The Story of the Bible, Told by Trees

The stuff of earth is the stuff of life—and also the stuff of the biblical story. Trees, mountains, water, and food all figure prominently in the slowly unfolding drama of the Holy Scriptures.

Now the fact is, there are lots of prisms for viewing the storyline of the Bible, many built from big theological concepts like covenant and kingdom. But it’s also possible to over-theorize the Bible, turning it into a collection of abstractions. But the Bible itself doesn’t do this. The Bible keeps its story close to the ground, making sure we remember it’s fundamentally a down-to-earth saga.

So, following the lead of the Scriptures themselves, we want to give you some takes on the big story from the perspective of four earthly elements of redemption. These windows into the Bible’s narrative of renewal are all the stuff of life. First up, those uniquely shaped, taken for granted, yet completely necessary partners in the creation, the trees. Next, we’ll explore how high places and mountains, free-flowing water, and moveable feasts each play their own part.


The Bible: A Story in Trees

From Dying Branches to Leaves of Healing

Humanities professor Alan Jacobs, who’s written a bit about the gospel of trees, says “If you understand the trees, you understand the story.” And it’s true, the trees are there from start to finish, and one tree in particular is at the very center of the entire narrative. Trees can be both strange and beautiful, common and magnificent. Trees, apparently, are aptly made for playing key roles in the performance.

In the beginning, God said let there be a world filled with light and dark, turning from day to night and back again. Let there be earth and sky and land. And right in the midst of it all, let there be trees—of the seed-bearing fruit kind in particular.

God then gave the trees to all the beasts, and all the birds, and all the creatures that move along the ground—everything that had the breath of life in it. The trees were a gift from the Creator for the flourishing of life on his newly-made earth.

And it was so. And it was good.

Therefore, there are trees everywhere in the story. They are sign and symbol of the existence of life itself, which should be unsurprising since they are the longest living organisms on earth. Methuselah, a Great Basin bristlecone pine in California’s White Mountains, comes in at over 4,800 years old. The longevity of trees gives us a picture of the endurance of life.

But trees, of course, do much more. They provide food and shelter and shade. They lower temperatures, filter water, sequester carbon dioxide, and continually pump out the very oxygen the rest of us breathe.

In the Bible trees are often signposts and gathering places, and they provide images of both the blessing and the judgment of God. You can tell how the story is going based on what’s happening with the trees.

In the time of Noah, still early in the narrative, the fate of the whole earth was itself already in jeopardy, and all the trees were flooded. But God was not quite done with this whole shebang, and Noah sent out a dove to search for some sign of life in the aftermath of deluge. When it came back with the leaf from an olive tree in its beak, Noah knew there was a chance. A chance for the story to move forward, however tentatively, toward some kind of better resolution.

Then Abraham, chosen as God’s answer to Adam’s failure, was brought to a new land to help the story get a new start. After surveying the length and breadth of this unfamiliar place, he decided to settle in the vicinity of the great trees of Mamre, a place he did not own. He was a sojourner at this point, someone living off a promise-not-yet-turned-reality.

The Bible’s story is always a story of promises. It does get to some “Alreadys”, but there are always more “Not Yets.” Abraham was staking his future on that place of great trees, believing against the evidence that great things would be done by his own as-yet-non-existent family. And it would all be for the sake of the life of the world.

When Abraham’s family turns into a nation of slaves, God sends a man with a wooden staff to rescue them. God’s power flares from that staff, and the road to freedom is opened. When the liberated people are stuck in a mostly lifeless desert, God leads them to camping places like Elim, home to twelve springs and seventy palm trees. Islands of trees, proof of water nearby, are lifelines to a new land.

Trees end up being the barometer of the blessings of the covenant bond between Israel and God. When Israel celebrates how God rescued them, the festival begins with the people taking “branches of luxuriant trees—from palms, willows, and other leafy trees” to build temporary shelters as they remember the Exodus and rejoice before the Lord for seven days.

Covenant faithfulness means that Israel’s good life in a good land will be marked by thriving crops and trees, with the harvest of produce and fruit lasting all the way through to the next growing season. And around the edges of the orchard there is enough for the poor to be fed too.

Powerful empires are characterized as trees—large and strong, with their tops touching the sky (as Nebuchadnezzer’s Babylon is described). But sometimes empires must be brought low and proud kings humbled, so a mere shepherd and keeper of sycamore-fig trees, like Amos, might be brought in to deliver the unpopular word of the Lord. It is the Maker of trees who can cut down the tall tree and replant the low one to make it grow. With a God like this, trees are not always what they seem.

