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Jesse Tree

·6 mins
painting of a Jesse tree
Tree of Jesse by Absolon Stumme.

There’s a tradition in many Catholic families to make a Jesse tree in Advent. This means doing a reading from the Old Testament each day, and pinning a leaf with an associated symbol on it to a cloth tree on the wall. The name comes from Isaiah 11:1:

There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.

I think this is a neat tradition. It got me thinking this year, if I were making my own Jesse tree, which Old Testament readings would I include?

Baseline #

What are the 24-28 most important passages of the Old Testament? I have three sources in my mind that I’m thinking about as I craft my own choices. First, my family made Jesse trees growing up, and that was my original big-picture view of the Old Testament. Second, I read Kendra Tierney’s Jesse Tree reflections this year. Third, I’m on my third read through the excellent Jesus Storybook Bible with my daughter. While not a Jesse tree, this book had to make similar choices about which Bible stories are the most important preparation for the New Testament.

My choices below are shaped by what I perceive as the strengths and weaknesses of these sources. In particular, I think these are relevant issues:

  1. Overemphasis on Genesis. Fully half of the Old Testament in the Jesus Storybook Bible is spent in Genesis. I get that it’s more important than the average book, but that’s out of proportion. I propose spending 1/7 of our time there.
  2. Total number of days. The Jesse tree is an Advent activity, but Advent can have anywhere from 22-28 days. Growing up, we had 28 possible readings, but chopped off the last 0-6, further emphasizing the beginning. Tierney solves this problem by having 25 readings starting on Dec 1 each year. I suggest starting on the First Sunday of Advent, but taking some readings out from the middle instead of the end when Advent is shorter.
  3. New Testament crowding. Both Jesse trees I’ve done spend four or five days on New Testament precursors to Jesus- Mary, Joseph, Elizabeth, and John the Baptist. Whatever tradition might say, I think this is a shame- there’s a lot of stuff to get to in the Old Testament, I don’t want it crowded out! You can’t miss the stories of Mary and Elizabeth in the Catholic Church anyway. My only nod to this tradition is to spend Christmas Eve on prophecies of John the Baptist along with his story.
  4. Typology. I emphasize readings that foreshadow Christ. For instance, I include Passover rather than the Exodus, and I spend a day on Isaiah’s Suffering Servant prophecies.
  5. Genres. I try to balance historical, prophetic, and poetic passages. Three Psalms make the cut, as do Job and Ecclesiastes.
  6. Age. I’d like to think this selection works for both children and adults.

My Jesse Tree #

Here’s what I’d include. Readings can easily be looked up at Biblia.

Day If Advent Begins On or Before Focus Bible passage Notes
1 Creation and fall Skim Gen 2:4-3:21 I agree with everyone else, gotta start here.
2 Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac Gen 22:1-19 Both Abraham’s faith, and New Covenant foreshadowing.
3 Jacob wrestles with God Gen 32:24-32 I understand why you might choose the Ladder, or Leah and Rachel. But I prefer “Israel”’s story for Israel.
4 Nov 28 Joseph Summarize Gen 37-42, 45 Or just watch The Ballad of Little Joe.
5 Passover Ex 12:1-7, 11-13, 28-32 Wins out over the burning bush and the Exodus because of the Eucharist.
6 The Mosaic law Ex 20:1-20 Emphasize that it’s not just the Ten Commandments, as important as those are.
7 Desert wanderings Ex 16:2-4, 13-15, 35, 17:1-6 Three Exodus readings and no Numbers or Deuteronomy. Is there a better selection?
8 Nov 30 Joshua’s conquests Skim Jos 6 Is there something to pair this with to make it less dry?
9 Job Summarize Job 1-3, 38, 40, 42 Incredibly fruitful book.
10 Ruth, Naomi, and Boaz Summarize Ruth 1-4 I’d take Ruth over the Judges any day.
11 Dec 1 Samuel, Saul, and David Summarize 1 Sm 8, 16, 31 Not sure exactly which stories are most important here. These chapters are the historical focus.
12 David dances, Psalm 118 2 Sm 6:1-5, 14-15; Ps 118 In terms of David stories, this is more important than Goliath as prefigurement of Christ.
13 David and Bathsheba, Psalm 51 2 Sm 11:2-3, 14-17, 26-27; Ps 51 I could see an argument that David and Bathsheba isn’t a kid’s story. But I think kids can understand that it’s wrong to kill a guy off to marry his wife.
14 Solomon Prays for Wisdom 1 Kgs 3:5, 9-15; Wis 9 Wisdom 9 is a sublime prayer.
15 Ecclesiastes Ecc 3 I’m inclined enough to existential dread that I’ve always had a soft spot for Ecclesiastes.
16 Elijah’s Retreat 1 Kgs 19 My favorite chapter of the Old Testament.
17 Elisha’s miracles 2 Kgs 4 Jesus' miracles are a lot like Elisha’s.
18 Isaiah and Hezekiah Is 36:1, 37:9-11, 14-21, 33-38 If there’s time, explore Hezekiah’s illness and recovery in Ch 38 too.
19 Nov 27 Jonah Summarize Jonah 1-4 I’ve heard Jonah’s story enough that it’s hard for me to remember how good its lessons are.
20 Tobias, Sarah, and Raphael Summarize Tobit 4-6, 8, 11-12 Tobit competes with Ruth for Most Enjoyable Narrative in the Bible. Sorry, Judith.
21 Isaiah’s suffering servant, Psalm 22 Is 52:13-53:12; Ps 22 Straight-up preparation for the Crucifixion.
22 The destruction of Jerusalem, Lamentations 2 Kgs 24:18-25:11; Lam 1:1-5 It’s a downer, and that’s why it’s important.
23 Jeremiah and Ezekiel prophesy the new covenant Jer 31:31-34; Eze 37:1-14 I’d love to give Jeremiah more time, but this is his most important passage.
24 Nov 29 Daniel in the Lion’s Den Dn 6 Another story that VeggieTales has taken over in my mind.
25 Dec 2 Ezekiel’s personal morality Eze 18:1-9, 19-24, 30-32; Mic 6:8 Emphasize the development from the Mosaic law to the prophets as halfway to the New Covenant.
26 Ezra restores the law Neh 8:1-12 I wish I understood Ezra and Nehemiah better. I mostly think of Choruses from the Rock.
27 The Maccabean Revolt 1 Mc 4:26-29, 34-41, 48, 52-56 There might be a better passage here.
28 Malachi and John the Baptist Mal 3:1, 4:5-6; Mk 1:1-8 Isaiah 40 is already quoted in the Gospels, so bring in Malachi too.

Conclusion #

This is, of course, very subjective, and I’m sure my tastes will change over time. But I expect I’ll refer back to this list next Advent, and I hope you find something to look into as well.