Can a tree be on both sides of a river?
Is the Tree a him or a her?
There’s an interesting puzzle in the final chapter of Revelation: A single tree that is situated on both sides of a river in the heavenly New Holy City.
How can a tree grow on both sides of a river?
The King James says, “And he shewed me a pure river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding out of the throne of God and of the Lamb. In the midst of the street of it, and on either side of the river, was there the tree of life, which bare twelve manner of fruits, and yielded her fruit every month: and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.” (Rev 22:1-2 (KJV)).
Interesting that the KJV has “her” fruit. I wonder if the feminine is explicit in the original Greek, and if so, if the tree is associated with Her, or if it is Her in some way?? Or did the translators make the tree feminine because it has fruit?
I was wondering how the tree could be on both sides of the river and imagined it to be a very large tree straddling the river with roots on both banks of the river and roots going down into the river water, much like trees in a mangrove swamp stand up over water on stilt-like roots.
A translation by Priests for Equality1 is very different: “On either side of the river grew the trees of life which produce fruit twelve times a year, once each month.” So that translation has multiple trees of life. Also, it has fruit twelve times a year but not necessarily twelve kinds of fruit as does the King James. Why can’t these translators agree?
You might think that there are multiple trees of life. After all, Ezekiel has many such trees: “Behold, at the bank of the river were very many trees on the one side and on the other. . . .bring forth new fruit according to his months . . . . and the leaf thereof for medicine. (47:7, 12 (KJV)) Clearly, the author of Revelation was inspired by this passage more than a little.
I suspect there is only one Tree of Life and it is the same tree of life as that which is in the Garden of Eden; or the Garden that is east of Eden. Check out Genesis 2:8 for the location. How can that tree now be relocated to the New Holy City of Jerusalem in Revelation? Easy – it is a mystical tree. It can be anywhere and everywhere at the same time.
I discovered that I was right to envision a very large tree. I came across a chapter in a yoga spirituality book by Swami Sivananda Radha 2 that gives an overview of some mythological trees. Some of these trees can be cosmic in dimension. They offer refuge to animals that have special symbolism and the trees nourish humanity. Evidently, these sorts of trees are universal?? or at least may be found in myths in places that have trees. The book has a drawing of a tree from a Nordic tradition that has only one of its roots going into a pool with a fountain. Other roots are dedicated to other functions and the tree is shown much larger than the water. In myth, that tree is gigantic and is called Esche or Igdrasio and is “connected with all parts of the universe, all aspects of life” (she is quoting Larousse World Mythology 1971).
An Egyptian painting from the thirteenth century BCE has a mother goddess distributing food and drink from a tree of life and she is part of it2 (Radha cites William H. Peck 1978). In other myths, deities reside in trees.
The author also points to Jesus’ saying in Matthew 13:31-32, “The kingdom of heaven is like to a grain of mustard seed, which a man took, and sowed in his field: Which indeed is the least of all seeds: but when it is grown, it is the greatest among herbs, and becometh a tree, so that the birds of the air come and lodge in the branches thereof.” (Here I have used the KJV instead.) Until she made that reference to the mustard plant-tree, I had assumed that the meaning was simply that the Kingdom of Heaven was very large. Now I see a connection to the mythological super-trees of life which harbor various animals, in this case birds. (The Nordic tree has an eagle, cock, and hawk, in addition to snakes and deer.) The implication for me is that the Kingdom of Heaven is likewise a refuge and nourishing.
There is another tree with birds in Ezekiel 17:22-23. It is a cedar that bears fruit and has “fowl of every wing” in the shadow of its branches, and represents what? – a new Israel??
By coincidence, I also came across this description of a mythological tree turned monument in the nation of Kazakhstan, “Baiterek, which means ‘tall poplar tree’ in Kazakh, is a 318-foot tower buttressed by an exoskeleton of white-painted steel. At the top is a gold-tinted glass sphere. According to the epigraph at its base, the monument represents the Kazakh myth of Samruk, a sacred bird that every year lays a golden egg – the sun – in the crown of an enormous tree of life.” 3 It is a symbol of the new capital city Astana. The “egg” contains an enclosed observation deck. A gold statue of the bird (like an eagle with wings spread) appears at the top of another monument.
Will we ever get back to a style of living where we have enough reverence and respect for the natural world that we use it to symbolize the spiritual world? Christmas trees and Easter eggs are echoes of this past.
I found a poignant passage from the nineteenth century where the author, seemingly aware of the destruction of nature, then just beginning in earnest, sees myth as helping to prevent that destruction: “It is not improbable that many of the ancient superstitions relating to trees and groves originated with wise men, who believed that such holy fears alone would restrain the people from devastating the whole earth by the destruction of trees. Science now supplies mankind with rational motives for their preservation, in place of the religious scruples of ancient communities.” 4 Oh, dear. More than a hundred years later, we are still waiting for “mankind” to have “rational motives” and apply “scientific” principles to “preservation.” Science can only provide a remedy if anyone pays attention to it. (Stop any ten people on the street and ask them if global warming is a problem.)
By the way, symbolism can be used to represent spiritual concepts and I don’t call that “superstition.” The biblical author of Revelation used the symbolism he (or she) had at hand and was respectful of it.
