Like Trees Planted by Streams of Water – The Bible on Trees

Texts: Psalm 1 & Deut. 30:15-20

Happy (blessed) are those
    who do not follow the advice of the wicked
or take the path that sinners tread
    or sit in the seat of scoffers,
but their delight is in the law of the Lord,
    and on his law they meditate day and night.
They are like trees . . . .

I wonder if you’ve ever dug into the soil with your bare hands and attempted to trace a network of roots. It’s not so hard in tilled land, but if you were in the forest there would be so many roots that following just one or two would be difficult. Scientists who study these root networks often use water to wash away the soil to get a better look.

What I would like us to do today is role up our sleeves and push our fingers into the soil of scripture. We will try to follow a few strands from the root network that connects these 66 books. We will start in Psalm 1. The roots that I want us trace relate to what the bible has to say about trees.

I wonder if you have a favorite tree. Does a picture come to mind?

Trees made an impression on the biblical writers, just as they do on us. The writer Matthew Sleeth has pointed out that, aside from what it says about people and God, the bible mentions trees more than any other living thing. When we tug on this root we find it connected to many other parts of the bible. Some of these are well known, like Psalm 1. Others are less so.

Here’s an example that seems relatively obscure to us (Deut. 20:19):

If you besiege a town for a long time, making war against it in order to take it, you must not destroy its trees by wielding an ax against them. Although you may take food from them, you must not cut them down.

Although not a passage we reference often, this description of how to value trees remains a key text in Jewish environmental ethics. It would surely have been one known by the psalmist and by the New Testament writers.

Here, let’s trace a somewhat larger root: One of the central characters in Genesis 2 & 3 is a tree, “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” This passage is connected to the final chapter of the Bible, Revelation 22, where we read about a tree that grows from the banks of the “river of life.” This is the “the tree of life,” whose leaves “are for the healing of the nations.”

These two passages are connected to the center of the biblical story, where Jesus’ messianic mission is often understood as fulfilling the arboreal vision of Isaiah (c. 11), who said: “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.

Jesus teaches with reference to trees. The mustard “tree” or shrub is one example. Before his death, Jesus was given a “crown of thorns”—likely from the jujube tree, a relative of the buckthorn (a relative, I believe, of the common Ontario invasive).

Acts 5:30 describes Jesus’ death as being on a “tree.” By using the word “tree” the writer is linking this cataclysmic event with the book of Genesis.

Interestingly enough, when Jesus is resurrected, he is mistaken for a gardener. Perhaps he was attending to the trees. In the book of Romans, Paul tells us that the inclusion of gentiles in the people of God is like a wild branch grafted on to a well established, cultivated tree.  

I am reminded, perhaps some of you are too, of the recent novel by Richard Powers in which trees serve as central characters. You can’t read much of the bible without stumbling over one tree root after another.

One of the things we emphasize at A Rocha is the value of getting to know the specifics of your place. As we get to know our neighbours, our human neighbours as well as the plants and animals whose space we share, our appreciation for them grows. As our appreciation grows, our lives become richer, more interesting, more marked by wonder and awe.

Several weeks ago, some of our staff resolved to find a water bear. Knowing whether a bear exists on a 90-acre property seems like a relatively easy thing to do. However, a water bear is a bit different. More formally known as a tardigrade, this creature is a segmented micro-animal with eight legs. You need a microscope to see one. They are a millimeter at the largest. The water bear or tardigrade is one of the few creatures that can survive without water for years. Two of our A Rocha educators found a water bear in some moss.   

There is much to discover about our world when we look into the specifics. Though our psalm today includes only a generic reference to a tree, many other biblical writers took note of specifics. We read about olive trees—they are very prominent—but also about balsam, fig, palm, cedar, willow, sycamore, lotus, pomegranate, apple, myrtle, oak, poplar, mulberry, and almond.  

If we had more time, we could explore the burning bush (Ex. 3), the sweetening of the waters of Marah (Ex. 15), Isaiah’s hand-clapping trees (Is. 55), the extended tree metaphors in Ezekiel (esp. Ez. 17), the resilient tree of Job 14, any number of other psalms, the pomology of the Song of Songs, the conversion of Zacchaeus (Lk. 19), and Jesus’ prayer among the olive trees.

The story of scripture cannot really be told without referring to trees. The moral teaching of scripture is hollowed out if we forget what it says about trees. The poetry of scripture deflates if we were to exclude trees.

If we want to hear what the Spirit is saying to us through the scriptures, we must attend to trees.

This would have come naturally to the original readers of the texts that make up our Bible. We, having distanced ourselves from the natural world, must be more deliberate.

We’ll turn out attention back to Psalm 1 in a moment, but friends, part of the message I want to bring to you today is that the Bible is an ecological book. Ecology is the study of relationships. Or more formally, according to the American Ecological Society: “Ecology is the study of the relationships between living organisms, including humans, and their physical environment.”

The biblical writers were concerned with these relationships. They knew that God cared about the relationships of people and land. And they knew that these relationships were the location of both sin and grace.

