1 Nephi 8, Lehi’s Vision of the Tree of Life
1 Nephi 8
These chapters record Nephi’s account of Lehi’s vision. The tree of life device obviously had great meaning to those schooled in the way of the Jews. This explains why Laman and Lemuel were at once confused and then so easily answered when they asked about the interpretation of the vision seen by their father of a tree:
And it came to pass that they did speak unto me again, saying: What meaneth this thing which our father saw in a dream? What meaneth the tree which he saw? And I said unto them: It was a representation of the tree of life.1
The the tree of life was a device familiar to the Jewish people. There are many references to the tree in scriptures found in the both the Old Testament and the New Testament. 2The tree of life is, of course, familiar to members of the Church today. But members today likely to accept a facile view of the dream, like those depicted in the adjoining figures.
These figures are from the LDS website, which has a section on teaching Lehi’s vision and uses these illustrations as a sample of a simple illustration to be drawn on a chalk or whiteboard. The Primary manual’s lesson on the vision, Primary 4, Book of Mormon 4, uses a painting the adjoining painting with a schematic to identify five main elements and what they mean. The explanation of the main elements in the Primary books, also, has a table showing the explanation of the symbolic elements.
All of these illustrations depict the rod of iron as a banister in a straight line. Thus, the conception of the rod of iron as a banister is established, set may be a better word, early in the a child’s study of the scriptures, so this bias, a confirmation bias, in favor of the picture is difficult—almost impossible—to overcome.
The most obvious problem with this straight-line banister and path is that it illustrates the rod of iron and the path as straight rather than strait. Strait is the word used to describe this path in the scriptures, and strait does not describe a physical attribute. Moreover, strait is part of an hendiadys, straight and narrow, so attributing physical characteristics to this metaphorical device described by words that do not connote something physical is wrong.
The bias in favor of a physical description that is first instilled in a child is a tribute to the effectiveness of illustrations. The video produced by the Church in 2019 uses this same portrayal of the rod of iron as a banister in a straight line.3
But the Church-produced video is schizoid. It shows the rod of iron in physical terms as a straight banister, but it depicts the dram as a dream, not reality. Thus, one who reads the story, views the pictures, or views the video must recognize that the pictures or the video is not real, but the depiction of the rod as this straight thing grasped by Lehi is too concrete, leaving the reader with the sense that it is real. The symbols are vehicles that carries messages.
Unfortunately, the full import of the vision is overshadowed by the images in the mind. Thus, the typical reader of the Book of Mormon does not understand the tenor of the metaphors in Lehi’s vision. Nor does the typical reader appreciate the currency of these metaphors among Lehi and his family at the time of their emigration. A full appreciation of the messages of Lehi’s dream requires one to understand the symbols as used in the Old Testament.
The most important symbol, perhaps, is the rod of iron. Rods were an important, well-understood part of the literary tradition of the Jews. The first use of the word rods or rod in the Old Testament involves Jacob making rods from poplar, hazelnut and chestnut trees.4Moses and Aaron each had a rod that figures prominently in their interaction with Pharaoh before the Exodus.5The Lord made it clear that a man’s rod was not to be used to hit someone.6Aaron’s rod was chosen from the among the rods of the other tribal leaders after a rebellion:
And the Lord spake unto Moses, saying, Speak unto the children of Israel, and take of every one of them a rod according to the house of their fathers, of all their princes according to the house of their fathers twelve rods: write thou every man’s name upon his rod. And thou shalt write Aaron’s name upon the rod of Levi: for one rod shall be for the head of the house of their fathers. And thou shalt lay them up in the tabernacle of the congregation before the testimony, where I will meet with you. And it shall come to pass, that the man’s rod, whom I shall choose, shall blossom: and I will make to cease from me the murmurings of the children of Israel, whereby they murmur against you.
And Moses spake unto the children of Israel, and every one of their princes gave him a rod apiece, for each prince one, according to their fathers’ houses, even twelve rods: and the rod of Aaron was among their rods. And Moses laid up the rods before the Lord in the tabernacle of witness.
