The Tree of Life is certainly the most significant object in the Garden of Eden. However, its presence has always been somewhat of a puzzle to students of the Bible because it is only briefly mentioned in Genesis: once at the beginning of the story in connection with the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, and once at the end when cherubim and a flaming sword are placed before it to prevent Adam and Eve from partaking of its fruit.
Though neither the nature nor the function of the Trees of Life and Knowledge are given explicitly in scripture, an understanding of temple teachings and layout can greatly illuminate this subject. This Essay will provide some background on the symbolism of these two trees. In Essay #60, we will see how their placement in the Garden of Eden relates to the layout of Israelite temples and makes their roles in the story of Adam and Eve apparent.
Symbolism of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil
The Hebrew expression “knowledge of good and evil” can mean knowledge of what is good and bad, or of happiness and misery—or, most arguably, of “everything,” if “good and evil” can be taken to mean the totality of all that is, was, or is yet to be. The variegated light and darkness in the photograph of the fig tree shown above suggests the ambivalent nature of this symbolism.
Perhaps the most relevant hint on the meaning of the phrase comes from Deuteronomy 1:39, which speaks of little children “who… have no knowledge of good and evil,” suggesting “that they are not legally responsible for their actions.” In this sense, the term refers not to abstract conceptual knowledge but rather to the kind of “knowledge which infancy lacks and experience acquires.” Thus, sensing his inexperience, the young King Solomon prayed for the ability “to discern between good and evil” so that he would be able to function in his royal role. The kind of understanding implied by the phrase “knowledge of good and evil” is, as Claus Westermann concludes:
…concerned with knowledge (or wisdom) in the general, comprehensive sense. Any limitation of the meaning of “the knowledge of good and evil” is thereby excluded. It can mean neither moral nor sexual nor any other partial knowledge, but only that knowledge which includes and determines human existence as a whole, [the ability to master] … one’s own existence.
Consistent with this reading of the phrase, Latter-day Saint scripture refers to the ability to know “good from evil,” which presupposes “man’s power to choose the sweet even when it is harmful and reject the bitter even when beneficial.”
The Prohibition on the Tree of Knowledge
The commandment specifying the prohibition of eating from the Tree of Knowledge is given in Moses 3:16-17:
16 And I, the Lord God, commanded the man, saying: Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat,
17 But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it, nevertheless, thou mayest choose for thyself, for it is given unto thee; but, remember that I forbid it, for in the day thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.
The phrase “thou mayest choose for thyself” is a Book of Moses addition to the Genesis account. The phrase serves to emphasize the fact that Adam and Eve are to be placed in a situation where they must exercise their agency in order to continue their progression. Elder Joseph Fielding Smith, speaking while an apostle, offered the following paraphrase of the command:
The Lord said to Adam, here is the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. If you want to stay here, then you cannot eat of that fruit. If you want to stay here, then I forbid you to eat it. But you may act for yourself, and you may eat of it if you want to. And if you eat of it you will die.
Fig Tree or Apple? Real or Figurative?
Jewish and Christian traditions often identify the Tree of Knowledge of good and evil as a fig tree, thus heightening the irony later on when Adam and Eve attempt to cover themselves with its leaves. The fruit of the fig tree is known for its abundance of seeds, thus an apron of green fig leaves is an appropriate symbol for Adam and Eve’s ability to “be fruitful and multiply” after the Fall. Less likely are suggestions that the forbidden fruit was to be symbolized by the grape, the pomegranate, or the apple (based on the correspondence between the Latin malus = evil and malum = apple).
Latter-day Saint teachings about the nature of the “forbidden fruit” include a wide variety of opinions. For example, while President Brigham Young and Elder James E. Talmage understood the scriptures as describing a literal ingestion of “food” of some sort, Elder Bruce R. McConkie left the door open for a figurative interpretation: “What is meant by partaking of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of good and evil is that our first parents complied with whatever laws were involved so that their bodies would change from their state of paradisiacal immortality to a state of natural mortality.” This topic will be discussed in more detail in a later Essay.
