In the Bible, trees are landmarks; places for meetings, shelter, and burial; sources of food and oil; building material for arks, temples, and simple homes; the subjects of parables; and powerful metaphorical symbols in prophecy. In Gen 3, an interaction with a tree—specifically, with its fruit—redefines the relationship between God and humanity.
In Gen 2:9, God creates all trees, including the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. God instructs the first human that he may eat the produce of any tree in the garden of Eden, but not from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil—an offense punishable by death (Gen 2:15-16). Consumption of this tree’s fruit leads to Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the garden of Eden, but not to death as threatened (Gen 3:14-19). God confesses the fear that humans might also eat from the tree of life, giving them eternal life (Gen 3:22). He is concerned that if humans possess both knowledge and immortality, they will be truly godlike.
Although prominent in Gen 2-3, the phrase “tree of life” is actually quite rare in the Bible. It appears in Proverbs as a metaphor for desirable traits and outcomes (Prov 3:18, Prov 11:30) and in Rev 22 as part of the apocalyptic vision of heaven, where it produces twelve kinds of fruit and its leaves heal wounded nations.
Although its significance is not discussed at length in the biblical text, the tree of life’s appearance outside of natural time (during creation and apocalypse) suggests that it was a powerful cultural symbol in the ancient Near East. Its importance is visible in the prominence of trees in ancient Near Eastern art. For example, in the tomb of Pharaoh Thutmose III, the goddess Isis is depicted as a tree with breasts from which the king nurses. Trees likewise appear in association with goddesses and gods on Mesopotamian seals (stone beads with images carved on the exterior, used to mark wet clay or wax) from the late third and early second millennia B.C.E. In the late second millennium, the motif of goats rearing their front legs onto the trunk of a date palm tree—likely a shorthand for the goddess representations more common a few hundred years before—appears on pottery at town sites that would, in time, fall within the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. Stylized images of trees appear on decorated architectural stones from the Neo-Hittite world of first-millennium Syria and southern Anatolia.
In the Hebrew Bible, prohibitions against worship of the goddess Asherah and descriptions of the destruction of her cult (for example, Judg 6:25-26, 2Kgs 18:4) indicate that her cult symbol may have been a pole or tree, a tantalizing connection with the goddesses depicted on the Mesopotamian stone seals.
If the Tree of Life motif was common across the ancient Near East for millennia, why does it not play a larger role in the Bible? Perhaps its widespread popularity and association with gods foreign to Israel and Judah—especially goddesses—made it an unsuitable subject for the Hebrew Bible and New Testament, a collection of texts focused on humanity’s relationship with a monotheistic god.
While we cannot know for sure what cultural motifs or stories were known to the authors of Gen 2-3, Proverbs, and Revelation, it is not hard to imagine how trees—whose existence spans many human lifetimes; who offer shelter, food, and raw materials to all creatures; whose roots are grounded deep in the earth; and whose branches reach out and up towards the heavens—could so easily come to represent eternal life and nurturing.