Friday, December 30, 2011

Book of Mormon Gospel Doctrine lesson 3 “The Vision of the Tree of Life” 1 Nephi 8-15

Book of Mormon Gospel Doctrine lesson 3  “The Vision of the Tree of Life”  
1 Nephi 8-15

The teacher’s manual discusses much of the standard symbolism in the Vision that both Lehi and Nephi experienced regarding the Tree of Life.  While the manual divides this lesson differently (chapters 8-9 are covered in lesson 2), I will add it to Nephi’s vision so that the two may be compared and contrasted.  This discussion will focus on key parts of the experience, focusing on  ancient roots and how for Lehi and Nephi it was a temple endowment.

Lehi’s Vision
1 Nephi 8-10

As mentioned in previous lessons, Lehi is a future symbol of Abraham.  In his vision, much of the focus will be establishing his family in the promised land, just as Abraham was led to his own promised land in Canaan.

Lehi’s vision begins with him sharing his concerns for his family, and especially for Laman and Lemuel.  His discussion then switches to the beginning of the dream, where he found himself in  “a dark and dreary wilderness” (1 Ne 8:4).  Ancient and modern temple rites take us through a representation of trying and difficult times.  Such a dark place would represent what the Fall of Adam has caused for Lehi and his family.  They have left Jerusalem and the temple, which once symbolized God’s presence, and has left on a journey in a dangerous wilderness.  Their stop at the Valley of Lemuel was necessary, as verse one states they had to gather food for the next leg of their journey.  Perhaps they remained several months, in order to grow such things in a rare oasis in one of the driest places on earth.  

He found himself cast out of the Presence of God (Shekinah) both in the dream and in real life.  He is in a fallen world, what LDS would call a Telestial state.  His real life and dream symbolize Abraham’s departing from Ur of Chaldees, which was a grand and powerful place, and entering into the unknown deserts and wilderness of Canaan and Egypt.  Abraham would also have stopped often along the way in order to provide food as he continued his journey as a wanderer in a strange land.
“And it came to pass that I saw a man, and he was dressed in a white robe; and he came and stood before me.And it came to pass that he spake unto me, and bade me follow him.And it came to pass that as I followed him I beheld myself that I was in a dark and dreary waste.And after I had traveled for the space of many hours in darkness, I began to pray unto the Lord that he would have mercy on me, according to the multitude of his tender mercies. And it came to pass after I had prayed unto the Lord I beheld a large and spacious field” (1 Ne 8:5-9).

In many ascension/theophany/temple experiences, the person is met by an angelic guide.  In the Apocalypse of Paul, the Holy Ghost appears as a child to guide him in his ascension experience.  In the Book of Revelation, John is guided by an angel of great power and holiness. So powerful is this angel that John falls down to worship him (Rev 19:10). In the Ascension of Isaiah, the prophet is also guided by an angel in his ascent through the heavens.  Interestingly, in Nephi’s Vision of the Tree of Life, he is guided by the Holy Ghost in the form of a man, similar to Paul’s apocalypse.

It is very possible that the “man in the white robe” which Lehi saw was the Lord.  Lehi symbolizes Abraham, who while in the wilderness was visited by three men in white, one possibly being Jehovah (Genesis 18).  One LDS scholar, David Larsen, suggests that the being may have been the translated king Melchizedek, a symbol of Jehovah/Jesus Christ.  This concept derives partially from from the Melchizedek scroll of the Dead Sea Scrolls (11QMelchizedek), where it is proclaimed, “Melchizedek is Yahweh” and “Melchizedek is El.”

Is it possible that Lehi’s guide was Jesus Christ, Abraham, or some other individual symbolizing Christ?  That Lehi began praying to the Lord as he remained in the dark and dreary wasteland suggests that he may have prayed to the holy messenger he was with, again suggesting that the angel was Jesus.

It is when he prays to the Lord that the lights come back on, and Lehi is able to see all that is going on around him. Clearly, he has taken the first step in returning into the presence of the Lord’s glory, as he has prayed in faith. Lehi sees a big field, which represents the world we live in.  But then he sees his objective: the Tree of Life.  Note in 1 Ne 8:10 that it is the fruit which makes one happy.  This will be important to remember as we study the Tree’s significance during Nephi’s vision.

“And it came to pass that I beheld a tree, whose fruit was desirable to make one happy. And it came to pass that I did go forth and partake of the fruit thereof; and I beheld that it was most sweet, above all that I ever before tasted. Yea, and I beheld that the fruit thereof was white, to exceed all the whiteness that I had ever seen.And as I partook of the fruit thereof it filled my soul with exceedingly great joy; wherefore, I began to be desirous that my family should partake of it also; for I knew that it was desirable above all other fruit” (1 Ne 8:10-12).

