Monday, June 20, 2011

Temples and the Tree of Life

A few weeks ago, while I was in Boston for a conference, Daddy Monk--who's a sealer in the Boston Temple--asked me whether I knew of any connection between the temple and the tree of life. He was interested, at least in part, because the Boston Temple is decorated on the interior with a tree of life motif; all of the woodwork represents that theme. I didn't have my sources with me on my trip, but since I'm home and since today is Father's Day, now seems like an appropriate time to answer his question. I love you Daddy Monk!

Temples and the Tree of Life

The first point that needs to be made is that temples have always been thought of as a representation of the garden of Eden. As Lawrence Stager explains, "the Temple of Solomon--indeed, the Temple Mount and all Jerusalem--was a symbol as well as a reality, a mythopoeic realization of heaven on earth, Paradise, the Garden of Eden" (BAR 26:03). The apocryphal Book of Jubilees also bears testament to the truth "that the Garden of Eden is the holy of holies" (8:19), a place similarly sacred to the temple. In order to make the link between temple and Eden clear Solomon decorated his temple--like the Boston temple--with a garden motif. In Solomon's Temple David Seely and William Hamblin note that "Solomon's Temple was profusely decorated with floral motifs" (12): "And the cedar of the house within was carved with knops and open flowers: all was cedar; there was no stone seen" (1 Kings 6:18; see also 29-35). The entire interior of Solomon's Temple, in other words, was carved and decorated to resemble a garden. 

Other verbal parallels link these two spaces where God dwelt with man. Seely and Hamblin write that "The same Hebrew word, hithallek, used to describe God 'walking to and fro' in the Garden, also describes his divine presence in the Tabernacle (Lev. 26:12; Deut. 23:14). The same word God used when he commanded Adam and Eve to 'work' in the Garden--avodah--is used to describe the 'service' of the Tabernacle performed by the priesthood. The precious onyx stones mentioned in Eden decorated the Tabernacle and were worn on the shoulders of the high priest (Exodus 25:7; 28:9, 20)" (13-14). The temple is, for all intents and purposes, meant to be a second Eden.

Just as the garden of Eden contained a tree of life, so too did the temples designed by Jehovah contain a symbolic tree; Seely and Hamblin write that "the lampstand (menorah) is described as a tree--which in time became associated with the Tree of Life" (12). Moses describes this lampstand in Exodus, when he records Jehovah's instructions regarding the temple: "And thou shalt make a candlestick of pure gold . . . and six branches shall come out of the sides of it; three branches of the candlestick out of the one side, and three branches of the candlestick out of the other side: three bowls made lke unto almonds, with a knop and a flower in one branch; and three bowls made like almonds in the other branch, with a knop and a flower: so in the six branches that come out of the candlestick" (Exodus 25:31-33). This candlestick or lampstand was designed in the shape of an almond tree, and that symbolic almond tree which lit up the Tabernacle and then the temple came to represent the tree of life. 

That an almond tree came to represent the tree of life is highly significant; the almond tree, in the Old Testament, is a symbol of the priesthood. When Moses and Aaron face a potential rebellion among the twelve tribes the Lord instructs Moses to "speak unto the children of Israel, and take of every one of them a rod according to the house of their fathers, of all their princes according to the house of the their fathers twelve rods: write thou every man's name upon his rod" (Num. 17:2). So Moses gathers twelve rods, one from each of the tribes, writes the name of each tribe on the rods, and "laid up the rods before the LORD in the tabernacle of witness. And it came to pass, that on the morrow Moses went into the tabernacle of witness; and, behold, the rod of Aaron for the house of Levi was budded, and brought forth buds, and bloomed blossoms, and yielded almonds" (Num. 17:7-8). Aaron's rod, the rod of Levi, the rod representing the only tribe that holds the priesthood--bloomed with almonds. The link between almonds and priesthood is reconfirmed in Jeremiah--when, after the Lord announces that "before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee, and I ordained thee" (Jer. 1:5), he helps Jeremiah recognize his priesthood stewardship by showing him "a rod of an almond tree" (Jer. 1:11). 

Recognizing the almond tree's priesthood significance is crucial because it suggests that the tree of life--both in the temple and in Eden--is a representation of the priesthood. The priesthood is the source of life (and, as the menorah attests, light). A lampstand in the temple that represents both light and (the tree of) life would have been the symbolic, Old Testament equivalent of these verses in the Doctrine and Covenants describing the priesthood: "And the light which shineth, which giveth you light, is through him who enlighteneth your eyes, which is the same light that quickeneth your understandings; which light proceedeth forth from the presence of God to fill the immensity of space--the light which is in all things, which giveth life to all things, which is the law by which all things are governed, even the power of God" (88:11-13). 

Today we no longer light temples with menorah (although many chandeliers in various temples have seven bulbs; check it out!)--and most temples, Boston notwithstanding, no longer employ obvious portrayals of the tree of life. But the idea that the menorah and the tree of life represent--the priesthood that is the light and life of the world--IS still present in temples of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and for that we should be grateful. 

I'm off for an almond snack before bed; good night!


Jenny said...

I stand all amazed.

Alana said...

Good post. It reminded me of Hotzophel's painting he had done about the veil in the tabernacle depicting a re-entering the garden of Eden before going back into God's presence.

Emily said...

I would suggest that temples are not (just) meant to to be "a second Eden", but that within the garden of Eden was a Garden (capitalized, check it out in PoGP), that in the East of the garden of Eden was a Temple.

Great post, thank you!

Levi Almond said...

Very Interesting : )