Hanging Trees and Weeping Willows

Hanging Tree
Elm do brood
And oak do hate
But the willow walks
When you travel late.

Are trees scary? The hanging tree is, but more because of what’s done on it rather than the tree itself.

I didn’t think trees could be scary until I read my first Shakespeare play at school – Macbeth. Then I learned about the horror of when Great Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane Hill. Apparently, inspired by this, Tolkien wrote the Last March of the Ents in The Two Towers so that trees could really go to war! Yet even tree-loving Tolkien created some scary trees in the form of Old Man Willow and Huorns. 

There are plenty of killer plants and attacking trees in books, from The Day of the Triffids to The Life of Pi. And there’s the Whomping Willow of Harry Potter. Speaking of willow trees, one the greatest horror stories in English literature – according to H P Lovecraft anyway – is The Willows by Algernon Blackwood, about a canoe trip down the River Danube in which nature becomes a supernatural threat.

The March on the Mulberry Trees

There’s at least one story in the Bible I can think of with scary trees. David has just been anointed king of Israel when his old enemy the Philistines attacked. The Philistine army was camped in Giant Valley when David asked God if he should attack. God told him to attack, which he did, and saw his army busting through the enemy camp like a flood. But the Philistines came back. David asked again what he should do. This was the answer from God.

This time don’t attack them directly. Circle around behind them. Attack them from the willow trees. Wait until you hear a sound of troops marching on top of the willow trees. Once you hear this, attack quickly, because it means Yahweh has marched out in front of you to strike the Philistine camp.

2 Samuel 5:23-24

Different Bible translations give different names for these trees – balsam, mulberry, poplar and pear trees all get a mention. The Hebrew word means ‘the weeping trees’, possibly due to sap distillation that was said to look like tears.

The Tears of the Willow Trees

There is a link between weeping and willows in the Bible but that was to come much later on when the Jews were in Babylonian exile. 

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion. We hung our harps on the willow trees.

Psalm 137:1-2

This is a sad picture but it’s not scary. The spookiest image is much earlier than this. It comes in the book of Leviticus, where God warns the Israelites that sudden terrors and wasting diseases await them if they disobey. One of the punishments is described like this. 

As for those of you who survive, I will send terror into your hearts when you are in exile. Even the sound of a windblown leaf will chase them away. They will flee like one running from a knife, even when no one is there.

Leviticus 26:36

The Curse of the Oak Tree

David’s rebellious son Absalom was hung by his own hair on an oak tree (2 Samuel 18:9). Before that, the ancient Israelites hung their enemies on trees in shame and defeat as they conquered the Promised Land (Joshua 8:29; 10:26). This explains why trees are often a sign of God’s curse.

Anyone hung on a tree is accursed.

Deuteronomy 21:23

You might be shocked to learn that the New Testament writers quoted this verse hundreds of years later with reference to the horrendous death of Jesus.

Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us. For it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.”

Galatians 3:13

The Hanging Tree of Jesus

When we think of the death of Christ, we probably think in terms of a cross and crucifixion. But the ancient apostles also described it as a murder by tree hanging (Acts 5:30). Jesus himself put a curse on a tree because it didn’t have any fruit for him (Mark 11: 12-14, 20). He even seems to have incorporated this incident into his parables (Luke 13:7-8) and sermons (Matthew 7:19). 

But I think I’ll give the last word on horrific tree imagery to the cousin and forerunner of Jesus, John the Baptist.

Even now, the axe lies ready to strike at the tree roots! Every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.

Matthew 3:10

We started with killer trees. We’ve ended with trees killed. Which is the scariest? It depends on whether you’re a tree, and how close you are to those flames. 

Photo by Alireza Jalilian on Unsplash

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