Sunday, April 13, 2008

If Wisdom is a Tree of Life ...

She is a tree of life to them that lay hold upon her. (Proverbs 3:18)
In reading older interpretations of Scripture, I have seen some different methods of interpretation than are currently in use. One method is to take something revealed in one setting and apply it back to another setting to see if it is fitting. The "Tree of Life" makes several appearances in the book of Proverbs, the only place besides Genesis where it appears in the Old Testament. In its first appearance in Proverbs, the Tree of Life is wisdom.

If we understand the Tree of Life as wisdom, it sheds a whole new light on the account of the Fall in Genesis. The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, of course, brings death; but what about the Tree of Life? What if the choice was not between Knowledge and Ignorance, but between Knowledge and Wisdom? What if our problem was not that we valued Knowledge while God sought to keep us in the dark, but that we valued Knowledge more than Wisdom? We reached for Knowledge when God wanted to give us Wisdom. The history of humanity has been filled with times when our knowledge has been to our downfall because we valued knowledge over wisdom. Many technological and medical breakthroughs have been followed quickly by a wish that we had learned to understand better before we plunged forward. World literature from Oedipus Rex to Frankenstein has been filled with people who, lacking wisdom, were betrayed by their own knowledge.

It has always seemed odd to me that the pair of trees were "Knowledge of Good and Evil" and "Life"; those are hardly a natural pair. And we knew it worked out to "Death" and "Life", which are a more natural pair. It also seemed odd that God would create man and woman in his image but ask them not to go after Knowledge (even if it was Knowledge of Good and Evil), and all the while the culture that passed down this story is renowned for scholarship. And many have questioned why God would create this Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil at all.

I've heard the suggestion that, if Adam and Eve had not eaten from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, that the day would have come when God had given them of that tree as a gift. They may have a point.


SeekWisdom said...

Took me a while, Weekend Fisher, to put together a fitting response:

I’d like to make a case for Psalm 1 and the Tree of Life, utilizing the idea, as you mentioned in your post, that the Hebrew bible refers back to itself, and that this can happen in a variety of ways. So, using the early chapters of Genesis as well as parts of Deuteronomy, I’d like sketch out a theology of the Tree of Life using Psalm 1.

The psalms are arranged in “five books” – so immediately there is the image of the Pentateuch. Just as the first chapters of Genesis are an introduction to the Torah, the first (wisdom) psalm introduces the Psalter and indeed urges constant meditation on the Torah (teaching, instruction – from God). It describes the life of a godly person as like a tree that is planted by water streams, whose leaves never wither, bearing fruit in due season, bringing all work to success. This image of the tree is both an idealized future promise and an explanation of how the promised “blessing” of rich life is to be sought – through immersion in the scriptures (Torah). The description of the tree unmistakably harks back to the description of the Tree of Life in Genesis (and utilizing the description, rather than the term “Tree of Life,” you can move forward to similar descriptions by some prophets and thus the promise of the Messiah). Finally, there are elements of the psalm, which, to me, point to Deuteronomy’s instruction to keep God’s word constantly in mind, when you sit, when you walk, all day and all night. Deuteronomy also links the Torah with “life” in addition to the need to mediate on/be steeped in God’s word as part of choosing Divine Life.

The psalm opens with a blessing. And a description of what the godly person is NOT choosing. So, the reverse of the scene in the Garden, with a blessing for resisting a wayward life: not listening to temptation, not walking in that godless path, and not sitting with those who mock God/godly life. The vivid description of the ungodly (in Psalm 1) mirrors the temptation in the Garden as well as calling to mind imagery of the giving of the Law. The three images of the ungodly person are reverse images of what God expects, that you listen, walk in His ways, and above all... revere the Holy Name and the Divine Word.

Here are some places in Deuteronomy which, I think, mirror Psalm 1:

Deuteronomy 5: 4-7 (and compare with Ps 1: 1 where the reverse is described, as well as Ps 1: 2 in a positive vein)

Deuteronomy 32: 47 - Torah as the source of life (compare with the godly person’s “delight” in the Torah, meditating day and night – verse 2)

Deuteronomy 30 does not have an exact connection to words, but the “way” of the good person is certainly consistent with loving the Lord with all your heart and soul, with the word being very near, “on your lips” and with the idea of a circumcised heart. And those images point forward to the prophets and thus to Jesus as Tree of Life.

This is a just a sketch, but I think it is consistent with the type of thinking the bible asks from us. Not Aristotelian logic. But the logic of the heart or the “mind in the heart” – the logic of being steeped in the Word so that as we read we are reminded of other words, themes, “instruction."

There is far more you can get from this psalm. But I think I've made my case.


Anastasia Theodoridis said...

Yes, the Orthodox Fathers teach us that Adam and Eve would eventually have been given to eat of both trees.

Meanwhile, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil was of no use to them. They had no need, as yet, to know anything about evil. (And when the time came for them to know about evil, it certainly didn't need to be by practicing it!)

The Tree of Life of course prefigures Christ, and in Revelation, IS Christ. Of this tree, our First Parents did not eat, and once they had sinned, to keep them from eating it was the reason God drove them from the Garden. Otherwise, they would have become immortal in their sins. (People like Stalin would have lived forever!)

Weekend Fisher said...

Seekwisdom - that'll keep me reading and checking parallels for awhile! Thank you for taking the time to put that together.

Anastasia - that's actually where I'm headed with a few of the pieces I've posted lately, though of course you'll spot it a lot faster than some of the others will.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

SeekWisdom said...

Yes, I can see where you're headed with this as well.

I've had some further thoughts actually related to the Tree of Life as described in Psalm 1 - and they relate to your interest in the Trinity. Think of the Tree with roots in water. And the meanings of water. The sunlight streaming onto the Tree. The wind (spirit) rustling the leaves. The Father as the Gardener (so clear from Genesis). So you have this sense of the centrality of Christ, and the way in which the Trinity is intimately connected in bringing forth this "life."

I've also thought more about the two trees. And the Tree of "knowledge" is related to "choice" as well as to "listening" vs claiming to know better than God. And the Tree of Life - a receptive attitude to the overflowing goodness of God/Trinity.

As I said from the start, you're on the right track here. And your effort to find ways to express the traditional beliefs in ways that inspire.

SeekWisdom said...

Another tidbit here: The carved wooden handles which hold the Torah scroll, upon which you roll the scroll, go by the term "Tree of Life." So there you have a liturgical connection between Wisdom/Teaching and Tree of Life. At times apparently the scroll itself may be termed a "Tree of Life."

Also: Psalm 92, verses 12-14 describe the righteous as like a tree planted in the House of the Lord, still green, still bearing fruit when old. Another allusion, I think, to this image and its power in the Old Testament... as well as connections to Christ/deification.