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
Although prominent in
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,
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