Some sweetness from the nineteenth century: “The sounds from trees are a very important part of the music of nature; but their agreeableness comes rather from certain emotions they awaken than from the melody of their tones. Nature has accommodated her gifts to our wants and sensibilities, so that her beneficence is never so apparent as in the pleasures we derive from the most common objects. If we are afflicted with grief or wearied with care, we flee to the groves to be soothed by the quiet of their solitudes, and by the sounds from their boughs which are tuned to every healthful mood of the mind. Among the thousand strings that are swept by the winds, there is always a chord in unison with our feelings; and while each strain comes to the ear with its accordant vibration, the mind is healed of its disquietude by sounds that seem like direct messages of peace from the guardian deities of the wood.” 5 Well, if you live in a concrete canyon, surrounded by the constant noise of man-made machines, you don’t ever hear the wind in the trees. And I suppose the idea of a cosmic tree dispensing health and nourishment could mean nothing to you. (Or everything?)
Here’s an illustration6 of a shepherdess with her staff, with a baby lamb and her suitor?? at her feet, along with her sheep in a dream-like pastoral setting near water, near trees, nearly heaven. Perhaps she has everything she needs, even wind in the trees. And birds chirping in the trees. Neither the shepherdess nor her young man had the agony of competing in a classroom well into adulthood in order to become a cog in the great machine that is Global City.
Let’s remember how heaven used to be
I’ll guess that the very first readers of Revelation knew their own myths and had no trouble at all visualizing a great Tree of Life that straddled a river of life and provided all within the Kingdom-that-comes with all they ever really needed.
The tree of life should not be confused with the infamous tree of the knowledge of good and evil, some of whose fruit I think is very bitter. Maybe there is no turning away from the temptation for humankind to learn the full spectrum of good and evil. But can the mystical tree of life withstand the consequent devastation? (Think of how much evil has been created in this world.)
I have noticed that the young man in the picture above is gazing off into the distance, and not at the shepherdess. Perhaps he is bored out of his mind with all his happiness and is contemplating a search for the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
Does it matter where you put a period? The New Revised Standard Version lets me know that there are at least two different ways to translate the verses describing the tree of life in Revelation 22:1-2. Either the tree is in the river and on both sides of the river, or the tree is on both sides of the river (spanning it like a bridge?). Compare:
“Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.”
Alternate in NRSV footnote: “In the middle of the street of the city, and on either side of the river, is the tree of life.”
Another footnote lets me know that the tree of life is alternatively the “tree of the Lamb.” So how is it associated with the Lamb (symbolizing Jesus, no connection – other than synchronistical – to the lamb in the image above).
Well, I thought I could leave it at that, and ignore Radha’s hint that the Tree of Life is more – it is me – it is you. She quotes from Gaskell, Dictionary of All Scriptures and Myths, and I’ll try to encapsulate all that by saying that the cosmic process is replicated in the individual. She also cites Psalms 1:3 in which the righteous are “like a tree planted by the rivers of water, that bringeth forth his fruit in his season; his leaf also shall not wither.” (I have used the KJV here.)
I have to wonder at the “his” in this translation; is this how it is in the Hebrew and was the patriarchal biblical author recasting a story of a feminine tree, making the tree masculine? If not, why not just say “its”?
The New Testament would seem to confirm this idea that the Tree of Life is in me and you. I rather suspect that Revelation’s Holy City is supposed to represent the landscape of one’s individual consciousness. The Book of John says: “As the scripture hath said, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water. But this spake he of the Spirit, which they that believe on him should receive.” (John 7:38-39 (KJV)). What is this “scripture” that John refers to? The NRSV has footnote references, but these point to passages (Ezek 47:1 and Zech 14:8) that have the living water flowing out of Jerusalem or a Jerusalem temple, not human bellies. Did the author of John mean to substitute the individual for the holy city? Or are they one and the same, or one a replica of the other but on a smaller scale or different level? And if the living water is coming out of me, perhaps the Tree is somewhere in my interior landscape also.
I have some reluctance to speculate how the Divine could be in me, but if I am somehow the embodiment of a tree, harboring sacred animals (snakes – wisdom, birds – alertness, deer – spiritual yearning, etc.) and the Divine is the wind that makes music in the tree, then I guess that’s alright.
The Daily Word gets into this vegetative mode of interpreting our life experience with a quote from Mark 4:28, “The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head,” and explains, “Like seeds that sprout and grow into mature and productive plants, my priorities and goals are planted in the fertile soil of my mind and heart. I nourish them with attention, thought and action and carry them to fruition.” (February 29, 2012). The Daily Word also has an explanation that recalls for me the idea of living water gushing forth: “I exude love, joy, laughter, and appreciation for all that is.” (February 19, 2012).
As members of the Cosmic Christ we all have the ability to arrange our interior landscapes in such a way that they are fruitful like a tree and overflowing with living water. Quite a theory, wouldn’t you say?
While translators take the liberty of making multiple trees of life (the NRSV has such for Psalm 1:3), I’ll guess there is supposed to be only one tree – it is the One that we will become eventually, collectively, many branches but one tree.
We do not know what is the foundation for our little lives, but it seems to me that a lovely tree is an apt symbol for our hope.