And it came to pass, that on the morrow Moses went into the tabernacle of witness; and, behold, the rod of Aaron for the house of Levi was budded, and brought forth buds, and bloomed blossoms, and yielded almonds. And Moses brought out all the rods from before the Lord unto all the children of Israel: and they looked, and took every man his rod.
And the Lord said unto Moses, Bring Aaron’s rod again before the testimony,7to be kept for a token against the rebels; and thou shalt quite take away their murmurings from me, that they die not.
And Moses did so: as the Lord commanded him, so did he.
And the children of Israel spake unto Moses, saying, Behold, we die, we perish, we all perish. Whosoever cometh any thing near unto the tabernacle of the Lord shall die: shall we be consumed with dying?8
The strength of an individual leader is denoted by the characterization of the his rod or staff of leadership along a spectrum from iron to a splintering reed.9A noted commentator says the “symbolic teaching [is] plain. . . . ‘rods’ was a ruler’s staff, the emblem of a tribe and its government.”10
Rod is used as a metonym, as well. And this metonym can be used figuratively. For example,
he shall smite the earth with the rod of his mouth,
and with the breath of his lips shall he slay the wicked.11
Considering the figurative use of rod in bible, the Book of Mormon and the Doctrine and Covenants, it is, perhaps, wrong to think of the rod of iron in Lehi’s and Nephi’s vision as a banister because it is nothing like the rod symbolic of leadership or the words of a leader. It is better to consider the rod of iron, which Nephi says is the word of God,14as something that is always available to those who want it as they pass on their particular paths through life. It is something extended or available or proffered to all as they walk their particular paths through life.
The idea of a proffer adds sense to verses that otherwise make the banister concept plain to those who think the banister-like portrayals are good representations of the rod of iron.
And it came to pass that I was desirous that Laman and Lemuel should come and partake of the fruit also; wherefore, I cast mine eyes towards the head of the river, that perhaps I might see them. And it came to pass that I saw them, but they would not come unto me and partake of the fruit. 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 strait 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.15
Verses nineteen and twenty of the foregoing can and ought to be reformatted to make more sense of the adjective phrases:
The adjective phrases describing the rod of iron fit the bias of those wanting to confirm that the rod is banister, because it “extended along the bank of the river and led to the tree of life.” So these advocates do two things, (1) ignore the consistent use of this metaphor, as shown above, as the staff of leadership or symbol of a person and (2) limit the meaning of extended.
Extended is better understood to be like an extended hand (another metaphor) or extended help (less figurative) or the extended/proffered word of the Lord (the tenor of these figures of speech) available to those striving to return to the presence of our Father.16
But, perhaps, the most important thing denoted by this word is a synonym for it, communicated. One could say, “A warm welcome was extended” or, what is the same, “A warm welcome was communicated.” Thus, the meaning of extended along can be better understood if it understood to mean communicated along.
The idea of communication along one’s path of return is supported by an extended-hand metaphor for the help extended all along one’s path. This metaphor finds support in the Ezekiel mural shown in the nearby image.
The heavenly-helping-hand motif is shown in one of the frescoes excavated in the 1920s at Dura-Europos, Syria.17The archeological site included of what appears to have been a Jewish Synagogue dating from the early to mid-third century ad includes one portraying Ezekiel. It depicts his life symbolically, complete with a tree of life with and without fruit on a mountain, a river, a falling-down building, the resurrection, and Ezekiel’s beheading, the traditional manner of his death.18Considering the fact that rod is used as a metonym for an individual and is described by Nephi as the word of God, the Ezekiel mural more accurately portrays what is meant by the rod of iron in Lehi’s vision. The word of the Lord reaching down to people during the paths of their lives and the end achieved by the individual who takes hold of the end of word of the Lord, end meaning where the word leads.
The idea that something is communicated along—extended along—one’s path to a heavenly reward makes the Ezekiel mural a better representation of what was seen by Lehi in his tree-of-life vision. The mural shows Ezekiel walking along a path with the helping hand of the Lord’s word communicated—extended—along Ezekiel’s path to the resurrection. Nephi says rod of iron means the word of the Lord,19so thinking of His word as something communicated or extended all along the path of those walking to His presence makes the best sense of the tenor of this metaphor. The thing that leads one to the end being sought, the tree of life, is the word of God;20put another way, one who adopts the word of God as his guide pursues a strait and narrow path—one bounded by the word of God—throughout life.
