Book of Mormon Lesson #3: “The Vision of the Tree of Life,” 1 Nephi 8-11, 15 (Sunday School)
Posted by joespencer on January 8, 2012
As promised in my last post, I’m planning on dealing here principally with 1 Nephi 6-9. My reasons, as I explained before, include the fact that 1 Nephi 6-9 formed a single chapter (the second chapter) in the original version of the Book of Mormon. I think Nephi’s own way of breaking up his text is of real importance. Not only does it set up the parallel I explored in my last post (between the stories of Lehi’s reading of the heavenly book and of Lehi’s reading the brass plates in 1 Nephi 1-5), it sets up a clear parallel between 1 Nephi 6 and 1 Nephi 9, two of Nephi’s texts about what he’s doing in the writing of his record, two texts that mark the opening and closing of what was originally Nephi’s second chapter.
Moreover—indeed, more importantly, in my eyes—Nephi’s way of dividing up the text separates more strongly than we are wont to do as readers of the Book of Mormon Lehi’s dream of the tree of life from Nephi’s vision of the tree of life. This is especially clear when one considers the strong break (again, discussed in my last post) between 1 Nephi 1-9 (Nephi’s account of his father) and 1 Nephi 10-22 (Nephi’s account of himself). These are two quite distinct “halves” of First Nephi, and it is of real significance that Lehi’s dream is to be found in one, while Nephi’s vision is to be found in the other. In short, I believe that we’re far too quick to equate Lehi’s and Nephi’s experiences in our reading of the Book of Mormon. Now, I don’t mean to suggest that there’s something illegitimate about reading 1 Nephi 8 through the lens of 1 Nephi 11, 15. It’s been done a great deal, and I suspect we’ve all learned a great deal from it. But it seems to me clear that there are other—and, I think, better—ways to read Lehi’s dream. I’ll try to spell that out today, leaving 1 Nephi 11 and 1 Nephi 15 for my next post.
And I should mention, before getting any further, that all of what I do here presupposes, as before, what I laid out in my “preliminaries on Nephi” post.
To work, then!
1 Nephi 6-9
In my comments on 1 Nephi 6-9, I think I’d like to say a few words first about 1 Nephi 6 and 1 Nephi 9 together, then just a few words about 1 Nephi 7, and finally take up a series of reflections on 1 Nephi 8. I’ll have a bit to say about 1 Nephi 10 after all that.
1 Nephi 6, 9
It’s quite instructive to isolate all the passages in which Nephi explicitly talks about what he’s doing in his record. If isolated and set side by side, the passages suggest clearly that Nephi’s conception of what he’s doing changes a good deal over the course of actually producing the record. Up through 1 Nephi 6, Nephi consistently distinguishes the record he’s writing only from the record of his father. Beginning with 1 Nephi 9 and consistently there after, Nephi distinguishes the record he’s writing from another record that he has himself produced (within which can be found the record of his father). There is thus a discernible shift, specifically between 1 Nephi 6 and 1 Nephi 9, from a Nephi who’s trying to produce something distinct from his father’s record to a Nephi who’s trying to produce something distinct from something else he himself has written. What’s to be made of this shift?
It can be explained in a number of ways (and critics of the Book of Mormon have made some mileage out of this point, as is to be expected), but what seems most important to me is the fact that Nephi’s conception of his own record is changing as he goes along. I mentioned in my last post that the superscription to Nephi’s record is at odds in significant ways with the narrative as it actually reads in First Nephi. And now here in the gap between 1 Nephi 6 and 1 Nephi 9 we have another indication that Nephi’s project is changing in the very course of writing the record. What significance might we see in the fact that Nephi at first wants only to emphasize the distance between what he’s writing here and his father’s account, but eventually wants to emphasize the distance between what he’s writing here and what he’s written elsewhere?
Perhaps this question is particularly pressing, given the surprising gesture Nephi makes in 1 Nephi 6. That chapter begins with Nephi explaining that he won’t be providing the genealogy he and his father found in the brass plates (which is to be found in his father’s record). It then continues with Nephi explaining further that he’s not terribly concerned to “give a full account of all the things of [his] father” in general (verse 3). To this point, no surprises: Nephi’s been telling us from the beginning (see 1 Nephi 1:16-17) that he would be moving past his father to his own record soon enough (beginning, as we know from other details, in 1 Nephi 10). But then comes the surprise. In the last part of the chapter, Nephi doesn’t explain that he doesn’t want to provide genealogies and details concerning his father because he needs to get on to the story of his own life, but because he needs to get on to “the things of God,” specifically to the task of “persuad[ing] men to come unto the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, and be saved” (verses 3-4). Instead of dismissing the genealogical past generally and then his father’s history in particular in order to talk about the present generation, Nephi gestures even further back in history—to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Here it seems important that Nephi summarizes the entire genealogy in verse 2 by saying: “it sufficeth me to say that we are a descendant of Joseph.” Nephi’s focus is covenantal, patriarchal, biblical, rather than historical, national, futural.
All this is, interestingly, the first mention in Nephi’s record of the patriarchs. (Moses is mentioned in 1 Nephi 4, but that’s the only gesture toward the past that’s appeared in the record before this.) But perhaps it’s just rhetorical. Perhaps Nephi isn’t trying to gesture toward a past-beyond-all-genealogies so much as to the a-historical God who anciently interrupted history by appearing to the patriarchs. Perhaps. But the gesture is unique, and certainly significant in a record that will turn out—especially after Nephi’s vision in 1 Nephi 11-14—to be deeply oriented to the covenant those ancients received from God. It’s as if the reader gets a first hint about what will become central to the small plates record only here, just at the beginning of the second chapter of the original, and just after, narratively speaking, the brass plates containing the stories of the ancients have come into the hands of Nephi’s family. I suspect that all this is important to Nephi’s purposes.