Well, I thought I would leave it at that, but then I found an interesting tree in a recent National Geographic article on the Oglala Lakota who are Native Americans in South Dakota. I can’t say for sure it is a “Tree of Life,” but it seems to have features similar to those found in the eastern hemisphere: sun, cosmic implications, and goodies in branches. Now I don’t intend to start a conversation here on how ideas can get spread around. (Ideas can spread independent of DNA, don’t you know?)
There is a photo of two dozen people or more carrying a very large cottonwood tree (more than 60 feet long judging by the size of the people) across grassland. It is erected in the earth for a ceremony called a “Sun Dance.” “The colorful ties on the tree contain tobacco and other offerings and represent prayers for the people and for all of creation.”7
Well another tree is hardly worth mentioning, but it was the blood-letting ritual that is part of the Sun Dance that got my attention. “At each ceremony scores of invited participants dance, meditate, pray, are purified in sweat lodges, and fast for days at a time. Men who are deemed spiritually equipped to withstand this symbolic act of communal self-sacrifice are pierced with bone pegs at the end of ropes tied to the branches of ritually harvested cottonwood trees. They then jerk themselves free, tearing their skin in the process.”7 At first this reminded me of a practice I had read about in the Philippines (in the Filipino Express) where young men have themselves nailed to wooden crosses, but do not actually hang from the crosses as far as I could tell. Those young Filipino men do this to honor Jesus?? As an outsider to both these cultures, I really can have nothing to say, not fully understanding what is happening.
Nevertheless, I was also reminded of a legend in ancient Rome and Anatolia, popular before and during the timeframe for the development of Christianity, as recounted by Merlin Stone: in the legend, the sacred blood of Attis, the goddess Cybele’s young lord and a shepherd, is spilled by a wild boar while Attis is against a tree. In ritual, an effigy of Attis was tied to a tree and then buried, and then after three days a light signaled salvation from his rebirth.8 Stone also explains that in Egypt, the sycamore fig tree was considered to be the “‘Body of the Goddess on Earth.’”
I was also reminded of the current practice of hanging blood-red striped Christmas candy canes on evergreen (“always living”) trees at the time when the winter sun begins its return. Now I’m not going to claim that candy with red food-coloring is an ancient practice, but it may somehow be a reflection of something more ancient.
I think the author of Revelation would have us believe that the Tree of the Cross is somehow supplanting or possibly relating to the Tree of Life in some way: a comparison that would have been favorable to Christianity and would have had meaning to first-century readers. Or the author is saying that the well-known Tree of Life is indeed synonymous with the Tree of the Lamb; the Lamb being Jesus, sacrificed on a tree.
Other authors of the New Testament want to be sure we know that the cross is a “tree” and call it a “tree.” (Acts 5:30, 10:39, 13:29; Galatians 3:13; 1Peter 2:24)
I suppose that there are two different ways of looking at blood sacrifice: (1) the blood is a life-giving gift from a deity (as with the death of the young lord Attis), or (2) the blood is needed to sate a deity (as in Aztec human sacrifice). Kahlil Gibran,9 not usually given to morbidity, says, “When you kill a beast say to him in your heart, ‘By the same power that slays you, I too am slain; and I too shall be consumed. For the law that delivered you into my hand shall deliver me into a mightier hand. Your blood and my blood is naught but the sap that feeds the tree of heaven.’” Blood feeds the Tree? Is God blood-thirsty? Many passages in the Bible present God as blood-thirsty, being sated with the blood of his own Son (the “debt-payment”), delighting in the genocidal destruction of cities, sending killing floods and plagues, needing the slaughter of sacrificial animals, etc.
Whether the Tree consumes blood or whether it is providential and life-giving is perhaps a very ancient dispute, pitting those who were in favor of making human sacrifices of their neighbors against those who abhorred human sacrifice. While the Gospel, on its surface, makes Jesus into a human sacrifice, a careful analysis of the historical context reveals that the Gospel is steering the people of that time away from sacrifice (sacrifice of animals was commonplace) by saying sacrifice was no longer necessary thanks to Jesus who had brought salvation – a radical new idea for that time and place. The God of the Gospel does not need to be sustained, but is sustaining us.
Was the crafter of the Jesus story with sacrificial blood and the tree of the cross, reacting to the Pagan story of Cybele and Attis, or building on it, or reforming it, or just using symbolism that people at that time generally understood? The Gospel has staying power because it is written down, but it can last only as long as the symbols have meaning, either their original meaning or new interpretations that are meaningful, and as long as people are willing to learn about the symbols. Christianity taught in a cultural vacuum, with no comparative religion study, brings only ignorance – the authors of the Gospel were obviously well-informed about the religions of their day and to understand the Gospel, we need to understand what the authors and their first-century readers understood!
Bloody sacrifice or blood-letting may be central to tree symbolism and extremely ancient or the blood stuff may be an aberration and not originally connected to tree symbolism; I don’t know which. It might be that a tradition of male bleeding originally developed to mimic the creative power of the female womb with its menses (and I’m not the first to propose this mimic theory but have no intention of researching it right now). Or it might be that “male-saving-blood” is a social counter-weight to “female-creative-womb-blood.” Today we can still think that the male bleeding exemplified by Jesus represents caring self-sacrifice, even if we don’t believe blood is magical.
