Part 5: The Tree and the Temple
In recent posts, I brought up some interesting things about the olive trees, the tree of life, and Christ. In lieu of that, let me make note of the olive tree’s use in ancient Jewish temples:
“Beyond the… courts of the temple was a Holy of Holies. Two olive-wood pillars stood before its entrance. Nearby stood the seven-branched Menorah, the perpetual lamp, the everlastingly burning tree. The ‘heaviest and the purest oil,’ from vessels with the high priests’ seal, burned day and night in the Menorah.
“For the tabernacle in the wilderness Moses had been instructed, ‘And thou shalt command the children of Israel, that they bring thee pure oil olive beaten for the light, to cause the lamp to burn always.’ (Ex. 27:20.)” (Truman G. Madsen, “The Olive Press”, Ensign December 1982.)
This lamp was the menorah—a seven-branched lamp with cups on each branch where the pure, beaten olive oil was placed with wicks that burned continuously. The symbolism of the menorah gains greater depth when viewed in the context of the Tree of Life. One scholar observed: “Tree of life symbolism permeates the Old Testament. The tree symbolizes not only eternal life but also God’s presence. For example, Adam and Eve’s exclusion from the tree was also exclusion from the presence of the Lord. Thus, whenever man regained God’s presence, a tree of life representation was used to symbolize that reunion” (C. Wilfred Griggs, “The Tree of Life in Ancient Cultures,” Ensign, June 1988).
In turning to the book of Exodus, we find that the prophet Moses received his calling from God when “the angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush: and he looked, and, behold, the bush burned with fire, and the bush was not consumed” (Exodus 3:2). The Lord—speaking to him out of the bush declared that it he was standing on holy ground.
In the Jewish temples (also places which were holy ground) the menorah was a representation of the burning bush. The directions for the menorah were that they were to be golden candlesticks with decorations stylized “like unto almonds” (Exodus 25:31-36). Almonds stand as another candidate for the tree of life: “In general it may be said that most scholars now seem to suppose that the menorah originated from a sacred tree, more specifically the Tree of Life of mythology—a primal image which can be glimpsed as early as the third millennium B.C. … and which played a decisive role in the tree cult of the ancient world.” “The almond was originally conceived as a Tree of Life, indeed most probably the mythological Paradise Tree itself…. The almond is the first tree of spring in the Near East, sometimes waking as early as mid-December, when it decks itself in radiant white… an ideal image of life [and] resurrection… whose fruit… has been described as ‘perfect’” (L. Yarden, The Tree of Light [Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1971], 35, 40). Thus, both the burning bush and the menorah were symbols of God’s presence as a Tree of Life representation (and this is what I was hinting at when I finished last week’s post).
Further in this strain, the rod of Aaron represented that God was with Moses in Egypt as they contended with the priests (see Ex. 7:10-12), and later the Lord caused that rod to blossom and bear almonds as a testimony that the Lord had selected the tribe of Levi to bear the priesthood (see Num. 17:2-10).
“Messianic prophecies often speak of the Messiah in terms of a tree of life. For example, Isaiah prophesied that ‘there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots.’ (Isa. 11:1.) Then he described life much as it was in Eden, with the Messiah giving light and life to the earth” (Ensign, June 1988).
In addition to the physical furnishings of olive, the oil was used for anointing both priests as well as the tabernacle in the wilderness and all its furnishings (see Exodus 30:25-30). Since olive oil has been connected with representing the Holy Ghost (see D&C 45:56-57) and since “the Holy Ghost is a sanctifier whose divine commission is to burn dross and evil out of a human soul as though by fire” (Bruce R. McConkie, A New Witness for the Articles of Faith, p. 239), the anointing with olive oil was symbolic of purification. Hugh Nibley (professor of ancient scripture, lived 1910-2005) shared some observations about this anointing as well as the accompanying washing that he learned in studying the writings of Cyril: “The baptism in question, Cyril explains, is rather a washing than a baptism, since it is not by immersion. It is followed by an anointing, which our guide calls ‘the antitype of the anointing of Christ himself,’ making every candidate as it were a Messiah” (Mormonism and Early Christianity, 364).
