Which Tree is in the Middle of Your Garden?

For a video reading of this article on YouTube, click here.

The Tree of Life

The Tree of Life

In the spiritually symbolic garden that God planted eastward in Eden in Genesis 2—the garden where God placed Adam (a Hebrew word meaning “humankind”), and later Eve (a Hebrew word meaning “life”)—God also planted many trees.

Only two of the trees are specifically named. Their names make it clear that these are not literal trees—like oaks, maples, and hickories—but trees that represent something deeper about human character and life.

On the planting of those trees, some translations read something like this: “In the middle of the garden were the tree of life and the tree of knowledge of good and evil.”

But that’s not exactly what it says in the original Hebrew language.

Here is the verse in which those trees are planted, in a fairly literal translation of the Hebrew:

And Jehovah God caused to grow from the ground every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food. And the tree of life was in the middle of the garden, and the tree of knowledge of good and evil. (Genesis 2:9)

Do you notice the difference?

The middle according to God or according to Eve?

The Hebrew makes it clear that the tree of life is in the middle of the garden. But the tree of knowledge of good and evil is just sort of tacked onto the end of the sentence; it’s not clear whether it’s in the middle of the garden or not.

Then why do some translations boldly step in and say that both trees were planted in the middle of the garden?

I think they got the idea from Eve.

Here’s what Eve says to the tempting serpent a little later in the story (once again in a fairly literal translation):

And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden; but of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, God has said, ‘You shall not eat of it, nor shall you touch it, lest you die.’” (Genesis 3:2–3)

Some of the translations are a bit off in this verse also. They have Eve quoting God as saying, “You must not eat from the tree that is in the middle of the garden.” But God had said no such thing. Here’s what God did say:

And Jehovah God commanded the man [Adam], saying, “You may freely eat of every tree in the garden. But of the tree of knowledge of good and evil you may not eat, for on the day that you eat of it, you will certainly die.” (Genesis 2:16–17)

God named the tree. God didn’t say anything about its being in the middle of the garden. That was Eve’s addition.

And by the time Eve was casually saying to the serpent that the tree of knowledge of good and evil was in the center of the garden, the serpent easily tempted her into eating from it. That’s what she was longing to do anyway. Adam quickly followed his wife’s lead . . . and the rest, as they say, is history. (You can read all about it in Genesis 3.)

To summarize:

  • In addition to many unnamed trees, God planted two named trees:
    • The tree of life in the center of the garden
    • The tree of knowledge of good and evil in an uncertain location
  • God told Adam (who presumably told Eve) that he could eat from any tree except the tree of knowledge of good and evil.
  • Eve put the tree of knowledge of good and evil in the center of the garden, because it looked mighty good!
  • Both Eve and Adam ate from the forbidden tree, and lost their place in Eden as a result.

In other words, whatever tree we find most desirable, that is the tree we put at the center of our psychological and spiritual garden.

  • God put the tree of life in the center.
  • Eve and her husband Adam put the tree of knowledge of good and evil at the center.

The meaning of the two trees

What do these two trees mean? And why should we care which one is in the center of the garden, and which one we eat from?

First, the garden is a picture of the spiritual “habitat” in which we live at a deeper level. It is a picture of the inner life of our mind and heart. The animals in the garden—as living, moving, warm-blooded beings—represent our loves, feelings, and emotions. The plants and trees—being “cooler” and more stable and rooted—represent our thoughts, beliefs, and ideas.

So the tree of life and the tree of knowledge of good and evil represent two contrasting “big ideas,” or overarching principles, by which we can choose to guide our lives.

The tree of life represents the way of genuine spiritual life.

All of our spiritual life comes from God. So if we choose to eat from the tree of life, it means living by the love and understanding that comes to us from God. And since most of us don’t have a direct pipeline to God, this means turning to the sacred writings and teachings of our religion, accepting them as coming from God, and guiding our lives by those revealed insights of divine truth.

The tree of knowledge of good and evil represents a very different approach.

First, it helps to understand that the Hebrew word used here for “knowledge” does not mean theoretical, abstract “head” knowledge. It means knowledge gained through experience.

As a hint to its meaning, in Genesis 4:1, using the same word, it says that Adam “knew” Eve his wife. Now, lest you think this means he had a heart-to-heart talk with her and “grokked” her true nature, it goes on to say that as a result of Adam “knowing” her she became pregnant. This is a very experiential type of “knowing”!

So it should be clear enough that the tree of knowledge of good and evil means trying out and experiencing both good and evil for ourselves, and making our own decisions about what we think is good and what we think is evil. Another way of saying this is that the tree of knowledge of good and evil means deciding what we think is good and evil, true and false, based on what we learn through our five physical senses, and the conclusions we draw from that sensory experience.