I decided to take another look at the Tree of Life in the Book of Genesis to see if it had blood-letting associated with it. Not that I regret looking, but here goes another detour. I hope it is fairly well-established that the Garden of Eden story is not an original but is rather a heavily edited version of contemporaneous myth(s), and I do not intend to add a ton of footnotes right now. The Great Goddess and her symbol of Wisdom, the snake, are recast by the patriarchal biblical author as the hapless Eve and a diabolically cunning snake. In fact, later interpreters have turned the snake into Satan. I did not find blood-letting in the Garden or near its trees, but the story continues as the action moves away from the Garden and Abel is slain by his brother.
There is a clue that this slaying may be a recast of a more ancient story. In Goddess mythology, the virgin Goddess has a son who evolves into her consort (and in the interim is both), and later still becomes a powerful god, sometimes more important than her; this evolution taking place as patriarchy took hold among peoples of the Mediterranean. Early on, he is sacrificed by her or at her direction (or through some other agent) to bring fertility to the land (or some other purpose). The Goddess weeps because her bridegroom is sacrificed.10 In this context, the killing of Abel is not unexpected. His name is our clue. Ab-el means, or is derived from?? father-god (aba-el). (I don’t know Hebrew so that is just a guess, but probably close enough.) “Father-god” is not a name that the patriarchal biblical author would have chosen for Eve’s son because it conflicts with the idea of creator-god the author is promoting. You’d end up with two gods, creator-god and father-god. So “Abel” is residue from another myth that featured a son/consort who had evolved into a powerful “father-god.”
Abel is very similar to the name of Baal, the lord of Ashtoreth, the Goddess of Canaan (Old Palestine). Baal is mentioned in the Hebrew Bible and means, or is derived from?? father-god (aba–el). (Again, just a guess.) Did every “supreme” male god in the Mediterranean area evolve out of the son of the Virgin myth, even Yahweh-father-god? (Yahweh?? Substitute a “b” for the “w” pronounced as “v”?? and it sounds very linguistically similar to Abel to me.)
The name Abel, meaning?? father-god, does not seem to fit with the name of Abel’s murdering brother Cain whose name, I suppose, reflects the nation of Canaan, and may be an addition from a later date when the Hebrews enter Canaan. Cain is the eldest, whereas it would be the first-born son who was slain in Goddess tradition? – so the biblical author has made this change? The biblical author has Cain banished from his homeland of Canaan, very conveniently I might add, and it would seem that this banishment is a parallel to the banishment of the indigenous peoples from that land as it was stolen from them by invading and genocidal hoards of Hebrews. The implication by the biblical author being that Yahweh-father-god endorses this theft.
There is another clue in the Cain and Abel story to Goddess myth origins. Abel’s blood “crieth . . . . from the ground” and the earth had opened “her mouth” to receive it, and Cain is cursed from the earth and the land will not yield “her strength” to him and be fruitful (Genesis 4:10-12 (KJV)). I don’t know if “her mouth” and “her strength” are in the Hebrew or are maybe poetic license on the part of King James translators. If original, “her mouth” and “her strength” might possibly be a reference to another mythology in which the earth was a female deity who brought forth the abundance of the harvest. Human blood might have been poured into an opening in the ground (“mouth”) in order to feed the deity and increase fertility. To his credit, the biblical author is speaking against this practice of human sacrifice by saying it brings a curse. Contrast his effort, which may have been an attempt at reform, with the successful portrayal of the Lamb, whose blood is beneficial, not a curse, eliminating the need for any further sacrifice of any kind.
The authors would have done better to not make Jesus into a human sacrifice and to simply state that Providence does not have a need for sacrifices, but one can only lead where people will follow and people in that time and place were only ready to accept the idea that no more sacrifices were needed because “Jesus was the perfect sacrifice.” However, the authors manage to make their anti-sacrifice stance perfectly clear (my post, “The Perfect Sacrifice”).
Keeping in mind that I don’t intend to start a conversation on how ideas can get spread around, I have to insert something here about the Aztec earth goddess Tlaltecuhtli. Her image is on a 12-ton stone relief-sculpture discovered in 2006. The sculpture shows blood going into her mouth, or that’s the interpretation of the author of the National Geographic article,11 who writes that the goddess is “the symbol of the Aztec life and death cycle, squatting to give birth while drinking her own blood, devouring her own creation.” The blood rises from her womb to her mouth. By the way, this interpretation that the earth goddess Tlaltecuhtli was selfishly and horrifyingly consuming all creation may not be what the indigenous artist(s) intended at all. It would appear to me that this particular goddess is drinking her own menses and she is not eating a person or anything else resembling a creation. Wouldn’t it be ironic if the sculpture was revolutionary, proclaiming that the Source of Life was self-sustaining, was not sustained by her creation, and that therefore, no more human sacrifices were necessary?
I don’t know if this Aztec goddess is the same as a female deity of today that I’ve heard of, south of the border, who consumes the “filth” (pejorative?) in our lives (meaning divine forgiveness of sins?).
Well, one “mouth” (in the Cain and Abel story) is not necessarily the same as another and much of what I’ve written about Cain and Abel is quite speculative on my part. And I still have no idea if the Tree of Life being linked to blood-letting is an aberration or not.