Indeed, the strait and narrow path an individual follows is not the strait and narrow path nor is it a straight and narrow path. The article adjective before the word strait is a, not the, “I also beheld a strait and narrow path.”21A path implies one among many, so a path for one is not necessarily the same for another. And this path is not described by the word straight as it is depicted in artwork. The word strait does not describe a physical attribute like straight does; rather, strait describes non-physical restrictions, exactness, definition. Since strait and narrow is an hendiadys, the two words combine to give non-physical attributes to this metaphor.22 It makes sense that the Lord’s word is extended all along any and every individual’s path–even if it is a winding path–wherever the individual is, if the individual will take hold of the end to which the word of the Lord leads.
But, say those with bias and fixation on a literal meaning they attach to the metaphor, there has to be an end to which the traveler grabs and follows, so it must be a banister that has a beginning, the end that one grabs. Nice, but does one grab the beginning of the rod or the end? And what about the end of this banister, the end that is not the beginning? One who grabs something that leads somewhere grabs the destination, as well. But end in this sentence is, as just shown, an amphibology if one is thinking there is some physical object to be grasped as opposed to following the word of the Lord to the end sought by one who follows the word of the Lord. Moreover, the multitudes pressing toward the tree “did press their way forward,”23which means, apparently, their individual ways because it is hard to imagine a multitude pressing forward in single file on one just one trail. Indeed, But this focus on the vehicle rather the tenor of this metaphor is misplaced.
Mormon’s view of the iron rod is elucidating. Writing about the ups and downs of the Nephites in the years before Christ, circa 45–40 BC, Mormon says that laying hold of the rod of iron, the metonym for the word of the Lord, will “land their souls . . . at the right hand of God in the kingdom of heaven.”24
Thus we may see that the Lord is merciful unto all who will, in the sincerity of their hearts, call upon his holy name. Yea, thus we see that the gate of heaven is open unto all, even to those who will believe on the name of Jesus Christ, who is the Son of God. Yea, we see that whosoever will may lay hold upon the word of God, which is quick and powerful, which shall divide asunder all the cunning and the snares and the wiles of the devil, and lead the man of Christ in a strait and narrow course across that everlasting gulf of misery which is prepared to engulf the wicked—And land their souls, yea, their immortal souls, at the right hand of God in the kingdom of heaven, to sit down with Abraham, and Isaac, and with Jacob, and with all our holy fathers, to go no more out.25
The foregoing quote does not use the term rod of iron, but it uses the synonym, word of God. Rod of iron as used in Lehi’s dream is the availability of the word of Lord extended along the path any particular individual takes on his returning way.
The dream, perhaps, would be different today. The rod of iron, perhaps, would and should be more appropriately visualized as a media broadcast of the word of the Lord extended over the widest geographical or digital area, so it extends or is communicated wherever each individual is and can, therefore, lead the individual to the tree if they will take hold to the word of the Lord: listen. The soldier can tune in. The religious leader can tune in. The farmer can tune in. The steelworker can tune in. The builder can tune in. The explorer can tune in. Those in poverty can tune in. The wealthy can tune in. National leaders can tune in. The husband can tune in. The wife can tune in. Single men and women can tune in. A child can tune in. The broadcast is extended over all the circumstances of individual lives so that, if they choose, all may tune in.
Mormon’s allusions and the tenor of the metaphors among the Jews when Lehi and his family emigrated militate in favor of a pictograph representing Lehi’s vision without the banister consistently portraying Lehi’s vision. A better representation, perhaps, would be one that shows the helping hand of the Lord along ones path through life as in the mural found at Dura Europas.
