Bnonn Tennant (the B is silent)

Where a recovering ex-atheist skewers things with a sharp two-edged sword

About Language & Interpretation

The calling of Nathanael and the symbolism of trees and high places

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15 minutes to read How did Jesus see Nathanael beneath the fig tree? Why does Nathanael respond with an amazed confession of Jesus’ identity? How does Jesus’ promise that Nathanael will see angels ascending and descending fit into this?

On the morrow he was minded to go forth into Galilee, and he findeth Philip: and Jesus saith unto him, Follow me. Now Philip was from Bethsaida, of the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip findeth Nathanael, and saith unto him, We have found him, of whom Moses in the law, and the prophets, wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph. And Nathanael said unto him, Can any good thing come out of Nazareth? Philip saith unto him, Come and see.

Jesus saw Nathanael coming to him, and saith of him, Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile! Nathanael saith unto him, Whence knowest thou me? Jesus answered and said unto him, Before Philip called thee, when thou wast under the fig tree, I saw thee. Nathanael answered him, Rabbi, thou art the Son of God; thou art King of Israel. Jesus answered and said unto him, Because I said unto thee, I saw thee underneath the fig tree, believest thou? thou shalt see greater things than these. And he saith unto him, Amen, amen, I say unto you, Ye shall see the heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man. (John 1:43–51)

The calling of Nathanael is one of the most opaque stories in all of Scripture. Many of the more capable commentators note the various meanings and explanations that could be in view, and then say, “Well, there’s really no way to know for sure, anything I say would be speculation, so let’s move on.”

I want to suggest to you that this is precisely the opposite of what we should be doing. And by suggesting this, I am in no way endorsing casting about for fringe theories, or being an edge-lord, or thinking that we can crack the code which better men have not deciphered in two thousand years.

What I am suggesting, is that if we are attentive to Scripture itself, we will recognize a kind of hermeneutical principle here:

Confusion precedes insight

Another way of saying this is that if something is puzzling, it might actually be a puzzle.

Consider how Proverbs 1:6 speaks of the need for the wise “to understand a proverb, and a figure, the words of the wise, and their dark sayings.” What are these dark sayings? Why are they dark? Isn’t wisdom better symbolized by light? Well, many of these dark sayings are recorded in Proverbs itself. People assume that Proverbs is just full of pithy statements designed to quickly convey truths in a manner that can be grasped immediately. That they are short in order to easily be understood.

Sometimes that is true. But consider a couple of examples from Proverbs 10:

Blessings are upon the head of the righteous; But violence covereth the mouth of the wicked. (Proverbs 10:6)

What is the connection between blessings being upon the head, and violence covering the mouth here? It is not really so obvious at all. It requires you to reflect upon it and draw your own conclusions. Similarly:

He that walketh uprightly walketh surely; But he that perverteth his ways shall be known. (Proverbs 10:9)

Again, what is the connection between walking securely and being known? It is the glory of God to conceal the matter; we, as his royal priesthood, his nation of kings and servants, must make it our glory to uncover these dark sayings.

Consider also how the great bulk of the book of Job is not much liked by most people, who read the beginning and then skim all the way to the end, where God gives his awesome speech. What is in the middle? All of the debate between Job and his friends. It is hard to work through. We must carefully assess what each man says, and what we think of it. Often, we find that there is both truth and error in it—some of the most perplexing questions in Job come from the fact that both he and his friends make so many claims which seem to be true, yet we know or can infer must be mistaken in certain respects; or which seem to be mistaken, yet turn out to be true in some ways. There are many gray areas in Job that are difficult and troubling to work through.

Consider how Ecclesiastes, too, is a dark book—full of sayings that are difficult to interpret, offering us seemingly contradictory lines of thought.

Together, Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes make up a significant part of Scripture’s wisdom literature. Yet they are some of the least clear parts of the Bible. How can that be, if they are supposed to make us wise?

It actually could be no other way. Wisdom does not come merely by being told, but by figuring out. Wisdom, in Scripture, is always something that can be applied, that must be lived. You cannot gain true wisdom by simply receiving an information dump. You gain it in the process of doing it. To get wisdom, you must do wisdom.

We generally think of Scripture primarily in terms of narrative. We think of it as a story. But the more familiar you become with it, the more you start to think of it in terms of a riddle. Scripture is like an enormously complex puzzle that God has given us, in order to produce the skills and character in us that can only be produced through the process of figuring it out.

