Gerhardus Vos, in his Biblical Theology, provocatively describes the two trees at the centre of the garden as symbolic of something else. The word “symbol” in connection with the first chapters of Genesis is enough to get some people in a hot flush! Yet Vos does not intend, and is careful to point out, that this does not mean that they were not real trees. Rather their function was to signify something else. It is for this reason that he describes them as sacramental. (Much in the same way that bread and wine at the Lord’s Supper are real, yet signify something else – the Lord’s body and blood.)
I am wrestling with what the trees signify. The tree of life (ToL) stood in the middle of Eden (Gen 2:9). However, it is not mentioned again until Gen 3:22, after the fall of Adam. The risk then that Adam would *also* eat of the ToL, as the LORD God noted, shows clearly that it was different from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (ToKGE), and that Adam had not yet eaten from it. In fact, there was no recorded prohibition on eating of the fruit of the ToL as there was for the ToKGE. Interestingly, Vos suggests that this is evidence that the tree was intended for future use and Adam knew it.
That the tree plays an eschatological function in Scripture is clear from its appearance in Revelation. Jesus said to the church in Ephesus (Rev 2:7),
“To the one who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.”
“Paradise” comes from the Greek paradeisos, which the LXX uses to translate “Eden”. Jesus was speaking of the future hope for the church, the place where God will be, and in which is the ToL. Eating of this tree is experience eternal life in all its fullness with God. And it comes to the “one who conquers”, not a description of sad Adam who folded at the words of his wife, but of those who belong to Christ. The Bible’s closing pictures and its presentation of future history (in Revelation 22) takes place in the city where God dwells, from whose throne the river of life flows, and astride which the ToL stands. It is a tremendous picture conveying the sense of eternal blessings to be had in the presence of the living God.
The ToL also appears metaphorically in Proverbs 3:18; 11:30; 13:12; 15:4. It is used to characterise the benefits of wisdom, the fruit of righteousness, the pleasure of fulfilled desire, and the effect of a gentle tongue. It is as though the glory and wonder of that eschatological hope is permitted to intrude into the historical experiences of the people of God who make the pursuit of the Lord their life’s goal.
It seems then that with this eschatological symbolism present in the ToL, Vos sees the pre-lapsarian experience of Adam in Eden as merely probationary. In other words, despite the fact that Adam could enjoy all the pleasures of the garden God had placed him in and the near presence of God who could walk in the garden in the cool of the day with him (suggested by 3:8?), the presence of the ToL acted as a sign of even greater things to hope for than he already had.