Those who think that the Aztec blood imagery is unappealing and could not possibly signify a benign deity should ask themselves if they believe that the image of a bloodied Jesus hanging on a tree signifies a benign deity. Yes, it’s supposed to. I admit I can’t know for sure what the Aztec artist(s) intended. Who knows what interpretation will be made of the icons called “crucifixes” many hundreds of years from now? Maybe people won’t understand then. Already many don’t because Jesus is often preached divorced from his sacrificial roots.
I thought that was it but then my Bible fell open to 2Samuel and I paged through some of it and found the story of Absalom and the flight of King David (really!). So that was too good to pass up.
At the time of David, there was the rule of women (the “wise woman” in 2Samuel 20:16 (KJV)) alongside newer patriarchal forms of society and we can catch a glimmer of the sacrifice of the king – when his time comes. David has to flee from his son Absalom, and no, we are not told that David is being hunted down to become a human sacrifice, but some elements of Goddess tradition and matrilineal social structure are there in the texts. Sacrifice of an actual ruler had been fading out before this late date in history (but I have to ask – was a king-sacrifice who did not rule in his own right an actual king??).12 David ruled circa 1000 BCE.
The patriarchal biblical author makes a point of telling us that David’s ten women were left behind (15:16). Now were these David’s women or were they the matrilineal group of royal women who were the foundation for David’s power, and David belonged to them and had been selected by them? The author tells us that the young king-to-be Absalom “went in unto” the ten women in front of witnesses, “in the sight of all Israel.” (16:22) This is some sort of public ritual where the new (and energetic) young king is taken into the household of royal women, not a rape. A tent was pitched for this special occasion. But the patriarchal author is letting us know that times have changed, the tables are turned; and it is not old worn-out David who is killed but the young upstart Absalom who is killed, while inadvertently snared by branches of a tree, yes a tree, an oak no less! (18:9-10) The royal women are not free to choose a new king as would be their right in the surrounding communities?? because David returns and imprisons them. To the patriarchal author they are merely “concubines.”
Yes, times were changing. Patriarchy was ascendant. Royal women were becoming irrelevant. Old myths of sacrifice and trees were being rewritten to make a point in favor of patriarchy. Absalom dies because it is the “Lord” who delivers David (18:19). This lord was Yahweh, a divinity exclusively male (except for a linguistic echo of female spiritual wisdom). Totally alone, just him and his maleness. The Illimitable limited by gender – nothing can top that for brazen idolatry, and yes, every representation of God ever made has been limited, therefore has been imprecise, therefore has been idolatrous, but is there any rational reason for making God into a male? Does a spirit have a gender?
The patriarchal biblical author would have us believe that David left the ten women behind “to keep the house.” (15:16) Ahem, with armed invaders attacking!?! And David took with him the rest of his entourage (except for a few men left behind to spy) and his big army – but not the ten women!?! Seems likely that the women did not stay to “keep house” but rather, they stayed because they had already selected Absalom and they had no reason to leave with David and he could not force them to leave – either the women were protected by taboo, or they were already under the protection of Absalom, or under the protection of many dozens or hundreds of loyal eunuchs, or the ten women were symbols of alliances among the ten tribes and to harm the women would be to invite retaliation from the ten tribes?? Or the ten tribes had opted for Absalom and the ten women did likewise??
The ten women were imprisoned but were not otherwise harmed by David. Why is it necessary for them to be perpetually celibate, that is, shut up in “widowhood”? (20:3) David is miffed? Or are their reproductive rights a political issue? Perhaps by not allowing the royal women access to any new male or “king” (even after the nine month timeframe needed to resolve any paternity issues), David can assure his own throne. There is a clue that the ten women are the center of a political dispute as the ten tribes walk out on David saying, “We have ten parts in the king.” (19:43 (KJV) the NRSV has “shares.”) The confinement of the women apparently happens just after that but still, if the women represented alliances formed among the tribes, the elders of the tribes might not like it that David had deserted the women and failed to honor their choice?? Certainly the elders of the tribes would not have approved of their royal daughters and granddaughters, given to David to cement alliances, being held in enforced celibacy.
The fate of the ten women can hardly be important enough for the biblical author to mention if they are merely “concubines” in the English sense of the word, that is, sex objects belonging to the male. Obviously, the author, writing history, feels a need to record that the succession through David is valid because the women had been forced into celibacy and he tells us that Absalom had no children. There is a passage saying just the opposite (14:27 (KJV)), that Absalom had three sons and one daughter, so maybe the author has been less than careful in his editing of history, or as a friend has suggested, this may be a case of conflicting entries in the text by two different authors? Absalom proclaims his lack of male heirs on a monument (18:18) before he (um) goes “in unto” the ten women in the tent. It would seem that the author takes the issue of succession very seriously. If any heir was born after the women were confined, I suppose that baby didn’t live long. Maybe I’m missing something about Absalom’s children or lack thereof, but I’m not going to go back over that text right now. If the royal women can no longer determine the succession, then what are people to do but accept the succession through the only available male, David? We can catch a glimpse of the techniques used to institute patriarchy.
