Thursday, December 18, 2008

More Bookends: The Tree of Life

My last few posts on "cosmology" (the study of the earth) were begun by a comment from Barbara Rossing that II Peter's depiction of the earth as doomed for destruction is an 'anomaly' in the Scriptures. There remains the question, of course, of whether Rossing is correct in saying that II Peter is alone in seeing the earth doomed for destruction. One could argue that the same cosmology is found in Revelation 21: Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. The interpretive question would be whether heaven and earth 'passing away' means that they've been destroyed or that they've been transformed. The promise of heaven and earth passing away is found in he apocalyptic texts of Mark 13, Matthew 24, and Luke 21 (see my earlier posts for some comparative thoughts on these texts). But, of course, in Paul's language old things 'passing away' and all things 'becoming new' does not signify a final destruction and end of the old, but a transformation and radical renewal- such as happens when one becomes a person of faith in Jesus Christ.

I remain convinced that if II Peter is proclaiming a final destruction of the earth as part of God's plan, then it is an anomaly in the Scriptures. (However, I'm not certain that I think that is what II Peter is saying.) In other words, I do read the words "heaven and earth had passed away" and even "the sea was no more" in Revelation as pointing to the old order of creation that is radically renewed into a new order. By "old order" of creation, I mean the kind of inherent decay, the struggle for survival, the 'nature red in tooth and claw' (a la Tennyson), that human communities have experienced for years and years. That old order would include human insecurity over matters of land and food, and therefore includes making warfare and establishing walls and gates and empires and so forth. To some extent, the "old order" seems to be driven by a mentality of scarcity, where territorial boundaries and ownership become occasions for violence.

The new order, then, would be quite different and would be built on the premise of abundance, not scarcity. In times of abundance, when everyone has 'enough,' things like war, walled and fortified cities, etc. would be unnecessary. But, that kind of living is so far removed from most of humanity's experience that it would indeed be a 'new earth' if that were to occur. And, to get there, it would require an enormous overturning of the present order of things- so much so that to say this earth shall 'pass away' would not be overspeaking.

That's the kind of connection that I see in the Scriptures between the 'old earth' (the one we all know) and the 'new earth', if you will. And I think we see something of that kind of connection in the way that the book of Revelation picks up on a motif from the creation story and repeats it- but repeats it differently. I would argue that this is yet another episode of 'intertextuality,' where a later text takes up an idea or some language from an earlier text and uses it in order for the reader to understand what is being said. So, the later text (like Revelation) would use the imagery of an earlier text (like Genesis) and expect the reader to say, "Ah, yes, this is the Genesis story all over again." But, in intertextual uses, the later text not only receives meaning from the earlier text- it also adds new meaning to it. So, one would read a reference in Revelation and say, "Oh, so that's what the old story in Genesis was talking about." As Paul Ricoeur says, the later text very deliberately receives meaning and adds new meaning to the earlier text.

I simply never think that intertextuality is an accident.

So, here's a great example of a motif that begins in Genesis and is taken up and given new meaning in Revelation. I am using these two books, not because they are the earliest and latest books in the Bible (I happen to think that Job is the oldest), but because we are so accustomed to seeing them as the first and last books. And, I think whoever was responsible for the present arrangement of the books of the Bible as we have it now, saw some of these same connections very clearly.

So, in the book of Genesis, specifically in the second creation story (which, I think, is the older of the two), we find these words:
And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed. 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 the knowledge of good and evil. (Genesis 2:8-9)

As we've seen before, the second creation story gives us "the God of dirty fingernails" who creates the human (Adam) out of the ground (Adamah) and now is dirtying those nails once again by planting a garden. "Out of the ground" the Lord God made trees and plants for both beauty and sustenance. And in the midst of the garden is "the tree of life" as well as "the tree of the knowledge of good and evil."

You may remember that the fruit from the second tree, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, was the forbidden fruit that Adam and Eve ate nonetheless. When they did eat, God punished them. But, the reason God banished them from the garden was to prevent them from eating of the tree of life and being stuck forever in their disobedient, cursed state. So, after that, Adam and Eve move on in life outside of the garden, toiling with work and laboring in childbearing and contending with a ground that requires struggle to exact produce and so forth. But, the tree of life sort of gets forgotten. A flaming sword is placed at the entrance to the garden, so that nobody can go there, and that's about the end of the story.

I'm no expert on midrashic literature, but I'm guessing there is an abundance of it regarding this tree of life, because one thing the midrash does is to take up unresolved threads of the stories in the Bible and imaginatively follows them. If there are any midrash fans out there bothering with my blog, I'd love to hear from you on this.

One place where the 'tree of life' is revisited is at the end of the book of Revelation:
Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. Nothing accursed will be found there any more. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him; they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign for ever and ever. Revelation 22:1-5

The imagery is a bit different. Instead of a tree in the midst of a garden (the garden of Eden was bounded by four rivers), this time the tree of life is on both banks of the river of life. It has 12 kinds of fruits, one of which blooms for each month, representing abundance with no periods of scarcity or dormancy at all. And then there is that powerful, poetic phrase, "and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations." Now that's beautiful. It presupposes not just Adam and Even running nakedly through the utopian garden, a world of wounded nations. In response to that grim reality, the tree of life is not just a tree that could (dangerously) fix Adam and Eve in their sinful dispositions forever; it can heal the wounds of the nations.

The cosmology here is not that the entire earth and been trashed and all of its peoples have been wiped out- despite all of the oodles of blood, death, and destruction found in the book of Revelation. The cosmology is that there is still and earth, and still nations, and not just the pure and whole people but wounded nations, which struggle no more. Instead of scarcity over which nations rise up against one another in violence, there is abundance to which nations turn for healing.

The Tree of Life makes beautiful bookends for how the Scriptures envision God's creation.

More later... hang in here with me if you will- I'm trying to figure out my rhythm during busy seasons like Advent.

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