And then comes 1 Nephi 9, where Nephi first mentions the fact that he has written another record, from which the present record is to be distinguished. It’s got to be significant that this discussion of the large plates comes only in the last verses of what Nephi clearly marks as the first half of First Nephi. If the second half—the half dedicated to his own “reign and ministry” begins with 1 Nephi 10, then it’s interesting that Nephi’s way of talking about what he’s doing changes just as he leaves behind the task of abridging his father’s record and turns to the task of drawing out of his own experiences those things he thinks are crucial to his present tasks.
Only one further word on 1 Nephi 9, and then I’ll turn to 1 Nephi 7. I think it’s of some importance that Nephi states in 1 Nephi 9:5 the following: “the Lord hath commanded me to make these plates for a wise purpose in him, which purpose I know not.” We as modern readers are far too quick to read this as a clear reference to Martin Harris’s loss of the Book of Lehi, etc., but I think it’s important to note what this confession of ignorance means for Nephi. In my last post, I showed how Nephi’s “zeal without knowledge” led him to make too-rash assumptions about the brass plates in 1 Nephi 3-4, assumptions he explicitly corrects in 1 Nephi 5. It seems here that wants us to see that he’s learned from those experiences. He’s producing a record here, and he has no idea why. God’s doing something in it. This too is obviously relevant to Nephi’s changing conceptions of his record. He’s taking some guesses, though much more modestly now than he had several decades before when he was dealing with the brass plates.
But on to the narrative!
1 Nephi 7
The narrative of the second return to Jerusalem begins with a clear indication of what motivates it: “after my father, Lehi, had made an end of prophesying concerning his seed, it came to pass that the Lord spake unto him again that it was not meet for him, Lehi, that he should take his family into the wilderness alone, but that his sons should take daughters to wife that they might raise up seed unto the Lord in the land of promise” (1 Nephi 7:1, emphases added). If the brass plates turn Lehi’s prophetic attention to his seed, the next focus is clearly to make the fulfillment of those prophecies possible.
It’s worth noting the clear echo of Genesis 2:18 in the passage just quoted: “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him an help meet for him,” says God; “the Lord spake … that it was not meet for him, Lehi, that he should take his family into the wilderness alone,” says Nephi. This is a nice example of Nephi’s careful work with the biblical text, constantly on display. Obviously, the general context of aiming at marriage, the direct borrowing of “it is not,” and the clear tie with the word “alone” set up the allusion. But then the word “meet” is taken from the second half of God’s statement in Genesis 2 and inserted into the first half, replacing the word “good” (“it’s not good” so I’ll make something “meet” becomes “it’s not meet”)—there’s something to think about in this curious shift/replacement. But then the really interesting thing is that while in the situation Nephi describes, the aim is to provide marriages as they go “into the wilderness,” the aim in the Genesis story is ostensively to provide a marriage for a couple that is meant to stay in a garden. Of course, the irony is that it is precisely the introduction of a couple, rather than the maintenance of just “the man,” that will lead Adam and Eve out of the garden and into the wilderness. Nephi’s narrative borrowing is, I think, quite artful.
The story itself is, of course, quite familiar. I have nothing in particular that I’d like to say about that story, except in order to address the question of why it’s so closely associated, in Nephi’s original chapter breaks, with 1 Nephi 8, the dream of the tree of life. Why does this story serve as the introduction, as it were, to Lehi’s dream? Of course, as a quick read of 1 Nephi 7 reveals, the story of the second return to Jerusalem is focused far less on what happens in Jerusalem than on what happens during the journey back to the valley of Lemuel—the first overt rebellion on the part of Laman and company (a “company” that is bigger now than ever before). It would seem that this rebellion, with all its nuances, is important for Nephi for interpreting the account of the dream of the tree of life. Why or how is that?
First, it should be recognized how different the confrontation between Nephi and his brothers in 1 Nephi 7 is from the confrontation(s) in 1 Nephi 2-4. However unjustified their violence might ultimately have been before, it’s nonetheless true that Laman and Lemuel were provoked to some extent on those occasions: they were facing a terribly dangerous situation, concerning which their younger brother exhibited more unhealthy zeal than healthy fear. In 1 Nephi 7, the rebellion is motivated simply by a desire to return to Jerusalem, and violence erupts only when Nephi gets in the way. Nephi is far more incidental to the violence of 1 Nephi 7 than he was to the violence of 1 Nephi 2-4, though, of course, Nephi gives more airtime to the confrontation in 1 Nephi 7 than he does to the rebellion as such. But even the actual confrontation is about the desire to return to Jerusalem: that’s the point with which Nephi concludes his intervention (see verse 15), and that’s what Laman and friends aim to do after tying Nephi up.
This central focus—the shared desire to return to Jerusalem—is, I think, key to making sense of the dream of the tree of life. When Laman and Lemuel refuse to come to the tree, I suspect Lehi saw in that not their refusal to come to Christ or any such thing—ideas we generate by looking at 1 Nephi 8 through the lens of 1 Nephi 11 and 1 Nephi 15—but their unwillingness to leave Jerusalem to join him in the desert. Obviously, I need to motivate that claim, and I’ll do so in my reading of 1 Nephi 8 below. For the moment, suffice it to say that Laman and his followers are more driven by an attachment to a certain way of life in a certain place than they are by a deliberate rejection of anything like the gospel. That, at any rate, is clear.