As we study Nephi’s vision, we will learn what the symbol of the fruit means.  However, it is important that we note that this fruit is which makes one happy.  Later, Lehi would teach his son, Jacob, that “Adam fell that men might be, and men are that they might have joy” (2 Ne 2:25), and that it is the Messiah’s atonement that affords us that happiness.  The fruit, therefore, is Christ and his atonement.  True happiness only comes from partaking of the fruit of Jesus Christ by believing on him and repenting of our sins.  This will be a theme that we return to time and again in the Book of Mormon: that true joy comes to those who turn to Christ.

It is at this point, when Lehi partakes of the fruit that he symbolically is in the presence of the Lord. While all mankind must some day return into the presence of the Lord at the judgment bar (Alma 11-12), not all will choose to remain.  Instead, many cast their eyes elsewhere and are lured away by worldly enticements and attitudes, such as those represented by the people in the great and spacious building.  These are people who mock holy things and use peer pressure to cause us to turn our backs on Jesus and the happiness he offers us.  Many fall away from activity and faith in the LDS Church and other forms of Christianity.  They believe it to be too restrictive, too old-fashioned, or too worldly to desire to be lifted to a higher plain of happiness.  Many are lost in mists of darkness, following paths that lead them further and further away from the light, and deeper into the darkness which Lehi had just escaped by praying to the Lord for rescue.  And that is what it requires for each of us, a rescue.  We are all fallen from God’s presence.  Only through Christ can we return to His presence.  Only through continued faith and repentance may we remain in God’s presence.

Immediately, Lehi’s dream becomes personalized, as he focuses it on his own family.  The fruit of the Tree of Life is wonderful, and he wishes to share it with them.  He finds his wife, Nephi and Sam in one place, near the head of the river, eager to join him.  But Laman and Lemuel do not heed their father.  They are satisfied with what the world has offered them.  Later they will speak admirably of Jerusalem and its inhabitants, and condemn their father and Lehi for leading them away.

Lehi’s rod of iron, which Nephi will interpret to be the “word of God” has important ancient symbolism.  Matthew L. Bowen explained that in Egyptian, the term mdw  means both “staff” and “to speak”.  The term mdw-ntr meant divine revelation or sacred writing.  So the “rod of iron” means both a literal rod to grasp onto, but it also means divine revelation or writing.  The LDS children’s song, “To Nephi, Seer of Olden Time”, which states the “iron rod is the word of God” is literally correct.

Lehi’s tale ends with him exhorting his older sons, pleading with them to believe and turn to God. His is a vision of a small family striving to seek the promised land, the Tree of Life, the presence of God.

Nephi’s Vision of the Tree
1 Nephi 11-15

Nephi desired to “know the things my father had seen.”  As with his father, his journey begins with meditation and prayer near the beginning of it.  As he pondered, the Holy Ghost lifted him to a high mountain. Whenever a person in scripture or in ancient Jewish/Christian writings has an experience on a high mountain, one knows it will be a temple-like experience, where the person is prepared to enter God’s presence and glory (Matthew 17, Revelation 21:10).  We see this in the Apocalypse of Paul, with Moses’ ascent of Sinai, and the brother of Jared as he saw Christ.

We learn something important regarding the Holy Spirit - he is human-like in form, for Nephi spoke with him as a man talks to another man.  The Spirit tested Nephi’s faith prior to giving him such a powerful experience.  He was asked if he believed his father’s Lehi’s words, and in God.  The Spirit then testified of the Father and Son, which is his main responsibility to mankind.  Then the Spirit probed him, to see what things he already understood (1 Ne 11:3-6)
An interesting dialogue occurs between Nephi and the Spirit.  The Spirit tells him that after seeing the Tree of Life, he would see the Son of Man descend from heaven.  Upon seeing the tree, Nephi asked to know the interpretation of it.  The Holy Spirit then showed him the virgin Mary.  Nephi still was not sure of the interpretation.

“And he said unto me: Behold, the virgin whom thou seest is the mother of the Son of God, after the manner of the flesh.And it came to pass that I beheld that she was carried away in the Spirit; and after she had been carried away in the Spirit for the space of a time the angel spake unto me, saying: Look! And I looked and beheld the virgin again, bearing a child in her arms. And the angel said unto me: Behold the Lamb of God, yea, even the Son of the Eternal Father! Knowest thou the meaning of the tree which thy father saw? And I answered him, saying: Yea, it is the love of God, which sheddeth itself abroad in the hearts of the children of men; wherefore, it is the most desirable above all things” (1 Ne 11:18-22).

Why is it that upon seeing Mary with the baby that suddenly he understood the Tree of Life to mean the love of God?  Here we come to an ancient Jewish belief that was lost from the temple in the days of King Josiah and the Deuteronomist reforms.  In reforming the religion, many things were removed from the temple, including the Tree of Life, angels, and being in the presence of God (Shekinah).  

