Sometimes called the cosmic or world tree, the tree of life did not originate with the authors of Genesis. The notion of a sacred tree appears in many traditions. Isis and Osiris were said to have emerged from an acacia tree, which the Egyptians considered to be the tree of life. The Mayan tree of life is a cross from which branches emerge, the centre of which symbolises the point of absolute beginning, the source of all creation. The oldest name of Babylon (Tintirki) meant the place of the tree of life. This was a tree with magical fruit which could be picked only by the gods. Sumerian art depicts it guarded by a pair of intertwined snakes (see Tantra). In the Book of Revelation the tree of life is described as having curative properties (“And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations” – Revelation 22: 1-2). Consider also the Buddha who received enlightenment under the Bodhi tree.
It is clear that the symbol of immortality and freedom from all disease is an archetype deeply embedded in the human consciousness. A tree has deep connections with the earth, yet its branches reach up to heaven. It symbolises a link between the material and the metaphysical world.
However as we all know, in the Garden of Eden alongside the tree of life was another tree: the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Adam and Eve fell out of favour with God by eating its fruit, and were cast out of the garden, condemned to toil all their lives and to experience illness, ageing and death. In one of the scriptural writings outside the Canon (Vita Adae et Evae), as Adam lies ill and dying, his son Seth is described asking what pain is, and Adam explains it is a result of the knowledge of good and evil. He expresses feelings of guilt, and begs his son to go back into Eden to get oil from the tree of life to relieve his suffering, but to no avail. To prevent access to this tree in the future Genesis says that cherubim with flaming swords flashing back and forth were placed at the garden’s entrance to guard the way.
The theological explanation for why a loving God would allow death is that because of sin, life is filled with pain, illness and hard work, and by limiting our lifespan God spares us the misery of an endless existence full of suffering and heartache. The wages of sin, as St Paul says, is death, but God allows us to reach out to him and offers eternal life after death through Christ.
Why does the Bible call the second of these trees the tree of the knowledge of good and evil instead of just calling it the tree of death? It is as though knowledge of good and evil is equated with the opposite of life. This rather confusing message can be interpreted in two ways. The standard theological interpretation is that knowing good and evil meant experiencing it, and that the sin of man condemned him to suffer evil and pain, so that he might better appreciate what is good and true. It is certainly the case that for many metaphysical philosophies, one of the explanations for suffering is that it enables us to recognise its opposite, and to expand our consciousness in order to acquire greater wisdom. But if we take this analogy further, we can apply the word ‘knowledge’ to all of the information that our minds soak up from the time we are born on earth. Much of this information serves as a source of social cues, beliefs and learned thought patterns, causing us to adopt unconscious attitudes towards health and human lifespan that set our inner clock to begin to age at a given time, and leading us to associate pain and fatigue with advancing years, as well as constantly calculating how long we have left. Cognition is not a representation of the world, but an interpretation of it.
In the Kabbalah, ‘Ain Soph’ is beyond good and evil, embracing the totality of everything. It may be translated as ‘there is no end’ or ‘infinite’ and represents the divine origin of all created existence. It emanates 10 realms of existence, the lowest of which is the realm of our universe. Ain Soph has parallels in science : in the case of string theory, consistency requires space-time to have 10 dimensions.
Daring to turn our back on the ‘knowledge of good and evil’ and associating ourselves with the tree of life, clearing our minds of negative chatter and filling our lives with the positive, the uplifting, with affirming statements rather than thinking about what we don’t want, don’t have and need to resist, is a step few would call rational, but there are already many who are edging their way back into the garden through conscious living, as the flaming swords are lowered and Eden comes again into sight.