From Noah’s ark to the Ark of the Covenant to the cross, the motif of wood plays an essential role throughout the Bible. By analyzing the role of wood in these three biblical phenomena, I argue that if wood in the Old Testament serves a symbolic reminder for the boundaries between death and life — and the secular and divine — then, the nailing of Jesus Christ to wood in the New Testament transforms the motif from a boundary to a doorway.
First, Noah was a righteous man who walked faithfully with God. During a time when the world was corrupt with violence, Noah was chosen by God to build an ark upon which his family and two of every living kind of creature would live, while God destroyed all other life on Earth through a flood. During this great flood, there was only one barrier between death and life; that barrier was the wood of the ark. Those who were protected by the wood survived and repopulated the world, while those who were condemned by God were swept from the face of the earth.
Secondly, the ark of the covenant was a gold-plated acacia wood box that contained sacred objects like the Decalogue, manna, and Aaron’s rod. The ark was a symbol for the divine presence and it was placed in the Holy of Holies, which is the inner Sanctuary where God dwelt. The ark’s power lay in that it served as a moveable sanctuary, wherever the Israelites traveled they could physically bring the presence of God with them. Once again, we see wood operating as a boundary. This time wood separated the holy presence of God from the profane world. Even though the wood set a clear boundary between God and humanity, it also served as a constant reminder of God’s permanent covenant with Israel.
Lastly, the single most important event in Christian history is firmly attached to the motif of wood: the Crucifixion. Not only was the body of Jesus Christ nailed to the wood, but the cross serves as an everlasting symbol for the transitional salvific presence of God. During this
divine moment, just like two aforementioned examples in the Old Testament, wood stood at the intersection of death and life, except this time Jesus transformed the meaning of wood. By being nailed to the wood, Jesus operates as a liminal figure that allows anyone who loves Him to move from death to life. The juxtaposition of Jesus and wood allows those who are drowning in the floods of life to be pulled aboard to safety, and it allows those who worship Him to move from the secular world into a holy, divine realm of intimacy with God. The binding of the divine onto wood took what used to be a boundary and turned it into a doorway. For this all humankind can be grateful that God loved us so much, that He sent Jesus Christ to Earth so that the boundaries of heaven “wood” be opened to us.
Julian Nunally ’18 is currently studying at Harvard Law School.