Lytton John Musselman is Mary Payne Hogan Professor of Botany, and Chair, Department of Biological Sciences, Old Dominion University, Norfolk, Virginia, United States.
Mention of trees in the holy books of Judaism, Christianity and Islam reflect the place of trees in the daily life and imagination of cultures of millennia ago.
Trees are prominent in both the Bible and the Koran. Arboreal references in these holy books reflect the place of trees in cultures of millennia ago: their uses, the local species of importance, and moreover their inspirational and symbolic significance, based on the perception of the tree as symbol of the life given by the Creator.
With the continuous influence of these books over thousands of years, particular species (e.g. the cedar of Lebanon) and certain forests and groves have acquired great – even sacred – importance, which still holds today and may contribute to their protection and conservation.
The Bible contains more references to trees and wood (over 525) than to any other type of living organism except humans. These references are found from the first book of the Bible, which contains a reference to the tree of life in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 2:9) to the last book of the New Testament, which refers to the tree of life as a major feature in Paradise (Revelation 22:2, 14). The distinction between a tree with a large single trunk and a shrub with several stems is not always clear and some, like olive and pomegranate, could be either.
Twenty-two trees are recognized in the Bible:
Of the 22 trees of the Bible, the date palm, fig, olive, pomegranate and tamarisk are also included in the Koran. Unique to the Koran are the talh (scholars are undecided as to whether this is the banana plant, which is not a tree, or a species of the widespread genus Acacia), the sidr (a thorn bush, probably Zizyphus spina-christi) and the mysterious and foul “tree of Hell”, or zaqqm (As-Saffat 37:65, Ad-Dukhn 44:49, Al-Waqi’a 56:51):
Is this not a better welcome than the zaqqm tree? We have made this tree a scourge for the unjust. It grows in the nethermost part of Hell, bearing fruit like devils’ heads: on it they shall feed, and with it they shall cram their bellies, together with draughts of scalding water. Then to Hell shall they return.
Religious texts such as the Islamic Hadiths, the Judaic Mishnah and the writings of the early Christian church fathers also contain much information on plant lore and legend. Indeed, some references to plants in early Christian writings have become so familiar that they are now inferred to originate in the sacred texts. For example, Judaeo-Christian tradition generally holds that in the Garden of Eden, Eve enticed Adam with an apple from the forbidden tree. However, in the Old Testament book of Genesis, the tree that is linked to the disobedience of Adam and Eve is not identified as an apple.
Whence the apple tree? European tradition portrays Eve tempting Adam with an apple (as in this painting by Hugo van der Goes, c. 1467), but in the Old Testament the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is not identified as such
People have always worshipped trees. Early tree worship by pre-monotheistic religions is recorded in numerous Greek and Sumerian classics. The ancient Greeks regarded trees as the first temples of the gods and sacred groves as their first places of worship, where the powerful forces of nature inspired human image making (Baumann, 1993). Groves of trees, often dark and mysterious, were thought of as haunts of spirits. The pagan use of trees and groves for worship is mentioned in the Bible:
… places on the high mountains and on the hills and under every spreading tree where the nations … worship their gods.
[King Ahaz] … offered sacrifices and burned incense … under every spreading tree.
II Chronicles 28:2
Size, age, beauty and utility are features of trees that elicit admiration from humans. Many trees are impressive in size, among the largest living things. They are probably especially imposing in the Near East, where the distribution of trees is frequently limited. Towering over a person, extending from the ground and reaching into the sky, trees have been revered as a link between heaven and earth.
Trees are also the oldest organisms that most people ever see. Village trees in public places, for example near wells, transcend generations and are often protected. Frequently gnarled with age, such ancient trees nevertheless appear to be “reborn” with each new growing season. With a long life span relative to that of a person, they may be perceived as eternal.
Trees provide shade, food and fibre and have many other uses. Both the Koran and the Bible abound in references to trees as a gift from the deity. Like the features of size, longevity and beauty, the utility of trees adds to the perception that they have divine attributes.
Both the Bible and the Koran refer to the utility of trees for food, animal feed, oil, woodfuel (including charcoal) and construction.
Trees are mentioned as a source of food in the earliest chapters of the Bible (Genesis 1:29). Because of the importance of trees for food, cutting fruit-trees during the siege of an enemy town was prohibited (Deuteronomy 20:19-20). The Koran refers to the use of olives for food, while the Bible refers to their use only for oil.
In the Koran, at least two verses (Sura 36:80 and 56:72) record fuelwood as a divine provision.