Symbolism of the Tree of Life
Since the Tree of Life is not specifically prohibited to Adam and Eve, commentators have often speculated on the question of whether Adam and Eve can be presumed to have eaten from it to prolong their lives so long as they remained in the Garden. However, a careful reading of Genesis itself seems to run counter to this view. For example, the use of the term “also” in Genesis 3:22 (Hebrew gam; “and take also of the tree of life”) suggests that they had not yet partaken of the fruit of the Tree of Life at the time these words were spoken. Evidence for the use of gam in the sense of “new and additional activity” is provided in Genesis 3:6 as well (“and also gave to her husband”). Additionally, Barr studied 131 cases of “lest” (Hebrew pen; “lest he put forth his hand … and eat”) in the Bible “and found none which means ‘lest someone continue to do what they are already doing.’” Specifically affirming such a reading is a unique Samaritan exegesis of Genesis 2:16 that specifically excludes the Tree of Life from the original permission given to Adam and Eve to eat from the trees of the Garden.
In contrast to the common idea that eating the fruit of the Tree of Life was merely a way to provide biological immortality, Elder Bruce R. McConkie maintained that its purpose was to confer the glory of “eternal life” — the kind of life that God lives—in whatever degree, of course, those who partake are qualified to receive it. Non-Latter-day Saint scholar Vos concurs, concluding that “the tree was associated with the higher, the unchangeable, the eternal life to be secured by obedience throughout the probation.” According to this view, Adam and Eve would not have been permitted to partake of the fruit of the Tree of Life at their own discretion. Like each one of us, Adam and Eve’s only approach to the Tree of Life was by way of leaving the Garden of Eden to pass into mortality, and finally returning at last to take of the sweet fruit only when they had completed their probation and were authoritatively invited to do so.
Olive Tree or Date Palm?
Ancient commentators sometimes identify the symbolism of the Tree of Life with the olive tree. Its extremely long life makes it a fitting representation for eternal life, and the everyday use of the oil as a source of both nourishment for man and fuel for light evokes natural associations when used in conjunction with the ritual anointing of priests and kings, and the blessing of the sick.
A variety of texts also associate the olive tree with the Garden of Eden. For example, ancient traditions recount that on his sickbed Adam requested Eve and Seth to return to the Garden to retrieve oil — presumably olive oil — from the “tree of his mercy.” Recalling the story of the dove that returned to Noah’s ark with the olive branch in its mouth, one rabbinical opinion gives it that the “gates of the garden of Eden opened for the dove, and from there she brought it.” Two days after a revelation describing how war was to be “poured out upon all nations,” Joseph Smith designated Doctrine and Covenants 88, by way of contrast, as the “olive leaf … plucked from the Tree of Paradise, the Lord’s message of peace to us.”
The date palm, on the other hand, is the symbol of the sacred tree in Assyrian mythology, and its longevity was a fitting symbol for long life to the Egyptians. The Old Testament Deborah rendered judgment as she dwelt under a palm tree, and the holiest places within the temples of Solomon and of Ezekiel’s vision were decorated with palms. As a sign of victory and kingship, palm fronds were a central part of the celebration of Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem. The Qur’an also describes the palm as providing shelter and nourishment for Mary, who was said to have given birth to Jesus in the wilderness beneath such a tree.
A single date palm tree “often yielded more than one hundred pounds of fruit per year over a productive lifetime of one hundred years or more. Akkadian synonyms for date palm included ‘tree of abundance’ (isu masru) and ‘tree of riches’ (isu rasu)—appropriate names for the vehicle of agricultural success and richness.”
Also in favor of the date palm as a representation of the Tree of Life are the Book of Mormon accounts of the visions of Lehi and Nephi. Lehi contrasts the fruit of the Tree of Life to the fruit of the forbidden tree: “the one being sweet and the other bitter.” The fruit of the date palm—often described as “white” in its most desirable varieties, well-known to Lehi’s family, and likely available in the Valley of Lemuel where the family was camped at the time of the visions—would have provided a more fitting analogue than the olive to the love of God that was “sweet above all that is sweet.”