But let me turn to 1 Nephi 8.
1 Nephi 8:1-4a
Let me begin with just a few introductory comments, wagered as commentary on the first verses of 1 Nephi 8.
After a brief note about the seeds the family brought with them into the desert (“seeds of fruit,” interestingly, given the theme of the dream to be recounted), Nephi recounts Lehi’s introduction to the dream in the following words:
Behold, I have dreamed a dream—or, in other words, I have seen a vision. And behold, because of the thing which I have seen, I have reason to rejoice in the Lord because of Nephi, and also of Sam, for I have reason to suppose that they, and also many of their seed, will be saved. But behold, Laman and Lemuel, I fear exceedingly because of you. (1 Nephi 8:2-4a)
The focus from the very beginning is family, and nothing but family. What strikes Lehi the most about his dream is what he learns about his family. And he rejoices for what he learns about Nephi and Sam (and their seed!), and fears for what he learns about Laman and Lemuel.
It’s interesting that Lehi here speaks of being “saved.” What does he mean by this term? Should this be understood in a strong soteriological sense—saved from death and hell, etc.? Or does it have a more down-to-earth meaning—saved, say, from the destruction of Jerusalem? I don’t want to make any strong commitments this early in the game, but I’ll be making a very particular case in what follows. I can only hope that I’ve provided enough details to make the reading I’ll offer convincing. We’ll see.
1 Nephi 8:4b-8
Lehi’s vision begins a strange shift from being-outside to being-inside the scene witnessed in the dream. Lehi begins by seeing, as from a distance, a “dark and dreary wilderness,” but after the very first moments of the dream, he sees himself in the same “dark and dreary waste.” The dream thus begins by forcing Lehi out of the relatively comfortable position of the spectator and onto the stage itself, where he existentially engages—at least for a time—with the scene. Here’s the passage:
For behold, methought I saw a dark and dreary wilderness. 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 I followed him, and after I had followed him, I beheld myself, that I was in a dark and dreary waste. And after that 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. (1 Nephi 8:4b-8)
What seems to me most important about this passage is the way that it introduces what will become an ongoing series of allusions to 1 Nephi 1. Note that the shift from outside to inside begins when Lehi sees a man in white who comes to stand before him, speaking to him and bidding him to do something. All this clearly echoes 1 Nephi 1:9-11. Of course, when Lehi followed the bidding of his visitor in 1 Nephi 1, he was “filled with the Spirit of the Lord” (1 Nephi 1:12) and thus eventually led into the angelic chorus to shout praises to God enthroned (see 1 Nephi 1:14-15). Here, on the other hand, following the bidding of his visitor leads him instead into a dark and dreary waste—a situation desperate enough that Lehi soon finds himself pleading for mercy from God.
But perhaps this difference is less an indication that 1 Nephi 1 and 1 Nephi 8 have little to do with each other—I’m going to be showing a whole series of connections between the two texts—than an indication that the connection is complex. Indeed, the man in a white robe who visits Lehi here might well be the parallel of the prophets of 1 Nephi 1:4, the messengers who seem indeed to have led Lehi into a dark and dreary waste, or at least to have led Lehi to see Jerusalem, in its contemporary situation, as a dark and dreary waste for the first time. At any rate, it seems to have been the arrival of the prophets in the first year of Zedekiah’s reign that led Lehi to begin praying on behalf of his people. And we see something similar happening here. It’s as Lehi follows the man in white in 1 Nephi 8 that he finds himself offering up a prayer.
It thus seems to me important to link up Lehi’s aimless wandering in the waste here, culminating in a desperate prayer, with 1 Nephi 1:5: “my father, Lehi, as he went forth [in the desert?], prayed unto the Lord.” Importantly, Lehi’s prayer in 1 Nephi 8 includes an explicit petition for the “tender mercies” of the Lord, to which Nephi makes reference in the last verse of 1 Nephi 1 when he speaks of the deliverance the Lord grants to Lehi—of the Lord’s deliverance of Lehi out of the troubles of Jerusalem.
All this, it seems to me, is crucial for the interpretation of Lehi’s dream. His experience begins with a dark and dreary wilderness or waste, which, I think it’s clear, is an image of Jerusalem in its apostasy—as revealed to Lehi by the prophets. Wandering in that waste, aimlessly, Lehi finds himself quite desperate—specifically, it would seem, about the fate of his people—and so he begins to pray in a clear echo of his prayer in response to the message of the prophets in 1 Nephi 1. And what he asks for is a way out, the tender mercies of the Lord—exactly what Nephi said he received at the end of 1 Nephi 1.
And then comes the response to the prayer.
1 Nephi 8:9-12
Here’s the response to Lehi’s prayer, according to the text:
And it came to pass that, after I had prayed unto the Lord, I beheld a large and spacious field. 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 partook of the fruit thereof, and beheld that it was most sweet, above all that I ever had 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 exceeding great joy. (1 Nephi 8:9-12)
Coming as a clear answer to his prayer, Lehi sees an oasis in the desert of his wanderings. His desperation and confusion are gone in an instant, less at first because he knows the way out of the unfortunate situation than because he is taken by a vision of something divine. The tree serves, it seems to me, a triple function. Continuing the allusions to 1 Nephi 1, the tree might easily be seen as an echo of either the pillar of fire of 1 Nephi 1:6 or the “One” who descends out of heaven to speak with Lehi in 1 Nephi 1:9—if not a kind of weaving of the two visionary experiences into a single image. Further, the tree here maps the dream as a whole onto the experience of exodus from Jerusalem that the family has experienced: wandering in the desert for a time, then finding an oasis in the valley of Lemuel. Finally, the image of the tree finds its place in a much larger mythological matrix, characteristic of most ancient cultures—echoes of which are clearly to be heard in Lehi’s talk of excessive sweetness and whiteness.
