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Dr. Matthew Sleeth loves trees. Not just because they are beautiful, but because he believes they can teach us a lot about God’s nature.
In his new book Reforesting Faith: What Trees Teach Us About the Nature of God and His Love for Us, he unpacks the significance of one of the Bible’s most prevalent symbols.
We recently spoke with Dr. Sleeth about the book, the spiritual lessons we can learn from trees and the importance of protecting creation.
What drew you to these parallels between nature and deeper spiritual lessons?
It really began when I volunteered to plant trees around my church, and the pastor said I have the theology of a tree hugger. He didn’t mean it as a compliment.
I thought maybe my theology was wrong, so I went to scripture and read from Genesis to Revelation, and what I found astounded me. Trees are the most-mentioned living thing in scripture other than God and people.
There’s a tree on the first page of the Bible. We’re told to be a tree in the first Psalm. There’s a tree on the first page of the New Testament and on the last page of scripture. Every major event in scripture has a tree marking the spot. So what I found in scripture was different than what I was seeing and hearing in the church.
I’d like to start at the beginning, then. What can you tell me about the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil mentioned in Genesis?
Well, the garden is filled with trees. If you highlighted every sentence that has a tree in it in the first three chapters of the Bible, you’ll highlight a third of scripture.
We’re told trees are beautiful in God’s sight. We’re told our place is among the trees. We are told our work was to dress and keep them or protect and tend them, and that’s where we started.
There are two particularly important trees, the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, and we’re told not to eat from [the latter] and that’s God assigning human agency to us. We are allowed to choose right from wrong, and of course, we made the wrong choice.
When everything goes upside down and Adam and Eve realize they are naked, they go undress the tree and tear fig leaves off a fig tree. When they hear God’s voice, they run and they hide behind trees, so trees are absolutely pivotal to understanding why the world is as messed up as it is today.
Another reference is the time Jesus cursed the fig tree. It’s a hard parable to understand. Is that something you were able to wrestle with when writing the book?
I think there’s a couple things going on there. First of all, the ficus family of trees is the only tree Jesus ever says by name. A fig is the first mentioned tree in scripture that we can identify, and it is the symbol of the separation between us and God. We were in communion with the Lord, but after the first sin we tried to hide ourselves with the fig leaves, and so the fig becomes a symbol of that separation.
That story [of Jesus cursing the fig tree] has two meanings: One is that a tree should not only have leaves, but bear fruit. We’re told that with our lives, we’re to not just exist but be fruitful. [Secondly] in the story in which Jesus calls Nathaniel as His disciple, Jesus knows exactly who Nathaniel is because He saw him under the fig tree. That’s Jesus’ way of saying there’s no more hiding from the Lord behind fig trees. I’m here. I see you.
What’s the significance of the tree as it relates to the cross?
God wrote this Bible and the story of redemption using trees. The only thing that can kill Jesus is a tree. To really unpack that you have to look at how many times people tried to kill Jesus. They tried to stab him as an infant, that didn’t work; they tried to stone him; they tried to throw him off a cliff. The only way you can kill Jesus is with a tree and Jesus knows that.
He’s telling His disciples, ‘I must be raised up on a tree.’ As we look back in the book of Deuteronomy, we find this curious line that ‘He who hangs on a tree is cursed,’ and Jesus has to take the curse on Himself that you and I rightfully deserve. Trees are essential to telling the gospel.
What was one thing that surprised you most while you were researching and writing this book?
I think it was just the sheer number of trees and their use [in the Bible] from one end to the other. The Bible refers to itself as a tree. The only thing Jesus ever harms is a tree, and the only thing that can harm Jesus is a tree.
Great Christian writers like Tolkien and Lewis and George D. MacDonald always cast the good guys as those who would take care of the trees and the bad guys as those who would [cut them down].
I think the big surprise for me is how far from the Bible the Church is today, [to the point where it’s] subtracting trees from the text. Some words I counted up in the Bible—tree, seed, leaf, branch, root and fruit—occurred 967 times in the King James Bible, but in the ESB they’ve been subtracted 230 times and in the NIV translation, 267. Our bible translators have literally taken these words out of scripture.
I’ll give you an example: We just went by Palm Sunday, and if you look at Mark 11:8 it says in modern translations that people went and cut branches in the fields. That’s ridiculous, you go and cut branches off trees, and that’s what it says in the Greek. Our theologians and translators have literally subtracted trees from scripture.
There seems to be such hostility toward ideas like climate change or other environmental initiatives. What would you suggest more Christians advocate for?
We have to recognize, first of all, in the United States we have the oldest, biggest trees. Not every country has been blessed like we are and some countries have not been as kind to their forests as we may have been.