We taste this grace whenever we eat a peach or an almond. We feel this grace it when we enjoy shade. We smell this grace when we take a breath of clean air or inhale the scent of a pine forest on a hot day.

The biblical writers, some of them at least, would have said we see sin in these relationships when trees are needlessly destroyed, when our actions make it difficult for them to grow. Neal Plantinga describes sin as “culpable shalom-breaking.” That is a disruption in right relationship. I think the biblical writes would say that we disrupt shalom when we take the trees of God’s blessed creation for granted.

And the thing is, attending to things like trees, other aspects of God’s creation as well, is interesting. It’s satisfying to know more about our place and community of life.

Now, in the time remaining, let’s turn our attention back to Ps. 1 and Deut. 30. We’ve taken note of the fact that this reference to trees connects us to the rest of the bible.

However, there is no singular way in which these many references to trees function. Trees are a flexible figure throughout both testaments deployed by writers in different ways.

This just means that, through the guidance of the Holy Spirit, trees can function like icons pointing us to God. By taking trees seriously the biblical writers believe we can learn about ourselves; we can learn about the rest of creation; and we can learn about the Creator.

Now, remember these lines from Psalm 1?

They are like trees
    planted by streams of water,
which yield their fruit in its season,
    and their leaves do not wither.
In all that they do, they prosper.

The biblical poet is inviting us to look at a thriving tree, one that has good access to water. That would have been rarer in the Mediterranean basin than it is here in Canada. We have something like 20% of the world’s fresh water. So, if we are to experience this psalm, we need to picture a thriving tree, one that has access to good water when such a thing cannot be assumed. We need to picture a tree that has leaves which are not withered, a tree that produces fruit according to the season.

So go ahead create an image in your mind . . . .

My mind goes to some of the gnarled oaks I have known and to the towering red pines of Algonquin Park. Maybe you picture a fruit tree. The poet is telling us that such trees can teach us about our own life. We are not as different from trees as we might think. Just like them, we require appropriate nourishment. And this nourishment should produce in us a life that is fruitful, a life that benefits others.

The flourishing of the tree is a natural and expected product of its nourishment. A question naturally arises as we contemplate this image: if our lives are not benefiting others—producing fruit—why not? The poet’s answer is that we are not receiving the right nourishment.

The satisfied person—the “happy” or “blessed” person—is the one who soaks in the “law of the LORD.” A life that is not so, is not like a tree, but like chaff, like the leftover bits of the harvest—fleeting, of little use, not resilient or productive.

Now we must note that the tree shows us that the productive character of our life need not be constant or linear. There will certainly be seasons when we, like any healthy tree, will not be outwardly productive or showy. Even a well nourished, well rooted life will include seasons of grief and pain.

Many congregations around the world today are reading this psalm alongside Deuteronomy 30. “Choose life so that you and your descendants may live;” love “the LORD your God,” “observe his commandments . . . then you shall live.” This is surely what the psalmist has in mind.

The thriving and productive tree is one that is well nourished. The thriving human life is deeply rooted in the life and will of God.

So, what might God’s Spirit be saying to us? For many of us this weekend represents a turn toward a new school year, a return to regular work routines, the beginning of a seasonal shift. And all this is happening after several months where we have been returning to activities that we have missed for a long time.  

This is a time that will test our roots. Are we nourished by the life and law of God? Are we capable of not withering and producing fruit that benefits others? This point in our calendar is an invitation for reflecting on our roots, not our historical or cultural roots, but the roots of our spiritual practice.

Are we soaking in the story of creation and redemption? Do we know where the direction this story is pointed? Do we have a vision of God’s shalom in our minds? Do we sense God’s love in the depths of our heart?

I’m convinced that growing in our understanding of creation is a part of this. Just as trees can be icons of a life that chooses life, so can many other elements of creation. . . if we have eyes to see and ears to hear.

For instance, Jesus tells us that considering wildflowers can reduce our anxiety. In a flower—Jesus mentions a lily—we see God’s care for a life form that can do little to defend itself.

The biblical poets and prophets were entranced by the natural world. Some ancient theologians liked to point out that the only bible Moses read was the book of creation.

The fact that God sustains the world—trees included—is an invitation for us to join the biblical poets in consideration and contemplation. We’ve reflected mostly on trees today, but you could trace the roots of other biblical nature themes. The literary tendrils that connect water, or birds, or fire, or grass, or storms—they run throughout both testaments.

This is a marvelous time to explore these, both in the book of the bible and in the book of creation. There is much that encourages, engages and enriches—every bit sufficed with divine grace and with God’s love for the world—all of the world.

God of all wisdom, draw us into your own life. Make your will our own. Allow us to take delight in your good creation, as do you. And may we learn, under the direction of your Spirit, how to choose life. Amen.

*Though the views expressed here are my own, I am inspired by the work of my A Rocha colleagues. If you would like to learn more about A Rocha Ontario or support our work of creation care, please look us up on the web and consider signing up for our e-newsletter.

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