Of these three approaches to the text, it is most consistently the last that interpreters pursue. I think it’s important to give attention to the other two approaches as well. The connection between the appearance of the tree and Lehi’s own arrival in the valley of Lemuel is important, but I want to focus on the connection between the tree and Lehi’s earlier visions.
Later in the vision, Lehi will begin to see how difficult it is to get to the tree—in addition to the mists of darkness that shroud the path to the tree, there is a crowd of mockers that quickly lead most successful pilgrims away from the tree they’ve reached with such difficulty. All that Lehi will see later. At this moment in the vision, he simply approaches the tree and eats, apparently unaware of the treacherousness of the path he takes. Lehi’s short journey to the tree—like that of his family members who don’t refuse his invitation in the next verses—is remarkably easy. How is this to be interpreted?
I think it’s significant that once he gets to the tree, Lehi finds something small, round, and white to press to his lips in a gesture not at all unlike that of Isaiah in Isaiah 6. Remember that Isaiah there, in what I argued in my “preliminaries” post is a crucial text for Nephi’s record, has a white stone taken from the altar of incense pressed to his lips, thus giving him to join the seraphic throng in singing and shouting praises to God enthroned. Lehi has something of the same experience here, and it is a clear echo of 1 Nephi 1, where we similarly see Lehi being given to ascend into heaven, through the mediation of an angelic figure (with a book, rather than a stone), so that he can shout praises along with the angels surrounding the throne of God.
This, it seems to me, explains the apparent easiness of Lehi’s way to the tree. In a remarkable dispensation of grace, God simply gives him to read the heavenly book—to taste the heavenly fruit—so that he can speak with the tongue of angels. The visions that launched him on his prophetic journey came as a gift, and it’s a gift he immediately wants to give to his family.
1 Nephi 8:13-18
Lehi’s desire to give the tree’s fruit to his family is duly famous. But the role it plays in the unfolding of Lehi’s dream is almost universally overlooked. It is specifically in looking for his family that Lehi begins to see more of his surroundings, beginning to see the terrain—the difficult terrain—he has just passed through. He first sees “a river of water,” which comes “near the tree” (1 Nephi 8:13), a detail that makes all the clearer that the tree is connected with the valley of Lemuel. At the head of the river he sees Sariah, Sam, and Nephi, and he beckons them to come—which they immediately do “and partake of the fruit also” (1 Nephi 8:16). He then looks for Laman and Lemuel, but when he discovers them and invites them as well, “they would not come … and partake of the fruit” (1 Nephi 8:18). They’re interested, it seems, in neither the valley of Lemuel (preferring to stay in Jerusalem—echoes, here, of 1 Nephi 7) nor the privilege of ascension into the presence of God (“a visionary man,” they’ve complained before).
This is all, I take it, familiar. But again, what readers tend to fail to notice is that it’s specifically the refusal on the part of Laman and Lemuel that expands Lehi’s vision beyond the bounds of his family. It’s just when they refuse to come that he begins to see more, far more, than just the basic surroundings of the tree. He now begins to see not only a much larger stage with many more props, but whole multitudes of people begin to appear in the scene.
This is, I think, most important. Laman and Lemuel, in their refusal, focus Lehi on questions that outstrip his immediate family—unless, of course, the multitudes are meant to be the children of Lehi’s children. I don’t think such an interpretation is an impossibility—far from it—but I want here to explore another interpretive possibility. But I’ll come to that in a moment, since the crowds are only introduced a few verses later anyway. For the moment, it’s important only to recognize that it’s Laman and Lemuel who draw Lehi’s attention to the way others, apparently non-familial others, relate to the fruit he’s tasted in the wake of listening to the prophets.
1 Nephi 8:19-24
The expanded vision turns on two images, closely associated: the famous iron rod, and the path that runs alongside it. Here’s how the two images are introduced, immediately after Laman and Lemuel refuse to come to the tree:
And I beheld a rod of iron, and it extended along the bank of the river and led to the tree by which I stood. And I also beheld a straight and narrow path, which came along by the rod of iron, even to the tree by which I stood. And it also led by the head of the fountain, unto a large and spacious field, as if it had been a world. (1 Nephi 8:19-20)
Leaving aside for the moment the fountain and the field, we have a rod, and an accompanying path, running alongside the rod. These two things have to be kept distinct, as the following verses make clear:
And I saw numberless concourses of people, many of whom were pressing forward that they might obtain the path which led unto the tree by which I stood. And it came to pass that they did come forth and commenced in the path which led to the tree. And it came to pass that there arose a mist of darkness, yea, even an exceeding great mist of darkness, insomuch that they which had commenced in the path did lose their way, and they wandered off and were lost. And it came to pass that I beheld others pressing forward. And they came forth and caught hold of the end of the rod of iron. And they did press forward through the mists of darkness, clinging to the rod of iron, even until they did come forth and partook of the fruit of the tree. (1 Nephi 8:21-24)
It’s customary here to distinguish between those who try to get to the tree without the rod and those who actually get to the tree because they hold to the rod. The former group can’t get through the mists of darkness because they rely on sight alone, while the latter group gets through because they rely on something in addition to sight. This is all well and good, but I think it’s important to note that the first group is actually characterized, according to the words Nephi attributes to Lehi, by their focus on the path, while the second group is characterized by their focus on the rod. It seems to me that the point is less that one group ignores the rod while the other doesn’t, than that one group seeks the path (and the path alone), the other the rod (with the path being a kind of side effect of holding to the rod).