The author has some interesting symmetry in the story. There are ten women who participate in the tent ritual to welcome the new king, and there are ten men who step forward to impale him on the tree – could he still be alive after three previous spear thrusts to the heart? The ten men would seem to be re-enacting some ritual of sacrifice or the scene is supposed to recall such? Or they are merely expressing fealty to their commander who has just delivered the fatal blow? An echo is heard in the spear thrust into Jesus’ side while he is already dead and hanging from a tree. The ten men would seem to be redundant but maybe are the author’s negation of the political power of the ten royal women?
David, in a macabre twist, takes on the role of the high priestess representing the Goddess who offers the blood of her son/consort “lord-king.” David becomes the one making the blood offering, albeit unwillingly, through his officers who slaughter the young lord, king-wannabe, David’s son Absalom. Thus we can understand Jesus’ riddle, “If David then call him Lord, how is he his son?” (Matthew 22:43-45 (KJV)) which reveals the relationships present: Absalom becomes the “lord-king” by being the one sacrificed, and is also David’s son. Likewise, the Lord and King Jesus is the sacrifice that the Father makes of his own son.
This role reversal, with the male instead of the female presiding over the sacrifice of the lord-king was important to both the author of 2Samuel and the Gospel, and of course, is an attempt to show their readers that men are important and women are not in the greater scheme of things, with the larger and more worthy goal of putting a stop to human sacrifice (still practiced in the Near East even after David’s time – see Ezechiel 16:20-21 and 36, 20:26, 20:31, 43:7-9 (Catholic Douay) but how long did it continue?).
Whether a historical Jesus was a biological descendant of King David or was called the son of David by his biographers because he was the new Absalom (a sacrifice by a father), we can’t know as the genealogies are yet another puzzle to unravel. Whether there ever was a Jesus of Nazareth who was an actual political figure who wanted to be a ruling king in Old Palestine or whether the lord-king-son-Jesus is just a patriarchal literary construct using themes found in the stories of David’s son Absalom and Eve’s son Abel, we can’t know for sure. But I think Jesus could have been a real historical figure. The letters of Paul and Acts indicate strongly that people were responding to what they thought was a story of a real person. But the entire New Testament could have been a fiction invented by reformers who thought they were justified in doing what they did. The fiction might have been recognized as such by many people at that time, but was close enough to what was actually believed and practiced in Pagan tradition so that people saw it as a very positive reform and accepted it?? I must say that Paul’s (um) extreme personality would be very difficult to fabricate. It shines through the seven letters scholars believe are authentically his.
Now I am noticing that the name of Absalom’s murderer, the soldier Joab, looks suspiciously like the Hebrew equivalent Ye/Yo –Ab (if one assumes that Je=Ye as in Jesus (from Greek) =Yeshua (Yahweh-saves), and Jo=Ye as in Joshua=Yeshua, and Ab is short for Aba = father) and thus Yo-Ab has the meaning of “Yahweh-father.” So “father-god” kills Absalom instead of “mother-goddess” doing it. And Absalom means – father-something, what? Thayer has “pacific”/“peaceful” for the Hebrew for Solomon and Salome respectively. So Absalom means father-peace. So this story has been layered with imagery from local legends the biblical author is trying to re-invent?? And why does the Jesus story track this so well with Yahweh-Father arranging the sacrifice of Jesus, the Prince of Peace?
Did Absalom actually exist? I’ll guess yes because why else would the biblical author care if Absalom had heirs? Was Absalom at fault? A rebel against his own father? I’ll guess he just expected that his father, being old and perhaps unable to fulfill the expectations of the royal women, or no longer favored by the ten tribes, would just step aside as convention demanded.
There’s no doubt where the author stands on this issue – “concubines” should not rule. The patriarchal author is demonstrating that regicide can be patricide (not necessarily an issue to the local practitioners of matrilineal heritage where the identity of the father was not important), and warns that young men who cooperate with royal women can end up being the victim instead. The author plays up the symbolism of the tree to highlight the fate of Absalom who may in fact have suffered this quirky end. The author does not actually say Absalom’s long tresses were caught in the branches, but the author devotes much space to describing Absalom’s bountiful hair and so interpreters make it so. Women can and should be leaders alongside men, but maybe this will only happen when men have forgiven and then forgotten the abuses of the Goddess worshippers (making of eunuchs and human sacrifices).
There is another clue that the biblical author may be giving us a dose of Pagan imagery – David’s weeping. There are nine long verses on how David wept for Absalom (18:33 and 19:1-8 (KJV)), when that could have been covered in four words, “David wept for Absalom.” Is there some significance to this torrent of weeping – like maybe readers are supposed to recall the Goddess weeping for her slain son? – who knows? It seems that some story elements may be far older than David’s time.
I have to wonder how much the patriarchal biblical author isn’t telling about goings on in the time of David. David’s predecessor Saul committed suicide in battle but was then hung on a wall by his enemies (not a tree). His recovered body was burned and his bones were placed under a “tamarisk tree” (1Samuel 31:13 (NRSV)). My Webster’s tells me that several species of this genus yield a manna. Whether this is a healthful fruit or what I don’t know. But might not this manna-giving tree be considered a Tree of Life? Interesting, this connection between dead/dying kings and trees.
