The Tree of Life in Jewish imagery (Revelation 22)

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The Tree of Life in Revelation 22 depicts the healing of humanity from the effects of the fall, the most terrible effect being death itself. This image is found elsewhere in the Bible and is widely appropriated in early Jewish religious language and art. The Three of Life in Genesis 2-3 represented the eternal life that humanity lost in the fall. In Ezekiel 47 trees with healing fruit grew alongside the river that flowed from the temple in the kingdom of God. The menorah, the lampstand placed in the temple, may have been an abstract representation of the Tree of Life. In Biblical wisdom texts such as Psalm 1, the righteous are compared to a tree planted by rivers of water. And in Proverbs 3:18 wisdom is described as a tree of lfe to those who take hold of her.

Outside of the Bible Jewish sources abound with references to the Tree of Life:

  • Trees appear regularly in Jewish artwork. They are especially common in funerary settings, in this context almost certainly representing the Tree of Life as a symbol of immortality.
  • The Tree of Life was common in early Jewish religious literature. A text called the Targum Neofiti says, “The Law is a Tree of Life to all who sturdy in it, and those who guard its commandments will live and rise up like a Tree of Life in the world to come.” In Ezra 51-52 Ezra is told that God will open paradise for the righteous: It is for them that the Tree of Life was planted. In 1 Enoch 24-25 Enoch saw the Tree of Life on a journey to the ends of the earth; it was planted on God’s mountain throne and was marvellously beautiful and fragrant. Rabbinic tradition suggested that the Tree of Life was so tall that it required a 500-year journey to scale it and reach the top.

There are many other such texts from Judaism. Collectively they tell us that the symbol of the Tree of Life powerfully evoked yearning for life and spiritual healing among ancient Jews, providing a Biblical symbol that they readily embraced. John was in effect saying that the only way to the true Tree of Life is through Jesus Christ.


 

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