It is the Maker of trees who can cut down the tall tree and replant the low one to make it grow

God’s people are like a tree and they are therefore judged and pruned, sometimes severely, but never outright destroyed. Cut back and even burned, there is a life within them that persists. And it is onto this besieged and wavering remnant that God will graft a new people, fulfilling that old oath to Abraham. His family will be what it was meant to be after all. The forests will be filled and the earth will find its own exodus story. The story of trees is inexorably tied to our story.

One thing about this story of trees in the Bible is that it is inevitably a story for the long term. Trees are mostly slow-growers, but are all the more enduring for their deliberate pace. And this is exactly how God’s plans for his world also go. Slow, but steadily onward and upward. Trees sometimes turn into weapons and siege ramps, or are fashioned into tools for idolatry. But out of the cut stumps and smoldering ashes, God patiently nurtures life. The trees live on, and from the trees new growth will emerge. Hope, symbolized by the trees, does not die.


So it is that we find the heart of God’s drama with the world in the story about the Messiah. He himself was like his people, at first sight a man of no apparent consequence. Merely a branch coming up out of the old stump of Jesse. But the Lord’s Spirit rested on him and he did what he had come to do. He eventually used a tree to rescue the story of trees. And the story of us.

It is a strange story indeed, this tale of the Tree of the Curse that must be faced in order for the long-lost Tree of Life to reappear. This Branch of David came and did much good, healing and feeding and teaching the people. So when he entered Jerusalem as king, they cut branches from the trees and lay them out to honor and celebrate him. They thought they knew what victory looked like. But Jesus said this is a hard time, a time you neither expect nor understand. And the decisive deed was done not with a waving of branches but with a hanging upon a tree.

No doubt it looked like merely another dead man upon some dead pieces of wood. This happened plenty enough with the Romans. But this time was different, because all along Israel’s warrior had been fighting a different kind of battle. The spiritual forces of evil cannot be fought by killing Roman soldiers.

When the Creator vindicated his work and raised him from the dead, this unusual Messiah was mistaken for a gardener, which was just right since he really is the crafter of Life. Indeed, he is a New Temple, the place where God dwells with us, except now it isn’t just carvings of trees and fruit upon doors and walls, but rather life itself brought back to earth. That ancient Life Tree had been found, tended, and strengthened, so it can now restore everything. It is right there, in the middle of the city which is to come.

The Scriptures tell us that to walk with Jesus is to walk back into God’s garden. It is to be with God in the cool of the day. And the leaves there are for the healing of the nations—their trees, their people, everything.

From Genesis to Revelation, to understand the trees is surely to understand the story. It is perfectly appropriate that in the end, it is the trees themselves that will sing the true song of this story:


Let the heavens rejoice, let the earth be glad;
    let them say among the nations, “The Lord reigns!”
Let the sea resound, and all that is in it;
    let the fields be jubilant, and everything in them!
Let the trees of the forest sing,
    let them sing for joy before the Lord,
    for he comes to judge the earth.

 
Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;
    his love endures forever.

What We’re Reading: September 2019

From time to time we’ll share some of the interesting and thought-provoking content from around the Internet that we come across during our work.

Have you come across any great Bible-related content lately? Leave a link in the comments below!

*Note: Sharing doesn’t necessarily imply agreement with the article or endorsement of the author.

Phil Vischer Wants More Gospel in the Veggies by Kara Bettis, Christianity Today

VeggieTales creator Phil Vischer wants to help kids understand the meta-story. Just as we have lamented that kids are usually taught the Bible as isolated stories with a moral takeaway, Vischer sees kids running to the Avengers and Harry Potter for their founding story. “They want to be a part of a big story, and we’ve lost the ability to excite them that the gospel is a big story. That’s what I’ve been trying to do with my most recent projects: Let’s tell the big story of the Bible and get kids excited about it again.”


The books of today have nothing on the scrolls of 2,300 years ago by Evan Nicole Brown, Fast Company

The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947 has been one of the most important finds of modern archaeology. But how were the scrolls even able to survive for over two thousand years? Scientists at MIT are studying the makeup of the scrolls to gain a better understanding of ancient parchment making and preservation techniques.


Introductions to the Books of the Bible by FULLER studio

This brand-new project from Fuller Seminary in partnership with the Grace & Mercy Foundation features more than 30 Fuller faculty introducing books of the Bible from their various areas of expertise. These well-produced short videos help set the table for reading Scripture by looking at the unique themes embedded within each book. The four Gospels are available now, with more videos coming soon.