Like obliviousness to the tenor of the rod metaphor, few parse the meaning of the tree in Lehi’s vision. Nephi says it is a representation of the love of God,26so his words are the rote explanation of this figure. Love of God, however, leaves the tenor of this vehicle undefined and pretermits the use of tree as a symbol for a group of people. Indeed, the figurative use of rod is closely associated with a tree because a rod or staff was made from a tree; hence, the metonymic use of rod for a leader because the rod or part of the tree is taken from among the group led by the leader. a tree’s branches refer to people or individuals among a people.
Like the rod—whether of iron, tree, reed or vine—trees are used variously in the Old Testament to describe the strength of the people. For example, in Ezekiel 15 Jerusalem’s status–the status of the people at Jerusalem— was downgraded from a tree, any tree, to a useless vine, fit only for the fire, before the Diaspora. Ezekiel 17, which is part of a larger chiasmus, presents an allegory with an explanation. The cedar tree is David’s dynasty. The top or highest branch of the cedar represents the king of the time, Jehoiachin. The young twigs represents the leaders of Jerusalem, and Zedekiah’s reign resulted in a “vine of low stature.”
The symbolic use of trees continues in the New Testament.27The tree metaphor in the Old and New Testaments is a group of people. Those pressing forward toward Lehi’s tree of life were gathering with other righteous individuals also seeking the blessings of eternity. Lehi hoped he could assemble his family with this tree of life, these people seeking eternal life.
The Book of Mormon uses other trees as well. An olive tree is used as the house of Israel.
Behold, I say unto you, that the house of Israel was compared unto an olive-tree [sic], by the Spirit of the Lord which was in our father; and behold are we not broken off from the house of Israel, and are we not a branch of the house of Israel?28
Jacob reinforces the trope when he admonishes his people bring forth good fruit to escape being “hewn down and cast into the fire.”
Wherefore, my beloved brethren, I beseech of you in words of soberness that ye would repent, and come with full purpose of heart, and cleave unto God as he cleaveth unto you. And while his arm of mercy is extended towards you in the light of the day, harden not your hearts. Yea, today, if ye will hear his voice, harden not your hearts; for why will ye die? For behold, after ye have been nourished by the good word of God all the day long, will ye bring forth evil fruit, that ye must be hewn down and cast into the fire?29
The tree in Lehi’s vision, then, represents a collection of people. The thing that unites this people is their love of God. So it is altogether appropriate for Nephi to say that the tree represents the love of God.
Lehi describes the fruit of this tree or, nonfiguratively, the blessings that come from the association with a group that shares a love of the Lord. The blessing is, figuratively speaking, the end point—returning to live with the Father and the Son—that those who take hold of the take hold of the Lord’s word—the rod of Iron—as follows:
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.
And as I cast my eyes round about, that perhaps I might discover my family also, I beheld a river of water; and it ran along, and it was near the tree of which I was partaking the fruit. And I looked to behold from whence it came; and I saw the head thereof a little way off; and at the head thereof I beheld your mother Sariah, and Sam, and Nephi; and they stood as if they knew not whither they should go.
And it came to pass that I beckoned unto them; and I also did say unto them with a loud voice that they should come unto me, and partake of the fruit, which was desirable above all other fruit. And it came to pass that they did come unto me and partake of the fruit also.
And it came to pass that I was desirous that Laman and Lemuel should come and partake of the fruit also; wherefore, I cast mine eyes towards the head of the river, that perhaps I might see them. And it came to pass that I saw them, but they would not come unto me and partake of the fruit30
Neither Laman nor Lemuel thought about the meaning of the tree their father described from his dream, because, apparently, Lehi did not use the phrase tree of life. Nephi made it simple for his brothers by using the term.
And it came to pass that they did speak unto me again, saying: What meaneth this thing which our father saw in a dream? What meaneth the tree which he saw?
And I said unto them: It was a representation of the tree of life.31
This explanation is the most abbreviated of those Nephi gave for the symbols used in Lehi’s dream. One must presume, therefore, that Laman and Lemuel understood the symbolism for a particular and religious group of people who shared the same love of the Lord and the end they sought by following His word.
Lehi says Laman and Lemuel had no desire to be with such people On the other hand, Sariah, Sam, and Nephi responded to the proselyting done by Lehi and headed toward the tree. They liked being with this group of people.
