My classes overwhelmed and delayed me, sorry for the two week delay!
We commonly know 1 Nephi 8 as the Tree of Life chapter in which the famous ‘rod of iron’ is first introduced to us. Perhaps no other metaphor or image in the Book of Mormon has been recreated and reinterpreted in art as much as that of the Rod of Iron. As for chapter 8, as I read Lehi’s vision at first, I wanted to include Nephi’s expansion of this vision found in chapter 11 and the interpretations the angel he sees provides him. But I won’t be roped in to anticipating that future chapter! There’s plenty to say when it comes up later in October. For now, it’s sufficient to not all of the family’s current relations and dynamics are mirrored in this vision.
So for example, if we recall, over the last seven chapters, Nephi has obeyed Lehi’s inspired commands, and not without question. He prayed for himself, that he might know independent of his father and his brothers that the Lord had actually prophesied for their benefit, and for the city of Jerusalem. In chapter 8, we get a framed narrative: Nephi is retelling (in writing) Lehi’s journey-vision after he’d told it orally to all of his family, with particularly ominous admonitions for Laman and Lemuel.
Lehi’s initial reference to his two rebellious and stubborn sons as they relate to the dream seems particularly incensed with tender emotions, for he appears to fleetingly entertain the thought of explaining himself right then and there, but then declines to do so, turning instead to mentioning his perception of a “dark and dreary wilderness” (v. 4) and apparently chooses to take the clear, longer, version of the dream, which in his mind would probably lay out choices and consequences clearly. But was he upset, visibly to his family? Did he contain his emotions if he had any? I’d say yes, because after his recitation of the dream-vision, he “exhorts them with all the feeling of a tender parent, that they would hearken to his words” (v. 37).
Back to the beginning, in verses two and three he says he’d seen a vision and was happy for Nephi and Sam, saying he has plenty of reason to thank the Lord and reasonably believe that they and their descendants would be saved. Then he turns to L&L, and says he fears “exceedingly” because of them (their thinking, what did this visionary father of ours see anyways? Just lay it on us, come on Dad.) I wondered here, how would Ishmael’s family react, and Zoram too, to this spiritual event?
In any case, Lehi finds himself bidden by a man in white (presumably an angel of sorts but not definitively so) to follow him, soon leading to “a dark and dreary waste” (v. 7) in which he traveled for many hours (v.8). Interestingly enough, it opens like the great, three-part 13th century epic, The Divine Comedy, by Dante Aleghieri, whose protagonist, Dante the Pilgrim, finds himself: “Midway along the journey of our life/I woke to find myself in a dark wood,/for I had wandered off from the straight path/How hard it is to tell what it was like,/this wood of wilderness, savage and stubborn…/a bitter place! Death could scarce be bitterer./How I entered there I cannot truly say/I had become so sleepy at the moment/when I first strayed, leaving the path of truth;/but when I found myself at the foot of a hill,/at the edge of the wood’s beginning, down in the valley,/where I first felt my heart plunged deep in fear,/I raised my head and saw the hilltop shawled/in morning rays of light sent from the planet that leads men straight ahead on every road” (Canto I, 1-18).
In Dante’s medieval/Renaissance cultural context, the heavens were composed of 7 levels with 7 corresponding planets – the Moon, Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. So, it seems Dante sees the Sun. For it, more than Venus or Mercury which are always near the Sun (dawn or dusk) due to their close proximity to it, would lead men “ahead on every road”, ya know, shine light on every road because the Sun can illuminate magnitudes more than a planet’s reflective light can.
Dante’s material concerned the matter of Rome and sought to mediate the rivaling ideas of Imperial and Apostolic Rome during the political infighting of his day in Florence, Italy – and so chose Virgil, the famed Latin poet who authored the classical epic, the Aeneid. We should realize that Virgil appears to Dante the Pilgrim in the midst of encountering the three sins of lust, pride, and avarice in their symbolic forms as a leopard, lion, and she-wolf while he’s trapped in the dark wood, unable to exit the dark place without external help. Does Lehi here encounter his own frailty, weaknesses, and even sin represented by the darkness he’s lost within?
The difference being that Virgil represents “Reason or Human Wisdom…the means through which man may come to an understanding of the nature of sin” which Dante will understand on his journey through Hell (Inferno) and while there “will see the penance imposed on repentant sinners” (Musa, 75). But, Lehi sees a divine being, an angel. And the light that illuminates the dark and dreary waste is none other than the Tree of Life, the same found in the Garden of Eden, which as we find out later from Nephi represents the love of God. Both of these differences (the spectre of a deceased mortal poet v. an angel and a planet v. the Tree of Life) illustrate the source of these visions or stories – Human Reason as much as it can be inspired on one hand and pure Revelation straight from heaven.
