and feel clever and triumphant. They then march back to the unenlightened crowd with the evidences of their discovery, only to find out that nobody is interested as everyone is discussing the magnificent grand finale. Of course they cannot join the discussion, as they missed the heart of the concert. And so they devote their lives discussing their own findings and congratulating one another on their superior knowledge. Makes me think of Christ’s words “You diligently study the Scriptures, thinking that by them you have life, but you refuse to come to to have life.”

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