To sum up:

  • The tree of life means accepting what God teaches us about how to live our lives.
  • The tree of knowledge of good and evil means making up our own mind what’s good and bad, and how to live, based on our own sensory experience of life.

God’s way or our own way?

Which tree is in the middle of your garden?

  • Are you willing to take God’s word for it?
  • Or do you have to try it your own way, right or wrong, and learn the hard way?

Unfortunately for us, we seem to spend most of our lives chomping away at the tree of knowledge of good and evil. We learn an awful lot of our lessons in the school of hard knocks.

It reminds me of a set of product assembly instructions I once saw. In big red letters on the front of the instruction booklet it said:

WAIT! PLEASE TRY IT OUR WAY FIRST!

That could have been God speaking to us in Genesis 2!

Fortunately for us, God has given us a lot of freedom, responsibility, and time on this earth to try things every which way we please. It’s all in the hope that eventually we’ll realize that our own way tends to get us into trouble, and that God’s way was the right way all along.

God is very patient with us, and is willing for us to learn our hard lessons in our own way, in our own time.

Regaining the tree of life

But do you want to hear something beautiful?

After Genesis 3, the tree of life disappears almost entirely from the Bible story . . . until the very end. In the last two chapters of Revelation, in the promised new Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God, we once again find that the tree of life occupies a central place:

Between the main street and the river was the tree of life producing twelve kinds of fruit, a different kind every month; and the leaves of the tree were for healing the nations. (Revelation 22:2)

Yes, after all of our struggles here on earth—after we’ve tried it every which way for ourselves, and probably gotten rather banged up in the process—God holds out the renewed promise that in the end, we may once again live in the love and light of God’s presence. We may once again live in a broad-based community of healing understanding and sympathy for one another.

For a video reading of this article on YouTube, click here.

This is one in a series of articles on the theme “The Bible Re-Viewed.” Each article takes a new look at a particular selection or story in the Bible, and explores how it relates to our lives today. For more on this spiritual way of interpreting the Bible, see “Can We Really Believe the Bible? Some Thoughts for Those who Wish they Could.”

About

Lee Woofenden is an ordained minister, writer, editor, translator, and teacher. He enjoys taking spiritual insights from the Bible and the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg and putting them into plain English as guides for everyday life.

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Posted in Spiritual Growth, The Bible Re-Viewed
16 comments on “Which Tree is in the Middle of Your Garden?
  1. John C. Borthwick says:

    I really like where you are going with this, Lee. What do we put in the centre of our garden? Great insight. Look forward to reading more from you in the future. Thanks for the follow.

  2. jon says:

    what does revelation 22:2 literally mean?

    • Lee says:

      Hi Jon,

      Thanks for your question. The exact meaning and visual imagery of that verse has always been a little unclear to me—and it has been the subject of much debate among Bible commentators.

      In order to give you a good answer, I spent some time looking into the precise meaning of the original Greek. As a result, I have changed the translation used in the article. I am now using the translation found in the Complete Jewish Bible (CJB), except that I’ve removed the capital letters from “Tree of Life” as it appears in that translation.

      I now think that the usual ways of translating this verse are incorrect, and that the CJB comes closest to what the Greek actually means.

      Without going into too much detail, the general idea of the usual translations is that the river flows down the middle of the street, and the tree of life grows on both banks of the river, which is in the middle of the street. So the river would be in the middle, flanked by trees of life on either side, and the street would be split into two lanes running on either side of the river and the trees. There are actual streets like this flanking tree-lined rivers and canals, so it’s a reasonable interpretation.

      However, I am now convinced that the original Greek uses idioms influenced by Hebrew and Aramaic grammar, which have been missed in the usual translations. The meaning is this:

      The tree of life is growing between the street and the river, with the street on one side and the river on the other. So visually, the street and the river each run out from the center. In between them is a green belt (if they run parallel to each other), or a pie wedge (if they run out at an angle from each other), with the tree of life growing at its center. This could be a single tree, or “tree of life” could be used collectively, meaning there are many trees of life growing in the central area between the street and the river.

      This translation allows the tree of life to occupy a central location in Revelation 22:2 just as it did in its original appearance in Genesis 3:9.

      Aside from the tricky, idiomatic nature of the original Greek, perhaps the reason for the more usual translation is the influence of Ezekiel’s vision of the river flowing from the temple, with trees growing on either side, as found in Ezekiel 47:1-12.

      However, though Ezekiel’s vision is definitely reflected in the imagery found in the book of Revelation, I believe that the original description of the tree of life in Genesis 3 is an even stronger influence than Ezekiel, and that the tree of life remains in a central location rather than at the sides. This is important for the spiritual symbolism of the verse as well.