Lehi’s use of the tree-of-life metaphor is personal and poignant. He wants his family to be together. An analogous situation today is the joy of a father in a sealing room of the temple doing work for ancestors with his family: his wife, his children, and his children’s spouses. The joy of seeing his family together in that setting—all righteous and worthy—would be a stark contrast to the same scene if two children were not there because they left the church.
Another element of Lehi’s dream is the great and spacious building. Nephi describes this building by quoting his father, “I . . . beheld . . . a great and spacious building; and it stood as it were in the air, high above the earth.”32This would be a strange way to describe a building today. A building, after all, is built on the ground. But large and spacious buildings, citadels, at the time of Nephi appeared had no windows on the ground floor. As a result, when viewed at night it appeared as floating in the air because the only light came through the windows from within. At a time when the world was lit only by fire, everyone had the vision of these buildings at night, light coming from within so that they appeared to float in the air.
Lehi’s vision parallels similar revelations had by others. Most notable among these is John the Revelator, whose revelation is recorded in considerable detail, detail the Lord promises will be unfolded to the righteous.33The conclusion about others having this revelation is forced by the similarities of the records and is discussed more fully in the section dealing with chapters eleven through fifteen, infra. Because the tree of life is the turning point of the overall chiasmus that outlines 1 Nephi, a full appreciation of the vision is appropriately considered in conjunction with the second half of the chiasmus, Nephi’s version of the vision, and in the context of the other scriptures of similar import.
Chapters nine and ten give the background necessary to understand how it is that Nephi came to have the same or similar vision his father had. Nephi gives the information that provoked him to inquire of the Lord, himself. Thus, although Nephi says he is giving his own record commencing with chapter ten, he first lays a foundation by recording the information Lehi conveyed as a result of the vision. This information is also discussed in the analysis of chapters eleven through fourteen.
- 1 Nephi 15:21-22.
- For example, Genesis 2:9 and Genesis 3:22 refer to the tree of life in the garden of Eden; Proverbs 3 characterizes wisdom, using a female personification, as a tree of life to those that find her; Proverbs 11:30 says righteousness is a tree of life; Proverbs 13:12 calls hope or the desire for exaltation a tree of life; Proverbs 15:4 says a wholesome tongue is a tree of life; finally, there are several references to the tree of life in Revelation, Revelation 2:7, 22:2, and 22:14.
- The Church posted a video portraying Lehi’s vision of the tree of life in late 2019. The video perpetrates the banister interpretation of rod of iron, The video can be viewed at:
- Genesis 30:37–41. Here and elsewhere the translation into the word rod or rods is from the word מקל (singular) or מקלות (plural), a word than can be correctly translated as stick or sticks.
- Moses had a rod in his hand when the Lord called him to return to Egypt, Genesis 4:1, 4. He was told to use his rod to perform signs in Egypt, id., v. 17, so he “took the rod of God” with him. Id. v. 20. He and Aaron used their rods to perform miracles before Pharoah: the rod becoming a serpent, Exodus 7:9–12, turns the water to blood, Exodus 8:19–29; frogs, id. at v. 5; lice, id. at v. 17; hail and fire, Exodus 9:23; locust, Exodus 10:13; parts the Red Sea, Exodus 14:16; provides water for the emigrants, Exodus 17:5; holds the rod with upraised arms to fight the Amalekites, Exodus 17:9;
- Exodus 21:20.
- Numbers 17 (bolding added), see also Numbers 20 (Moses smites a rock with his rod twice to provide water at Meribah).
- E.g., Psalms 2:9 (“Thou [speaking of the Lord] shalt break them with a rod of iron; thou shalt dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel), Revelation. 2:27 (“And he shall rule them with a rod of iron; as the vessels of a potter shall they be broken to shivers.); 12:5, (“And she brought forth a man child, who was to rule all nations with a rod of iron”), and 19:15 (“And out of his mouth goeth a sharp sword, that with it he should smith the nations: and he shall rule them with a rod of iron”). According to Lehi’s contemporary, Egypt had strong rods during the height of her power, Ezekiel 19:11, which became broken and withered when foreign powers dominated her, Ezekiel 19:12, and this rod was further denigrated to a “staff of reed to the house of Israel” that splinters and breaks in the hand when rested upon, Ezekiel 28:6–7.
