THE TREE OF LIFE

GRANT
Graeco-Roman Antiquities & the New Testament
            John’s teachings about the tree of life clearly play an important role in his prophecies.  The main reason for its importance stems from its association with the New Heaven and New Earth in chapters 21-22.  There it is portrayed as part of the eternal blessing for those found faithful in their following of the lamb.  As is often true with blessing promised by God to the elect, egregious sin can lead to the forfeiture of those blessings; in this blessing of the tree of life, the same is true.  The reader of Revelation is told that those who overcome have “a right to the tree of life” and entrance into the eternal city (Rev. 22:14).  In the same chapter, however, John recognizes that there is the possibility that “God will take away” a believer’s “share in the tree of life” for denial of the faith (Rev. 22).
Ancient Near East Tree of Life
              This vibrant imagery of the tree of life is found in the Jewish Scriptures on which so many of John’s messages stand.  Of course the story of Eden with its two named trees is the ultimate sources of this imagery in Scripture, “the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” (Gen. 2:9).  The  profoundly special nature of the tree of life is reflected in the following words toward the end of the Garden of Eden narrative when God said, “The Man has become like one of us, capable of knowing everything, ranging from good to evil. What if he now should reach out and take fruit from the Tree-of-Life and eat, and live forever? Never—this cannot happen!” So God expelled them from the Garden of Eden and sent them to work the ground, the same dirt out of which they’d been made. He threw them out of the garden and stationed angel-cherubim and a revolving sword of fire east of it, guarding the path to the Tree-of-Life (Gen. 3:22-24, The Message).
Ancient Near East Tree of Life
Ancient Near East Tree of Life
            Much like earlier Jewish theology (Ezek. 47) John remembers the association of the tree of life (and the water of life) with being in the presence of God. Ezekiel already knew that the magical quality of the water and the trees that he describes have their origin in the presence of God, “because their water flows from the sanctuary” (Ezek. 47:12b).  And even though the imagery given in Revelation 22 has been altered and expanded in some ways, there is little doubt that Revelation relies upon both Gen. 2-3 and Ezekiel 47 for its theology of the tree of life.
Divine being taking care
of the tree of life
Tree of life in Ancient Near East
            Given the historical setting of Ezekiel in a foreign land and the fact that the long period before that was characterized by syncretism among both Israelites and Judeans, it is not unnatural to ask about the historical setting in which the exilic prophet Ezekiel wrote. What one discovers is that nations of the Ancient Near East also had traditions about sacred trees, trees of life.  This clearly suggests that Israel’s theology about the tree of life took place in a context where other cultures also depicted sacred trees.  This reality does not “prove” that Israel’s understanding of the tree of life was borrowed from anyone else, but it does suggest at the least that the belief in the sacred tree was part of the religious lingua franca of both Israel and the Ancient Near East.  It is suggested by archaeologist and historians that these photos represent sacred trees/trees of life from ancient Assyria.  Examples of these “trees of life” can be seen today in the museums of Turkey, the USA, Russia, and Germany. 
 
 
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