There is a link between poverty and trees. If you take the most deforested country in the Western hemisphere—Haiti—it also happens to be the poorest. If you take the second-most deforested country in the Western hemisphere—Honduras—it happens to be the second poorest. I think we need to help those around the world who cannot afford to plant trees, and we need to take care of our own trees.
When you write this much about the way God puts an emphasis on nature and trees, does it influence your own perspective on conservation?
I believe the world is facing a number of environmental challenges in my part of the country. I live in Kentucky; the ash trees are virtually all going to die here. The lodge pole pines in the west are under a lot of stress at the moment, too. All over the world trees need our advocacy.
The first thing God put us on the planet to do was take care of the trees, and I hope that one of the outcomes of this book is that we’ll ask how we do that in a responsible manner that glorifies God.
What is your favorite tree and what meaning does it hold to you?
Sugar maple, hands down. It’s as if God got together with a committee of kids and they designed the perfect tree. I’ve seen them in their best latitude—northern New England—and they grow to massive size. They give syrup, the leaves are perfect…there’s just nothing I don’t like about a sugar maple.
Jesse Carey is an editor at RELEVANT and a mainstay on the weekly RELEVANT Podcast. He lives in Virginia Beach with his wife and two kids.
This article originally appeared in Relevant Online.
My son-in-law, Zach, gave me my Father’s Day present a little early this year. Before we moved into our townhouse, a large tree had died along the fence line dividing us from the neighboring apartment building. We got permission from our homeowner’s association to replant a tree. There was only one problem: a humongous stump–about three feet in diameter–was in the way.
That’s when it comes in handy to have a son-in-law. Zach went to a tree farm and picked out a beautiful sugar maple. Before heading out of town on a work trip, I suggested that Zach plant the maple beside the old stump, even though it was a less desirable position. But Zach wanted to do it right. He dug and dug and dug. Several neighbors came by to watch and encourage. It took all morning and half the afternoon to fully remove the remains of the old tree.
When planting time finally arrived, Zach backed up the pickup truck as close to the hole as possible. The root ball must have weighed a couple hundred pounds. Zach recruited Nancy to position the trunk while he backfilled. One of our neighbors gave us a water gaiter so we could keep the roots moist throughout summer. Zach returned later with a load of mulch to reduce evaporation and competition from weeds.
Every time I walk by that tree, I marvel. And every evening when I admire the tree from our bedroom window, I thank God for sharing His love of trees with me (and giving me a son-in-law with a strong back).
Last year, I read through the Bible underlining everything that scripture says about trees. From the Tree of Life in Genesis to the Tree of Life in Revelation, I discovered a forest with deep roots in faith. The first psalm says that a righteous person is like a tree. Abraham welcomes the angels under the oaks of Mamre; Deborah holds court under the palms; Zacchaeus shinnies up a sycamore-fig to see the Savior.
Most importantly, Jesus, the new Adam, plants a tree–the cross–on Calvary and waters it with his blood, sweat, and tears. The Apostle Paul tells us that in heaven the leaves of the Tree of Life will heal the nations and bear fruit in every season.
It’s been a wet summer so far, and Zach’s tree is flourishing. I hope that in days to come, my writing will help the faith of others flourish as well.
For Mothers Day this year, my family knew what would bring me the most joy: a picnic. My husband, Matthew, served as sous chef. Our daughter, Emma, made the fruit salad and homemade bread. Clark brought his wife, Valerie, along with her extraordinary storytelling abilities. The evening air was punctuated with cheers from a friendly baseball game in the park and the familiar chatter of well-fed robins and squirrels. After the meal, each member of my family shared three things they most appreciate about me. I cried more than once.
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Throughout the seasons, picnics make an ordinary meal anything but routine. Matthew and I picnicked on some of our first dates, and weve continued to dine alfresco regularly for three decades. Most meals have been sublime in their simplicitya blanket spread in the backyard makes even PLT (pickle, lettuce, and tomato) sandwiches taste special.
When we travel by car, I try to pack picnic mealsa cheaper, healthier alternative to fast food. Weve picnicked at the beach, in the woods, in fields, in cemeteries, at rest stops, in parks, and on playgrounds.
For our thirtieth anniversary, Matthew and I packed up homemade crab cakes and ate them on the grounds of a local estate. The historic buildings are closed in the evening, but the grounds are left open. We had the gardens to ourselveswith extra ambience supplied by friendly fireflies.
Since moving from the suburbs to the city, we have been picnicking more than ever. Within easy walking distance, weve discovered three parks with picnic tables. The park closest to us also has a gazebo, where weve enjoyed slices of seedless watermelon after our family Friday night dinners.
