See also tree of life for other cultural interpretations of the term, and
tree of life (disambiguation) for other meanings of the term.

The tree of life (Heb. עץ החיים Etz haChayim) in the Book of Genesis is a tree planted by God in midst of the Garden of Eden (Paradise), whose fruit gives everlasting life, i.e. immortality. Together with the tree of life, God planted the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 2:9). According to some scholars, however, these are in fact two names for the same tree.[1] According to the Encyclopædia Britannica, both are forms of the world tree.[2]

The biblical account states that Adam and Eve were exiled from the Garden of Eden after eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil to prevent them from eating from the tree of life:

And the Lord God said, "The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever." (Genesis 3:22)[3]

By questioning God's word and authority, the serpent, who is regarded in Christianity as Satan but not by Jews, initially tempted Eve into eating fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, an act explicitly forbidden by God. The serpent tempted Eve by suggesting that eating the fruit would cause her to become as wise as God, having knowledge of good and evil. Eve ate the fruit, in rebellion against God's command and later so did her husband, Adam, despite God's warning that "in the day that you eat from it you shall surely die" (Genesis 2:17). As a consequence of their sin, Adam and Eve were banished from the Garden of Eden and denied access to the tree of life. Separated from the tree of life, Adam and Eve became mortal and died, as God had said. The Genesis narrative of the banishment from the Garden of Eden is balanced in the New Testament by the planting of the tree of life on mankind's side of the divide.

In the Book of Revelation, a Koine Greek phrase xylon zoës (ξύλον ζωής) is mentioned 3 times. This phrase, which literally means "wood of life" is translated in nearly every English bible version as "tree of life", see Revelation 2:7, 22:2, and 22:19.

The tree of life is represented in several examples of sacred geometry and is central in particular to the Kabbalah (the mystic study of the Torah), where it is represented as a diagram of ten points. It is also a recurrent theme in many other religions.


Tree of Life, Medieval

The tree of life as represented in the Kabbalah, containing the Sephiroth.

Serpents, trees and fruit are important symbols in the religion of Jews, Christians, and Muslims. These symbols are also found in the Norse saga of the ash tree Yggdrasil, where the tree provides a magical springwater of knowledge. In opposition to the serpent (immortality), is the eagle and hawk. There is a similar mythology in China, where a carving of a tree of life depicts a bird and a dragon - in Chinese mythology, the dragon often represents immortality. James Frazer in his book The Golden Bough (1890) attempts to give a coherent unified account of a number of religious myths and symbols, whilst Ioan P. Couliano provides an analysis of the symbolism in The Tree of Gnosis (1991), and there are a multiplicity of interpretations existing concerning the Kabbalah's tree of life (Sephiroth).

It should be noted that the tree of life and the tree of knowledge are not the same (Genesis 2.9), and that prohibition of eating the fruit only concerns the latter (Gen. 2.17). That Adam or Eve could eat of the tree of life only becomes a concern to God after they have consumed fruit from the tree of knowledge (Gen. 3.22). Although with some variation, orthodox Judaism and Christianity have interpreted the Genesis 3 account, in its most basic form, as follows:

  • Genesis 2 ends with the creation of Adam and Eve and their blissful state of innocence (they are one flesh, v. 24; and not ashamed of their nakedness, v. 25).
  • Gen. 3.1 introduces the "crafty" serpent who speaks to Eve and creates doubt by questioning God's interdiction from eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The serpent states that its fruit would impart divine wisdom rather than death, specifically, that she would be like God (Gen. 3.5).
  • Adam and Eve are both deceived and after eating the fruit their eyes are opened and their first reaction is shame (they proceed to cover their nakedness, v. 7), then fear (they flee God's presence, v. 8).
  • God converses with Adam and curses him (work), Eve (childbirth-pain) and the serpent (removing its legs) for their transgressions (Gen. 3.9-21). Only in Gen. 3.22 does God express concern about the tree of life and banishes Adam and Eve from Eden.

Many midrashim and other rabbinic commentaries have attempted to explicate and clarify the rather enigmatic creation account. Gnostic thought marks an important departure from this interpretation and often is its complete inversion. It views the serpent in a positive light, attributing to him benevolence toward humanity and portraying the God of creation (Elohim, later referred to as YHWH-Elohim) as evil, deceitful and selfish. YHWH in particular is portrayed as evil and considered a demiurge). In the Modern Era, Gnostic interpretations have made headway largely due to an increased interest in mysticism, esotericism and the gradual rejection of orthodox authority. John Milton offers the most ambiguous Eve, as she embodies both the rebel flair of Satan, whom the historical Milton is identifiable with, and also the loyalty owed to God. For Byron, she was a hero.