The Dream-Vision Contents
So while Dante implores Virgil to help him escape the three sins and dark forest, Lehi in his faith then prays that the Lord, not a revered poet, would have mercy on him and he sees a large and spacious field. Interesting answer to a prayer, hunh? And presumably the tree he sees next is in this field, a tree whose fruit “was desirable to make one happy…was most sweet, above all that [he] ever before tasted…was white to exceed all the whiteness that [he] had ever seen…filled [his] soul with exceedingly great joy…that it was desirable above all other fruit” (vv. 10-12). Desiring that his family also eat of the fruit (how often do we value a thing or idea enough to tell others about them? What are they?), he looks around him, aware again of his surroundings, and sees a river of water running past the tree he stood by. He followed it’s stretch until he spotted Sariah, Sam, and Nephi at the head of the river, seemingly confused, appearing to be lost.
Lehi loudly calls out to them to come unto him and eat the fruit that he ate. They located him and ate the fruit. Then Lehi searched for L&L towards the river’s head, saw them, but they ignored him, refusing to come to him and eat the fruit (vv. 15-18). Only now did Lehi see the ‘rod of iron’ and the ‘strait and narrow path’ beside it leading from the river’s fountain to the Tree. That leaves us to question whether Lehi or Nephi, Sam, and Sariah needed the rod of iron. Of course they did, because of what we later find out it represents (Ch. 11). However, one scholar (Swift, 2005) chalks up the omission to the very nature of the dream-vision elements forming in his mind at random sequence, like any common dream.
Then, he saw “numberless concourses of people” seeking for the path and finding it. But the mist of darkness materialized, darkening the way and helping the people to wander off the path, becoming lost (v. 21-23). Others held the rod of iron firmly, forging their way through the misty umbrage until they arrived at the Tree and ate the glowing fruit like Lehi. They were ashamed of having eaten the fruit. Lehi, curious as to why, turned and saw opposite him on the other side of the river, massive crowds of people of all ages finely dressed “mocking and pointing their fingers” toward Lehi and the people who’d eaten the fruit after their precarious journey. Well, these ones succumbed to their taunts and arguments and philosophies and wealthy appearance, to their mortal power, and “fell away into forbidden paths and were lost” (v. 28).
Now, Nephi states Lehi saw much more, but to be make a long story short, more people fought the mist and ‘held fast’ to the iron rod and fell down at the foot of the Tree. I imagine they heard the mockers all the way, but exhausted themselves, making that unbelievably sweet fruit, truly sweet in contrast to all that vitriolic bitterness and dark mists. However, others made their way toward the massive building, many unable to cross the river, drowning within it, and others were straight lost, “wandering on strange roads” (32), out of his view. L&L, heeding the deliriously prideful scoffers, refused to make the journey up to the Tree, let alone eat the fruit. This is probably where Lehi began to fear for them, seeing the consequences of so many perilous paths laid bare before his eyes. However, it’s important to note that L&L did not cross the river to the Great and Spacious building. This mirrors their choices in reality – they did, reluctantly, follow Lehi and Nephi into the wilderness. They won’t say they follow the Lord, but they did leave Jerusalem, however much they desire that enticing ‘building’ full of Jewish mockers.
Speaking of the ‘kaleidoscopic structure’ of Lehi’s dream, that disjointed dreamy quality in which elements don’t overlap (he sees whole groups of people, then moves on to another group – his vision moves from location to location), one scholar notes “It should be remembered, though, that visionary literature is “heavily symbolic but rarely pictorial.” The symbols are meant to convey images of meaning, not necessarily pictures” (Swift). Our attempts to picture where exactly the river bends and how big the building is and its proximity to the river are somewhat futile; however, preferably “we can imagine what we need to imagine, but if we try to be too precise we lose the sweeping grandeur of the vision and are caught up in details that cannot be worked out” (Swift). I agree with that. Some of the large amount of Lehi’s Dream artwork I prefer might illustrate this point: WARNING! there are spoilers ahead! Lehi did not interpret the imagery (in Ch. 8) he saw to the doctrinal interpretations we commonly, and correctly, associate them with, because Nephi hadn’t ascended into a nearby mountain to pray to know what his father had seen. Lehi had summarily recounted his miraculous dream to his family members, prophesied some things, and then urged them, mostly L&L, to keep the commandments.
But, for those of you who can’t resist more discussion, this piece is by an artist named Nick Stephens.