The Oil-Bearing Tree of Mercy as a Third Tree?
Reconciling the competing conceptions of a Tree of Life that bears sweet fruit like the date as opposed to oil-producing fruit like the olive are ancient suggestions that the Garden story was concerned with three special trees rather than two. In addition to the original Tree of Life and Tree of Knowledge, the third tree, an olive tree, is said to have sprouted up only after the sin of Adam. Thus, in a speculative mood, one might consider the possibility of two “Trees of Life”: the original Edenic tree with its sweet fruit, destined as the ultimate reward of the righteous and arguably represented within the Holy of Holies of the First Temple, and the subsequently sprouted oil-bearing “Tree of Mercy” that may have been symbolized in the menorah that is said to have stood in front of the veil in the Holy Place. In the parlance of the doctrines of the Restoration, we might see in this interpretation the oil-bearing olive tree as representing the Savior, His healing atonement, and the Gospel covenants explained to Adam and Eve after the Fall that would eventually enable them to return to the presence of the Father and the enjoyment of the sweet fruit of eternal life.
The message about the results of eating of one or the other tree is clear. In both cases, those who eat become “partakers of the divine nature” — the Tree of Life symbolizing the means by which a fitting measure of eternal life is granted to the faithful, while the Tree of Knowledge enabling those who ingest its fruit to become “as gods, knowing good and evil.” The subsequent story of the Fall seems to teach, however, that eating of either tree in an unprepared state may bring dire consequences.
This essay is adapted from Jeffrey M. Bradshaw. Temple Themes in the Book of Moses. 2014 update ed. Salt Lake City, UT: Eborn Publishing, 2014. English: https://archive.org/details/150904TempleThemesInTheBookOfMoses2014UpdatedEditionSReading ; Spanish: http://www.templethemes.net/books/171219-SPA-TempleThemesInTheBookOfMoses.pdf, pp. 61–127.
Bradshaw. Creation, Fall, and the Story of Adam and Eve. 2014 Updated ed. In God’s Image and Likeness 1. Salt Lake City, UT: Eborn Books, 2014. https://archive.org/details/140123IGIL12014ReadingS, pp. 127, 143, 145, 163–168, 189, 206–210, 225, 228–234, 248–250, 261, 277, 295–296, 341, 440–441, 460–462, 591–595, 640–641, 654, 657, 699–700, 727–729, 748–750, 755–756, 758, 778, 858–859.
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Notes on Figures
Figure 1. Photograph DSC02933, 21 May 2008. Copyright, Jeffrey M. Bradshaw.
Figure 2. Photograph J-102, 1977. Copyright, Jeffrey M. Bradshaw.
Figure 3. Photograph DSC02894, 19 May 2008. Copyright, Jeffrey M. Bradshaw.
In Christian imagery a related idea was often visually represented by a cruciform tree flanked by two small identical trees from Paradise (J. O’Reilly, Iconography, pp. 176, 178, 186, 188, 192-193). The centrally depicted “Tree of Mercy,” said in other sources to have been planted by Seth over the grave of Adam, would be destined to bear “the fruit of the crucified Christ” (R. W. Baldwin, Legend. See also W. W. Isenberg, Philip, 73:15-19, p. 153; J. O. Ryen, Mandaean Vine, pp. 214-215, 221). Note the visual correspondence to the two thieves, crucified on either side of the Savior (Matthew 27:38).
The flanking trees depicted on the Holy Crown of Hungary surrounding an enthroned Christ are identified as heavenly cypresses (E. Tóth et al., Holy Crown, pp. 23, 28). In imagery going back to pre-Christian times, the paired trees represent “the cypress-tree and life-giving water, the pattern of the two ways, to left or to right” (E. A. S. Butterworth, Tree, p. 216).