The Tree of Life

This post explores the origin of the Tree of Life in the creation story in Genesis and its link with the Logos in the Gospel of John. Logos is usually translated as “Word” but this is completely inadequate.

John’s Gospel opens with the words “in the beginning the Logos was.” These words tell us that there is a timeless, formless, pre-existent reality to time-space. This eternal presence is depicted in the creation story in Genesis, where it is called the Tree of Life. To open the Gospel of John with the first words of the creation story in Genesis makes the link between these two texts very plain. The Jewish mystic is trying to convey Hebrew ideas to a Greek audience. Genesis is the older Hebrew text – the Gospel of John the newer Greek text, written for the Jewish diaspora in the Greek-speaking world.

The depictions of the Tree of Life as the Menorah: the seven branched candle stand made from a solid piece of gold. 

The Tree of Life (Etz Ha Chaim) appears in the Hebrew text of Genesis in Ch2:9. The two Hebrew words Etz Chaim have multiple meanings:

Etz – Tree: also staff, bones, spinal cord – implying the axis of connection between heaven and earth, hence tree. Rooted in the earth, growing upwards, branching, and dividing as it spreads out into the heavens, it forms a circle or sphere in space embracing both sky and earth.

Chaim – Life: also breathing, growth, abundance, the burgeoning of life; greenness, the abundant flow of life from its source.

In Genesis 2:9 the translation reads: “And out of the ground the Lord God made 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, and the Tree of Knowledge of good and evil.”

A deeper translation of the second half of this verse, which tries to bring out the abstract spiritual ideas the Hebrew contains:  The Tree of Life stands eternally at the point of dividing in an enclosed space (This is the idea of space, which has no fixed form or dimension.) It is from this point of dividing that the Tree of Knowledge of good and evil continually emerges.

Geometric pattern of the Tree of Life – Synagogue, Cordoba, Spain.

The Tree of Life stands – eternally – at the point of division in any given space. It never ceases To Be. It is the timeless essence of life, uniting everything that appears to be dividing, because nothing is truly separate. Life only takes on the appearance of separation through its movement through idea into form. These ideas and forms can be understood as the universal laws that govern the codes of diversifying life, and for this reason the Torah is often referred to as the Tree of Life.

The Tree of Life is the eternal presence underlying the up-building and down-breaking of idea and form, which Genesis calls Etz Ha Da’at – the Tree of Knowledge of good and evil. This so-called Tree of Knowledge of good and evil is the continual creation that emerges out of eternal unity, which continually dissolves back into this same source.

In John’s Gospel Etz Ha Chaim and Etz Ha Da’at equate with the Logos, which, in the Greek world, expressed the continual emergence of the patterns of creation, from out of the eternal (timeless) essence of life. Logos was expressed through the symbolic languages of geometry and mathematics. I will explore the meaning of Logos in the next post.

This image of the Tree of life is one of the diagrams from my book, Patterns of Creation. This geometric form of the Tree of Life emerged out of spiritual and philosophical knowledge in the classical world, influencing the arts, literature, architecture and mathematics.