      The meaning of the rest of the verse should be fairly clear—though there is some difference of opinion on whether the tree bears twelve different fruits every month continuously, or a different fruit each month. I’m more inclined toward the latter, and have stuck with the CJB on this point.

  3. Therese says:

    Thank you for this insight Lee. In reading Genesis 3:2 yesterday, the word “middle” jumped out at me. So here I am looking to see whether others had/have an opinion on this. Your article was the one that jumped out at me & I was led to read it. Thank you for the clear, concise explanation.

  4. Rick says:

    The tree of life is a picture of Jesus. Jesus is life. He who has Jesus has life. There is no other means by which man can receive life other than faith in Christ Jesus!

    • Lee says:

      Hi Rick,

      Thanks for stopping by, and for your comment. I agree that the tree of life is a picture of Jesus Christ–especially for Christians. For non-Christians, it is an picture of God’s presence in our lives. Christians believe that Jesus is God. And there is only one God. So even if people call God by a different name, they are still believing in the same God, who is the Lord God Jesus Christ. In other words, from a Christian perspective, faith in God is faith in Jesus, even for those who use different names for God. (“Name” in the Bible also means the character of the one who bears that name.)

      For more on this, see these articles:

      If there’s One God, Why All the Different Religions?

      Who is God? Who is Jesus Christ? What about that Holy Spirit?

  5. Debajyoti Sarkar says:

    Do the knowledge-tree and life-tree represent spiritual trees ? If so, how did Eve take the fruit from the knowledge-tree,ate it and gave it to Adam,who also ate it ?

    • Lee says:

      Hi Debajyoti Sarkar,

      Thanks for stopping by, and for your comment.

      These early stories in the Bible were never meant to be taken literally. They are spiritual stories of the early ages of humankind.

      The word “Adam” in Hebrew means “humankind.” Adam and Eve are figures that represent the early community of human beings. It’s similar to how Americans speak of “Uncle Sam” as a figure representing the entire nation of the U.S. We commonly represent whole groups of people poetically as single figures.

      If we read these early stories in Genesis as symbolic stories of God’s relationship with the first humans on earth, and the spiritual stages those early humans passed through, they make much more sense.

      What actually happened was that the early culture of human beings represented by Adam and Eve moved away from their close relationship with God by choosing to rely upon their own senses (represented by the serpent) and their own judgment, thus symbolically eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil–which as I say in the article, represents relying upon our own judgment and experience rather than accepting the teachings of God.

      For more on the story of Adam and Eve, see the article:
      Curses or Consequences: Did God Really Curse Adam and Eve?

  6. Lucas says:

    Hi again,

    I very much appreciate the understandings and the effort that you’ve put into your website. Your words speak to me.

    Thank you.

  7. King Adebusuyi Thomson says:

    the tree of life is Christ which you can only access to by doing perfectly the word of truth in your heart. as many that disobeyed or break the truth are with tree of death or Satan ruling in his or her heart. Tree of life is a living heart but tree of knowledge of good and evil is a death heart or harden heart.

    • Lee says:

      Hi King Adebusuyi Thomson,

      Thanks for stopping by, and for your comment.

      I would only say that I don’t see where the Bible says that we can access Christ only by doing perfectly the word of truth in our heart. Jesus does say, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). However, I read that as marching orders for something Christians are meant to aim for and aspire to, not as a requirement for being a Christian and having access to Christ. I do not find anywhere in the Bible any statement that says that if we’re not perfect, God will reject us. In fact, the Bible says just the opposite: that God is merciful, and loves us even when we are sinners, forgiving our sins and calling us to new life.

      Also, the Greek word commonly translated “perfect” has the sense of “being complete” or “not stopping halfway, but going the full distance” rather than “perfect” as that word is usually used in English. Jesus is telling us to run the full course of our spiritual journey; don’t stop partway down the course and say, “That’s enough for me.”

      I do agree with you that the tree of life means having a living heart—which is a new heart given to us by God (Ezekiel 36:26)—while the tree of death means having a hard, stony heart, which is spiritual death.

  8. Tosin Peters says:

    Welldone for the insight….from the scripture we could see that Eve ate the fruit first before giving her husband to eat. And you talked about the knowledge gained from experience. Also you talked about Adam knowing his wife in chapter 4…From all these above, who knew Eve first? Is it the Serpent or Adam?

    • Lee says:

      Hi Tosin,

      Thanks for stopping by, and for your comment and question.

      “Knowing” is used in Genesis 4:1 as a euphemism for Adam and Eve having sexual intercourse. Meanwhile, in Genesis 3 the serpent is not said to have “known” Eve at all. It simply says that he spoke to her.

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