My Tree-Hugging Theology
Updated: Feb 24
By Ellen Nimmo
Actually, I don’t have a passionate opinion on the hug thing, although personally I love a good tree-squeeze, but certainly there’s a case to be made that trees are more than mere arboreal splendors, more than material resources to be wielded also.
This came up in a fresh way for me a couple days ago when reading in the Book of Romans with a few friends. In chapter 11 of this wondrously contemplative letter written by Paul (a Jew) on what it means to receive salvation through Jesus (the centerpiece of Christian theology), he uses the example of a cultivated olive branch being grafted onto a wild olive tree to illustrate the acceptance of the Gentiles into God’s chosen people, his elect.
While I’ll never be able to understand the depth of God’s mercy (extended, as Paul writes, to both Jew and Gentile) or the mystery in which his will for humanity will ultimately be brought to completion, as his story of creation and redemption rolls onward, there are helpful metaphors the Biblical authors often reached for in order to impart some seed of understanding in its readers and hearers. The tree is perhaps one of the most often used images in scripture for purposes: symbolic, figurative, allegoric, and demonstrative.
Perhaps one of the longest-standing images, stretching back to the very first sentences of the Bible, with over 35 varieties mentioned by name. And, thankfully, it’s one easiest metaphors for me to understand.
Because - I’ve seen trees. I’ve enjoyed trees. I’ve cut trees down. I’ve planted trees.
Admired and ignored trees. Tended to and sat beneath trees. Climbed and hid behind trees.
And, of course, I’ve been the beneficiary of all the many and varied uses of trees. For medicine, for building, for food, and a myriad of other practical uses and creative functions.
Yes, I’m familiar with trees, but Paul’s example of the grafting of one variety of tree onto another puzzled me. So I looked into it.
Turns out, the grafting of cultivated olive tree branches onto the wild olive tree has been around for somewhere in the neighborhood of 7000 years. And it’s very likely that Paul’s audience would have understood the metaphor in a profound way and immediately. Lands near the Mediterranean are some of the highest producing olive groves in the world and certainly that was the case in Jesus’s day, in Paul’s day too. It’s still true today. But I digress.
After reading a few articles here and there about this idea of grafting, I learned the wild olive trees have magnificent root systems that are sprawling and strong, but the wild tree doesn’t produce great fruit. On the other hand, the cultivated olive trees produced a very good fruit, but had weaker root systems. By combining the two, grafting the good fruit branches onto a strong root tree, the farmer would increase fruit production and have trees with vigorously hearty roots. What a combo!
Now, some of us curious-folk might be wondering what sort of process it takes to complete such a task. To you indelible few, consider watching an adorable Aussie agriculturalist walk you through the steps. Or here’s a short list of steps, in case you’re looking to get grafty over the weekend:
remove a branch from the wild tree
remove a branch from the cultivated tree
cut the branch to be grafted in into a wedge shape
line up the cambium layers of both branches (The cambium cell layer is the growing part of the trunk. It annually produces new bark and new wood in response to hormones that pass down through the phloem with food from the leaves. These hormones, called “auxins”, stimulate growth in cells.)
insert the cultivated (to-be-grafted) branch into the freshly cut wild branch
tape the two together
make sure air can get to it
love the tree
In that chapter of Romans (11), where Paul is making much of the olive tree, the point he’s trying to make to the Roman believers (both Jew and Gentile alike) is that each are justified by faith alone. However, Paul is careful to make clear it is the faithfulness of God which will include and impart great riches to both the nation of Israel of old (the wild olive tree) and great riches imparted also to the Gentile (the cultivated tree), through the cambium, that is: Jesus.
He ends this agrarian example of the olive trees by stating, “For God has bound everyone (both the Jew and the Gentile) over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all.”
And after that? A doxology. Verses of praise to God. They read as such:
Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out! “Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor?” “Who has ever given to God, that God should repay them?” For from him and through him and for him are all things. To him be the glory forever! Amen.
It’s as though Paul, even in his vast knowledge of the scriptures, even in his meeting of Jesus and all the wisdom that was imparted to him by the Holy Spirit, is still awestruck enough to cease with explanations and begin to praise.
Humbling to consider.
I suppose one way we can continue to submit to God’s mystery and endeavor to grow in our relationship with him is to look to the tree. If you want to explore some verses, some poetic praise or meaningful meditation as it relates to biblical tree references, well, here you go friends.
Verses mentioning trees: https://bible.knowing-jesus.com/topics/Trees
For my part, I can’t help but zero in on Daniel 4:10-12 for the time being. I think it’s because of the “great riches” piece (Romans 11:11-12). It seems Paul isn’t too shy about saying that our faith in Jesus will teach and carry us through this life and into the next, where the fullness of his mercy will be experienced, for eternity, in a banquet stretching above, below, and all around us, like a great tree:
Now these were the visions in my mind as I lay on my bed: I was looking, and behold, there was a tree in the midst of the earth and its height was great. 'The tree grew large and became strong And its height reached to the sky, And it was visible to the end of the whole earth. 'Its foliage was beautiful and its fruit abundant, And in it was food for all The beasts of the field found shade under it, And the birds of the sky dwelt in its branches, And all living creatures fed themselves from it. – Daniel 4:10-12