If we look at this moment of Lehi’s vision through Nephi’s later comments—according to which the rod is the word of God, which we usually interpret as the scriptures—there’s a really nice little lesson in here. The pathway to the celestial kingdom is not self-sufficient; it only serves if one is quite as attentive to the scriptures as to the path itself. Still better, one might conclude that the path is only the worn ground where those clinging to the scriptures have trod; it’s nothing in itself. Thus, to seek the path alone—to attempt just to “live a good life” or just to “serve others” or just to “do what we’re expected,” etc.—is to run into major difficulties. It’s only those who are buried in scripture who actually make it to eternal life, because they alone can feel their way through the mystifying darkness of the philosophies of men, etc.
I like this little lesson for a lot of reasons, but I want to stick to Lehi’s vision on its own terms, not to turn too quickly to what Nephi has to say about the dream. To be a bit more minimalist, then: the crucial point is just to subordinate the path to the rod. It’s the rod that leads to the tree, and the path is more incidental than anything. To seek the path is to set oneself up for disaster, because it leads through mists of darkness before it arrives at the tree. One might thus say that the path is itself a kind of temptation, a distraction, a simulacrum of the way to the tree. Whatever Lehi might have understood by the rod—and I suspect, given all we’ve said here, that he would have taken it to be the word of the prophets showing up in Jerusalem—it’s the thing to be clung to.
So who are all these people, whether seeking the path or clinging to the rod? It seems best to me to assume that Lehi would have taken them to be the multitudes of people in Jerusalem, divisible into groups according to their distinct responses to the message of the prophets of destruction. Some stick to the way worn by those who have followed the prophets, but that’s not enough in such dark times. Others cling to the words of the prophets themselves, and they find their way to the tree. These find their way out of the confusions of apostate Jerusalem, arriving, as it were, at the valley of Lemuel as well, at a safe distance from the dangers of the city.
At any rate, it’s important to note another allusion to 1 Nephi 1. The multitudes Lehi mentions are described as “numberless concourses of people,” a clear echo of the “numberless concourses of angels” in 1 Nephi 1:8. Parallel to the numberless concourses of angels surrounding God enthroned—surrounding the tree, perhaps—are the numberless concourses of people seeking that heavenly scene. The rod and its associated path extend from the concourses below to the concourses above, through the veil—the mists of darkness—and into the very presence of God. Jerusalem gropes in darkness, and some few find the rod that leads to the light.
1 Nephi 8:25-28
Some few find the rod that leads to the light, yes, but still fewer seem to be happy with what they find in the light. The next sequence of the vision—the saddest by far—describes how those who actually do make it through the mists of darkness often enough fall away even then. Here’s the unfortunate passage concerning their fate:
And after that they had partook of the fruit of the tree, they did cast their eyes about as if they were ashamed. And I also cast my eyes around about and beheld on the other side of the river of water a great and spacious building. And it stood as it were in the air, high about the earth, and it was filled with people—both old and young, both male and female—and their manner of dress was exceeding fine. And they were in the attitude of mocking and pointing their fingers towards those which had came up and were partaking of the fruit. And after that they had tasted of the fruit, they were ashamed because of those that were a scoffing at them, and they fell away into forbidden paths and were lost. (1 Nephi 8:25-28)
Even those who do cling to the rod, and so arrive at the tree and even partake, aren’t immune. They fight a different foe—not the mystifying mists of darkness, but the mockery of a crowd of wealthy folks in “a great and spacious building.” Though I’m not aware of anyone having offered this interpretation, it seems more than obvious to me: the building in question is the Jerusalem temple. Jeremiah had for years, by this point, been profoundly criticizing the institution of the temple, in particular criticizing the blind faith the people had in it—their conviction that, because they had a temple, Babylon could never destroy the city. It would certainly be fitting that the temple would be filled with the wealthy, and that it was precisely the wealthy establishment who would spend their time mocking those who attain the tree. They mock those who claim to have seen through the veil without having been inside the temple, as they mock those who would leave Jerusalem for the desert to escape from a destruction decreed by “visionary men.”
At any rate, it’s important that the building in question stands “high above the earth,” but rather than being firmly settled on Mount Zion, it’s “in the air,” without foundation. Apostate trust in a temple that cannot provide security for a people abandoning its God is entirely unfounded. But that, it seems, is what is most likely to draw the faithful away from what they’ve found in following the prophets. Lehi’s dream stages the the-prophets-versus-the-temple-cult debate that occupies a central place in the Book of Jeremiah perfectly—which is not much of a surprise, given that Lehi had just been reading “many prophecies which have been spoken by the mouth of Jeremiah” (1 Nephi 5:13).
For Latter-day Saints acquainted with the sorts of covenants one makes in the temple, the association of the temple with wealth and excess, not to mention mockery and loud laughter, should be a bit shocking. I suspect the author of the dream—God, that is—meant it to be a bit shocking, though it was probably also quite accurate. I can only hope it’s not accurate today.
