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In the opening pages of the Bible, humanity is portrayed as God's royal partner, his divine image. God orders a sacred space where heaven and earth are one, and then makes eternal life available to humans by means of a tree.
While many throughout history have imagined this as a magical tree that imparts eternal life, the biblical story paints a bigger picture. Sacred trees that offer divine life were a major theme in the religious art of ancient Egypt and Babylon.
But in the Garden of Eden, the tree is located at the central hot-spot of sacred space, the "holy of holies" of this heaven and earth place (see Gen 2:9). The fact that the tree of life is in the middle of sacred space means that the life it offers is not inherent to the tree,
but a divine gift that comes through the tree. The tree of life imparts God's own life, and to be near it and eat from it is to be near to God and to ingest his own life power and presence. Or, in the words of Genesis 3:22 "to take and eat and live forever."
But sadly, humanity is exiled from this tree because of a foolish quest for divine wisdom, and so they find themselves outside the garden in a realm of mortality and grief, longing to return. In the family of Abraham, this divine-human meeting place was recovered in
Israel's tabernacle and temple. These structures housed holy places, the hot-spot of God's presence where a new humanity met with God in a heaven and earth space (see Exodus 25:22). These rooms were designed with a tree-like lampstand (see Exodus 25:31-40)
and with trees all around (see 1 Kings 6:29). It was a renewed Eden, but sadly the family of Abraham replays the Eden story, as they try to recreate their own version of the tree of life. Think of the many 'high places' where Israel worships other gods at sacred trees
(see Deut 12:2; 1 Kings 14:23; 2 Kings 16:4). Eventually, God allows these sacred spaces to be destroyed and lets the Israelites be exiled from their sacred home (see 2 Kings 24-25). This entire story is the context for understanding the arrival of Jesus and his message about the
coming of God's kingdom on earth as in heaven. He said that God's heavenly presence was arriving on earth through him and his mission. And he often likened this to a huge tree, growing and spreading in surprising ways (Matthew 13:31-32). Jesus even claimed to be a tree of life,
a vine that offers God's life to the world (see John 15). But in a sad inversion, the leaders of Abraham's family kill Jesus on what they think is a tree of death. But because of God's love, which is stronger than humanity's evil, God transformed the cross into a tree of life.
Whoever eats from this new tree of life, that is, whoever trusts Jesus and follows him (see John 6:41-58), will discover the gift of God's eternal life. This is why the story of the Bible concludes with a renewed creation, a garden-city with a new tree of life at its center
(Revelation 22:1-2), which is also the throne of God and the risen Jesus (Revelation 21:22). The whole story of the Bible can be told as a story about trees: from the tree of life to the tree of death, which becomes a new tree of life that sprouts into a new creation.
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