What is so terrible about a tree?
In keeping with Deuteronomy’s near obsession with idolatry and its desire to eradicate all objects of foreign worship from the land of Israel, we read: “You shall not set up a sacred post (asherah)—any tree-like object beside the altar of the Lord your God that you make—or erect a stone pillar; for such the Lord your God detests.” (Deuteronomy 16:21-22) Last week’s theme continues through this week.
An asherah, sacred post, was apparently a standing wooden object erected at a place of worship. In other words it was a totem pole. It could have also been a particular type of tree that was deemed sacred by the ancient Canaanites. Or, perhaps it was a tree that was planted near their temples. Interestingly the name for a Canaanite goddess was Asherah. Trees, or wooden objects, were thus associated with this goddess and explicitly forbidden.
The sentiment is clear. Anything that even approaches Canaanite religion or worship is forbidden. The message is emphatic. We are going to do things differently, most especially in the land of Israel. And that begins with how we pray.
But a tree?
There are times when hiking in the deserts of Israel one is grateful for the shade of a tree. It is a welcome relief from the afternoon sun. In a hot, dry climate, shade can offer much relief. “And the Lord appeared to Abraham by the terebinths (oaks) of Mamre; he was sitting at the entrance of the tent as the day grew hot.” (Genesis 18:1) Given that this tree, or cluster of trees, had a particular name indicates that they were familiar to Abraham and his contemporaries. Perhaps they were used as a landmark. Then again perhaps these trees were also deemed sacred by his new neighbors.
During Abraham’s time there appears more comfort with the indigenous Canaanite religion. It was not that the patriarchs believed as the Canaanites did. But they do appear more at ease living side by side with competing religious practices and ideas. They allowed such religions to coexist alongside their own. Rather than uprooting these sacred trees Abraham redefines them. There he experiences his God. The Canaanites’ totem pole becomes the site of his covenant with God and the beginnings of our faith.
Deuteronomy sees such an approach as impossible. By this time the Israelites wish to become the dominant religion of the land. They are to be the majority of its inhabitants. Thus the Canaanites are no longer neighbors but enemies. In this week’s portion we sense the moment when the Israelites will reclaim the land for our entire nation. There can be no living side by side with their enemy’s ideas or even with their sacred objects.
Imagine a tall, stately tree that serves as a contemporary destination. Imagine as well that years ago this same beautiful tree was used to lynch an innocent man or even to hang a guilty criminal. Would you want such a tree to continue to serve as a landmark for the place you now call home? An ordinary tree can become deformed by the acts committed under its limbs. This is exactly how the Canaanites were seen. This is exactly how their sacred trees were viewed. In the imagination of the ancient Israelites the Canaanite religion was everywhere and always equated with such evils.
One always imagines an enemy doing horrific and unspeakable acts. (And sometimes they really do. But other times they do not. More often the evil-doers are fewer in number than we imagine.) The Israelites therefore believed that there was no choice but to eradicate even their trees.
Beware of seeing evil lurking under every tree.
The prophet proclaims: “Nation shall not take up sword against nation; they shall never again know war; every man shall sit under his grapevine or fig tree and no one shall make him afraid.” (Micah 4:4)