Friedrich Nietzsche famously said regarding Christian readings of the Hebrew scriptures, “there followed a fury of interpretation and construction that cannot possibly be associated with a good conscience: however much Jewish scholars protested, the Old Testament was supposed to speak of Christ and only of Christ, and especially of his Cross; wherever a piece of wood, a rod, a ladder, a twig, a tree, a willow, a staff is mentioned, it is supposed to be a prophetic allusion to the wood of the Cross; even the erection of the one-horned beast and the brazen serpent, even Moses spreading his arms in prayer, even the spits on which the Passover lamb was roasted all allusions to the Cross and as it were preludes to it!” (Daybreak, 1.84). In reading the interpretation of Old Testament texts in the New and even more so in the hymnography of the church surrounding the feasts of the cross and its veneration, many may experience some lesser degree of this same sentiment. It is common for modern interpreters to understand all such interpretations as allegory, leaps of debatable value from some literal ancient reality to much later and ultimately unrelated Christian faith. In reality, this is a gross misjudgment. The way in which the New Testament authors and the church speak of the Cross grows from ancient understandings embedded in the Hebrew scriptures themselves. Careful study reveals the connective tissue.
Our Lord Jesus Christ was crucified upon a cross consisting of an upright, standing post and a cross beam. Roman crucifixions took place by many means born of the imaginations of the Roman soldiery and torturers. Different forms of crosses are associated, for example, with the deaths of several of the apostles who were likewise executed by the Romans. The scriptures, however, use another word in addition to ‘cross’ (in Greek stavros) to describe the means of Christ’s death. This word, xylon in Greek, is most often used for wood as a substance but is often used and translated as ‘tree’ in much the same way in which a forested area in English is referred to as ‘woods’ or ‘woodland’. The use of this term in reference to Christ’s death (Acts 5:30; 10:39; 13:29; Gal 3:13; 1 Pet 2:24) serves to connect the cross to thematic traditions regarding trees in the ancient world. Within the Torah, there are negative associations to being hung on a tree as a symbol of curse. There is also, however, a positive association through the Hebrew scriptures and elsewhere in the ancient world to which the texts of the New Testament and the church’s liturgical tradition connect the cross of Christ.
Within the scriptures, this theme begins in the second chapter of Genesis with the presence of the tree of life in the midst of Paradise (Gen 2:9). Paradise is the place where God dwells, meaning that the tree of life itself, at the center associated with the source of the rivers flowing out to fill the world with the waters of life (v. 10-14), is associated with the presence of God himself. It is from the tree of life that humanity must be exiled in order to prevent their eternal condemnation (3:22-23). Cherubim are the angelic beings who guard the throne of God himself and it is not a coincidence that it is the cherubim with the flaming sword who are given to guard the tree of life from any attempt of man to return (3:24). Through this memory, the tree of life became a symbol in the ancient world for the presence of the Most High God who bestows life upon the world and specifically of Yahweh the God of Israel.
The tree of life of Eden combines three primary themes surrounding sacred trees in the Ancient Near East. As seen in Genesis 2 in which the tree of life is associated with the source of the dividing waters of life, the tree represents fertility in the sense of the giving of new life. The budding forth of fruit exemplifies this life-giving capacity. The bearing of fruit is bringing life and order into the world rather than death and destruction. The sacred tree also designates sacred space. In both Mesopotamian and Greek sources, the dwellings of gods and other sacred areas are enclosed gardens of fruit trees. It is the divine life and order within these gardens which designates them as sacred. Paradise is, by its nature, such an enclosed and sacred space. It is a temple into which man is placed to serve as both divine image and priest. Finally, the tree served as the symbol of the power and rule of the king. To this end, it was often depicted within a palace setting and guarded by lions, apkallu, or other divine beings such as cherubim. These three themes are not discrete, but intertwine and relate to one other, flowing into one another as should be apparent. It is this complex of ideas to which Genesis 2 and 3 are clearly alluding. Genesis presents itself as describing the truth and ultimate origin of this nexus of ideas.
The imagery of the sacred tree continues throughout the Hebrew scriptures. Throughout the Hebrew scriptures, when Yahweh reveals himself to human persons, it takes place in the presence of a tree. Likely the most well-known of these is the visit of Yahweh and two angels to Abraham at the oaks of Mamre (Gen 18). There are, however, other significant examples in which a tree is associated with the presence of God (eg. Num 33:9; Josh 24:26; 1 Kings 19:4-8). In addition to trees being thus used to signify the presence of God, they are also frequently used to represent kingship and rule (eg. 1 Sam/1 Kgdms 14:2; 22:6). The tree is portrayed generally as being at the center of the realm of the king’s rule and so, for example, in the case of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, it is in the midst of the whole earth (Dan 4:7-13). The tree of life itself is referenced four times in the book of Proverbs (3:18; 11:30; 13:12; 15:4). Here it is tied to wisdom and that not in a general sense, but in the particular sense of the divine Logos through which the earth was created and in which its order, structure, and life is found.
