What is it about trees that compels people to worship? Perhaps it’s that some trees seem bigger than life as the tallest and oldest living things that occupy our natural landscape. As such they symbolize vitality, growth, strength, endurance, fruitfulness, and even eternal life. Because of the many benefits of trees to mankind, we treasure them. This is especially true in the more arid regions of the world like northern Africa and the Middle East—which make up what has been called the Fertile Crescent, the nursery of modern civilization. Symbols, pictographs, writings, and art objects from the ancient cultures that occupied these areas are replete with trees, tree forms, and tree references—providing evidence that those lands were more forested a few thousand years ago.
The Bible itself contains more references to trees than to any other living thing except people.The account of Eden’s paradise in the Bible’s first book includes reference to the first specific tree: the tree of life (Gen. 2:9). And the last book of the Bible, the Revelation, includes reference again to the tree of life—this time as a major feature in the Paradise of God (Rev. 22:2,14). How fitting it is that the tree, this magnificent gift from the Creator, provides the bookends of the Word of God, the writing of which spans some 1,500 years.
Between these bookends, we learn much about trees and worship. First, and extremely significant, is that trees were never worshiped by true children of God. Nonetheless, trees were highly valued, both for their beauty and their utility (Gen. 2:9).
Since the Genesis account of creation seems to indicate that the fruit of trees and other plants were the food of all the early peoples and animals, trees were obviously the linchpin of life and health for the entire creation—and they still are. Early in the second narrative of the creation (Gen. 2), the Holy Spirit speaks specifically of two types of life occupying the Garden of Eden virtually in tandem: first man, then trees. While it is clear that God intended for man and trees to live in harmony and in mutual support, we discover that man’s relationship to the tree becomes troubled very quickly—trouble that has affected all of creation’s history.
As this story unfolds, we find some 550 references to trees, or wood, in the Bible. At least 26 different kinds of trees are specifically mentioned. While there are a number of verses speaking of the beauty of trees, most deal with the tree’s utility. Specific mention is made of trees as a source of food and healing substances; fuel for cooking, heating, and altar sacrifices; shade, landmarks, burial markers, furniture (especially temple furnishings); and lumber for buildings, ships, carriages, and chariots. Other practical wooden things are staves for walking and herding, carrier poles, flagstaffs, buckets, ox yokes, tools, musical instruments, and even scarecrows.
More sinister uses for trees and wood mentioned in the Bible are spears, war clubs, bows, and arrows. And perhaps most gruesome is the use of trees as gallows—racks to hang and display the bodies of criminals and unfortunate victims of hatred. This use of the tree is given special mention in the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy:
You must not leave [a man’s] 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 (21:23 NIV).
This passage brings us closer to the issue of trees and worship. Throughout history, when a culture turns from God to follow its own way (as did Adam and Eve), it essentially turns its back on the very Creator of mankind. But because of the inherent need of people to worship, we look for a substitute God. If one turns away from the Creator, however, the only things left to worship are the things God has made. Granted, some of those things are awe-inspiring, like the sun, moon, and stars. The powerful forces and basic elements of nature not only compel us to wonder, they cause us to fear, which is an emotion akin to worship.
Perhaps less compelling, yet something to marvel at, are the other created things that have been found in the pantheon of creature-gods through the ages: mountains, rivers, trees, and animals of all sorts. The religions of the Greeks and Romans amply demonstrate that man too has often elevated himself to godlike status and worship—not only for his appearance, powers, and abilities, but also for his capacity for murder and virtually unlimited wickedness. This turning from the Creator to nature as the object of worship was described by the apostle Paul in his letter to the Roman Christians:
Although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like corruptible man— and birds and four-footed animals and creeping things. Therefore God also gave them up to uncleanness, in the lusts of their hearts, to dishonor their bodies among themselves, who exchanged the truth of God for the lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen (Rom. 1:21-25).
Perhaps even more dramatic is the prophet Isaiah’s parody of one who worships wooden idols:
He cuts down cedars for himself, and takes the cypress and the oak; he secures it for himself among the trees of the forest. He plants a pine, and the rain nourishes it. Then it shall be for a man to burn, for he will take some of it and warm himself; yes, he kindles it and bakes bread; indeed he makes a god and worships it; he makes it a carved image, and falls down to it. He burns half of it in the fire; with this half he eats meat; he roasts a roast, and is satisfied. He even warms himself and says, “Ah! I am warm, I have seen the fire.” And the rest of it he makes into a god, his carved image. He falls down before it and worships it, prays to it, and says, “Deliver me, for you are my god!” They do not know nor understand; for [God] has shut their eyes, so that they cannot see, and their hearts, so that they cannot understand. And no one considers in his heart, nor is there knowledge nor understanding to say, “I have burned half of it in the fire; yes, I have also baked bread on its coals; I have roasted meat and eaten it; and shall I make the rest of it an abomination? Shall I fall down before a block of wood?” He feeds on ashes; a deceived heart has turned him aside; and he cannot deliver his soul, nor say, “Is there not a lie in my right hand?” (Isa. 44:14-20).
The Bible, a book that was written in the midst of peoples and cultures that chose to worship the created thing instead of the Creator, stood out among ancient scriptures as a beacon of light in the darkness of animism and paganism. And the children of God themselves, when they were faithful and penitent, by their very actions proclaimed the truth about the one true God by destroying the sacred groves, Asherah poles, and idols of the pagan worshipers.
The Bible speaks of the desecration of God’s creation by the designation of high places and groves of trees as sacred places where religious prostitution was practiced. Those performing these degrading fertility rites ignored the divine source of life in the Creator Himself and considered earthly places and objects more effective in granting them their needs and catering to their pleasures (Isa. 1:29; Jer. 2:20; 3:6; Ezek. 6:13).
Nothing in the Bible or in the Christian faith condones the worship of trees—or any other created thing. So do we conclude that Julia Hill was acting like a pagan when she dropped to her knees and worshiped in the “cathedral” of the redwood forest? Was she detracting from the truth about God when she felt “overwhelmed by the wisdom, energy, and spirituality housed in this holie st of temples”? We’ll need to dig a little deeper into the Bible to find a complete and balanced answer to those questions.