Treephobia and Protestantism

Guestblog by Mariecke van den Berg
May 15, 2023 by

Figure 1: A child protests in the trees of Amelisweerd estate (The Netherlands) against the widening of the A27 national highway.  Author: Maurtis90. Derived from (4 May 2023).

Treephobia and Protestantism[1]

For there is hope for a tree,
if it be cut down, that it will sprout again,
and that its shoots will not cease.
Though its root grow old in the earth,
and its stump die in the s​oil,
yet at the scent of water it will bud
and put out branches like a young plant.
(Job 14:7-9 ESV)

This text from the Bible book of Job came to mind when I read on social media about the lobby to vote for the Marquesas oak at Amelisweerd (Utrecht, The Netherlands) as European Tree of the Year. [2] For years, attempts have been made to widen the A27 highway near this estate. For years, people from the province of Utrecht have been campaigning to prevent it. The highway is wide enough; there are other solutions to traffic jams than cutting down even more trees for even more asphalt.

Despite over 8,000 preference votes, our giant from Amelisweerd unfortunately had to give way to the Oak Fabrykant from Poland, the Dragon Oak from Slovakia and the Apple Tree colony of Krolevtsi in Ukraine. Winning would have made the widening of the road a lot harder, but in Utrecht we will continue the action.

Meanwhile, I keep thinking about trees. My tradition, Protestant Christian, has a dual relationship to trees. Trees were created by God. People can take root in the sacred, like a tree planted on streams of water (Psalm 1). "Wisdom is a tree of life for whoever embraces it; whoever embraces it may rejoice" (Proverbs 3:18).

And at the same time, I grew up with a fear of trees. Treephobia. There is the constant fear that the tree is given too prominent a place in the imagination of the sacred. To serve trees is idolatry. In the book of Judges, someone writes, in disgust, "they served Baalim and the groves" (Judges 3:7). The Ashera pole, another word for the sacred tree worshipped in the temple cult and by people at home, has to be destroyed again and again in the First Testament.

So there comes King Josiah, swinging his axe to cut down the Ashera pole. In a purge that is nothing like today's extremist groups, everything that smacks of holy tree is ​taken down and burned (2 Kings 23). Perhaps Josiah was the great example for Boniface, the great treephobe who allegedly cut down Donar's Oak in Geisler in the year 723. [3]

In the imagination surrounding the sacred, the tree became barer and barer. What remained were two pieces of wood crossing each other, with just enough​ space for one person. The tree forms the set piece to the larger story of the suffering of God and man, but never becomes the larger story itself.

Tree fear is gendered. It especially goes wrong when trees and the feminine have something to do with each other. Then forbidden fruit is eaten. ​And Ashera is not just an idol, she is a female idol, even worse. Even before anything could really blossom between "Yahweh and his Asherah", [4] it was over. God had to go on alone, a widower, a single father with a Son, but without the trees.

Not only the tree was feminine and had to be dominated. All of nature was considered feminine: a chaotic, unpredictable woman to be tamed, to be invaded and dominated. [5]

But Ash​era, the sacred tree goddess, is making a comeback. Artist Marieke Ploeg, helped by many volunteers, created 3,000 Ashera stat​ues for the Exodus exhibition​ at the Dutch Biblical Museum.[6] They represent the 3,000 statues recovered from excavations in and around Jerusalem.

Visitors to the museum can take a statue and place it at home. The sacred no lo​nger needs to be confined in its manhood. The tree is allowed to blossom again. What was dominated, banished, burnt, scattered, yet returns.

if she be cut down, she will sprout again,
and that her shoots will not cease.
Though her root grow old in the earth,
and her stump die in the s​oil,
yet at the scent of water she will bud
and put out branches like a young plant.

For there is always hope for a tree...

About t​he a​uthor:

Mariecke van den Berg is associate professor of religion and gender at VU University Amsterdam and associate professor of feminism and Christianity at Radboud University in Nijmegen.


[1] This text was delivered on April 15, 2023 at the "Fragile Earth" event organized by the Free University Amsterdam, the Protestant Theological University and the Apostolic Society. At this event, the "Mass for the Universe" by South African poet Antjie Krog was read; this text is a response to the "Sanctus," which sings of the trees.​

[2] Bomen met de meest interessante verhalen – Europese boom van het jaar (

[3] With gratitude to dr. Deborah de Koning, who drew my attention to this event.

[4] Inscription found in archaeological survey : Discussie laait weer op: 'God had een vrouw' (  

[5] As argue (eco)feminist theologians like Catherine Keller in her book The Face of the Deep (2003).

[6] Asjera’s terugkeer | Marieke Ploeg

religionandclimate May 15, 2023
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