To me, the many white, transparent windows seem to represent the ‘great and spacious building’ suspended in the air, foundationless; the dark field stands for the ‘dark and dreary wilderness’ or the ‘large and spacious field’ he spies from his vantage point; also the yellow-gold wheat field feels inviting and to me implies growth and labor to till the soil, sow the seeds, and nurture until the crop sprouts and blooms to be harvested, and therefore offer life and sustenance. Now even though the Tree of Life represented by this branch is suspended in mid-air, it should not be equated with the rigid array of transparent windows. For, while the golden field represents sustenance and life, it is like unto manna, only temporary, mortal, of this world. Like the improbability and otherworldliness of an angelic visitor, who in scripture is often suspended above the ground, this Tree descends to the world offering fruit above all that can be tasted here. Its roots are unseen, for the moment, as roots usually behave, but these are heavenly roots, located where “neither moth nor rust doth corrupt”. The repetitive, interlacing white lines form a beautiful image that extends beyond the frame, in my imagination. Their large sweeping reach call for that motion or extension in my mind quite naturally. And they reach higher, inexorably so, than the building does, with no end in sight, stretching forever expectedly. What do they emanate from and what kind of fruit is offered?
Latter-day Saints will readily recognize the stark red geometric shapes that literally encompass and contain the Tree. We’ll jump a couple chapters, even though I’m getting ahead of myself, because we have to for this to make interpretive sense: Nephi is told the Tree represents the Love of God (Ch. 11). Being literally a square and a circle, one drawn with a square and one drawn with a compass, we inevitably suppose this suggests that the Love of God is accessed or attained or reached by being exactly obedient and faithful to God’s commands, which are contained in His simple Gospel. By virtue of receiving the commandments alone into our lives we will have received the Grace of Christ.
Happiness, according to Lehi, is not attainable by riches, position, and prideful paths: it is reached by heeding the Lord’s simple commands, sowing the seeds of eternal life, as Nephi is has been learning this whole time. All of our myopic impulsive-natural man-appetites are to be circumscribed or pursued within the covenant limits that the Lord has set in His covenants. To step out of bounds, well, we see Israel’s demise and the correlation to breaking covenants that Jeremiah laments. As for the red color that draws the eye to it: it might be a subtle choice to highlight what Nephi later learns – that “because of their faith in the Lamb of God their garments are made white in his blood” (1 Ne. 12:10-11). Keeping covenants allows the righteous to gain the Redeemer’s Atonement-produced mercy and grace, cleanse them, and free and liberate them as Lehi states (2 Ne. 2:27) from Death and Hell and the Devil, and thereby make them happy now (experience His pure love) and grant them eternal life – the very fruit of the Tree of Life. Or…it’ s just a pretty red. But I tend to think otherwise…
Dante admirably invokes Virgil, or Reason, using the beautiful rhythm of the Italian verse form of terza rima, (although Musa uses a rhymeless iambic pentameter or blank verse in translation) to transcend the mundane speech rhythms we use, to invoke the transcendent. However, the divinely and humbly written Book of Mormon shows the reader that, as Elder Holland writes, from “the very outset of the Book of Mormon, in its first fully developed allegory, Christ is portrayed as the source of eternal life and joy, the living evidence of divine love, and the means whereby God will fulfill his covenant with the house of Israel and indeed the entire family of man, returning them to all their eternal promises.”
Amen to that.
PS – In what ways can we compare and contrast the Tree of Life in Lehi’s vision with the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden? According to what we read from Lehi’s perpective, in what ways do they function in parallel fashion (what does it offer the beholder or is supposed to do for the person that beholds or partakes of the fruit?) I also wondered, did the Adamic account in Genesis perhaps inspire Lehi, after he’d presumably read it in chapter 5? We could safely assume so, but neither he nor Nephi actually reference it as having inspired them. There’s no nod back to it in Ch. 8. Although Lehi does teach his family of the effects of Adam and Eve’s choices in the Garden of Eden in 2 Nephi 2-3, before he passes away.
Holland, J.R. (1997). Christ and the New Covenant. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book.
Musa, M. (2003). The Divine Comedy: Volume 1: The Inferno. New York, New York: Penguin Books.
Stephens, Nick. http://www.nickstephensart.com/new-religious-work/new-religious-work/16872797.
Swift, Charles. (2005). Lehi’s Vision of the Tree of Life: Understanding the Dream as Visionary Literature. Journal of Book of Mormon Studies: Vol. 14 (2), (pp. 52–63, 74–75). Provo, Utah: Maxwell Institute.