This is why Proverbs 25:5 says:

It is the glory of God to conceal a thing; But the glory of kings is to search out a matter. (Proverbs 25:2)

We also think of Scripture in terms of perspicuity. We have a doctrine called the perspicuity of Scripture, meaning the clarity of Scripture—the ability for anyone to read it, and to know the important truths of salvation. This doctrine is true. Scripture really is clear enough for even a child to read it and grasp who Jesus is and what he has done. It is clear enough to save anyone. But that does not mean that every part of Scripture is equally clear, nor especially that it is clear without considerable work. The water at the bottom of the sea is just as clear as at the surface, but if you think you can see all the way to the bottom of the Mariana Trench from a fishing boat, you do not understand how water works. It is the same with Scripture.

When we have trouble reading Scripture, when we struggle to understand why God wrote it the way he did, or why he said the things he said, it is not because God is a bad writer. It is because we are bad readers. As a young Christian, I sometimes struggled to accept the doctrine of inerrancy. I knew Scripture must be true and without error because I believed that God had written it. But when I came to certain passages, it was an act of faith in every respect to accept that what the Bible said was right.

This was always because I either didn’t truly understand what it said, or I really didn’t like what it said. In both cases, the problem was me. My fleshly response to God’s word was, “I think this sounds dumb, therefore, it must be wrong.”

But it wasn’t wrong. I was wrong. It wasn’t dumb. I was dumb.

Let me give you an example that will help us to move toward solving the puzzle of Nathanael and the fig tree, and why Jesus seeing him there is such a revelation to him, and why because of his confession, Jesus promises that he will see greater things—even heaven opened and angels ascending and descending. I do not claim that we will fully solve this riddle, or that we can be certain about its meaning, but I do think we can make some progress in getting toward the general idea that John wants us to grasp.

The symbolic logic of high places

After the flood, as the population of the earth increased, the people gathered together and they said to each other:

“Come, let us build us a city, and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven, and let us make us a name; lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” … And Yahweh said, Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is what they begin to do: and now nothing will be withholden from them, which they purpose to do. (Genesis 11:4, 6)

When I was a fresh, newly-minted Christian, I disliked this passage very much. I read it like the people at Babel thought they could literally climb up to heaven by building a super-tall tower, and that God had to come down and put an end to it lest they succeed. And that is dumb, because heaven isn’t literally up there, and even if it was, modern skyscrapers can’t even break a thousand metres, and why would the Bible suggest that you can climb up to heaven anyway?

But it is not dumb, and of course ancient peoples thought that—and the Bible suggests it precisely because it is not only possible, but would have succeeded absent God’s intervention. The problem was not the Bible, but my dumb, materialistic worldview that I inherited from my days of being a dumb, materialistic atheist, which meant that the word “literally” meant “physically.” I had no conception—zero—of one of the most important hermeneutical principles of Scripture, which is symbolic realism. I did not know that the physical world reflects the spiritual world, that the visible images the invisible. It wasn’t even on my radar that, as in John’s prologue, photons are just a physical representation of true light. And if it had been, I would still not have had a clue what it all meant for Babel.

But ancient peoples did. They intuited, they instinctively understood, that there was a connection between high places and divine presence.

They understood, for instance, that the tops of mountains are where heaven and earth meet. This is why religious worship was so often centered on mountains, or on high places more generally. If you want to connect with a god, you go to a mountain, where the earth provides the closest access to heaven. And if you don’t have a mountain handy, you pick the next highest place instead. In vast numbers of religions, high places are associated with the presence of gods. They are where gods reside; where they presence themselves on earth, where they may be sought and communed with. In the Bible and its thought-world alone, there are dozens and dozens of examples of this symbolic thinking:

  • The transfiguration of Jesus happened on a mountain—probably Mount Hermon (Matthew 17:1–8, Mark 9:2–8, Luke 9:28–36; 2 Peter 1:16–18).
  • In Ugarit, just to the north of Israel, the high god El was thought to meet in the palace of his vice-regent, Baʿal, on Mount Tsaphon.
  • In Greece, the gods met to hold council on Mount Olympus.
  • In Israel, of course, Yahweh presenced himself first on Mount Horeb or Sinai (Exodus 3:1; 19–31), and later in the temple on Mount Zion (Psalm 9:11; 48:1–2; 74:2; 132:13; Joel 2:1; 3:17).
  • The encounter between Elijah and the 450 priests of Baʿal, in which they are both calling upon their gods, takes place on Mount Carmel (1 Kings 18).
  • The Samaritans believed God presenced himself on Mount Gerizim, as we will see when we get to John 4.
  • And of course, throughout the Old Testament, we see altars routinely built to pagan gods in high places (Deuteronomy 12:2; 1 Kings 12:31–32).