At this point, though, Nephi takes over from his father’s words in order to “be short in writing.”
1 Nephi 8:29-35
The last—and, more or less, shortest—sequence of the dream presents two other groups of people. (It’s not been uncommon to compare the four groups presented on the whole as parallel to the four groups of planted seeds in the parable of the sower. I won’t pursue that here, but it’s an interesting exercise to compare the parable with this dream.) Here again it seems the point is principally to compare two groups. Before it was a question of comparing those looking for the path with those clinging to the rod, though in the end both of those groups ended up wandering off, due to the influence of the mocking folks in the building. Now it’s a question of comparing those who “press their way forward, continually holding fast to the rod of iron, until they came forth and fell down and partook of the fruit of the tree” (1 Nephi 8:30) with those who were merely “pressing their way towards that great and spacious building” (1 Nephi 8:31).
As helpful as it might be to look at all this in terms of four distinct groups—those who seek the path, those who cling to the rod but are shamed at the tree, those who hold to the rod and fall down at the tree, and those who seek the great and spacious building—it might actually be better to see this summary comparison less as an addition of two to two and more or a gathering of the first two groups (path and rod) under one heading (those pressing their way to the building) and setting that off from a new group (those pressing their way to the tree), so that we ultimately have, not four groups, but three, two of them under one heading. This is seems to me the best interpretation at the moment, given especially the fact that Nephi is trying here to be “short in writing” (1 Nephi 8:30). I suspect that he’s trying to group together the two previously introduced sets of people into a single “unfaithful” group, all of whom ultimately end up pressing their way toward the building, and then setting this over against a single “faithful” group, those who eventually fall down at the tree.
What divides these two master groups, if I might call them that, is a specific relationship: the one group “did point the finger of scorn” at the other (1 Nephi 8:33). This is all the more striking on the triple (rather than quadruple) reading I’m offering here, since it would mean that those who had once eaten of the fruit but been shamed were eventually willing to try to shame others. (Verse 34 seems to confirm this reading.)
I want to address verses 34-35 somewhat separately from the others I’m here considering, but first I’d like to add just a word about some of the words used in verses 29-33. I think it’s important that Royal Skousen’s work on the manuscripts of the Book of Mormon has revealed that “feeling” in verse 31 is actually an error, and that the word was originally pressing. Why is that important? It sets up the direct parallel between the two groups being described in this part of the chapter: the one group “did press their way forward” along the iron rod, while the other was “pressing their way towards that great and spacious building.” As beautiful as the image of “feeling their way” might have been, the direct parallel is helpful in a number of ways.
One other word deserves at least brief attention as well. I think it may be of real significance that those who get to and stay at the tree in verse 30 are described as “continually holding fast to the rod of iron,” whereas those who had come to the tree before but then fell away were described as “clinging to the rod of iron.” Is there something to learn from the difference between holding fast and clinging? Is there something symptomatic about clinging, something tellingly desperate? Is there something more clearly faithful about holding fast, something tellingly confident?
But let me get on to verses 34-35. Here, after only a few words of summary, Nephi returns to his father’s direct words:
Thus is the words of my father, for as many as heeded them had fallen away. And Laman and Lemuel partook not of the fruit, saith my father.
Nephi comes back to his father’s voice in order to provide us with two statements: (1) “as many as heeded [the mockers in the building] had fallen away”; (2) “Laman and Lemuel partook not of the fruit.” The former, as I’ve already suggested, is interpretively important, since it seems to make clear that the group that seeks out the building is not to be sharply distinguished from the two groups introduced earlier in the dream. But the latter statement, concerning Laman and Lemuel, plays a crucial role in the account of the dream. It’s what brings attention back from the multitudes to Lehi’s family in particular. (Along, at least in Nephi’s summary words, with the “me” and “we” of verse 33.)
It perhaps becomes clear only here exactly what’s at stake in the earlier shift from Laman and Lemuel to the multitudes. The point, it seems, is to associate Laman and Lemuel directly with the masses in Jerusalem. But here at the end of the expansion, as the vision closes back in on itself and returns to its original familial focus, Laman and Lemuel are described only as having not partaken of the fruit—not, at least explicitly, as having found their way into the building, but also not as drowning in the depths of the fountain or being lost in strange roads, etc.
What’s to be made of the lack of specificity here? It seems to me that there are a couple of obvious possible interpretations. Perhaps Lehi saw a specific fate for Laman and Lemuel but he himself refused to spell out it, hoping that whatever he had seen wouldn’t actually come about. Or perhaps Lehi saw a specific fate and did recount it by way of warning, but Nephi leaves it out of his summary, for reasons of delicacy perhaps. Or perhaps Lehi—and this, I think, is the really intriguing possibility—didn’t see a specific fate for Laman and Lemuel. Perhaps all he noted was that, despite all the activity of the multitudes, Laman and Lemuel remained undecided, standing at “the head of the river” in a state of inaction. Perhaps Lehi, in a word, was himself left wondering which direction Laman and Lemuel might go.
Such, at any rate, would be a very powerful way for the vision to have closed. Though Lehi knew what would become of Sariah and their youngest sons, and though Lehi knew what would become of the Jerusalem masses more generally, he had no idea what Laman and Lemuel would decide. That, at any rate, might well explain the intensity of the last verses of the chapter, which I’ll take up now, just briefly.
