The Beauty of Biblical Symbolism
One of the many things I love about Scripture is the symbolism stretched across its pages. It’s everywhere. Of course, it’s all meant to conjure imagery and teach lessons within lessons. Almost every story in the Bible contains a message within a lesson within another moral. I realize we can get carried away and start imagining things that aren’t actually there. We might extract beliefs that aren’t divinely intended without careful consideration, which can be dangerous. And many of my friends are understandably wary of focusing too much on biblical symbolism. I get that. However, avoiding biblical symbolism altogether robs us of vast, awe-inspiring realms of beauty that God intended for us to experience.
The Juxtaposition of Jesus’ Rhetoric
One thing many anti-symbolists forget is that Jesus alternated between straightforward and intensely parabolic teachings. What is a parable exactly? It uses imagery, stories, and symbols to illustrate a moral truth. Jesus is perhaps best known for His use of parables. And they weren’t always immediately understandable because the parables were peppered with prophetic meanings. Quite literally, many of the implications of the parables could not be understood because they weren’t intended to be comprehended at that moment. Like full-fledged prophecy, many parables only made sense in the future as events unfolded. It shouldn’t be surprising that Jesus interacted this way because God has always used signs, symbols, parables, types, and shadows in His communication with us. For example, when God rebuked Satan in the Garden after The Fall, He spoke cryptically: “And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel” (Genesis 3:15).
The First Good News
Genesis 3:15 is sometimes referred to as the “first good news” because it’s the first foretelling of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. God announced that a male descendant—He—would someday deal the serpent (meaning Satan) a fatal blow. The New Testament writers understood Jesus Christ to have fulfilled this prophecy (Hebrews 2:14, 1 John 3:8). In an extended sense, the New Testament also indicates that God would work through the Church—those indwelt by the Spirit of Christ—to destroy the works of the Devil (Romans 16:20).
The Significance of Symbolism
It’s worth considering why God would employ so much symbolism throughout Scripture. As best I can tell, there are three reasons: One, because Satan does not know the future, prophecy is purposefully vague to keep Satan confused. Two, if humanity knew the exact details of future events, we might be tempted to help them along when we need to get out of the way. Three, it builds faith when humans look back through the lens of history and see the puzzle pieces clicking into place.
The uninformed might assume the Bible is a carefully orchestrated body of literature. Perhaps, like an epic Tolkein novel, all the little loose ends are skillfully tied up in the mind of a genius for our consumption. However, the Bible is a library of individual books, with over thirty-three inspired writers spanning 1,500 years, written in different places, cultures, millennia, and perspectives. The only constant across the Bible’s pages is God’s inspiration. It would have been impossible, unthinkable, and unmanageable for mere humans to coordinate such a thing without the divine breath of God.
Therefore, when we see various symbols popping up throughout the inspired Book, we see glimpses of the marvelous mind of God. The magnificent consistency of eternal Truth peeks out from Genesis to Revelation offering fresh illuminations of ancient revelations. And while we should be careful not to build beliefs entirely on symbolism, it certainly can reinforce clearly defined doctrines. Powerful inspiration comes from recognizing that these symbols come from God’s throne, not men’s mere imaginations.
A Tale of Three Trees
It’s no exaggeration to say that trees are necessary for life to exist. They suck carbon dioxide out of the air and release the oxygen we need to breathe. Historically, trees have provided food, shelter, energy, sustenance, biodiversity, beauty, and soil preservation. We literally cannot survive without what trees provide for us daily. It’s also not an exaggeration to say a single tree was at the center of the utter destruction of God’s original created world.
Tree One: The Tree of the Knowledge of Good & Evil
And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat: But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die (Genesis 2:16-17).