Altars, in turn, are an extension of the symbolic logic of high places. Altars are a human effort to control and channel the symbolic meaning of mountains. After all, what is an altar, if not a miniature mountain? And by the same token, what is a pyramid, or a ziggurat, if not a massive altar? Pyramids and ziggurats are artificial mountains, which literally function as stairways to heaven. And they almost always have altars on top, as the final stage of the ascent, where the sacrifice will be transformed into fire and smoke and continue to rise up into heaven.

This is why you find ziggurats in completely disconnected locations all around the world. As Jonathan Pageau would say…symbolism happens.

This obviously helps us to understand what the Tower of Babel was all about. When I read Genesis 11, and interpreted it like ancient people thought they could literally climb into heaven, ironically it was not ancient people that were so dumb, but me. I was too dumb to discern even the most fundamental symbolic realities in the world. I was too dumb to intuit what ancient people instinctively understood.

The people of Babel were not dumb. God says as much in Genesis 11:6. He states outright that there is no limit to what they would be capable of, should they work together and put their minds to it.

No, the people of Babel were smart. They understood symbolism, and they understood that there is a kind of natural law that God has built into the world, where certain symbols really are attached in some way to certain spiritual realities. It’s not a causal attachment, but it is a covenantal attachment. If you set your intention, and your attention, on some spiritual reality, and if you reproduce that reality in a physical way, it is possible to invoke or perhaps influence or maybe even control that spiritual reality in some way.

This is why the Bible forbids magic—not because it does not work, but because it does (cf. Ex 8:7). This is why the witch of Endor, in her inverted-mountain necromancy pit, was able to summon Samuel from the underworld (1 Sam 28). This is why Paul says that those who partake of meat sacrificed to idols commune with demons (1 Cor 10:20). And in fact, this is why baptism saves us (1 Pet 3:21), and why eating the Lord’s supper is to partake in his body (1 Cor 10:16). The Christian sacraments are divinely-authorized and properly-ordered examples of the same creational principles, the same symbolic realism, the same covenantal attachment between visible and invisible, that—when unchecked by God’s law—leads into the chaos and confusion of pagan magic.

So the Tower of Babel really could have served as a conduit into the heavenly realms; as a way of communing with heavenly beings. The idea is really quite simple: if you are very devoted, and you want to exert human control over spiritual realities, if you want to make covenant with supernatural beings and worship them in a “safe” way that you can manage, then the natural thing to do is to build your own mountain. We have good reasons to think that the tower of Babel was in fact a ziggurat.

The symbolic logic of trees

Now that you understand the basic form of this symbolic logic, it becomes much easier to understand the symbolism of trees—and understanding that helps us to get some handle on what is happening with Nathanael and the fig tree.

And the sons of Israel did secretly things that were not right against Yahweh their God: and they built them high places in all their cities, from the tower of the watchmen to the fortified city; 10 and they set them up pillars and Ashera poles upon every high hill, and under every green tree; 11 and there they burnt incense in all the high places, as did the nations whom Yahweh carried away before them; and they wrought wicked things to provoke Yahweh to anger; 12 and they served idols, whereof Yahweh had said unto them, Ye shall not do this thing. (2 Kings 17:9–12)

Notice the connection between high places, pillars, poles, and trees. All of these things are connected with worship. Pillars are miniature high places. Trees are much like mountains, only living: in fact, they are conduits between all the realms, because they have their roots in the underworld, their tops in the heavens—and their trunks connect the two via the world of man. And of course poles are just pillars made out of trees.

This is why trees, like mountains, are so central to worship in many religions. It is why the idea of the world tree appears in so many unconnected, independent faiths around the globe, and why that tree is so often conceived of as both a ladder to heaven, and an axis mundi—a central point about which the world turns. Symbolism happens. It is why Yahweh appears to Abraham at the oak of Moreh, and Abraham builds an altar there, and then goes on to the oaks of Mamre, and builds an altar there, and then Yahweh appeared at the oaks of Mamre, and then Abraham goes on to plant a tamarisk tree in Beer-sheba and call on the name of Yahweh there. (Genesis 12:6–7; 13:18; 18:1; 21:33)

It is also why the inside of the temple was frescoed with trees, and the temple itself was built out of wood.

And it is why we see people holding judgment at trees. As a ladder to heaven, the base of the tree is the gate, and gates were the traditional place where courts were held and judgments were rendered. Deborah set up her chair of judgment at the Palm Tree of Deborah (Judges 4:4-5). Joash held court and conducted false worship at an oak (Judges 6:11, 12, 19, 21, 30-32). Saul held court at a pomegranate and at a tamarisk tree (1 Sam 14:2; 22:6).