In literature from the Second Temple period, this tree imagery becomes part of the eschatological hope of the earth, building from the imagery of Ezekiel 47:12. A prime example of this is found in 1 Enoch. “This high mountain which you saw, whose peak is like the throne of God, is the seat where the Most Holy One, the Lord of Glory, the King of Eternity, will sit when he comes down to visit the earth in goodness. And this fragrant tree, no ﬂesh has the right to touch it until the great judgment, in which there will be vengeance on all and a consummation forever. Then it will be given to the righteous and the pious, and its fruit will be food for the elect. And it will be transplanted to the holy place, by the house of God, the King of Eternity. Then they will rejoice greatly and be glad and they will enter into the sanctuary. Its fragrance will be in their bones, and they will live a long life on the earth such as your fathers lived also in their days and torments and plagues and suﬀering will not touch them” (24:3-6). These ideas are directly applied to the life of the world to come in the Apocalypse of St. John (2:7; 22:2, 14, 19).
The New Testament authors see the cross of Christ as the fulfillment of these interconnected themes. St. John’s Gospel directly associates the glorification of Christ, his revelation of himself as God, with his crucifixion. This becomes especially clear in light of the Greek Old Testament tradition, in which the verb for ‘lifted up’, hypsoo, and the verb for ‘glorified’, doxazo, are used synonymously (as in Isaiah 52:13). It is when Christ is lifted up upon the tree of the cross that his glory, which he shares with God the Father, and therefore his identity are fully revealed as the presence of Yahweh himself (Jn 3:13-15; 7:39; 8:28; 12:16, 32-33, 41). Further, at the crucifixion, the rule and reign of Christ are established and proclaimed (Jn 12:27-36; Col 1:13-14; 2:15; Heb 2:5-10). It is for this reason that the proclamation takes place in the midst of the earth (Ps 74:12; Is 10:23; Ex 8:22). It is for this reason that iconography has traditionally substituted ‘King of Glory’ for ‘King of the Jews’ in its portrayal of the titulus atop the cross of Christ. The cross of Christ also renders us and the world sacred and holy, set apart as sacred space and holy people, once again (1 Cor 1:18-31; Gal 6:14-16).
In addition to the connection between the historical cross of Christ and the spiritual reality of the tree of life, the cross operates within Christian faith and practice in another sense. To the sign of the cross, crosses as devotional objects, and the physical wood of Christ’s cross as rediscovered by St. Helena are attributed power. In the midst of the dismissal of Orthodox Christian worship, amid the invocation of the prayers of various saints, an appeal is made to the might of the precious and life-giving cross. The cross as an object is here included in a list of persons who intercede for the faithful. While this understanding seems an oddity by modern materialist standards, the veneration of the cross was historically practiced even by various iconoclastic parties throughout history. The cross is in a different category of its own, but a category not without parallel in the Hebrew scriptures.
The tree of life as the power and presence of God was instantiated in the series of events from the first Passover to the first Pentecost in an object made of wood, specifically the rod through which Moses and Aaron brought the power and presence of God to bear in both worship and judgment among his people. Moses’ staff of wood given to Moses by Yahweh himself, called the ‘staff of God’, which he was to take with him to represent the presence of Yahweh, his authority and rule, and his power to judge (Ex 4:13-20). The connection between the rod and the tree of life was later literalized in Jewish literature to argue that this rod was formed from a piece of the tree of life itself (cf. the Sarajevo Haggadah). Moses and Aaron strike the Nile with the staff to turn it to blood and this action with the staff is said to be a revelation of Yahweh (Ex 7:17-20). The staff is then used at the striking of Egypt and her gods with the other plagues (8:5, 16-17; 9:23; 10:13). It is stretched out over the sea before its parting (14:16), to strike the rock and bring forth water (17:5-6), and is held aloft to bring victory in the battle against the Amalekites (17:8-13). This staff buds forth with new life to publically reinforce Aaron’s authority from God as the high priest (Num 17:1-10). All of these acts take place through the staff of God to reinforce that they are a function of Yahweh’s presence with his people and his might, rather than any power or might possessed by Moses, Aaron, or Israelite military arms. The staff of God is then placed within the ark of the covenant along with two other God-given objects, the tablets of the covenant on which God wrote with his own finger (Ex 31:18) and the bread from heaven upon which the people of Israel were nourished in the wilderness (16:1-36).
This understanding of the connection of the staff of God to the tree of life is incorporated and fulfilled in the connection of the cross and its sign to the cross of Christ. On the Christian altar, the cross has taken the place of Aaron’s budded rod just as the covenant has found its fulfillment in the book of the Gospels and the manna has found its fulfillment in the body and blood of Christ kept in the tabernacle (Jn 6:30-59). In the same way in which Moses’ rod was the instrument by which Israel was victorious against Amalek, the giant clan which laid siege to the throne of Yahweh (Ex 17:14-15), so also the sign of the cross grants victory over rebellious and evil spiritual powers. The might of the precious and life-giving cross is the power and reign of our Lord and God and Saviour Jesus Christ himself operating within creation to sanctify it until the entirety of that creation has become filled with the judgment, presence, and rule of God.