Anciently, it was believed that God had a wife or consort, named Asherah.  She was known to be the goddess of wisdom and fertility (love).  Archaeologists have found evidence of her as being a part of the worship of both Elohim and Yahweh. In Proverbs, she is known as Wisdom (Proverbs 8).  Lost from the temple teachings in Lehi’s day, the concept of Asherah, the Tree of Life, the wife of God would have stood out in the Brass Plates and recognized immediately by Nephi.  In speaking of this at the 2005 Library of Congress, Joseph Smith Symposium, Old Testament scholar Margaret Barker noted that such a teaching in the Book of Mormon was perfectly understood and accepted in 600 BC.

In seeing the mortal mother of God represented by the Tree of Life, Nephi understood that the Tree of Life signified the wife of God, or Heavenly Mother as LDS call her, shedding forth her fruit that would make one happy.  The fruit was white beyond description and was the thing that gave spiritual life and joy.  The fruit is Jesus Christ.

   Condescensions of God

Nephi is shown two condescensions of God, or two times when God descends below mankind. (1 Ne 11:16, 26).  The first was a condescension of both Father and Son in bringing forth the birth of Jesus through a mortal mother.  Jesus would descend from his throne on high, and become mortal, leaving the Father behind.  The second was at Jesus’ baptism, where the Lord of all set the example of baptism for all the rest of us to follow.  Though he was perfect, he was baptized to fulfill all righteousness and the will of the Father.

The condescension continued as Christ walked the earth, taught and healed during his ministry - the King of Israel as the humble servant, and then suffered physical and spiritual death (My God, why hast thou forsaken me?) in the Garden and on the Cross, so that we may be lifted up by him.

In death, he descended into the catacombs of the dead, where he opened the prison doors and brought forth the First Resurrection.  Such was the condescension of God.

The Future Nations

While Lehi’s vision focused primarily on his family, and linked him symbolically to Abraham, Nephi’s vision will link him to Joseph or Moses, leaders not only of families, but of nations.

Nephi’s vision follows the timeline of the Nephites, where he sees the future division of the people, their wickedness and their repentance at the coming of Christ to his people.  He then witnessed the Nephite destruction and the survival of the Lamanites, who would remain in the dark and dreary wilderness until a future restoration would occur.

Unlike Lehi’s vision that focused on his family, Nephi’s vision takes him further to see the nations of the Nephites and Lamanites, the coming of the others, and the Second Coming of the Lord.  His is a an expansive vision with an entirely different focus than that of his father’s.  

He sees the coming of the Gentiles to the promised land, with Columbus inspired to cross the ocean, even as his father Lehi was inspired to do.  He foresees the land of liberty and the day when the Gentiles would fall into sin, becoming like the wicked Lamanites, living in a telestial state outside the presence of God, and losing the blessings of the promised land (1 Ne 12-14).

A discussion ensues regarding the two churches: that of God and the Devil.  The great and abominable Church has sometimes been believed to be the Catholic Church and perhaps the Protestant religions that broke away from it.  However, we see that Nephi described the abominable church as one that led men’s souls to hell.  According to LDS belief, this cannot include these faiths, as they do not lead men down to hell.  Instead, they call people to Christ, and are among the honorable men of the earth which shall inherit the Terrestrial kingdom (D&C 76).  Instead, we should see the great and abominable Church as any organization that leads people away from Christ, down paths of destruction.  We shall see in the Nephite record that this includes organizations that resemble Gadianton Robbers, who seek to get gain and power by any method necessary, including theft and murder.  Among other places, these can be found as gangs, business organizations, or even in government, if such organizations seek power and gain and are willing to murder to obtain or maintain that power.

Interestingly, Nephi is told that his vision is like that of John the Revelator, and is commanded to not write most of the vision, because it was assigned to John to write it.  That John’s Revelation is an ascension text was discussed my 2011 New Testament lessons on Revelation.  There is a big connection between the Book of Revelation and Nephi’s Vision of the Tree of Life.  Perhaps reading them together may bring forth interesting insights into both.

In 1 Nephi 15, Nephi notes he returned to his father’s tent.  Again, the tent represents the center of their universe.  It is where they council, and where Nephi explains the vision to his brothers.  It is akin to Moses’ Tabernacle, as a sacred place in the wilderness, where the family may receive revelation.


Apocalypse of Paul:

Ascension of Isaiah:

The Dead Sea Scrolls in English, by Geza Vermes:

David Larsen’s Heavenly Ascent blog on the Three Men who visited Abraham:

“What meaneth the Rod of Iron?”, Matthew L. Bowen:

Hymn: “To Nephi Seer of Olden Time” (Hold to the Rod):

“God’s wife edited out of the Bible - almost” where scholars discuss Asherah and the changes in Judaism in Lehi’s day:

“Nephi and his Asherah” by Daniel C Peterson:

My Old Testament article on Proverbs, where I discuss Wisdom as the wife of God:

Margaret Barker at Joseph Smith Symposium (session 2, second speaker):,4945,510-1-3067-1,00.html

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