The Tree of Life is a universal symbol found in many religious traditions. In the Hebrew Bible it is directly mentioned in the Book of Genesis and the Book of Proverbs, while in the New Testament, it figures prominently in the Book of Revelation.
According to Genesis, partaking of the fruit of the Tree of Life would have allowed Adam and Eve to live forever. After they sinned by eating of the forbidden fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, however, they were cast out of the Garden of Eden and forbidden to partake of the Tree of Life. In the Book of Revelation, Jesus promises the Tree of Life, which bears 12 different types of fruit in the New Jerusalem, to those who overcome the tribulation of the Last Days.
During the Middle Ages the Tree of Life became a major symbol in the tradition of Kabbalah, or Jewish mysticism, where it represents the ten sephitot, or divine emanations. Here, it symbolized God's manifestation in the created world, and also the fulfillment of the human being's quest for complete knowledge of God.
In pre-Jewish Mesopotamian religion, the Tree of Life was depicted in various works of art and literature. It was sometimes associated with the goddesses of fertility and guarded by a serpent. In other traditions it is sometimes associated with the "World Tree" that forms a bridge between the spiritual and physical worlds.
Implied in virtually all traditions regarding the Tree of Life is the idea that human beings desire to reconnect to the nature of divinity and attain eternal life by consuming the life-giving fruit of the Tree, or embodying the symbolic qualities of the Tree itself.
According to Gen. 2.9, there stood in the Garden of Eden with Adam and Eve a "Tree of life" and the "Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil." Adam and Eve, the ancestors of humankind, were told by God not to eat of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil lest they would die. Both were naked, but were unashamed. A serpent challenged Eve about eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, often symbolized in European art and literature as an apple tree.
Tempted by a serpent, Eve ate of the fruit, and she then persuaded Adam to eat of the fruit. They then realized their nakedness and covered the lower parts of their body. Genesis 3:22-24 states that after Adam and Eve had eaten of the forbidden tree against the command of God, they were expelled from the Garden of Eden. As punishment for his transgression, the serpent was condemned to crawl on its belly and eat dust. The woman was sentenced to the pangs of childbirth, and the man was made to toil and sweat from the hostile soil. God then barred access to the Tree of Life by placing cherubim and a flaming sword at the eastern entrance to Eden.
"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." So the Lord God banished him from the Garden of Eden to work the ground from which he had been taken. After he drove the man out, he placed on the east side of the Garden of Eden cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life.
The idea of the Tree of Life appears in the Book of Proverbs four times:
The prophet Ezekiel projected a picture of the Messianic age when he wrote of healing trees that would draw their sustenance from waters flowing from the Temple of Jerusalem. They would provide new fruit each month. "And on the banks, on both sides of the river, there will grow all kinds of trees for food. Their leaves will not wither nor their fruit fail, but they will bear fresh fruit every month, because the water for them flows from the sanctuary. Their fruit will be for food, and their leaves for healing" (Ezekiel 47:12).
The New Testament Book of Revelation takes up Ezekiel's theme, referring to the Tree of Life in three places.
The Coptic Book of Enoch describes the Tree of Life as "a fragrance beyond all fragrances; its leaves and bloom and wood wither not forever; its fruit is beautiful and resembles the date-palm" (Ethiopic Enoch 24:4) The Slavonic Book of Enoch says "In the midst there is the tree of life… and this tree cannot be described for its excellence and sweet odor" (Slavonic Enoch 8:3). The Book of 2 Esdras describes the future and says "Unto you is paradise opened, the tree of life is planted" (Esdras 8:52).
In the Book of Mormon, the Tree of Life is shown to Lehi and then also to his son Nephi in a dream or vision, between 600 and 592 B.C.E. (1 Nephi 8:10). A later passage describes the fruit of the Tree of Life as "exceeding of all beauty; and the whiteness thereof did exceed the whiteness of the driven snow" (1 Nephi 11:8). Nephi interprets the Tree and its fruit as representing "The love of God, which sheddeth itself abroad in the hearts of the children of men; wherefore, it is the most desirable above all things."
According to the tradition of mystical Judaism known as Kabbalah, the Tree of Life is not a literal tree but a symbol that is used to understand the nature of God and his relationship to the created world. It is also seen as reflecting man, who is a microcosm of the divine creation.
Kabbalistic tradition holds that the world was created and sustained by ten channels of divine emanation referred to as the ten sefirot. They are represented in a diagram known as the Tree of Life. Kabbalistic texts describe the sefirot as representing ten characteristics of God. Each emanation can combine with the other sefirot and has both a positive and negative aspect within itself. The sefirot are sometimes described as being divided into triads with the tenth sefirah forming a bridge to the world of reality. The diagram of the kabbalistic Tree of Life is typically drawn in such a way that it resembles a human body. Each of the sefirot corresponds to one of the human organs or limbs. In this view, the Tree of Life also has a right side and a left side, with the right side corresponding to God’s masculine side, and the left side corresponding to God's feminine side.
