The significance of trees
You could see the Bible as a narrative arc starting with the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and the tree of life in the Garden of Eden (N.B. two separate trees) in Genesis chapter 2, moving onward to the Tree of the Cross at the (nearly) end of the Gospels, and looking towards the trees of life in Revelation chapter 22, which are many, bear fruit twelve times a year and have healing leaves. Adam and Eve are ejected from paradise in Genesis 2 ff. because they have eaten of the knowledge tree and shown that they can’t be trusted to be obedient, and God is worried that they will next eat from the tree of life and live for ever (Genesis 3:22). So trees are an integral part of the story right from the beginning.
We feel that trees are important, significant, mysterious; and we are only at the beginning of understanding how they work, and maybe even have systems of communication. They can be enormous and mysterious, like the great Canadian redwoods and the African podocarpus, or smaller and familiar, like the fruit tree in our garden, but there is always something special about trees. I feel that slogan about some watch or other is much truer of any tree; you don’t own it, you’re just looking after it for the next generation…..or several.
Trees in the Holy Land
There are only a few species of tree in the psalms, though there are more in the Bible as a whole (think of Noah and the ark made of gopher wood, which I imagine as having attractive stripes like some African woods, though I have no evidence for that at all, I think it’s probably based on Disney chipmunks). When we think of the bible landscape, it’s not usually forested, though Lebanon is famous for, and identified with, its cedars. It’s more sort of desert-like, dry and dusty, with lots of stunted bushes and not much shade. One great thing about the old blockbuster bible films is that the makers were so reverent that they filmed on the spot or as near as they could manage, so our mental pictures are probably fairly accurate. All the making the desert bloom and orange groves are of much later date.
Singing about trees in the psalms
But there are some trees in the psalms : olive, oak, fig, the mighty cedars, poplars (or maybe willows or aspens), date palms and other fruit trees. I am sad to say that there are no terebinths mentioned in the psalms. I’m not sure what sort of tree a terebinth is, but it is a lovely word. There are references to forests and green valleys, trees near to water. The psalmists wrote about their real world, and they refer to trees both literally and metaphorically. The very first psalm describes the just man as ‘a tree planted beside the flowing waters, that yields its fruit in due season’, but the leaves are described as never fading, so it’s a fantasy as well as metaphorical tree rather than a real one. The real ones occur in the Creation psalms, and they are often invoked to demonstrate God’s power (and sometimes the strength of his wrath).
The just man…..and the wicked
The just man is like a tree, but so are the unjust, though the point of comparison there is that God will uproot them and burn them up. The wicked are triumphant and tower like cedars of Lebanon in Psalm 36, but then vanish totally and no trace of them is left when the just man next passes by. I think there are two things going on here. Trees are the biggest thing that grows, so we are impressed by their size and strength; they live longer than a man. But when God chooses, he can uproot these mighty things by no more than his voice (the Lord’s voice shattering the cedar, rending the oak tree and stripping the forest bare, Ps 28). God’s power is always mysterious and seen only in its effects. This is one of the few things we can grasp about the Holy Spirit, as I said before, and the mystery adds to the effect (‘and no-one saw your footprints’ Ps 76).
God creates them and nurtures them, and he has the power to destroy them (his voice shatters the cedars as a divine punishment, Ps 104:33, the violence of the image paradoxically emphasizing the strength of the victim). Destroying trees is something only God does. Men may burn pieces of wood and branches, but only God is big enough to handle a tree. When the wicked attack the great vine in Psalm 79, they burn it with fire, but retribution is swift, and they will perish at the frown of God’s face. If a tree is strongly planted, with a safe water supply, only God can uproot it, as he does the wicked in psalm 51, ‘but’, the psalmist adds with blithe self-confidence, ‘I am like a growing olive tree in the house of God’, so we are imagining one of those beautiful courtyards inside the house, green and pleasant.
..and women and children
The neutrality of the image is unusual (trees as both good and wicked men), and slightly surprising. I think it is another consequence of the appreciation of trees as something much bigger than we are, and therefore hard to pigeonhole. Both good and bad men can be compared to trees, but women never rank anything bigger than a vine (smaller, need something to lean on, good when they are fruitful, Ps 127). Children are shoots of the olive, and we want them to flourish like saplings (Ps 143).
A vine can be as big as a tree, indeed can spread to fill all the available space (like Groot in the crisis in Guardians of the Galaxy, with a strong protective instinct leading to self-sacrifice; how myths recur). The mighty vine in Psalm 79 covers the mountains with its shadow, overtops the cedars and spreads from sea to sea: this is the same vine as in Isaiah 5, but on a huge scale. It represents the nation of Israel, and it sounds to be equivalent to Yggdrasil. Maybe women should not repine at being limited to vine metaphors.
Practical uses of trees
Trees also feature in the psalms as habitats: the birds of the air nest in them, but an altar can be an even better dwelling place (Ps 83), just as a tent is often the source of shade (Ps 26), because sometimes there aren’t trees when you need them. Again, we need to read the psalms in their own context. We think of tents as exotic or at least not a part of everyday life because we are used to trees; but in this desert land, tents are the norm, and trees are something special. This is one reason why sacrifices are burnt: wood is precious as well as whatever you are sacrificing. It takes time to grow; this is why a forest fire is shocking. A man can last eighty years if he is strong (Ps 89), but trees can last much longer. God can choose to uproot either, ‘swept away, green wood or dry’ (Ps 57).
Trees are valued for their fruit, their sap, their shade and all the things you can make from them : staffs, crooks, pipes, timbrels, two very important types of ark, Noah’s and Moses’. People celebrate by carrying branches to the altar (Ps 117, and Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem). Jesus himself is very clear about what makes a tree valuable, pruning it together with God to make it bear more fruit. ‘I am the vine and my Father is the vinedresser’ (Jn 15). He is not happy when he comes across a figtree which bears no fruit (Mk 11, Mtt 21). The idea of Jesus himself as fruit hanging on the tree of the Cross dates from at least the Middle Ages, considerably antedating ‘Strange Fruit‘, but our shock at that song ought to make us realise how much we have become habituated to the horror of the Cross.
Death on the Cross, the Tree of Life
Jesus’ cross as the tree of life is the central paradox which brings all the tree images together. The Armenian cross (and remember Armenia was the first country to become officially Christian) always has buds on the end of the arms of the cross, to show life not death.
It’s not the only cut wood with potential for growth in the psalms. ‘O gates, lift high your heads; grow higher, ancient doors,’ chants Psalm 23. Like Ezekiel’s dry bones in the valley, something fixed and dead becomes alive and dynamic; it can move and stretch. Resurrection is not limited. We have just seen in the Pentecost liturgy the power of the Holy Spirit to bring things to life, and because of Jesus and Easter, we can add ‘again’.
I’ve given the standard Grail numbering of the Psalms in this blog, because giving alternatives took up so much room. For US psalms, just add 1 to the number (not for Ps 1, obviously, but usually).
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