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.

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