Causes

What trees teach us about life, death and resurrection, part 1

I’ve always loved trees. I love their look, their shade, the sound of wind in their leaves, and the taste of every fruit they produce. As a grade-schooler, I first planted trees with my father and grandfather.

I’ve been planting them ever since.

Once, as I was training to become a doctor, my wife and I tree-lined the whole street where we lived. But a dozen years ago, when I offered to plant trees at our church, one of the pastors told me I had the theology of a tree-hugger. This was not meant as a compliment.

The church was a conservative one. It believed that Scripture is the inspired, inerrant Word of God. That’s why we went there. As one member explained to me, “Once you get onto that slippery slope of liberalism, who knows where you’ll end up.”

My first reaction to the pastor’s comment was, “Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe God doesn’t care about trees.”

Back then, our whole family was new to Christianity. My daughter hadn’t yet married a pastor. My son wasn’t a missionary pediatrician in Africa, and I’d yet to write books on applied theology or preach at more than a thousand colleges and churches around the world. What did I know about the theology of trees?

But ever since I encountered the gospel for the first time in my 40s, the Bible has been my compass. So when I was called a tree-hugger, I turned to Scripture to get my bearings.


God loves trees

Other than people and God, trees are the most mentioned living thing in the Bible. There are trees in the first chapter of Genesis (verses 11–12), in the first psalm (Psam 1:3), and on the last page of Revelation (22:2). As if to underscore all these trees, the Bible refers to wisdom as a tree (Proverbs 3:18).

Every major character and every major theological event in the Bible has an associated tree. The only exception to this pattern is Joseph, and in Joseph’s case the Bible pays him a high compliment: Joseph is a tree (Genesis 49:22). In fact, Jeremiah urges all believers to be like a tree (17:7–8). So does Psalms 1.

The only physical description of Jesus in the Bible occurs in Isaiah. “Want to recognize the Messiah when he arrives?” Isaiah asks. “Look for the man who resembles a little tree growing out of barren ground” (53:2, paraphrase mine).

Do you think trees are beautiful? You’re in good company. God loves trees, too. By highlighting every sentence containing a tree in the first three chapters of Genesis, you can get a pretty good sense of what God thinks about trees. Nearly a third of the sentences contain a tree.

Genesis 2:9 declares that trees are “pleasing to the eye.” This aesthetic standard does not waver throughout the Bible. Whether God is instructing his people on how to make candlesticks (Exodus 25:31–40), decorate the corbels of the temple (1 Kings 6), or hem the high priest’s robe (Exodus 28:34), the standard of beauty is a tree (and its fruits). If we were to examine the most comfortable seat in a home today, odds are that it faces a television. In heaven, God’s throne faces a tree (Revelation 22:2–3).

In Genesis 2, God makes two things with his own hands. First, he forms Adam and blows the breath of life into his nostrils (verse 7). Then, before Adam can exhale, God pivots and plants a garden (verse 8). It is here, under the trees, that God lovingly places Adam, giving him the job of “dress[ing] and keep[ing]” them (verse 15, KJV). The trees have their only divinely established tasks to accomplish. God charges them with keeping humans alive (Gen. 1:29), giving them a place to live (Gen. 2:8), and providing food to sustain them (verse 16).

Strangely enough, Scripture continuously portrays trees as things that communicate. They clap their hands (Isaiah 55:12), shout for joy (1 Chronicles 16:33), and even argue (Judges 9:7–15). What makes this pattern especially odd is that creatures that obviously do communicate — such as fish or birds – are virtually mute in the Bible. Over the thousands of years people have been reading the Bible, this has been passed off as mere poetry. But in the last two decades, tree scientists have discovered something fascinating about trees: They really do communicate. They count, share resources, and talk with each other using a system dubbed the “Wood Wide Web.” Learn more about this in part two.

This story originally appeared in – and is run with permission from – Christianity Today.

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