In God’s interaction with Adam, He begins by offering a level of freedom that you and I have never seen or experienced. “Of every tree,” He said, “thou mayest freely eat.” Adam had unparalleled autonomy to do as he pleased. He had comfort, ease, authority, abundance, creativity, beauty, and eternality. The nature of God was to lead with freedom before establishing the first human law. This almost imperceptible detail allows us to glimpse the goodness of God towards humanity. We tend to view God’s laws as burdensome without taking the time to appreciate the freedoms God provides. God’s privileges and benefits far outweigh the weight of the laws He levies upon us. We also think it would be easier serving God if we had fewer rules and regulations. However, humanity’s first sin proves that God’s rules aren’t the problem. The frailty of our flesh and the pervasiveness of evil are the problems. The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil was not evil by its nature. There was nothing wicked about the tree. To claim this would imply that God created something evil, which would contradict Genesis 1:31. The tree was not the source of sin; humanity was. The tree didn’t contribute to man’s sinfulness beyond providing him with an opportunity to obey or disobey.
In Jewish tradition, the Tree of Knowledge and the eating of its fruit represents the beginning of the mixture of good and evil together. Before that time, the two were separate, and evil had only a nebulous existence in potential. While free choice did exist before eating the fruit, evil existed as an entity separate from the human psyche, and it was not in human nature to desire it. Eating and internalizing the forbidden fruit changed this, and thus was born the yetzer hara, the evil inclination. The closest comparison we have is the sadness of watching a child lose the sweet innocence of youth. No wonder Jesus commands us to be “born again” (John 3:5-7). It also sheds light on Jesus’ mysterious charge, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:1-5).
In Rashi’s notes on Genesis 3:3, the first sin came about because Eve added an additional clause to the divine command: “Neither shall you touch it.” By saying this, Eve added to God’s command and thereby came to detract from it, as it is written: “Do not add to His Words” (Proverbs 30:6). However, evil already existed in the heart of Lucifer. Adam and Eve’s first sin offended God in three ways: One, by rejecting God’s authority (we typically call that rebellion). Two, by distorting His instructions (His holy Word). Three, probably most offensive to God, by accepting Satan’s influence. All subsequent sins follow that same threefold pattern of offense against God.
Tree Two: The Cross on Golgotha’s Hill
Who his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness: by whose stripes ye were healed (1 Peter 2:24).
Because a tree became the symbol of condemnation looming before humanity in constant judgment. It’s fitting that a tree roughly formed into a cross by sinful hands would become the universal symbol of hope and salvation. In His infinite foreknowledge, God knew that He would become the sacrifice for our sins. Furthermore, God formed the tree that would become His mode of execution. When Lucifer slithered into Eve’s presence and convinced her to taste the fruit of the Forbidden Tree, he couldn’t have known that the mind of God had already formed the tree that would become crucial to the remedy. Only God can so thoroughly turn things around in such a beautifully poetic way.
Tree Three: The Tree of Life
22 And the LORD God said, Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil: and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live forever: 23 Therefore the LORD God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from whence he was taken. 24 So he drove out the man, and he placed at the east of the garden of Eden Cherubim’s, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life (Genesis 3:22-24).
Contrary to popular belief, the Tree of Life did not predate God. The Tree of Life received its life-sustaining properties from the Lord: “And out of the ground made the Lord God to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden…” (Genesis 2:9). Mankind lost the privilege of accessing the Tree of Life by eating from the Forbidden Tree. In that instant, death became a looming inescapable aspect of human existence. Physical and spiritual pain throbbed into the hearts of the First Father and the First Mother and has been passed down to every subsequent family tree.
Every teardrop, every disappointment, every disease, and every act of unspeakable horror is a direct result of that first sin. Even worse, humanity lost connection and relationship with its Maker. Consequently, losing purpose, fulfillment, direction, inward peace, and intrinsic joy. In a symbolic gesture of finality, God placed an angel with a flaming sword at the entrance of the Garden to keep guard over the invaluable Tree of Life. Humanity was cast into a cruel cursed world. Yet, it’s sublimely splendid how God allowed Himself to be nailed onto the same roughly hewn materials central to humanity’s first sin. While that splintered tree bore Christ, He bore our sins in His own body (1 Peter 2:24). A tree for a tree, a perfect sacrifice in place of hopelessly flawed sacrifices, that’s what Christ did for us. And if we take up our crosses and follow Him in this fallen earthly realm, we will taste the Tree of Life’s exquisite fruit when we step into that faraway country beyond this kingdom.
He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches; To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the tree of life, which is in the midst of the paradise of God (Revelation 2:7).