One of the specialized uses of trees in the Bible was for tensile material, as noted in several chapters of Exodus. The boards and poles as well as the furniture for the tabernacle, including the Ark of the Covenant, were all made from acacia. Historically, the cedar of Lebanon was one of the most important building materials in the Near East (Bikai, 1991). The first construction use of cedar mentioned in the Bible was for royal palaces. The most famous cedar building, though not the largest, was the temple built by Solomon. In addition, Solomon built a magnificent home for himself entirely out of cedar (I Kings 7); it took 13 years to complete, six more years than for the temple. Earlier, Solomon’s father had built a house out of cedar (II Samuel 7:2). A lesser-known use of cedar was in oblations for purification, for example, in ritual cleansing for leprosy (Leviticus 14; Numbers 19:6). Details are not given, but it seems likely that small pieces of cedar were used for their fragrance.
Early in the Bible, trees are mentioned as a source not only of food, but of beauty (Genesis 2:8). The beauty of trees is also a theme in the Song of Solomon. In Deuteronomy 8:8, olive, fig and pomegranate are especially singled out as a blessing from God. Likewise, the Koran describes fruit-trees as a gift of God.
Beyond mention of their utility, trees are important in both of these holy books as symbol and metaphor.
In the two books, the good tree is equated with a good person and the bad tree with a bad person. For example, from the Koran:
Do you not see how God compares a good word to a good tree? Its root is firm and its branches are in the sky; it yields its fruit in every season by God’s leave. God speaks in parables to mankind so that they may take heed. But an evil word is like an evil tree torn out of the earth and shorn of all its roots.
And from the Bible:
He is like a tree planted by a stream of water which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither. Whatever he does prospers.
The righteous will flourish like a palm tree; they will grow like a cedar of Lebanon.
The Bible explicitly likens great men to trees. For example, Daniel, interpreting King Nebuchadnezzar’s dream about a tree, says, “… You, O King, are that tree!”(Daniel 4:22). In Ezekiel 31:3, the King of Assyria is called a cedar of Lebanon: “Consider Assyria, once a cedar in Lebanon, with beautiful branches overshadowing the forest; it towered on high, its top above the thick foliage.”
In both the Bible and the Koran, trees symbolize eternity and are associated with the heavenly state. An example is the tree of life in the Bible, which is mentioned in the Garden of Eden as well as in the eternal afterlife. And from the Koran:
Those on the right hand – happy shall be those on the right hand! They shall recline on couches raised on high in the shade of thornless sidrs and clusters of talh; amidst gushing waters and abundant fruits, unforbidden, never ending.
In a sense, the message of the Bible can be summed up by the symbolism of four trees. The first was the tree of life in the paradise of the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:22-24). This became the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (the second tree) of which Adam and Eve ate the fruit, causing the fall (Genesis 3:4-6, 17-18). Third, Jesus’s cross is referred to as a “tree” and is linked to Deuteronomy 21:22-23: “If a man guilty of a capital offence is put to death and his body is hung on a tree, you must not leave his body on the tree overnight. Be sure to bury him that same day, because anyone who is hung on a tree is under God’s curse”. In the Christian doctrine of salvation, Jesus taking the curse removes the curse of the tree of good and evil and leads to the last tree: the tree of life in the paradise of God with “… leaves of the tree … for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be any curse” (Revelation 22:1-3).
Both the Koran and the Bible were culturally relevant to their original readers. The plants familiar to the cultures that gave rise to these books influenced their tree imagery. Over the centuries, these texts have influenced the people who have adopted them as sacred.
A good example of cultural influence is the inclusion of Greek plant lore in the New Testament, which was heavily influenced by Greek culture and written in Greek; some of these plants were not common in the lands of the Old Testament. For instance, in I Peter 5:4, a winner of a sports event is crowned with leaves of the shrub Laurus nobilis, “… the crown of glory that will never fade away”. Laurus nobilis is one of the few examples of a plant mentioned in the New Testament but not in the Old Testament.
Biblical or Koranic names are frequently used outside the Near East for indigenous plants that never grew in the lands where these two books originated. The flora of eastern North America, for example, has many “cedars”, which are not related to the cedar of Lebanon (Cedrus libani) of the Bible. Perhaps because the cedar of Lebanon was such a well-recognized symbol from the Bible, the early Christian settlers in North America gave this name to many different trees (and even to many herbaceous plants), whether or not they were true cedars or even members of the same botanical family. For example, the widespread red cedar of eastern North America (Juniperus virginiana), like Cedrus libani, is an evergreen and has a pleasant, enduring fragrance, but its cone is fleshy and berry-like, unlike the large spindle-shaped cone of the cedar of Lebanon.