Why it matters if your Bible was translated by a racially diverse group by Rev. Dr. Esau McCaulley in the Washington Post

Wheaton College New Testament professor Esau McCaulley explores the importance of using language in our Bible translations that faithfully communicates meaning and truth in ways the reader will understand. Since translation is much more complex than 1:1 correlations between Hebrew or Greek and modern-day English, faithful interpretation of the passage is essential. Dr. McCaulley argues that we must pursue diversity within translation committees that uses gifts and insights from a variety of backgrounds, rendering a Bible that speaks to all people.

What is the Apocrypha? Rediscovering Israel’s Story Between the Testaments

Imagine Israel before Moses

It is a nation enslaved, or maybe not even a nation yet. It’s more like a group of people, loosely related, now serving as fodder for the dreams of Pharaohs.

Their God, if he is there, is not speaking to them nor acting for them.

The straits are dire, and from all appearances this motley collection of family clans is on their own. They cry out to God, but the heavens are not answering.

Centuries of silence. Centuries of wondering if anything will ever change.

The rule of the foreigners is harsh. The years of relentless suffering are long. Nothing new is happening or showing any sign of happening.

It certainly doesn’t feel like much of a story for those who are stuck in the middle of it.

Now jump ahead about a thousand years

It turns out God finally did show up, calling Moses and the rescuing Israel. The people entered a new land and gained kings and princes and worship and wars. God had come down and made his home right in the midst of his people. Jerusalem—the city of the Great King—was built up and fortified, and right there on the eastern edge was the glorious Temple, God’s own dwelling place.

Then, devastatingly, all this was lost. Israel squandered her freedom, land, purpose, and apparently, even her story. This tribe that had its origins in the ancient story of Babel was now crushed and killed and those who remained were exiled back to Babylon.

In its main features, this situation of Israel in the years after the great Exile is not unlike that of the years of Abraham’s clans before the great Exodus. All that had been gained was now lost. If God is there, he’s stopped talking and stopped acting.

What has happened to their dreams, their divine election, their story? What has happened to their God?

Prophecy has ended. Israel has, at best, second-hand rulers appointed by foreign oppressors. After Babylon came Persia, then a succession of Greek kings, followed by Roman generals. Israel is trying for all she’s worth to keep it together under extreme cultural, political, and military pressure. It’s tenuous.

For their part, the Jews are stubborn. They are hanging on. But doesn’t everyone eventually reach their limit?

What has happened to their dreams, their divine election, their story? What has happened to their God? Once again, centuries of silence. Centuries of wondering if anything will ever change.

It is at this point that many Christ-followers dive into the New Testament Gospels and the arrival of Jesus. It’s understandable – for a lot Christians, that’s exactly what their Bible does. Malachi straight into Matthew.

But wait.

The story of Israel betwixt and between, after the First Testament yet before the New, is crucial for us. If we want to know the context that Messiah Jesus was born into, then we need to know the Apocrypha.

What is the Apocrypha?

This collection of books was written in the centuries immediately preceding Jesus and into the first century A.D. It’s the best place to learn about God’s people in the hard years right before Jesus. Here we find what Israel was thinking about, longing for, and trying desperately to do—the heart and soul of cultural and religious survival against the odds.

The word ‘apocrypha’ comes to us via Latin from the Greek for “to hide away.” And for far too many Christians these books have remained precisely that—hidden away, unknown, and even viewed with suspicion.

I grew up thinking the word Apocrypha simply referred to “weird Catholic books.” Which is ironic, because these are profoundly Jewish books, opening up the door to the world of 2nd Temple Judaism that is so important for understanding the entire New Testament.

The Jews did not include the Apocrypha in their canon of sacred writings, and neither, therefore, did the Protestant Reformers. Generally speaking the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches do accept these books into their Bibles, under the title of deuterocanonical (or “second canon”) books. However, there is no single, firm list of which books are to be included here, with different communions accepting slightly different lists.

There are historical accounts, prayers, fascinating and insightful short stories, wisdom explorations, and apocalypses. Ezekiel’s vision had shown God rising up and leaving his home within the Temple in Jerusalem. Now God had gone silent and there were no contemporary prophets, so what could writers do? Many penned their works and spread them under the good names of the ancients like Ezra and Baruch. Some writings were simply additions to already trusted books like Esther. Some are catching up the narrative of Israel’s more recent history, like in the books of Maccabees.

At their heart, these writings reveal the struggles of Israel to confront its national life after the Exile. Things had gone so terribly wrong. What could Israel do to make sure a calamity like this would never happen again? How can Israel even be Israel under the constant pressure of foreign cultures—whether alluring or hostile? When and how will God’s presence return to them? Temple, land, victory, and God’s ruling over them as King. Will the full realities of these divine gifts ever be theirs again?

