Lutheran Church Missouri Synod
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Jeremiah 10 and the “Pagan” Christmas Tree
by Dr. Richard P. Bucher
A number or well-meaning readers of the "Origin and Meaning of the Christmas Tree" article have written me with questions or accusations based on Jeremiah 10. These readers state that Jeremiah 10 proves that the Christmas tree is a pagan custom and is forbidden by God. Therefore, they argue, all those who decorate a Christmas tree in their home are sinning in God's sight. This is quite the serious charge. Let us briefly examine Jeremiah 10 and the argument based upon it to see if there is any merit to this argument.
What exactly does Jeremiah 10 say? Below is Jeremiah 10:1-10:
This is what the LORD says: "Do not learn the ways of the nations or be terrified by signs in the sky, though the nations are terrified by them. 3 For the customs of the peoples are worthless; they cut a tree out of the forest, and a craftsman shapes it with his chisel. 4 They adorn it with silver and gold; they fasten it with hammer and nails so it will not totter. 5 Like a scarecrow in a melon patch, their idols cannot speak; they must be carried because they cannot walk. Do not fear them; they can do no harm nor can they do any good." 6 No one is like you, O LORD; you are great, and your name is mighty in power. 7 Who should not revere you, O King of the nations? This is your due. Among all the wise men of the nations and in all their kingdoms, there is no one like you. 8 They are all senseless and foolish; they are taught by worthless wooden idols. 9 Hammered silver is brought from Tarshish and gold from Uphaz. What the craftsman and goldsmith have made is then dressed in blue and purple-- all made by skilled workers. 10 But the LORD is the true God; he is the living God, the eternal King. When he is angry, the earth trembles; the nations cannot endure his wrath.
The verses that the concerned readers repeatedly cite are 10:2-4: "Do not learn the ways of the nations . . . For the customs of the peoples are worthless; they cut a tree out of the forest, and a craftsman shapes it with his chisel. 4 They adorn it with silver and gold; they fasten it with hammer and nails so it will not totter." "Aha!" these readers say. "Jeremiah is talking about the Christmas tree!" But closer examination reveals that he certainly is not!
First, there is the immediate context of this passage. The very next verse, 10:5, goes on to say, "Like a scarecrow in a melon patch, their idols cannot speak; they must be carried because they cannot walk. Do not fear them; they can do no harm nor can they do any good." This passage and the passages that follow make it crystal clear that the "decorated tree" that Jeremiah was talking about in 10:3-4, was a tree that was cut down and made into an idol, a very common custom in the ancient world. 10:8-10 also confirms this, where the wooden idols are contrasted with the LORD, who is the true and living God. Keil and Delitsch, the well-respected Old Testament commentary, confirms this interpretation that the trees in question were idols that were then worshiped (C. F. Keil and F. Delitsch, Commentary on the Old Testament, "Jeremiah, Lamentations," vol 8 (Grand Rapids: William B. Eeerdmans Publishing Company, 1980), 196-199).
Second, when we search the rest of the Old Testament, we find many other examples of trees being planted, cut down, or carved into idols. One of the most common examples of a tree idol was the Asherah, mentioned often in the Old Testament. Asherah was a pagan goddess that was worshiped throughout the Mediterranean world. She was considered to be the goddess of the sea, the consort of El, and the mother of Baal. She was always represented as a tree or pole, either planted or erected, then decorated. There are many warnings in the Old Testament about the Asherah tree. For example, in Exodus 34:12-14, we read, "Be careful not to make a treaty with those who live in the land where you are going, or they will be a snare among you. 13 Break down their altars, smash their sacred stones and cut down their Asherah poles. 14 Do not worship any other god, for the LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God." From a more thorough study we learn that the Asherah idol was sometimes planted (Deut. 16:21; Micah 5:14), sometimes erected at high places (1 Kings 14:23, 2 Kings 17:10), with altars and incense stands next to them where they would be worshiped (In Judges 6:25, Gideon is commanded by God to "Tear down your father's altar to Baal and cut down the Asherah pole beside it." See also Isaiah 17:8 and Jeremiah 17:2). The Asherah, along with other man-made idols, were often decorated with various cloth hangings (2 Kings 23:7), as well as gold and silver.
Isaiah 44:14-19 gives a detailed picture of how a tree was cut down and fashioned into an idol - and the absurdity of it all.
He cut down cedars, or perhaps took a cypress or oak. He let it grow among the trees of the forest, or planted a pine, and the rain made it grow. 15 It is man's fuel for burning; some of it he takes and warms himself, he kindles a fire and bakes bread. But he also fashions a god and worships it; he makes an idol and bows down to it. 16 Half of the wood he burns in the fire; over it he prepares his meal, he roasts his meat and eats his fill. He also warms himself and says, "Ah! I am warm; I see the fire." 17 From the rest he makes a god, his idol; he bows down to it and worships. He prays to it and says, "Save me; you are my god." 18 They know nothing, they understand nothing; their eyes are plastered over so they cannot see, and their minds closed so they cannot understand. 19 No one stops to think, no one has the knowledge or understanding to say, "Half of it I used for fuel; I even baked bread over its coals, I roasted meat and I ate. Shall I make a detestable thing from what is left? Shall I bow down to a block of wood?"
From the foregoing, it is abundantly clear that the "decorated tree" to which Jeremiah 10 refers is an idol, very likely the Asherah. Therefore, it is very superficial Bible interpretation and pure silliness to understand this passage as directly referring to the use of a fir tree for Christmas! If, and I repeat, if those who set up a Christmas tree fall down and worship it as a god or goddess, complete with altars and incense stands, then Jeremiah 10 applies here. Or if someone loves their Christmas tree more than God, then such a thing might also be considered spiritual idolatry. But apart from these exceptions, I think it is abundantly clear that Christians who erect Christmas trees are NOT worshiping them as gods or goddesses, nor are they loving them more than their Savior Jesus Christ. They are simply using the Christmas tree as a fun custom, one that can remind them of Jesus who is the branch of David (Jeremiah 23:5; 33:15), the root of Jesse (Isaiah 11:1). One that can remind them of the tree that led Adam and Eve to sin, but more importantly, the tree on which Christ Jesus died to make atonement for the sins of the whole world (Acts 5:30; Gal. 3:13; 1 Peter 2:24).
Christians should know that they can use a Christmas tree with a good conscience. It is unfortunate and wrong when well-meaning Christians call something sin that is not sin, and enslave the consciences of their fellow believers with imaginary sin! Shame on such Christians! Those who continue to believe that the Christmas tree is pagan and sinful, even after having their conscience correctly informed, should not use them. For it is not right to sin against conscience. This is regrettable, however, since there is absolutely nothing wrong with using a Christmas tree.