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Issue #132 - 07/13
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Eli Dahan

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Man and the tree in Hebrew Bible

In the Hebrew Bible there are several passages that make comparisons between man-אָדָם  and the tree-עֵץ. These passages are classical and many commentaries have been written about them. I will try in a nutshell to take you on a journey that connects these two important elements in our world; man, who should be the ruler of this world, and the tree, which represents nature.

Let's start with the passage upon which several famous poems and songs were written, which deals with actions during war, as written:

"“When you besiege a city a long time, to make war against it in order to capture it, you shall not destroy its trees by swinging an axe against them; for you may eat from them, and you shall not cut them down. For is the tree of the field a man,that it should be besieged by you?"(Deuteronomy 20:19)

"כִּי-תָצוּר אֶל-עִיר יָמִים רַבִּים לְהִלָּחֵם עָלֶיהָ לְתָפְשָׂהּ לֹא-תַשְׁחִית אֶת-עֵצָהּ לִנְדֹּחַ עָלָיו גַּרְזֶן-כִּי מִמֶּנּוּ תֹאכֵל, וְאֹתוֹ לֹא תִכְרֹת:  כִּי הָאָדָם עֵץ הַשָּׂדֶה, לָבֹא מִפָּנֶיךָ בַּמָּצוֹר"


Many translations suggest that this verse ends with a question mark, but some commentaries suggest that this verse could be also be a declarative sentence, in which case, the meaning changes. If this sentence is a question, it means that there's a difference between man and the tree, since man is not fighting with the tree. For that reason, the man must not destroy the tree of the field. On the other hand, if you read the sentence in a different context, so changes the comparison between man and the tree, which suggests that in the same way it is forbidden to destroy trees in war, nor should you destroy and kill people, since peace is preferable to war.

Whenever I teach the fourth course of Biblical Hebrew, I get excited because the first passage that we commence our course with after some lessons of review is Psalm 1. Let's enjoy the words of this fabulous passage:

"How blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked,nor stand in the path of sinners ,nor sit in the seat of scoffers!But his delight is in the law of the Lord,and in His law he meditates day and night. He will be like a tree firmly planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in its season and its leaf does not wither; and in whatever he does, he prospers."(Psalms 1:1-3) 

"אַשְׁרֵי הָאִישׁ- אֲשֶׁר לֹא הָלַךְ, בַּעֲצַת רְשָׁעִים;וּבְדֶרֶךְ חַטָּאִים לֹא עָמָד, וּבְמוֹשַׁב לֵצִים לֹא יָשָׁבכִּי אִם בְּתוֹרַת יְהוָה חֶפְצוֹ; וּבְתוֹרָתוֹ יֶהְגֶּה יוֹמָם וָלָיְלָה. וְהָיָה- כְּעֵץ שָׁתוּל עַל-פַּלְגֵי-מָיִם:אֲשֶׁר פִּרְיוֹ יִתֵּן בְּעִתּוֹ-וְעָלֵהוּ לֹא-יִבּוֹל;  וְכֹל אֲשֶׁר-יַעֲשֶׂה יַצְלִיחַ."

Here there's similarity between the man and the fruitful tree. The imagery used is of the righteous man being a tree that yields fruit whose leaves never wither. For that reason, all the actions of the righteous man bring him prosperity and success.

However, in other texts in the Bible we can see that there's a difference between the man and tree. When Jeremiah wants to discuss injustice in the world he describes the wicked man as the tree, not the righteous man, reversing the earlier metaphor (see Jeremiah 12:1-3). As well, Job, when he speaks about the miserable destiny of man in Job 14, uses trees to make a negative point. Man according to Job 14:2 is like a flower that withers, for his life is short; for that reason all he asks is for quiet in his miserable, unchangeable life!

Let's see what happens to the tree, unlike man, as written:

"For there is hope for a tree, when it is cut down, that it will sprout again,and its shoots will not fail. Though its roots grow old in the ground and its stump dies in the dry soil,at the scent of water it will flourish and put forth sprigs like a plant."(Job 14:7-9)

כִּי יֵשׁ לָעֵץ  תִּקְוָה:אִם-יִכָּרֵת וְעוֹד יַחֲלִיף;  וְיֹנַקְתּוֹ לֹא תֶחְדָּל.אִם-יַזְקִין בָּאָרֶץ שָׁרְשׁוֹ;  וּבֶעָפָר יָמוּת גִּזְעוֹ. מֵרֵיחַ מַיִם יַפְרִחַ; וְעָשָׂה קָצִיר כְּמוֹ-נָטַע."

The tree symbolizes hope; it can come back to life with the help of water, whereas man cannot do the same, unless of course it is suddenly the era of the resurrection of the dead- תְּחִיַּת הַמֵּתִים.

Of course these passages that I have mentioned are just a few from many; if you know of more passages that discuss the relationship between man and the tree, you are welcome to comment here!

Have a blessed week,


Main phrases of the post + transcription + translation










The man






There is/There are









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