1 Nephi 8:36-38
The last three verses of 1 Nephi 8 find Lehi attempting, in the wake of his dream, to convert Laman and Lemuel—perhaps, given the interpretation I’ve just wagered, because it remained unclear which direction Laman and Lemuel might go. At any rate, “he did exhort them then with all the feeling of a tender parent that they would hearken to his words, in that perhaps the Lord would be merciful to them and not cast them off” (1 Nephi 8:37).
A last word on 1 Nephi 8, then. It’s important, I think, that Nephi concludes the chapter with this note: “And after that he [Lehi] had preached unto them [Laman and Lemuel] and also prophesied unto them many things, he bade them to keep the commandments of the Lord. And he did cease speaking unto them” (1 Nephi 8:38, emphasis added). Here Nephi skips over what seems to have been a pretty significant occasion. Lehi seems not simply to have recounted his dream to his family. He seems rather to have recounted his dream in order to launch into a still more important prophetic sermon, one directed specifically to Laman and Lemuel. In other words, this briefest of notes at the end of chapter 8 suggests that Lehi might actually have used the dream as a kind of justificatory preface to a much more expansive sermon, laced with prophecies, that was the real subject of his concern. And those prophecies, it seems, were ones he wanted Laman and Lemuel especially to hear—making the apparent open-endedness of the dream concerning Laman and Lemuel a good segue.
Why is this important, though? Because 1 Nephi 10 gives us an outline of those prophecies. The relationship between 1 Nephi 8 and 1 Nephi 10 deserves close attention, attention it almost never receives. I’ll need to say a bit about this.
1 Nephi 10
I said before that I’d put off discussion of 1 Nephi 11 and 1 Nephi 15 until my next post. I want, nonetheless, to start into the second “half” of First Nephi with a few words about 1 Nephi 10, particularly as it relates to 1 Nephi 8. This is, I think, crucial to the interpretation of everything related to Lehi’s dream and Nephi’s subsequent vision. I’ll see if I can’t make this clear.
I’ve already mentioned a couple of times (in this post, in my previous post, in my “preliminaries” post, etc.) that First Nephi divides into two halves: 1 Nephi 1-9, the abridgement of Lehi’s record, and 1 Nephi 10-22, the (beginning of the) record of Nephi’s own experiences. That the dividing line is to be drawn specifically there between chapters 9 and 10 is quite clear for a whole set of reasons I won’t go into, but it’s important that Nephi offers in the first verse of chapter 10 both a clear transition and a kind of step backward:
And now I, Nephi, proceed to give an account upon these plates of my proceedings and my reign and ministry. Wherefore, to proceed with mine account, I must speak somewhat of the things of my father, and also of my brethren.
This is a complex gesture. Nephi clearly marks the break that leads him from part one to part two of First Nephi. But he takes, in addition to two steps forward, one step back. Of course, he doesn’t end up dwelling very long on “the things of [his] father,” etc., only what is now chapter 10. But chapter 10 is of consummate importance.
1 Nephi 10 records—wait for it!—the prophecies skipped over at the end of 1 Nephi 8. If 1 Nephi 8 indicates, as I’ve suggested, that Lehi actually only used his dream to introduce a much longer and more crucial prophetic sermon, it’s only in 1 Nephi 10 that we see the details of that sermon. It comes only in outline, but here we begin to see how much more expansive Lehi’s understanding supposedly was than anything previous in Nephi’s record could suggest. The details provided in 1 Nephi 10 are, frankly, a bit startling, and it gives us to see that Lehi had already begun working out a detailed Christology, as well as the outline of what would become Nephi’s own covenantal theology. All this is of real importance.
But why does Nephi bother to outline the sermon? He was content in chapter 8 just to mention that Lehi “prophesied … many things.” Why provide the details at all, let alone now that the transition has been made from abridgement of Lehi’s record to Nephi’s own proceedings?
1 Nephi 10:17 seems to provide the beginnings of an answer to that question:
And it came to pass that after I, Nephi, having heard all the words of my father concerning the things which he saw in a vision [1 Nephi 8], and also the things which he spake by the power of the Holy Ghost [1 Nephi 10], … I, Nephi, was desirous also that I might see and hear and know of these things by the power of the Holy Ghost ….
Here Nephi explicitly ties his own desires to witness the things of God not only to Lehi’s dream but also to Lehi’s subsequent prophetic sermonizing. And, significantly, if there’s a strong difference between what Lehi sees in his dream and what Nephi sees in his subsequent vision, it’s that Nephi sees something like the symbolic content of the dream but expansively woven into the tapestry of the historical content of the prophecies. Indeed, what Nephi spends most of 1 Nephi 11-14 talking about is not trees, rods, and buildings; he spends the bulk of it talking about the covenantal history of Israel, and that’s the topic of 1 Nephi 10, not of 1 Nephi 8.
In short, then, 1 Nephi 10 appears here because it nicely introduces what really got Nephi thinking. It was less a handful of images drawn from a symbolic dream—a dream largely focused on the Jerusalem situation alone—that led Nephi to seek out his vision than a prophetic sermon that outlined a massive covenantal theology.
I offer, then, a few notes on 1 Nephi 10.
1 Nephi 10:2-14
The bulk of 1 Nephi 10 is the outline of Lehi’s sermon. It comes in three parts:
(1) Return of Jews to Jerusalem and arrival of the Messiah (verses 2-6).
(2) The prophet who would prepare the way before the Messiah (verses 7-10).
(3) The entanglement of Israel and the Gentiles after the Messiah (verses 11-14).