Picnics also make for easy entertaining. Recently, we picnicked with friends and their three small kids in the park behind our house. The kids played on the equipment while the grown ups talked. Bethany made a warm pasta and pesto salad, and I brought cheese, fruit, and carrot cake to round out the meal. Bonus: no clean up. The birds ate up all the crumbs.
Picnics create a memorable oasisa time set apart from everyday lifeto be in nature and to enjoy Gods sustaining gifts. What can be more holy than saying grace and breaking bread together in the shade of a life-giving tree?
Nancy Sleeth serves as the Managing Director for Blessed Earth and is the author of Go Green, Save Green: A Simple guide to saving time, money, and Gods green earth, the first-ever practical guide for going green from a faith perspective.
Even in the midst of the crisis of warfare, we find that in Israel God’s people are commanded to treat creation with care. In Deut 20:19-20 we find an obscure, but very interesting law:
When you besiege a city for many days, to make war against it in order to capture it, you shall not destroy its trees by swinging an axe against them. Indeed you may eat from them, but you shall not cut (them) down. For is the tree of the field a man that it should be besieged by you? Only a tree that you know does not produce food may you destroy and cut down, and you may build your siegeworks against the city with which you are at war until it falls.
Ancient Israel was blessed with an array of “food-bearing trees.” Oded Borowski lists the fig, olive, date, sycamore (that would be the fig-bearing Ficus sycamorus, not the enormous non-fruit bearing sycamore of North America), apricot, carob, almond, pistachio, and walnut as indigenous to Canaan, as well as several that cannot be identified with certainty by means of their biblical appellatives. All of these trees faced similar developmental realities—if maintained they would produce for generations, but full maturity preceded production (cf. Deut 20:6). Regarding the all-important olive tree, Larry Stager reports that it takes five or six years for the trees to begin to flower, and as many as twenty years to reach full maturity. Even then, they bear fruit only every other year. “It is commonly said that one plants an olive yard not for one’s self but for one’s grandchildren.” Similarly, Steven Cole reports that the female date palm—a treasured source of preservable, calorie-rich fruit—”may take as long as twenty years before they produce their first fruit.” The crops born of these trees were a mainstay of the Iron II Israelite economy and diet. And of course the great dream of the Israelite was a level of national security and prosperity in which every citizen might “live in safety, every man under his vine and his fig tree, from Dan even to Beersheba”(1 Kgs 4:25).
In light of the long-term value of food-bearing trees, it is no surprise that a standard aspect of ancient Near Eastern warfare, well before Israel’s settlement in the land, was the decimation of a besieged enemy’s vineyards and orchards. The goal was to cripple the life support systems of the enemy for decades beyond the actual assault, regardless of whether that assault were successful or not. The Assyrians (who I affectionately refer to in my classes as “The Borg of the ancient Near East”) regularly communicated this strategy through text and image in an attempt to intimidate their opponents. Sargon II boasts regarding his assault on the store-city of Ursal:
I entered triumphantly … Into his pleasant gardens, the adornments of his city which were overflowing with fruit and wine … came tumbling down … His great trees, the adornment of his palace, I cut down like millet … The trunks of all those trees which I had cut down I gathered together, heaped them in a pile and burned them with fire.
Shalmaneser III declares in his Suhu annals, “We will go and attack the houses of the land of Suhu; we will seize his cities … we will cut down their fruit trees.”
So what might be the rationale for Deuteronomy’s law? Clearly the sort of environmental terrorism described in the Assyrian texts was the norm in Israel’s cultural context, and historically it had proven itself highly effective. Yet Israel is forbidden from the practices of their neighbors. To quote Michael Hasel, Israel is forbidden from such retaliatory tactics because “it would not be in Israel’s interest to destroy the very resources that would later sustain them.” In other words, the instant results of this sort of short-term success, were ultimately self-destructive.
In sum, in Israelite law, even in the midst of the crisis of warfare, human enterprise was not a worthy excuse for wiping out the future productivity of the land. Rather, the fact that it took a generation for an olive orchard to come to full fruition deserved deference. As I ponder the newest strip mall in my neighborhood, the irreversible spoilation of “mountain top removal” coal mining, and the decimation of my planet’s rainforests,  I wonder what corporate America might say about God’s law to Israel? I wonder what God might have to say to those of us who are growing rich from these endeavors?
Sandra Richter is Professor of Old Testament at Wesley Biblical Seminary and Affiliate Professor of Old Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary. She is a graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and Harvard University’s Near Eastern Language and Civilizations department. She is a popular speaker and has published on an array of topics. Her most recent book is The Epic of Eden: A Christian Entry into the Old Testament (InterVarsity Press, 2008).