I’ve planted two baby trees so far this summer, a tamarack and a burr oak. Actually, I arranged for their planting and then stood by to watch. The actual labor was performed by the most powerful force in the universe: college students. These particular students were from Calvin University’s Plaster Creek Stewards team, a group on a mission to heal a sizeable watershed in our city.
I’ve kind of fallen in love with these two trees. Tamaracks are deciduous conifers with soft, almost furry needles. They glow radiant green all summer, turning yellow in the fall before dropping their needles for winter. Tamaracks love muddy areas like the spot behind my house, where I planted mine. Burr oaks are also good native citizens of the upper Midwest. They’re tough and generous at once, spreading huge canopies for shade and bird habitat and dropping plenty of acorns for critters.
The burr oak got planted on my church’s property. A group of us came up with the plan to plant a commemorative tree, a way to remember this awful time when we can’t meet together. Maybe someday, when our baby tree is not too much bigger, we can stand around it together and give thanks that this pandemic has passed.
My tree infatuation got me thinking about trees in the Bible, so I sat down to read the entire Bible again with an eye to trees. Fine, I used an online search tool. But it is remarkable to notice how important trees are in the Bible. Of course, we all know about the crucial Trees of Destiny in Genesis 3. And there’s that marvelous Tree of Life in Revelation 22, which bears fruit in all seasons and whose leaves are for the healing of the nations. Now there’s a tree to long for.
Probably you could come up with other famous biblical trees: the Oaks of Mamre, under which Abram entertains angels quite aware. And the sycamore of Zacchaeus fame. Maybe Jonah’s withering vine. You might recall that cedar is the go-to luxury building material and Lebanon’s chief export. But there’s so much more.
For example, let’s not forget the poplar, almond, and plane trees that Jacob uses in Genesis 30 as a fertility scheme to produce spotted and speckled livestock. Or the moment in Deuteronomy 20 when Moses offers some practical advice about siege strategy: when you attack an enemy city, use the non-fruit-bearing trees to create siege works. Preserve the fruit trees for food. Duh.
Ever hear of Jotham’s bizarre tree fable in Judges 9? Neither did I. It has to do with Abimelech, who is a real schmuck, but wants to rule Israel. Younger brother Jotham, who knows the score about Abimelech, tells the people a story in which the olive tree, fig tree, and grape vine all refuse to rule, so they’re stuck with the thornbush. That’s Abimelech. And we all know what thornbushes do, don’t we? That’s right. They cause fires. Sure enough, Abimelech ends up burning Shechem. But don’t worry, there’s a great action ending in Judges 9:53.
You might remember from Sunday School how David’s son Absalom meets his demise: three javelins to the heart while dangling from an oak tree (2 Samuel 18:14). Did you know, however, that David’s other son Solomon was a naturalist? Yep, Solomon’s wisdom was not limited to spouting proverbs and keeping babies intact. Apparently, he was also ancient Israel’s version of Darwin (I Kings 4:33). The prophet Amos, we should note, was also an expert, though in a narrower range: besides herding sheep, he was also a professional arborist (sycamore-fig specialist).
Let’s talk about trees and sex. Song of Songs is very instructive. One can compare one’s beloved to apple, palm, pomegranate, or incense trees. And it’s clear that all the good stuff happens under apple trees (Song of Songs 8:5). However, do watch out for “spreading trees.” According to all the historical and prophetic literature, lustful idolaters hang out in shady spots (e.g., Jeremiah 2:20). We will have to keep this in mind at my church as our oak gets bigger.
In the Psalms and Isaiah, we learn that trees put our best human praise choirs to shame: “Let the fields be jubilant, and everything in them; let all the trees of the forest sing for joy” (Psalm 96:12). They seem to display a tendency to perform spontaneously: “Burst into song, you mountains, you forests and all your trees, for the Lord has redeemed Jacob, he displays his glory in Israel” (Isaiah 44:23).
Trees also have rhythm: “the mountains and hills will burst into song before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands” (Isaiah 55:12). One assumes the trees are perfectly capable of clapping on the offbeats.
In the ancient world, where trees were familiar daily partners in human survival, it’s only natural that they serve as metaphors in the biblical literature, especially in the feverish minds of the prophets. Daniel compares Nebuchadnezzar to a tree cut down to the stump (Daniel 4:23). Ezekiel compares Assyria to a flourishing tree that the Lord will cut down (Ezekiel 31). At one especially droopy point, poor Job wishes he were a tree, because at least a chopped-down tree can sprout a shoot or two (Job 14:7). In Proverbs, wisdom is a tree of life (Prov. 3:18) and, while “Hope deferred makes the heart sick,” it’s also true that “a longing fulfilled is a tree of life” (13:12).
The New Testament, honestly, is somewhat less arboreally interesting. Jesus seems concerned with dividing trees and their production into a good fruit/bad fruit binary. And who can explain what happens to that poor fig tree in Matthew 21 (also Mark 11), minding its own business, admittedly having a bad day, and then: zap! All to serve as an obscure metaphor for Israel or something? At least we also have the mustard seed parable, in which the seed grows into a kingdom-symbolizing bird habitat (Matthew 13, Mark 4, Luke 13). I’m not sure mustard counts in the tree category, though: isn’t a mustard plant more of a shrub?
Metaphors are intriguing, but it’s clear throughout the Bible that God has a particular fondness for actual trees, understanding as only the Creator can their literal necessity for the flourishing of all life. As trees flourish, so flourish the people. The opposite is also true: if the trees are dying, the people will suffer. In all the gorgeous prophetic promises of God’s redemption—from Genesis to Revelation—justice, peace, and the well-being of people are inextricably linked to the health of the land.
This is all still true. We need more trees in our lives right now, not only as symbols but also as literal helpers in our quest for healing and resilience. Many organizations worldwide are talking about planting billions of trees over the next decades. This is far from the only thing we need to do to deal with the climate crisis, but when planted strategically and well, trees will help absorb excess carbon dioxide, improve urban communities, and anchor landscapes and habitats for humans and more-than-human creatures alike.
One of the most moving moments in the show Hamilton, for me, is when George Washington quotes Micah 4:4. He’s expressing a vision for his own retirement but also for the whole nation: “Everyone will sit under their own vine and under their own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid.”
I haven’t planted any fig trees or vines (yet). For now I’m learning from the tamaracks, oaks, spruces, river birches, dogwoods, maples, and other trees around me, trying to stay close to what gives life: “They will be like a tree planted by the water that sends out its roots by the stream. It does not fear when heat comes; its leaves are always green. It has no worries in a year of drought and never fails to bear fruit” (Jeremiah 17:8).
Image credit: “Tree by the River I” (acrylic) by Virginia Wierenga, 1997. The original is part of the collection of Church of the Servant CRC. Image used by permission.