Obviously, a great deal can be said about each of these. I’ll offer just a brief commentary.
The first sequence constitutes the Book of Mormon’s first—and therefore earliest—Christology. The Messiah, of course, was introduced as early as 1 Nephi 1, but it’s only here that there is talk of “a Savior of the world” (verse 4) or a “Redeemer of the world” (verse 5). This global focus is of real importance, especially when verse 6 goes on to say that “all mankind was in a lost and in a fallen state, and ever would be, save they should rely on this Redeemer.” What to this point in Nephi’s record would seem to be an entirely Israelite—if not strictly Jewish—affair now becomes an absolutely universal gospel. And, quite strikingly, the very “prophets” are given a role in promulgating specifically this universal gospel. Rather than being messengers sent to the people of the Law in order to summon them to the right sort of observance of that Law, they are presented as the witnesses of “these things concerning this Messiah” (verse 5). I’m convinced that a great deal of study should be dedicated to these few verses, though here I’m offering only an indication of the directions study might go.
The second sequence introduces what every modern reader recognizes as John the Baptist into the story. Fully four verses are dedicated to him in what is already a very sketchy outline of a sermon—and Nephi even says: “much spake my father concerning this thing” (verse 8). It thus appears that the Baptist was a major focus of Lehi’s sermon. This is, I think, of great interpretive importance for Nephi’s record. I won’t be dealing with 1 Nephi 11 until my next post, but there I’ll make what I believe is a conclusive argument that Nephi’s famous mention of the “condescension of God” is focused not on the birth of Jesus, but on His baptism. And this is, I think, strongly confirmed when Nephi comes back to that baptismal scene in his Christological sermon of sorts in 2 Nephi 31-32. There is, for Nephi, something quite privileged about the scene of Jesus’ baptism, and this is a point that deserves far more attention. It’s also, when it’s introduced in Lehi’s sermon in 1 Nephi 10, the occasion for the first clear allusion to Isaiah in the writings of Nephi: verse 8 clearly draws on Isaiah 40:3, though it does so by drawing on the New Testament renderings of that passage.
The third sequence, finally, is the shortest of short sketches of what will become the ultimate focus of Nephi’s writings. Interestingly, both of the first two sequences of Nephi’s summary of Lehi’s prophetic sermon will be the focus only of 1 Nephi 11, while the third sequence will be the focus of the whole of 1 Nephi 11-14 (and beyond—that is, into the material Nephi says he can’t write for his readers). Though the third sequence is only a couple of verses long, it provides the first glimpse of what will be Nephi’s most sustained interest. I won’t work through the details here, since I’ll be spending the rest of my posts on Nephi’s record trying to make sense of these ideas. But it would be well worth some serious effort to try to determine what Nephi understood his father to be teaching, since it was this that set his deepest theological interests in motion—as well as what would eventually create his own commitments to the writings of Isaiah.
I think I’ll let this too-brief commentary suffice for the moment. Now just a word concerning the latter part of 1 Nephi 10.
1 Nephi 10:17-22
The last part of 1 Nephi 10 is unmistakably meant to serve as a transition from the summary of Lehi’s sermonizing to the event of Nephi’s own visionary experience. It’s not, however, a narrative transition—that comes in the first verse of 1 Nephi 11. What we have in the last part of 1 Nephi 10, rather, is a kind of theoretical explanation of why Nephi could have expected to receive an answer to his petition—as well, explicitly, as a theoretical explanation of why every reader of Nephi’s record should pursue and expect to receive the same.
The work of theoretical explanation begins from the first verse of the transition, so forcefully, in fact, that it continually interrupts that verse, which otherwise would read as a short word of narrative transition:
And it came to pass that, after I, Nephi, having heard all the words of my father concerning the things which he saw in a vision, and also the things which he spake by the power of the Holy Ghost—which power he received by faith on the Son of God (and the Son of God was the Messiah which should come)—and it came to pass that I, Nephi, was desirous also that I might see and hear and know of these things by the power of the Holy Ghost—which is the gift of God unto all those who diligently seek him, as well in times of old as in the time that he should manifest himself unto the children of men. (1 Nephi 10:17)
What follows is a theological statement of universal accessibility to the vision Nephi will go on to have:
For he [God] is the same yesterday and today and forever—and the way is prepared for all men from the foundation of the world, if it so be that they repent and come unto him. For he that diligently seeketh shall find, and the mysteries of God shall be unfolded to them by the power of the Holy Ghost—as well in this time as in times of old, and as well in times of old as in times to come. Wherefore, the course of the Lord is one eternal round. (1 Nephi 10:18-19)
This, it seems, is why Nephi could ask for and then have given him the same vision—or, as we’ll see, something not unlike the vision—Lehi had experienced. There is a single pathway to that visionary experience, and there is no reason it can’t be had by all. The course of the Lord, after all, is one eternal round.
Given that that’s the case, Nephi can conclude this brief, theological aside with a dire warning:
Therefore, remember, O man: for all thy doings, thou shalt be brought into judgment. Wherefore, if ye have sought to do wickedly in the days of your probation, then ye are found unclean before the judgment seat of God—and no unclean thing can dwell with God. Wherefore y must be cast off forever. And the Holy Ghost giveth authority that I should speak these things, and deny them not. (1 Nephi 10:20-22)
This warning is serious, and I think we should take it seriously. Its full weight, however, can’t really be experienced, I think, until we come to 1 Nephi 15, which we’ll do in my next post.
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