30 May 2008

Clues to the Tree of Life

I'm expanding my Podcast reach.

Recently I went through the offerings at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, and I listened to a podcast about the Assyrian collection. I want to tell the rest of what I learned in story form below:

In the halls of the Met's Near-Eastern Galleries, you can see the seeds of the Bible parading across the walls. Lovely, powerful beings march across the walls. Each one has four wings, and their power is symbolized in the enormous leg and arm muscles so carefully wrought by an artist long ago.

It's funny. When I think of an angel, usually I think of a tall, male figure. Now that I think if of it, he has blond hair and white garments. His figure isn't particularly striking--effeminate, perhaps. In my imagination, the power comes from his wings.

That's not how the writers of Genesis and Judges pictured angels when these books were written long ago.

They saw men very much like the one at right. They have long, braided beards, dark hair, and brightly painted, fringed clothes. They look like they could have stepped out of an advertisement for Gold's Gym. These men were known as Genii, from which we get the magical term of "Genie."

(The term, Genie, comes from the Arabic term, Jinn, which also refers to angelic beings, albeit beings with a different set of powers that those of our Western angels.)

I hadn't really thought about the cultural implications to what I believed an Angel to be. Yet it is clear from the relief that I'm seeing things quite differently from the way they were at the time the Bible was written.

Genesis 3 closes with an extraordinary image: an angel holding a flaming sword, guarding the entrance to the Garden of Eden and barring Adam and Eve from the Tree of Life.

Of course Revelation ends with the same image of a Tree of Life. But this is one where the angel is not barring the way, but instead it is showing John the way into heaven--quite a twist, and what I would describe as quite the happy ending.

In Revelation 22, the Tree of Life is more of a species of tree than a single tree, since apparently these trees line the River of the Water of Life (verses 1-2). What kind of tree could it be?

It "bears twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations" (2). Those are some good hints. Fruit falls every month. Its leaves provide healing. When I think of fruit, I think of apples or peaches--but they fall once a year, they can't possible produce in every season (at least not during winter). Have cherry leaves been used as a medicine?

Later rabbinic traditions held that the tree of life was so tall that it took 500 years to climb to the top.

Let's review the clues: the Tree of Life is tall, it never goes out of season, it produces fruit, its leaves are for the healing of the nations.

The ultimate visual clue--if one connects the origins of the Biblical tree of life with Abraham's cultural origins in Mesopotamia--can be found on another relief. This pictures another Genii--this one with the head of a hawk rather than a prince. His wings are behind him. He has the powerful arms and legs from the original picture. Like the original, he carries a bag full of incense.

Look at his right hand. In it is the seed of the Tree of Life.

It is too long to be an apple, too narrow to be a pear, too large to be a grape or a cherry.

It is...

...a pinecone.

That's right, the people of the ancient Near East saw the pine as a tree of life. It is evergreen, almost magical. It certainly isn't what I would have expected from previous readings of Genesis or Revelation.

Is it what you expected?

After I post this blog, I'm going to walk up my driveway to get the mail. As many of you know, it is lined with pine trees that my grandpa planted over 50 years ago.

Today, as I'm walking, I think I might better imagine what John saw in Revelation 22: "Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, clear as crystal, flowing...down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life."

Walking through those pines today, I'll feel closer to heaven--closer to Eternity which has been promised me.

14 May 2008

A Fitting George W. Bush Memorial

Some folks out at the University of California at Davis have come up with a great way to honor George W. Bush when he leaves office in a few months. The propose renaming San Francisco's Oceanside Water Pollution Control Plant, the place where the fecal matter of San Franciscans is treated before being dumped into the Pacific Ocean, the George W. Bush Sewage Plant. (The seal is presented here.)

As I understand it, it would take a whole lot of fecal matter to make that place stink as bad as Bush's presidency!

03 May 2008

A Wee Bit o' Bracknell

We have refinanced the house, and we're in the middle of some pretty big changes at the Ole Dittes Manse. We have all new windows now, and the family room will soon have four fewer doors and one new floor.

This is in advance of Jenny and me finally moving into my grandparents' bedroom and giving the big bedroom to Owen and Jo-Jo (who are currently crammed into the study at night).

I'll post pictures once the family room is finished--this should be within the next three weeks. We still need paint, and floors, and some electrical, and siding...do you understand how crazy things seem right now?

Meanwhile, I'm still doing the transplanting work outside that I detailed in an earlier blog. I found three pine seedlings (barely two inches tall), which I dug up and moved into some gaps in the row of pines at the end of the orchard. I also found two apple seedlings under the old apple tree, and I hope to transplant those this weekend.

Better yet, some of the planting I did last fall has come up! Last May, my mom got Jenny and me 20 bluebell bulbs for our anniversary. The Newboldians who read this blog have fond memories of the Bluebell Forest that grew near the college. It was a 12-acre wood, and in late May and early June it was carpeted with thousands of bluebells.

Now the Bracknell Wood had a 100-year head start, but we're catching up. Last fall, Jo-Jo and I planted the bulbs in the woods next to our wedding site. This year about 12 flowers have come up.

(Admittedly the photo looks awkward, but if you look carefully, you can see the platform of our wedding chapel in the background of the pictured bluebell.)

In many ways this restoration will cost us well over $30,000. Yet in many more ways, it will be priceless. This place is a timeless place for Ditteses (and now Georges, too). Every tree I plant, every bulb I push into the ground is something I know that I will see in ten years and more--something that will probably outlive me and pass on as a gift to generations to come.

We cleaned out the attic (ahead of adding a new layer of insulation), and I found an old steamer trunk. It was empty of any artifacts, save for a bag full of very, very old women's shoes.

At first I was disappointed. Then I looked at the bottom. A torn sticker there had the words "G. Dittes." The sticker bears the name, not of my Grandpa, but of my great grandfather, Gotthold Dittes. Images appeared in my mind of his flight from Germany at age 18, the long trip across the Atlantic from Hamburg to New York; a photo of him at Niagara Falls, where he stopped on his way to see family in Minnesota (eventually he returned to New York to work and raise a family).

Did this steamer trunk make the trip? It's probably impossible to figure that out. All I know is that it won't be going back into the attic. Once the bedroom is finished (and I have restored the trunk), it will be my night stand: a great reminder of grandfathers, my love for travel and adventure, and the timelessness that makes me love this place so very, very much.