The topmost sefirah is called Kether, or Crown in English. It is known as the Primordial Point or the “I am,” representing the infinite energy and limitless light of God. It is sometimes referred to as the Divine will, and as containing all of the other sefirot within it. It is also thought of as the link between the God's infinite world and the finite world in which we live. The second emanation is Chochmah, which means Wisdom, often referred to as intuition. It is created out of the pure energy of Kether and is considered to be God’s primordial masculine energy. The next sefirah, on the left side of the Tree, is Binah or Understanding, which is thought of as God’s primordial feminine energy. It interacts with Chochmah, and the two of them together are often referred to as the Father and Mother of the Universe. Kether, Chochmah, and Binah are called the supernal sefirot and are considered to be the primordial energies of the universe. On some diagrams of the sefirot there is an additional emanation known as Da'at, or knowledge. Da'at is usually seen as the synthesis of 'Chochmah and Binah, and is a kind of reflection of Kether. Da'at is not considered one of the ten sefirot, but is a mediating and synthesizing principle between Chochmah and Binah.
On the left side of the tree is also Gevurah, or Power. It is sometimes referred to as justice or law. It interacts with the sefirah of Chesed or Grace, which is on the right side of the Tree. It is described as an outgoing and expanding force and is also referred to as absolute love that knows no limitation. Chesed is the love that is free and lacking in restraint, whereas Gevurah is the love that represents discipline. Chesed is gendered male because it expands; Gevurah is gendered female because it receives, encloses, and constricts. Rounding out this triad is Tiferet, which is typically drawn in the middle vertical column on the Tree, as its center. It is a combination of harmony, truth, and compassion. The triad of Chesed, Gevurah, and Tiferet are forces within the heart.
The final triad of sefirot consists of Netzach, Hod, and Yesod. Netzach, which is on the right side of the Tree, is the emanation of Victory and the capacity for overcoming. It is also referred to as the impulse to get things done, to work. Some texts refer to it as eternity, an aspect of revelation which stretches horizontally for all time, and an attribute of endurance within the Divine. The sefirah of Hod, on the left side of the Tree, is known as Splendor, and is sometimes referred to as persistence or holding on. Netzach and Hod balance into Yesod, which is the capacity and desire to build bridges or make contacts, or the ability to establish relationships.
The last of the ten sefirot is Malchut, which is the summation and culmination of all the Sefirot that are above it. It completes the chain of the sefirot, representing the world of experience, that aspect of the Divine which is totally immanent, here and now.
The symbol of the Tree of Life predates the Judeo-Christian tradition and is found in many cultures throughout the world. In ancient Mesopotamian and Canaanite traditions, the tree was often associated with a goddess and fertility, or with a male and female god together. This Tree is sometimes associated with a serpent and combines the two aspects of life and death, which are separated into two different trees in the story of the Garden of Eden.
In the story of Inanna and the Huluppu Tree, the goddess Ishtar/Inanna plants this sacred tree in her garden, where it is guarded by the "snake which knows no charm." In the Epic of Gilgamesh the hero searches for the secret of eternal life and learns that a plant which grows at the bottom of the sea can rejuvenate the person who consumes it. After retrieving it, however, the plant is stolen and consumed by a serpent.
The Assyrian Tree of Life was represented by a series of nodes and crisscrossing lines. It was an important religious symbol among these peoples, often attended to by Eagle-Headed gods and priests, or the king himself.
In ancient Armenia, around the twelfth to sixth century B.C.E., the Tree of Life was has been found drawn onto the exterior walls of fortresses and carved on the armor of warriors. The branches of the tree were equally divided on the right and left sides of the stem, with each branch having one leaf, and one leaf on the apex of the tree. Servants stood on each side of the tree with one of their hands up as if tending it.
In Egyptian mythology, Isis and Osiris were said to have emerged from the acacia tree of Saosis, which the Egyptians referred to as the "tree in which life and death are enclosed." The Egyptian's Sycamore fig was also considered as a sacred tree which stood on the threshold of life and death, connecting the two worlds.
In Germanic paganism, trees played a prominent role, appearing in various aspects of surviving texts and possibly in the name of gods. The Tree of Life appears in Norse religion as Yggdrasil, the world tree, a massive tree—sometimes considered a yew or ash tree—with extensive lore surrounding it. Examples include Thor's Oak, sacred groves, the Sacred tree at Uppsala, and the wooden Irminsul pillar. In Norse Mythology, it is the apples from Iðunn's ash box that provides immortality for the gods. Christian saints such as Saint Boniface are sometimes described as destroying these sacred trees because they were objects of pagan idolatry.
Among pre-Columbian Mesoamerican cultures, the concept of "world trees" is a prevalent motif. World trees embodied the four cardinal directions, which represented also the fourfold nature of a central world tree, a symbolic axis mundi connecting the planes of the Underworld and the sky with that of the terrestrial world. Depictions of world trees are found in the art and mythological traditions of cultures such as the Maya, Aztec, Izapan, Mixtec, Olmec, and others, dating to at least the Mid/Late Formative periods of Mesoamerican chronology. World trees are frequently depicted with birds in their branches, and their roots extending into earth or water, sometimes atop a "water-monster," symbolic of the underworld.
In China, an archaeological discovery in the 1990s unearthed a sacrificial pit at Sanxingdui dating from about 1200 B.C.E. It contained three bronze trees, one of them four meters high. At the base was a dragon, and fruit hung from the lower branches. At the top is a strange bird-like (phoenix) creature with claws. Also from Sichuan, from the late Han dynasty (c 25–220 C.E.) is another tree of life guarded by a horned beast with wings. The leaves of the tree are coins and people. At the apex is a bird with coins and the Sun. There is also a Taoist story of a tree that produces a peach every three thousand years. The one who eats the fruit receives immortality.
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