There is a slightly different ending for Saul in 1Chronicles 10:12 (KJV). There Saul is buried under an oak! We get the idea that an oak is a place of worship or ritual among the Pagan peoples of Old Palestine (Ezekiel 6:13 and Hosea 4:13). Worship for the Pagans may have revolved around trees and hills (word search “green tree” in KJV at biblegateway – approximately ten more meaningful results). So to have Absalom and Saul be associated specifically with oaks may have had special symbolism.
From a practical perspective, a tree (or other anchor) would be an essential part of a ritual of human sacrifice – to tie up the victim. I don’t recall ever reading about cannibalism also being practiced among the Mediterranean Goddess worshippers, but one might assume that “drinking the blood and eating the body of Jesus” is a thread that extends back in history to sometime, somewhere.
And by the way, are there / were there actually “oaks” near the Mediterranean? I’m not going to research that right now. Maybe “oak” is a translator talking or maybe a racial memory of the biblical authors from before the Hebrews moved south? Many “oaks” in the NRSV are footnoted as “terebinths” so I’ll guess it is at least partly a translation problem.
Well, that’s just my off-the-cuff interpretation of the Absalom story.
When Abraham (first-father) sets out nourishment for divine guests under an oak or terebinth (Genesis 18:1-8 (NRSV)), I think the patriarchal biblical author wants us to see this against the backdrop of the Goddess (first-mother) and her sacred tree which nourishes.
I think that the idea of a cosmic, life-sustaining tree (minus the blood) makes a good symbol for our environmentally-distressed times. Of course, if many millions of us go out in December and buy chopped-down and dying Christmas trees that have been grown on agricultural land needed for food for the poor, and transported using climate-changing fuel oil, and which will waste electricity being lit, waste resources being decorated with mountains of decorations, and take up space in thousands of landfills, then we are practicing consumerism and killing trees, the opposite of being life sustaining. Think of how the deer, the winter birds, and the small woodland creatures suffer when their homes are destroyed as literally millions of trees are removed each year. This December, why not put a bit of decoration or a tiny gift or a little something meaningful but eco-friendly on a living tree in your yard if you are so fortunate to have such a tree, or walk to a nearby park and visit a tree there, while giving thanks for sustaining Grace and welcoming back the sun?
Letting our society degenerate so that we are merely consumers striving to consume more and more and more in a greedy frenzy, and allowing corporations to ruin our planet, run our governments, and use our military has been a big mistake. We have to get back on the main path to Life. What is our idea of utopia? A quality life? Of living in a living world?
Seems to me there is a poem about a tree that goes something like this in part:
“A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast;
A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;
A tree that may in summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;”13
I put some lines from a poem by Joyce Kilmer here so I could comment on them. Do I think that this young man killed in WWI knew all about the ancient Tree of Life? Certainly the motifs he used were available to him in some form (or he invented all of this imagery?): flowing water, nourishing earth, feminine earth, fountain-like breast, birds in tree, feminization of tree with her hair, her arms, with the tree like a person that is hungry, has a mouth, a bosom, prays, etc. What dogma tries to destroy, art remembers. The poet reminds us that “only God can make a tree.” The tree is not God; rather, she prays to God and God created her. Likewise, the Kingdom of Heaven is not God but God’s.
Seems like everybody knows about this Tree.
And here it is again, this time in a Christmas carol from the 16th century or earlier. This tree has food and drink (pears, eggs from geese a-laying, milk from maids a-milking), gifts (gold rings, music), water (swans a-swimming), birds (of many kinds, some edible), and animals (cows implied). I wonder if this song which also has “lords” and virgins (“maids”) has roots deep in antiquity. Of course I am talking about the song, “The Twelve Days of Christmas” which I quote from below because I am commenting on it:
“Twelve drummers drumming
Eleven pipers piping
Ten lords a-leaping
Nine ladies dancing
Eight maids a-milking
Seven swans a-swimming
Six geese a-laying
Five golden rings
Four calling birds
Three French hens
Two turtle doves
And a partridge in a pear tree”14
Could this pear tree be a Tree of Life with healthful fruit? Should we assume that all these items are “in” the tree, even all the people, because “in a pear tree” is sung last? Just as all is in God’s Kingdom?
And is it “all”? Does the Tree of Life contain cockroaches, West Nile mosquitoes, Lymes ticks, poison ivy, and tooth decay? Does the Tree of Life encompass the tree of the knowledge of good and evil? Or is the Tree of Life reserved only for the fine and noble elements of our life experience? Who knows?
It is interesting to me that unlike other Trees I’ve written about in this post, the pear tree in the song has people in it (presumably “in” it). And if the Kingdom is replicated in me, can I have all this activity of “leaping, dancing, drumming and piping” going on inside me? Am I the one doing and being and having? Am I the one “through whom all things are created”? Whoa!
The song also says, “my true love gave to me,” then lists the 12 items. Who is my true love? The One who made the Tree. And among the many gifts on the Tree, perhaps I can find whatever it is I am looking for or trying to accomplish.
