The Judas tree

The varying and changing climate in the Bible lands allowed for a wide variety of trees, which took root everywhere from the high, and very cold, mountain regions of Mt. Hermon to the hot Negev desert and the shores of the Dead Sea.

  · Translated by Roger Marshall

15 JULY 2018 · 11:00 CET

Photography: Antonio Cruz,
Photography: Antonio Cruz

Then God said, “Let the land produce vegetation: seed-bearing plants and trees on the land that bear fruit with seed in it, according to their various kinds.” And it was so. (Genesis 1:11)


In the Bible about thirty different kinds of trees are mentioned.

The varying and changing climate in the Bible lands allowed for a wide variety of trees, which took root everywhere from the high, and very cold, mountain regions of Mt. Hermon to the hot Negev desert and the shores of the Dead Sea.

From the famous cedars of Lebanon, to the date palms of the Jericho valley, there is a broad spectrum of trees and bushes in these regions, and it is not always easy to connect them with the original terms in the Hebrew Bible.

It should also be borne in mind that some of the trees that can now be found in the Holy Land and the neighbouring regions, like Egypt, Mesopotamia and Asia Minor, did not exist there in Biblical times.

For thousands of years humans have been altering botanical diversity, introducing new species of fauna and eradicating other, native, species.

Likewise, through the course of history, the different armed conflicts, and the invasions of Assyria, Babylon, Greece and Rome contributed to the destruction of entire forests, and to eroding the fertile top soil, with the result that many areas became arid deserts.

One of the first occasions when the tree is given a significant presence in the Bible has to do with the disobedience of Adam and Eve. The Creator used two trees to place a choice before humankind: the tree of life, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gn. 2:9, 16, 17; 3:1-24).

The fact that they did not respect the will of God, and ate of the fruit of the second tree was what led to the fall.

Some have misinterpreted this to mean that the prohibition to eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was about the first couple’s sexual choices.

However, this interpretation makes no sense in light of the command given to Adam and Eve to be fruitful and multiply (Genesis 1:28). “Knowing good and evil” should rather be taken to refer to an attribute of the Creator that human being were not intended to have access to.

This tree was a symbol of God’s right to determine the norms that humankind were to follow, with regard to what was “good” (what God approves of) and what was “evil” (what God condemns).

Only the Creator has the right to establish the moral norms to be observed by his creatures, precisely because He is the only one who knows perfectly that it is the observance of these norms that will allow humans to live life to the full.

Thus, when humans crossed these established boundaries, they encroached on divine territory and so violated his authority.

The tree of knowledge, of the knowledge of good and evil, symbolised God’s exclusive right to decide what is right and what is wrong. This is precisely what the prophet Jeremiah acknowledges when he says: “Lord, I know that people’s lives are not their own; it is not for them to direct their steps.” (Jeremiah 10:23)

Therefore, eating of the fruit of that tree was a serious act of rebellion against the Creator, while eating of the fruit of the other tree, the tree of life, meant being able to enjoy eternal life, which it was God’s prerogative to grant.

As the apostle Paul wrote: “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 6:23)

At the time of Abraham, trees were regarded as precious gifts, and it was customary to include them in title deeds or contracts for the purchase of land (Gn. 23:15-18).

Fruit trees were a very important source of food, so land was valued in terms of the number of fruit trees it contained, and was accordingly tithed for the sanctuary and the priesthood (Neh. 9:25; Lv. 26:3-4; 27:30).

When a tree was planted, it was not permitted to eat the fruit for the first three years. The fruit from the fourth year was for the sanctuary, and only the fruit from the fifth year could be eaten (Lv. 19:23-25).

From then on, the first fruits of every year were also for the house of the Lord (Neh. 10:35-37).

In the Bible, the righteous man is described as “a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither — whatever they do prospers” (Sal. 1:3).

Chapter 31 of the prophet Ezekiel likens Pharaoh to a majestic cedar which, despite its grandeur, would one day fall, as if chopped down by foreign rival powers.

With the aim of expressing the promise of long life for the people restored by God, Isaiah refers to the lifespan of a tree (Isaiah 65:22). This is significant, as some trees in Israel have a very long lifespan, even exceeding 1000 years ((Ez. 47: 7-12).

This serves to strengthen the people’s faith in the promises of the Bible, of eternal life in the new order, which will result from the second coming of Christ.

Likewise, the Lord Jesus referred to trees as an illustration of the fruit (good or bad) that people produce and, bearing in mind the fact that fruit trees incurred taxes, no one wanted to pay taxes for a tree that produced bad fruit.

So the most sensible thing would be to cut it down or pull it up by its roots so as not to have to pay (Mt. 3:10; 7:15-20; Lk. 13:6-9).

Similarly, in the book of Jude (v 12) we read of certain people who infiltrate Christian congregations to take advantage of them: “These people are blemishes at your love feasts, eating with you without the slightest qualm—shepherds who feed only themselves. They are clouds without rain, blown along by the wind; autumn trees, without fruit and uprooted—twice dead”.

These are believers who are not living out their faith; sterile, as they produce no fruit; and dead, in the sense that they have not spiritual vitality.

Another biblically paradigmatic tree is the one on which Judas, the disciple who betrayed Jesus, supposedly hanged himself

In this sense, the bishop of London, John King (1559 – 1621), wrote the following in his commentary on Psalm 17: “Judas served God in the redemption of the human race, thereby contributing to the blessed name being eternally honoured while the world and the universe subsist, but his reward was the alder tree that he ended up hanging from, and, what is worse, to hang in hell for all eternity. He had his reward, and he lost his reward.”

The alder tree that King was referring to is the one that is scientifically known as Cercis siliquastrum. Its common same, the Judas tree, is an allusion to the tradition according to which it was on one of these trees that Judas Iscariot hanged himself.

According to other traditions, however, have it that Judas hanged himself on the branch of a fig tree. However, the Bible does not specify which tree it was.

The Judas tree (or the Judea tree, as it is still common there) is a deciduous tree, similar to the Carob tree, which belongs to the leguminous family (Fabaceae). At 20 years of age it can reach a height of 15 metres.

What is most striking about it are its abundant pink flowers, which appear in Spring before the leaves. The latter are pale green, round and slightly heart-shaped.

The fruit is consists of brown coloured sheaths containing littles seeds up to 2 millimetres in diameter. The tree is native to the Near East and during the period of the Crusades was brought to France and the northern Mediterranean.

Now they are also common in Africa and North America. They can withstand drought but not freezing temperatures or ground-frost. The pink flowers of the Judas tree have a pleasant, spicy taste and are often used for salads.

The fruit is astringent and the wood of low quality as it rots quickly when exposed to the elements. However, gardeners appreciate it for its blossoms and the shade that it provides.

The intelligent respect that the Bible pays to trees (especially fruit trees) has been vindicated by recent scientific discoveries.

Each of these types of vegetation not only provides shade, creates beneficial microclimates, fosters biodiversity, fill the landscape with colour and enrich urban zones, but together they also annually clean about 100,000 cubic metres of contaminated air.

A medium-sized tree annually generates about 700 kg of oxygen and absorbs 20 tonnes of CO2. During its maturity it can filter 20kg of dust a year and absorb almost 80 kg of the toxic metals present in the atmosphere, such as mercury, lead, lithium, etc.

The trees that are planted near residential zones contribute to reducing atmospheric noise, as they act as natural acoustic walls. Their complex root system can significantly cushion the impact of earthquakes and earth tremors.

Thus, planting trees is making a positive contribution to our ecosystems and caring for our environment.

Published in: Evangelical Focus - Zoe - The Judas tree