Eastern Christianity


Gilded royal doors carved to represent the tree of life (old wooden church in Chotyniec, Poland).

The Eastern Orthodox Church has traditionally understood the tree of life in Genesis as a prefiguration of the Cross, which humanity could not partake of until after the incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus.[4]

One of the hymns chanted during the forefeast of the nativity of Christ says:

Make ready, O Bethlehem, for Eden hath been opened for all. Prepare, O Ephratha, for the tree of life hath blossomed forth in the cave from the Virgin; for her womb did appear as a spiritual paradise in which is planted the divine Plant, whereof eating we shall live and not die as did Adam. Christ shall be born, raising the image that fell of old.[5]

The cross of Christ is also referred to as the tree of life, and in the service books, Jesus is sometimes likened to a "divine cluster" of grapes hanging on the "Tree of the Cross" from which all partake in Holy Communion.

This theme is also found in Western Christianity. By way of an archetypal example consider Bonaventure's "biography" of the second person of the Trinity, entitled "The Tree of Life." [see Cousins, The Classics of Western Spirituality Series]

Western Christianity

Until the Enlightenment, the Christian church generally gave biblical narratives of early Genesis the weight of historical narratives. In the City of God (xiii.20-21), Augustine of Hippo offers great allowance for "spiritual" interpretations of the events in the garden, so long as such allegories do not rob the narrative of its historical reality. However, the allegorical meanings of the early and medieval church were of a different kind than those posed by Kant and the Enlightenment. Precritical theologians allegorized the genesis events in the service of pastoral devotion. Enlightenment theologians (culminating perhaps in Brunner and Niebuhr in the twentieth century) sought for figurative interpretations because they had already dismissed the historical possibility of the story.

Others sought very pragmatic understandings of the tree. In the Summa Theologica (Q97), Thomas Aquinas argued that the tree served to maintain Adam's biological processes for an extended earthly animal life. It did not provide immortality as such, for the tree, being finite, could not grant infinite life. Hence after a period of time, the man and woman would need to eat again from the tree or else be "transported to the spiritual life." The common fruit trees of the garden were given to offset the effects of "loss of moisture" (note the doctrine of the humors at work), while the tree of life was intended to offset the inefficiencies of the body. Following Augustine in the City of God (xiv.26), “man was furnished with food against hunger, with drink against thirst, and with the tree of life against the ravages of old age.”

John Calvin (Commentary on Genesis 2:8), following a different thread in Augustine (City of God, xiii.20), understood the tree in sacramental language. Given that humanity cannot exist except within a covenantal relationship with God, and all covenants use symbols to give us "the attestation of his grace", he gives the tree, "not because it could confer on man that life with which he had been previously endued, but in order that it might be a symbol and memorial of the life which he had received from God." God often uses symbols - He doesn’t transfer his power into these outward signs, but "by them He stretches out His hand to us, because, without assistance, we cannot ascend to Him." Thus he intends man, as often as he eats the fruit, to remember the source of his life, and acknowledge that he lives not by his own power, but by God’s kindness. Calvin denies (contra Aquinas and without mentioning his name) that the tree served as a biological defense again physical aging. This is the standing interpretation in modern Reformed theology as well.

Mormons (Latter Day Saints)

File:Tree of Life Lehi from Book of Mormon.jpg

The tree of life appears in the Book of Mormon in a revelation to Lehi (see 1 Nephi 8:10-12). It is symbolic of the love of God (see 1 Nephi 11:21-23). Its fruit is described as "most precious and most desirable above all other fruits," which "is the greatest of all the gifts of God" (see 1 Nephi 15:36). In another Mormon scriptural book, salvation is called "the greatest of all the gifts of God" (see Doctrine and Covenants 6:13). In the same book eternal life is also called the "greatest of all the gifts of God" (see Doctrine and Covenants 14:7). Because of these references, the tree of life and its fruit is sometimes understood to be symbolic of salvation and post-mortal existence in the presence of God and his love.


See also

External links

Jewish and Non-Jewish views

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