- i Alfred Edersheim, Old Testament Bible History, ch. 19; Ezekiel 19:11 (“she had strong rods for the sceptres of them that bare rule”)
- 2 Nephi 21:4. This scripture is speaking of the rod that will come forth out of the stem of Jesse, a branch that will grow out of his roots.
- 2 Nephi 30:9.
- D&C 19:15. This same figure of speech is found at Isaiah 11:2 (“he shall smith the earth with the rod of his mouth’), 2 Nephi 21:4 (“and he shall smit the earth with the rod of his mouth”); 2 Nephi 30:9 (same). The rod metaphor is a symbol of leadership and, as Nephi describes it in his version of the tree of life vision, the word of God. 1 Nephi 15:24.
- 1 Nephi 11:25.
- 1 Nephi 8:17–20 (bolding added).
- The 1829 edition of Webster’s Dictionary says extended is a past participle defined:
EXTEND’ED, participle passive Stretched; spread; expanded; enlarged; bestowed on; communicated; valued under a writ of extendifacias; levied.
The verb form of this word in verse twenty is complicated by the prepositional phrase following the past-tense form,“it extended along the bank of the river.” The verb form means to spread or stretch forth, to cause to move at full stride (as a horse), to exert one’s self, to increase the bulk of (as extend something by adding a cheaper substance), to make an offer of or proffer something (extended an explanation), etc. These are all transitive senses, of course. The use in the scripture is intransitive, as in communicated over distance, space, or time; in other words, this word must mean that the word of God is available at any point along a particular person’s path through life.
- Dura-Europas is, also, the archeological site of the earliest know Christian church.
- This mural gets more extensive treatment in my Exegesis of Ezekiel; the meaning of the hands in the mural depending on which way the palm faces and the gender of the hands.
Hebrews 11:32–38 presents a collection of prophets and ordinary people as the twelfth example of faithfulness. This series of people includes a recitation of the manner some of these faithful people met death, including being slain by the sword, Hebrews 11:37,which is probably a reference to Ezekiel.
- 1 Nephi 11:25.
- Alma alludes to the tree of life in is discourse on developing belief, which leads one to walk toward the tree—the action that is faith:
And thus, if ye will not nourish the word, looking forward with an eye of faith to the fruit thereof, ye can never pluck of the fruit thereof, ye can never pluck of the fruit of the tree of life. But if ye will nourish the word as it beginneth to grow, by your faith and great diligence, and with patience, looking forward to the fruit thereof, it shall take root; and behold it shall be a tree springing up unto everlasting life.
- 1 Nephi 8:20.
- Nephi uses strait in 2 Nephi 31:9, 18 to describe the narrowness of the path leading back to the presence of the Father.
- 1 Nephi 8:30.
- Landing souls in an airplane would be a good modern-day metaphor for the transportation of one who adheres to the Lord’s work. The plane may fly through storms and tempests, but the passenger is wise not to jump out of the plane just because of turbulence, because jumping out of the plane means a fall to death.
- Helaman 3:27–30 (emphasis added).
- 1 Nephi 11:25.
- Matthew 3:10, Luke 3:9 (the ax is laid at the root of trees that are thrown in the fire); Matthew 7:17–19, 12:33, Luke 6:43–44 (trees known by their fruit); Matthew 13:32 (mustard seed grows into a tree so that the birds can lodge there); Luke 13:6 (fig tree planted in the vine-yard and husbandman seeks fruit, cutting it down if there is none); Luke 23:31 (Savior calls Himself a green tree); Romans 11:17, 24 (wild/tame olive tree re conversion of Gentiles); Revelation 9:4 (grass of earth, green things, trees equated to righteous men).
- 1 Nephi 15:12.
- Jacob 6:5–7 (emphasis added).
- 1 Nephi 8:10–18.
- 1 Nephi 15:21–22.
- 1 Nephi 8:26.
- E.g. Ether 4:16.