Similarly, in eastern Sudan, the Beja people call the large, arborescent cactus Euphorbia abyssinica “zaqqm” after the tree of Hell mentioned in the Koran. It is unlikely that the conception of the zaqqm in the Koran was based on this succulent, since the zaqqm fruit was described as resembling a devil’s head, for instance. It is perhaps owing to its very bitter sap that Euphorbia abyssinica has been likened to the zaqqm.
Understanding the flora of the regions where the sacred text originated helps to understand the text itself. Both the Koran and the Bible draw upon local trees.
Tamarisks, for instance, a species of the genus Tamarix, are very common trees and shrubs in parts of the Near East and have now become serious weeds in other parts of the world. They often grow in some of the most difficult environments for plants. For example, they tolerate soils with high salt concentration and are therefore the only trees found on the shores of the Dead Sea.
In the Koran, tamarisks are used to describe the notion of a degraded environment: “So We let loose upon them the waters of the dam and replaced their gardens by two others bearing bitter fruit, tamarisks, and a few nettles [sometimes translated as stunted lote trees]” (Sura 34:16). In the Bible, the prophet Abraham planted a tamarisk tree to honour God (Genesis 20:33).
The pomegranate is widely used in the Near East. In the Koran, pomegranates, Punica granatum, are mentioned as one of the gifts of Allah:
“It is He who sends down water from the sky with which We bring forth the buds of every plant. From these We bring forth green foliage and close-growing grain, palm-trees laden with clusters of dates, vineyards and olive groves, and pomegranates alike and different. Behold their fruits when they ripen. Surely in these there are signs for true believers.”
Al-An’_ am 6:99
Similarly, in the Bible pomegranates come from God (Deuteronomy 8:8). They are also referred to as objects of beauty. Pomegranates figure prominently in three places in the Scriptures: on the garment of the high priest (Exodus 28:33), as a garland on the pillars in the temple, and in the Song of Solomon. Solomon’s temple had two hundred pomegranates engraved on the capitals of the two pillars that were at the front of the temple (I Kings 7:42; II Chronicles 4:13). In the Song of Solomon 4:3 and 6:7, the red interior of the fruit is likened to the temples of the Beloved.
A Pistacia atlantica tree near the village of Kufr Yusef in Galilee, Israel honours a local girl who is considered a kind of saint by Muslims
An olive tree in the Syrian Arabic Republic, associated with the tomb of a saint and adorned with strips of cloth
Trees are still venerated today in many countries, including Iraq, Israel, Lebanon and the Syrian Arab Republic. Among Druze and Muslim Arabs, certain individual trees are considered holy. These trees are often near the tombs of holy men or women where visitors come to make requests. They pledge to do good if the requests are fulfilled, and tie cloth, cloth strips, or rags on to the trees as a solemn indication of their promise to implement these vows (Dafni, 2003).
Less than 3 percent remains of the original cedar of Lebanon forest which once covered much of the western slope of Mount Lebanon. Almost all of this is protected. One of the reserves, called “The Cedars of the Lord” (Arz el-Rab), a remnant of a few hundred hectares on Mount Lebanon, has been considered sacred by the Maronite Christians who have lived in the region for a millennium.
Trees have a high frequency in the Bible and are so prominent that the main biblical messages can be summed up by four trees. In the Koran, trees are most frequently cited as gifts of a beneficent Creator, with the notable exception of the tree of Hell, zaqqm. In both scriptures, fruits from trees are highly valued.
The study of trees of the holy scriptures of Islam and Judaism and Christianity, and the observation that trees are presented as a resource from God, leads to the question of how those who revere the holy scriptures are handling trees. Sayeed Hossein Nasr (1996), in a profound volume on the relationship between religion and the ecological crisis, argues that what is needed in a modern world where humans are increasingly alienated from nature is the recovery of the truth to which the important enduring religions all attest, namely, that nature is sacred.
A sculpture by the artist Rudy Rahme depicting a crucified Christ, located in the grove of cedars above the Maronite Christian town of Bsherri on Mount Lebanon in Lebanon
Baumann, H. 1993. The Greek plant world in myth, art and literature. Translated and augmented by W. T. Stearn & E. R. Stearn. Timber Press, Portland, Oregon, USA.
Bikai, P. M. 1991. The cedar of Lebanon: archaeological and dendrochronological perspectives. Berkeley, California, University of California. (PhD dissertation)
Dafni, A. 2003. Why are rags tied to the sacred trees of the holy land? Economic Botany, 56(4): 315-327.
Dawood, N.J., transl. 1997. The Koran with parallel Arabic text. London, UK, Penguin
Hodder and Stoughton Publishers. 1986. The Bible – new international version. London, UK.
Nasr, S.H. 1996. Religion and the order of nature. New York, USA, Oxford University Press.