Two Trees

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“We used to run in the garden free.”

On the face of it, Ralph McTell’s song ‘Big Tree’ is a light-hearted tale of childhood innocence:

When I was a little kid and not very old
Me and Suzie from the top of the road
Used to run in the garden free
Playing games around the big tree

One afternoon whilst we played
We were led to the big tree’s shade
I showed her and she showed me
Lots of fun behind the big tree

But a closer look reveals all the essential motifs from the story of Adam and Eve that Ralph learned at Sunday School – a man and a woman; a garden; a tree; and someone or something who ‘led’ them to it.

Another ‘Genesis’ story, then? 

Yes, it’s in the Book of Genesis, Chapter 3 (Gen 3).

It might be the oldest story in the Bible. Scholars reckon it was being told long before the ‘creation’ story in Chapter 1 was written down. Chapter 2 tells of how Yahweh God made Adam and Eve and put them in the garden of Eden to look after it. Yahweh had planted the tree of life in the middle of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. And he warned Adam – under pain of death – not to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge.

What happened next?

Well, there was a snake who evidently wasn’t exactly on God’s side. The snake tempted Eve to pluck the fruit from the tree of knowledge. When Eve said, “But God says we’ll die if we eat it”, the snake sneered, “No you won’t! It’ll open your eyes.” So Eve plucked the fruit and ate it, and gave some to Adam who ate it too – and immediately their eyes were opened, and they realised they were naked; and they made loin-cloths for each other from fig leaves.

Adam, Eve and the snake – detail from the Sistine Chapel ceiling fresco by Michaelangelo

When Yahweh God came for a walk in his garden, Adam and Eve hid from him among the trees. God called, “Where are you?”, and Adam replied that he was afraid because he was naked. “Who told you that you were naked?” God asked. “Have you been eating the fruit…?”

Adam, of course, put the ultimate blame on God: “It was the woman you put with me – she gave me some fruit from the tree and I ate it.” 

Eve blamed the snake: “The snake tempted me and I ate.” 

Yahweh God dealt with the snake first: “Because you have done this, you and the woman will be enemies, and your offspring and hers; it will bruise your head and you will strike its heel.”

Then Yahweh told Eve that having children was going to be painful, not to mention having a husband. And the consequence of Adam’s listening to his wife instead of to Yahweh was an end to the free milk and honey of Eden, and the beginning of hard work on the barren land beyond its gates.

Not a good outlook. 

Yet, even as Yahweh doled out the punishments, he planted a seed of hope: the woman’s offspring would bruise the snake’s head. No details. No timescale. Just a hint of a promise that some day, somehow, a human being would subdue the snake.

And who might that be?

Well, some English translations of the Bible follow the Hebrew in calling Eve’s offspring ‘it’, without specifying its gender.

When the Bible was translated into Greek, they went for ‘he’ – a male descendant of Eve. Later, a Latin translation chose ‘she’, which was taken to refer to Mary, the mother of Jesus.

He, she or it, it really doesn’t matter. The core of the prophecy is that a descendant of Eve will put right the damage the snake has caused.

Here, then, right at the beginning of the Bible, is the first hint of the Messiah. (For more, see  Prophecy.)

All that fuss over a piece of fruit!  Did you say there was another tree?

Yes, the tree of life, right in the middle of the garden. God had actually told Adam he could eat the fruit of any tree in the garden except that of the tree of knowledge.

The long-term consequence of the first human beings’ eating the forbidden fruit was that all human beings were doomed to die.

How different the outcome would have been had they eaten the fruit of the tree of life instead! To make sure they didn’t, God drove Adam and Eve out of the garden of Eden, and posted some cherubs and a flashing sword to guard the way back to the tree of life.

Big tree what do you know
Why do you spread your branches low
The big tree was our friend
But the big tree knew how it would end

From ‘Big Tree’ by Ralph McTell
Full lyrics in ‘Time’s Poems’, p 412