Did this idea of a Tree of Life with gifts and healthful fruits arise independently in many different locations or did the idea circle the planet? I know I said I wouldn’t get into that. But what if? What if there were communities that were essentially matrilineal that revolved around a queen or high priestess who was the representative of the Goddess and this queen-person had bureaucracies of eunuchs as has been postulated.15 She would send out bands of eunuchs as explorers ahead of soldiers (needed for defense) and ahead of agricultural workers (needed for food) and ahead of women and their husbands (needed for child care) to search for trade opportunities, especially in lean years when the landless? eunuch bureaucrats could not be so easily fed?? This could be an explanation for why there is subsequent expansion of pyramid building in both hemispheres but isolated DNA?? a b c Availability of sea-going technology ( sea-going rafts, barges, etc.) and knowledge of currents and stars was of course essential for exploration but perhaps easier to come by than the well-organized social structure needed for building a sea-going craft and supplying it. Bureaucracies of eunuchs would have had organization skills in abundance and as victims of mutilation, may well have been motivated to leave their homelands in order to preach reform. Well, enough of this theorizing – my eunuch theory of idea migration is probably not going to catch on. So on with another tree or more.
It’s not hard to understand why the Tree of Life was used to symbolize Jesus’ Kingdom of Heaven (the Kingdom is like the mustard seed …. tree), when you read parts of the Hebrew Bible that have trees of life symbolizing a king/kingdoms as follows:
Ezekiel 31:3-7: “The Assyrian was a cedar in Lebanon …. All the fowls of heaven made their nests in his boughs, and under his branches did all the beasts of the field bring forth their young, and under his shadow dwelt all great nations …. His root was by great waters.”
Daniel 4:12: “The leaves thereof were fair, and the fruit thereof much, and in it was meat for all: the beasts of the field had shadow under it, and the fowls of the heaven dwelt in the boughs thereof, and all flesh was fed of it.” (KJV)
In both these cases, the trees are very fine but are eventually destroyed.
Can the mystical Tree of Life ever change or be destroyed? Well, I just don’t know. Some Bible texts I’ve quoted have the Tree producing fruit in months or according to season, and I suppose there is the dry season and the rainy season or cooler and warmer seasons around much of the Mediterranean. Kilmer’s16 tree has snow sometimes (“Upon whose bosom snow has lain”) and so may be more like the hardwood trees I’m used to of temperate climes with spring blossoms, summer glory, autumn color, and stark winter beauty. So does the tree change? Have seasons? Like seasons of life? Makes me think how we can find something to enjoy in every season. In every moment?? Reminds me of how there is infinite freedom in every moment and infinite possibilities. Every moment can be graced and fruitful. The Kingdom of Heaven is composed of such moments.
There are more references to trees of life in the Bible (Proverbs 11:30, 13:12, 15:4, Jeremiah 17:8, and more in Revelation – 2:7 and 22:14), but I’m going to focus momentarily on a particularly nice tree of life that I like in Proverbs 3:13-18. Here we see what is left of the divine feminine in the Hebrew tradition. She is Wisdom.
“Happy is the man that findeth wisdom …. Length of days is in her right hand; and in her left hand riches and honour. Her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace. She is a tree of life to them that lay hold upon her: and happy is every one that retaineth her.”
This wisdom isn’t street smarts, IQ, or anything like that. Having wisdom and being wise is being open to divine Wisdom (“she is a tree of life”) and her gifts, and realizing myself using her ways.
Nice to contemplate.
1 The Inclusive New Testament, Priests for Equality, Brentwood, Maryland, 1994 ((Rev 22:2).
2 Swami Sivananda Radha, Hatha Yoga, The Hidden Language, Symbols, Secrets, and Metaphor, Timeless Books, Spokane, Washington, 1995, pages 105-117.
3 John Lancaster, “Tomorrowland: Astana, the new capital of Kazakhstan, is brash and grandiose – and wildly attractive to young strivers seeking success,” National Geographic, February, 2012, pages 86-87 and 100-101, photographs by Gerd Ludwig.
4 Wilson Flagg, A Year Among the Trees; or, The Woods and By-Ways of New England, Educational Publishing Co., Boston, Massachusetts, 1889, page 260.
5 Ibid., page 250.
6 Ibid., scan of illustration that has no title or attribution, facing page 1.
7 Alexandra Fuller, “In the Shadow of Wounded Knee,” National Geographic, August, 2012, pages 48-49 and 60-62, photographs by Aaron Huey.
8 Merlin Stone, When God Was A Woman, Barnes & Noble Books, NY, 1976, 1993, pages 146, 147, 175, 216.
9 Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1923, 1969, page 23.
10 Merlin Stone, When God Was A Woman, Barnes & Noble Books, NY, 1976, 1993.
11 Robert Draper, “Unburying the Aztec,” National Geographic, November, 2010, pages 112-114 and 122, photographs by Kenneth Garrett and Jesus Lopez, credit for illustration page 123.
12 Merlin Stone, When God Was A Woman, Barnes & Noble Books, NY, 1976, 1993, page 134.
13 Joyce Kilmer, “Trees,” February 2, 1913. Kilmer info is from Wikipedia and is not verified.
14 The Reader’s Digest Merry Christmas Songbook, Editor: William L. Simon, The Reader’s Digest Association, Inc., Pleasantville, New York, 1981, page 4 of insert, page 26 of music.
15 Merlin Stone, ibid.
16 Joyce Kilmer, ibid.