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Tree of Life


The tree in paradise that was to give unending life to Adam and Eve as long as they ate of its fruit. The tree of life is mentioned three times (Gn 2.9; 3.22, 24) in the deeply significant but symbolically expressed yahwist account of mankind's present condition and how it arose (Gn 2.4a3.24). Since the writer composed this account about the 10th century b.c., the meaning of the tree of life can be better understood if viewed from that perspective. Under divine inspiration, he rightly assumed that some catastrophe had come upon mankind in the beginning that threw it into the state of original sin. It is in this frame of reference that the story of mankind (both primeval and contemporary) is related. Most agree that the tree of life, named from its effect, symbolized the immortality (at least bodily) that man lost through disobedience to God.

The Yahwist narrative shows signs of being composite, and its most original form may not have contained any reference to the tree of life; for Gn 3.22 and 3.24 may well be additions, and the statement in 3.3 conflicts with that in 2.9 (on the location of the tree). The bulk of the narrative, too, is concerned with the tree of knowledge.

As the story goes, it is not certain whether man ever ate of the tree of life, speaking symbolically of course. Had he done so, instead of being attracted to the tree of knowledge, he would have been deprived of access to the tree.

The term tree of life occurs also in Prv 3.18; 11.30; 13.12; 15.4, but in a much wider context. The term reappears in Rv 2.7; 22.2, 14, 19 with reminiscences of the Eden narrative, though set in an apocalyptic and imagery-laden context.

The idea of a plant or tree of life must have been fairly prevalent in the ancient Near East; it turns up for somewhat lengthy, even though naïve, consideration in the gilgamesh epic (see J. B. Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament 9397), where the plant is obtained by Gilgamesh from Utnapishtim, only to be stolen by a serpent. Immortality plays a large part in the Adapa Myth (see ibid., 101103), though its fragmentary condition makes the presence of a tree uncertain. The Sumerians knew of a god called Ningishzidda, i.e., lord of the tree of life, and their art links tree and serpent together in a context of immortality.

Bibliography: Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Bible, translated and adapted by l. hartman (New York, 1963) 249091. h. vorgrimler, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner, 10 v. (2d, new ed. Freiburg 195765); suppl., Das Zweite-Vatikanische Konzil: Dokumente und kommentare, ed. h. s. brechter et al., pt. 1 (1966) 6:864865. g. widengren, The King and the Tree of Life (Uppsala 1951). j. a. macculloch, ed., The Mythology of All Races, v.5, s. h. langdon, Semitic (Boston 1931) 177179, with pertinent illus. b. vawter, A Path through Genesis (New York 1956). e. a. speiser, Genesis (Anchor Bible; Garden City, N.Y. 1964) 2028.

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