When God creates all things good for human beings, a specific tree is mentioned: the Tree of Life (Gen 2. 9). It is put in the middle of the Garden of Eden: this garden planted by God (Gen 2. 8).
At the pivot point in the history of humanity is the Tree of the Cross, the life-giving tree.
History comes to an end as the Tree of Life is again mentioned. At the very end of time, it flourishes, perhaps as a group of trees, on both sides of the River of the Water of Life which flows from the Throne of God (Rev 22. 1 – 3). This is in the Holy City of the New Creation.
All through the Bible there is mention of trees and they are often used in familiar stories and events, in poetry and prophesy. They play a part in the story of redemption. In this set of reflections various aspects of trees (some admittedly fairly tenuous) will be examined. Hopefully this will lead to further thought or investigation on the part of the reader.
In general a chronological or historical approach will be used but some freedom and flexibility may also be applied if deemed appropriate or expedient.
This theme has been chosen to take us through the Trinity season because the liturgical colour for this season is green, evoking thoughts of new life, flourishing and hope.
‘They will be called oaks of righteousness’ [Isa 61. 3]
In the Bible oak trees are the setting for many significant meetings. Like wells people gather in these locations to rest, pitch a tent or wait to meet before travelling on or undertaking a journey or battle.
Abram, who walked with God, [Gen 17.1] journeyed and encountered enemies as he followed God’s call to leave his home and travel towards the place where God was directing him. As Abram set out and arrived at Canaan he passes by Shechem and the oak of Moreh [Gen 12. 6] Her God tells Abram that this is the land he will be given. Abram responds by building an altar there. God had made a covenant with Abram, telling him he would be the father of a great nation and his name would be changed from Abram to Abraham. During this encounter, Abraham laughed [Gen 17.17], saying that he and Sarah were both too old.
At one point in the journey Abraham pitches his tent by the oaks (Terebinths) of Mamre and an important encounter ensues. Three strangers approach and, as was the custom, Abraham offers them hospitality. He invites them to rest under the oak while he prepares a meal. They ask why Sarah is not with Abraham. These strangers tell Abraham that Sarah, his wife, will have a son [Gen 18. 10] Both Abraham and Sarah were old and now Sarah, eager to be part of the encounter and listening by the tent door, laughs. Soon afterwards the strangers leave. Who were these mysterious men: angels perhaps?
Both Abraham and Sarah have laughed at the prospect of having a child in old age but when their son is born he is called Isaac [Gen 21. 3]. This Hebrew name means “he laughs”. Isaac, Abraham’s son, has twin sons, Esau and Jacob. They are great rivals and repeatedly quarrel. Jacob often has trouble keeping his family faithful to God. After one incident God tells Jacob to collect up all the foreign gods, get everyone purified and make an altar at Bethel (House of God). Jacob buries all the trinkets under the oak near Shechem [Gen 35. 4]. When one of the family servants dies, he buries her under an oak near Bethel [Gen 35. 8].
At the end of their wandering, the people have to cross the Jordan to enter the Promised Land. Once across they are instructed by God to remember to obey the commandments. Among the various tribes they encounter are the Canaanites who ‘live in the Arabah, opposite Gilgal, beside the oak of Moreh [Deut 11.30].
As the people settle in the Promised Land and enjoy a time of peace, Joshua, approaching death, calls them together and reminds them of their history and their covenant promise with God [Josh 23 – 24]. The people renew the covenant and, to mark the occasion, Joshua sets up a stone under the oak in the sanctuary [Josh 24. 26].
In the time of the Judges the people are constantly forgetting the covenant and various disasters befall them. Among the leaders, the Judges, at this time is Gideon. Under the oak at Ophra a messenger from God appeared to Gideon [Judg 6. 11]. His message is that God has commissioned Gideon to lead the people against their enemies. After a sign from God, Gideon builds an altar to God and destroys the altar to Baal. Later having received various signs and messages from God [Judg 6. 33 – 7. 18], Gideon leads the army to victory. However the offer of setting up an hereditary monarchy along with fame and power became Gideon’s downfall.
There was disorder after the death of Gideon and eventually Abimelech led a revolt and was made “king” ‘by the oak of the pillar at Shechem’ [Judg 9. 6]. This is where Abram built an altar, Jacob hid the items of pagan worship and Joshua set up the stone.
Later, kings, beginning with Saul, rule over the people. After Solomon one of the kings is Jeroboam. As he offers incense on the altar, a man of God from Judah appears and prophesies [1 Kings 13. 1 – 2]. He asserts that ‘a son shall be born to the house of David, Josiah’. Josiah was to prove to be a good king bringing in many religious reforms. He might also have been responsible for the gathering together of the text of the book Deuteronomy. During his reign, Jerusalem became the centre of worship. However the prophecy was not well received by Jeroboam. Later another old prophet came to look for this man of God and found him ‘sitting under an oak tree [1 Kings 13. 14] but because he disobeyed God, this man of God was killed by a lion [1 Kings 13. 24].
In the third section of Isaiah the good news is given to people who are called ‘oaks of righteousness’ [Is 61. 3]
Father God, help us to wait patiently
under the shade of your love
and to enjoy the fragrance of your kindness,
so that we may be ready to receive you
when you visit us with your promises
in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.