Earlier we talked about the Tree of Life symbolizing God’s presence and looked at a few examples in the Old Testament. It is also of note that: “Jewish literature outside the Old Testament also contains tree of life references. The Books of Enoch, the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, and 4 Ezra are the best-known of such books. When Enoch journeyed to the Seven Sacred Mountains, he saw a sacred tree similar to a date palm but more beautiful and grand than any he had ever beheld. (See 1 Enoch 29.) His guide on the visionary journey, Michael, told Enoch that the fruit of the tree could not be eaten by mortals until they were purified after the judgment and that they would have to enter the temple of God to partake of it. (See 1 Enoch 25.)
“In the Secrets of Enoch 9:1, the seer is shown the heavenly dwelling place of the righteous, where stands the tree of life. In the Testament of Levi 18:9–11, Enoch prophesies that in the last days the Lord ‘shall open the gates of paradise, and shall remove the threatening sword against Adam. And he shall give to the saints to eat from the tree of life, and the spirit of holiness shall be on them.’” (Ensign, June 1988.)
Since we’re talking about the temple and the Tree, I particularly like the reference in the apocryphal 1 Enoch about having to enter the temple to partake of the Tree of Life. The menorahs where the olive oil burned were found in the temple where God’s presence was supposed to be felt. It is no surprise then that in Latter-day temples—which are believed to be houses of God where He may dwell—that Tree of Life symbols may be found.
Tree of Life symbolism is present in several LDS temples, starting with the Kirtland temple. The design shown below was carved into the keystone above the second floor’s eastern pulpits. It is a stylized depiction of the palmette (a decorative art motif resembling a palm tree’s leaves) drawn from Greek art known as the anthemion. “The anthemion is the most important and most beautiful of all Greek ornament motives. Its origin can be clearly traced back through Phoenician and Assyrian forms to the Egyptian lotus and lotus-palmette” (A. D. F. Hamblin, A History of Ornament Ancient and Medieval [New York: The Century Co., 1916], 104). The lotus was associated with the Tree of Life in Egyptian mythology and stood as a symbol of rebirth and regeneration and the palm tree was also associated with the Tree of Life in Mediterranean cultures of the past. On example was that the walls Solomon’s temple were decorated with “carved figures of cherubims and palm trees and open flowers, within and without” (1 Kings 6:29), and another was and is the Hosanna shout, which is associated with palm branches (see John 12:13, Revelation 7:9-10, D&C 109:76). Likewise, the doors to the Salt Lake temple have palmette designs engraved on them.
In more recent temples the Tree of Life has had appearances as well. In such temples as the Palmyra, New York; Winter Quarters, Nebraska; and San Antonio, Texas there are stained glass windows depicting the Tree of Life in such places as the sealing rooms and Celestial room. The Palmyra temple is of particular interest because of the symbolism of the trees in it. It is filled with windows depicting the trees in the grove it overlooks, most of which contain seven trees, representing perfection and completeness. “Meanwhile, the front door has 5 trees. This is meant to represent the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil from the Garden of Eden. This tree is important in scripture and symbolically as we enter the temple and go through this symbolic door we can be reminded that we have all entered mortality just like Adam and Eve and we have things to learn. The Celestial Room has a central tree that represents the Tree of Life” (http://thetrumpetstone.blogspot.com/2011/09/lds-temple-glass-trees.html).
It is fitting indeed that the Celestial Room has an image of the Tree of Life in it, as the Celestial room is “the culmination of our temple worship” which “serves as a spiritual and visual reminder of the solemn promises we have made and the blessings promised to us by our Father in Heaven” (“Nauvoo Illinois Temple” pamphlet) and “symbolizes life as eternal families with our Heavenly Father and His Son, Jesus Christ” (“Temples of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” pamphlet). In this sense, it represents eternal life in the presence of God. As such, the temple is a teaching ground in the quest for the Tree.
Next week will be the concluding essay on the quest for the Tree in the temples.