The answers found in the Apocrypha teach us much about the Judaism of Jesus’ time: the radical commitment to Torah observance, the doubling down on Jewish cultural distinctives, and the call to take up arms and fight, to give these beaten down people at least a little breathing room.

Here’s the thing: to know Jesus truly is to know the Judaism that is the context of his life. Jesus lived, worked, died, and rose again precisely within a first-century Jewish story. The only route to real comprehension of his accomplishment is to know that story. And this is exactly why the Apocrypha is of such great help to us. It catches us up on Israel’s story, and we see the Messiah so much more clearly because of it.

It’s time to reconsider our previous willingness to keep these books hidden away. If we bring them out into the light to read and learn them, more light in turn will shine on us.

In their Preface to the Apocrypha in the 16th c. Geneva Bible, the strongly Protestant editors urge readers to a significantly positive view: “as books proceeding from godly men they were received to be read for the advancement and furtherance of the knowledge of history and for the instruction of godly manners.”

A greater understanding of this Jewish history and piety provides real insight into the Messiah who came and brought life and light back to a Jewish story that had been in grave danger of sinking into the darkness.

What We’re Reading: May 2019

From time to time we’ll share some of the interesting and thought-provoking content from around the Internet that we come across during our work.

Have you come across any great Bible-related content lately? Leave a link in the comments below!

*Note: Sharing doesn’t necessarily imply 100% agreement with the article or endorsement of the author.

More on Reading the Bible by RJS, Patheos Blog

Patheos blogger RJS comments on John Polkinghorne’s exploration of ambiguity found throughout the Bible. It’s a good reminder that Scripture is not an answer book bound by simple terms of good guys/bad guys, and black/white, but rather shows us that God’s work in the world most often takes place in the midst of “many shades of grey.”


The Old Testament and the Church – Part 1 and Part 2 from the Essential Church Podcast

It’s no secret that the Old (or First) Testament is diminishing in the life of the church. One scholar has even written a book titled The Old Testament is Dying. This podcast, hosted by a group of pastors from New Life Church in Colorado, explores the massive importance of the First Testament both as a prelude to Christ and as a window into God’s character and mission from the beginning.


Moving through the Maze: Understanding Bible Translation by Brian Russell

NIV, NLT, KJV, ESV. The number of translations available to us in English can be a bit dizzying, and many of us simply end up using what our friends are using. Asbury Seminary prof. Brian Russell gives a brief and basic introduction to how Bible translations work. Among other things he discusses the difference between paraphrases and translations, formal equivalence (sometimes called word-for-word) vs. dynamic equivalence (or meaning-for-meaning) translations, and how “literal” is not a good word for describing a translation.


Theology of the Future by N. T. Wright, Christianity Today Magazine

New Testament scholar N. T. Wright wants us to break down the silos. As academic specialization increases, Wright observes that the philosophers, theologians, and Biblical studies experts of our time all operate in isolation from one another rather than in shared conversation. “Each of these three disciplines has a vital role to play in the vocation of Christian thought,” Wright argues, and faithfully addressing the challenges of our day calls for more cooperation and collaboration across these disciplines.

Holy Week: How to Stop Shrinking the Jesus Narrative

The focus and work of years was seemingly coming to its climax. The bold announcement at the beginning, the gathering of his co-workers, the teaching and the mighty works, and then the growing tension and hard confrontations—all of the lines were coming together to reach their single goal.

Holy Week.

The work of Jesus was coming down to this, his last few days. What would his final act look like? What would he do? Would he meet the expectations of the crowds? Of his own closest followers? He had set his countenance and his feet straight for Jerusalem—so what did he have in mind?

Whatever the central meaning of his life and ministry, it would have to show itself right now. This was Jesus’s moment, if he was going to have one. And it was not a simple one. From his birth right through to his final entry to Jerusalem, Jesus has been evoking numerous strands of Israel’s long and pregnant story. There are rich layers of significance that precede this week. Will all those promises of meaning be kept?

From his birth right through to his final entry to Jerusalem, Jesus has been evoking numerous strands of Israel’s long and pregnant story.

For too many of us, these Holy Days have been reduced to one day—Good Friday—and to a single assigned meaning of that day.

“Jesus died for my sins.”

A personal substitutionary atonement.

Now the death of Jesus on a Roman cross is certainly not less than this. But it is also so much more. There is a profound loss when we minimize the meaning of the crucifixion to my salvation, especially when I conceive of this saving merely as an escape to heaven when I die. In such a reduction we shortchange the gospel and shrink the impact and import of all that Jesus has accomplished.