There is much more that can be said about the symbolism of trees, especially with regard to their connection to men—but it would take us further afield than we need to go. The important thing to remember, is that trees and pillars and poles and mountains all follow the pattern of high places. They are stairways to heaven, they are altars, they are places of divine encounter, and they are places of judgment. This is, if not the key to unlocking the riddle of Nathanael, at least a compass to point us in the general direction of a solution.

Let us now examine the very clear allusion that Jesus makes to Genesis 28, when he talks about Nathanael seeing heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the son of man.

Jacob’s ladder

And Jacob went out from Beer-sheba, and went toward Haran. 11 And he lighted upon a certain place, and tarried there all night, because the sun was set; and he took one of the stones of the place, and put it under his head, and lay down in that place to sleep. 12 And he dreamed; and behold, a stairway set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven; and behold, the angels of God ascending and descending on it. 13 And, behold, Yahweh stood above it, and said, I am Yahweh, the God of Abraham thy father, and the God of Isaac: the land whereon thou liest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed; 14 and thy seed shall be as the dust of the earth, and thou shalt spread abroad to the west, and to the east, and to the north, and to the south: and in thee and in thy seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed. 15 And, behold, I am with thee, and will keep thee, whithersoever thou goest, and will bring thee again into this land; for I will not leave thee, until I have done that which I have spoken to thee of.

16 And Jacob awoke out of his sleep, and he said, Surely Yahweh is in this place; and I knew it not. 17 And he was afraid, and said, How fearful is this place! this is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.

18 And Jacob rose up early in the morning, and took the stone that he had put under his head, and set it up for a pillar, and poured oil upon the top of it. 19 And he called the name of that place Beth-el: but the name of the city was Luz at the first. 20 And Jacob vowed a vow, saying, If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat, and clothing to put on, 21 so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, and Yahweh will be my God, 22 then this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God’s house: and of all that thou shalt give me I will surely give the tenth unto thee. (Genesis 28:10–22)

At the risk of repeating myself, I have said that this is a puzzle. It is a dark saying, so I am not going to venture an iron-clad, specific solution to it. I am not going to say with certainty exactly what Nathanael was doing under the fig tree that provoked his reaction. But in my opinion, we also don’t need to overthink this.

The connection between whatever he was doing, and Jesus’ statement about seeing heaven opened, is surely clear. Jesus is expanding on the symbolism of being under the fig tree when he says Nathanael will see greater things than these. It hardly seems coincidental that after confessing his faith because Jesus saw him under the fig tree, Nathanael is told he will see “greater things than these”—greater things which directly reflect the symbolism of trees as stairways to heaven.

I believe that what we are meant to infer is that Nathanael was praying beneath the tree. This was a common practice of the time. Jesus saw him there because, through the Holy Spirit, Jesus was the one standing at the other end of that stairway to heaven. And Nathanael’s prayer, we may also infer, was of such a nature, that when he perceived that Jesus had seen him, and combined that knowledge with the testimony of Phillip, there remained no doubt in his mind as to who Jesus truly was. It was, no doubt, a guileless prayer, and perhaps a prayer related to the judgment on Israel that is implied in the baptism of the Holy Spirit not much earlier in the chapter (John 1:33; cf. Mt 3:11; Luke 3:16).

Whatever the specifics, what Nathanael recognizes—at least sufficiently to confess in amazement—is the identity of Jesus as both son of God and king of Israel.

Jesus is the one who brings heaven down to earth. The Son of our Father in the heavens, made flesh as a man in the physical realm. The place where heaven and earth are joined, and God’s presence and rulership are established on earth.

What Nathanael did not see, but which will be revealed in John’s gospel, is that this union of heaven and earth is ultimately fulfilled in the cross—where, on a tree, on a pole, at a place of judgment, the divide between God and man was finally done away with.

Jesus is the true tree. Jesus is the true altar. Jesus is the true Babel, the true stairway to heaven. No one can come to the Father in the heavenly places, except through him.

 3 comments

Scott

Have you thought about writing a book on hermeneutics? You have been one of the most helpful teachers for me when it comes to reading the scriptures and seeing things I’ve never seen before.

Dominic Bnonn Tennant

Thanks for your encouragement Scott.

I have considered it, but I would want to make sure I was actually contributing something new and worthwhile before taking on such a large project. I am not sure I would really be improving on anything James Jordan or Peter Leithart have written—at least not yet. Perhaps someday. I would like to write something that models a more modest kind of exegetical maximalism, or at least a more grounded kind, as often I don’t think they explain themselves as well as they should. In fairness, because symbolism is so intuition-driven, it can be hard to explain. Still, helping to establish some more explicit guide-rails would be a worthwhile project.