How do we avoid this? As with so many things in the Christian life, a healthy recovery can be found when we return to the Scriptures. The fullness of Holy Week is found in the fullness of the Bible’s telling of the story. A renewed commitment to understanding the narrative as it unfolds in the Gospels will pay multiple dividends in appreciating the depth of the Passion drama.

The Gospels, like other books in the Bible’s library, should be read whole. Their telling of the end is embedded in the context of what they’ve been saying along the way. The Evangelists build their stories of Jesus intentionally, so each Gospel gives us a unique angle on the life and meaning of Jesus. We could appropriately pick any of the four Gospels to help us in this restoration, for they each lead us up to this momentous last week in their own way.

But as an example, we’ll take Mark’s story of Jesus, since he is the most intentional about tracking each of the days. So I invite you to read Mark’s whole telling of the week’s story. Without trying to impossibly unpack everything here in this short space, we will instead simply raise questions that point us to deeper significance:

“As they approached Jerusalem . . .”

Light breaks on the first day of the last week. Jesus has spent his entire ministry focusing on the kingdom of God. It is the theme par excellence of all his previous efforts. Now Jesus clearly calls up echoes from Israel’s royal history (from Saul to Solomon to Judas Maccabeus) to boldly embody the coming of the King himself into David’s city. Jesus’ prophetic announcement of God’s return here transforms into an explicitly messianic claim. So the stage for the week is set: Jesus is Israel’s king. But what kind of king is he?

“The next day as they were leaving Bethany . . .”

Jesus has entered the city, but now his focus turns exclusively to the Temple. Why is the Temple at the center of Mark’s story here? Why does Jesus curse the fig tree? What is he looking for? Why does he immediately enact a parable of the Temple’s destruction? What is the point of his quote from the prophet Jeremiah?

“In the morning . . .”

Mark now spends more space describing the events of Tuesday than any other day of this week. What’s happening? Jesus is clearly and strongly confronting those who govern the affairs of the Temple and make up Israel’s supreme ruling body. The rulers, for their part, directly challenge Jesus’ authority. The clash that’s been long brewing in the ministry of Jesus is now coming to a head. Then the parables and provocations of the day culminate in a troubling prediction of the physical dismantling of the Temple within a generation. (It’s important to pay attention to literary form here, recognizing prophetic metaphors and apocalyptic language.) Israel’s story has reached a major turning point, and it is centered on Jesus.

“It was two days before the Passover . . .”

There are two contrasting responses to Jesus here, an act of adoration surrounded by two references to betrayal. Jesus forces choices even as he is preparing for his own death.

“On the first day of the Festival . . .”

So Jesus has chosen Passover, Israel’s great liberation event, as the backdrop to provide the meaning of his next action. Jesus claims to be bringing an Exodus, a new freedom movement. What were the elements of the first Passover and the original Exodus? Are all those elements to be found here as well?

“Very early in the morning . . .”

Jesus has now fully entered into the trial—the time of great tribulation and testing that the Jews knew would precede their full redemption. He is convicted twice, by both Jewish and Roman tribunals. Of what specifically? What do the differing charges tell us about Jesus and his work? So Jesus is condemned to death, precisely as the King of the Jews. What have the week’s events, all of them carefully chosen by Jesus himself, told us about what Jesus thought his death meant? Is his death more than a sacrifice? How can it possibly be a victory?

“The Sabbath”

As Jesus journeyed through the week, he was surrounded by symbols and echoes of Israel’s story. His recapitulation of them was not a mere repetition, but rather filled them with new and surprising meaning. Now, on the seventh day, he rests in death. What has been accomplished?

“Very early on the first day . . .”

If Israel’s story was always all about the world’s story, what does the resurrection of Israel’s Messiah mean for the rest of us? What does an echo of the creation story imply?

♦♦♦

We have seen the birth of a new kind of king and a new kind of Temple. And I hope we are waking up to the possibilities of a new kind of kingdom and the renewal of worship. The powers who ran Israel’s first-century world—both Jewish and Roman—knew and followed only one model for ruling. Jesus came into the city having staked his life and his chance at victory on a completely different vision, one centered on the power of self-giving love.

Yes, Jesus died for me.

But my place is found only in a much bigger and better story than my own small tale. You, me, and all of us are called to take up our place in God’s transforming work. And the only place we learn the ins and outs of God’s holy work is in God’s holy book.

The way to avoid shrinking reductions of biblical truth is nothing other than a rediscovery of the fullness of the Bible own tellings. Read big. Read in context. Make connections.