The Tree of Life as Mother, Son, and Love of God in 1 Nephi

As I was pondering over the book of 1 Nephi, chapter 11, just recently, so much of the ancient Near Eastern symbolism regarding the Tree of Life motif came flooding back into my mind. I’m grateful for the time I’ve been able to spend studying these ideas, especially since I’ve gone back to reread the entire Book of Mormon from the beginning (as part of my Stake’s current challenge leading up to our Stake Conference in November). But as I’ve been reading about Lehi’s dream and Nephi’s vision of the same, I have noticed more fully the ancient symbolism that is abundantly found there. For this post I just wanted to share some of those points that I picked up on while reading — so this won’t be an in-depth treatment of the topic, nor will I necessarily have anything to share that others haven’t picked up on before. In fact, I myself have written on some of these ideas before (see here and here), but hope to present perhaps some different insights and perspectives this time.

The first thing I wanted to point out is that Nephi’s vision in chapter 11 is given only after a few pre-requisite conditions are met. These are:

  1. He had a desire to know the things that his father had seen in vision.
  2. He believed the words of his father and that the Lord was able to make them known to him as well.
  3. He was pondering those things in his heart.

It seems to me that these are some of the basic requirements, in both ancient and modern accounts, for receiving inspiration or revelation from God.  I have read quite a lot lately about revelatory experiences in the ancient world, and there is a lot of literature that describes how visionary episodes were supposed to be brought on by some “artificial” (I say artificial for “man-made” inducers of visionary experiences, as opposed to divinely-induced) means, including sensory deprivation, consumption of hallucinatory agents such as psychoactive plants, narcotics, breathing in hydrocarbon or other gases in caves, and so on. While I have little doubt that such methods have been used throughout human history to bring individuals into a psychedelic trance that they felt allowed communication with the Beyond, it is interesting to note that there is no mention of anything of this sort here with Nephi.  All we get is that he was pondering in his heart, and suddenly he was “caught away  in the Spirit of the Lord.”

Like so many ancient accounts of visionary experiences, Nephi is caught up into a high mountain, the ideal place for a meeting between God and man.  The Spirit here (and I’m assuming that this is the Holy Spirit, the third member of the Godhead), serves as Nephi’s angelus interpres, the “interpreting angel” that usually accompanies the visionary in similar accounts, explaining to him what he is seeing.  In verse 11, we are told that this Spirit, who is the Spirit of the Lord, “was in the form of a man.” If, as it would seem, this figure is the Holy Ghost, then, according to Nephi, although He is a spiritual being, He is “anthropomorphic.”  There are a good number of ancient texts that support this view, as a number of recent studies have pointed out (see my early posts on this topic here and here). Following on ancient Jewish traditions, many early Christians believed that the Holy Spirit was an angel that stood by the throne of God. Of course, being “angelomorphic” is essentially the same as being anthropomorphic.

The Spirit explains to Nephi (verse 7) that after he sees the object of his desire, the Tree of Life which his father saw, he would be given a “sign” — he would see a man descending out of heaven, who the Spirit identifies as the Son of God.  Apparently, the Spirit means for Nephi to see the Son of God as parallel to the Tree of Life.

However, when Nephi actually asks for an interpretation of the Tree (v. 11), he is shown a virgin who was “exceedingly fair and white” and “most beautiful and fair above all other virgins” (vv. 13, 15).  The virgin, then, is another parallel for the Tree. Note how Nephi’s description of the virgin compares to his description of the Tree: “the beauty thereof was fare beyond, yea, exceeding of all beauty; and the whiteness thereof did exceed the whiteness of the driven snow” (v. 8). Nephi is told that this virgin that he saw “is the mother of the Son of God, after the manner of the flesh.” In verse 20, Nephi sees this virgin mother carrying the holy child, the Lamb of God, in her arms.

Now the fact that parallels are made between the Tree of Life and both the Son of God and his Mother is very significant. As I’ve mentioned before, Margaret Barker picked up on the significance of this symbolism when she read these passages from the Book of Mormon. Barker, who is an expert in the religious culture of Jerusalem at the time Lehi and Nephi would have been there, explained in a speech at a conference held at the Library of Congress in 2005:

…[A] text discovered in Egypt in 1945 described the tree [of life] as beautiful, fiery, and with fruits like white grapes. I don’t know of any other source which describes the fruit as white grapes, so you can imagine my surprise when I read the account of Lehi’s vision of the tree whose white fruits made one happy; and the interpretation of the vision, that the virgin in Nazareth was the mother of the Son of God after the manner of the flesh.

This is the Heavenly Mother (represented by the Tree of Life), and then Mary and her son on the earth. This revelation to Joseph Smith was the exact ancient Wisdom symbolism, intact, and almost certainly as it was known in 600 BCE.

From my own studies, I have been intrigued to find that in ancient Israel, the Tree of Life was understood to represent both the King of Israel and also the Queen Mother (the king’s mother). (See also, on this topic, Daniel Peterson’s great article on this topic here) As I have pointed out before, there was a common ancient image of the Tree of Life, as a mother goddess, nourishing the “new born” king.

This image is paralleled by the many ancient images we find of the mother goddess holding and nursing the young god/king.

Besides the symbols of Mother and Son of God, it is interesting that the Spirit identifies the Tree with yet another idea. When He asks (v. 21) Nephi, after giving two symbols already, what he thought the Tree stood for, Nephi, without hesitating, answers that “it is the love of God, which sheddeth itself abroad in the hearts of the children of men; wherefore, it is the most desirable above all things.” For Nephi, it seems that this was the obvious message being communicated by the vision of the Tree, the virgin and the Divine Son. It all represented the love of God for his children on Earth. I don’t know if that is the conclusion that I would have automatically come up with, but this is what the clear meaning was for Nephi. Perhaps the cultural and religious environment of 600 BC would have prepared Nephi to attach these symbols together to lead him to understand this great truth.

What helped me understand these connections a bit better as I read them this time around was pondering as well the comparable thoughts found in John 3:16:

For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son (through the favored and chosen virgin, Mary), that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.

This is the Tree of Life! This is the fruit that is “desirable above all things” and “the most joyous to the soul” (vv. 22, 23)! To know that God loves us all so much that he was willing to send his most beloved Son, by means of a precious and pure young woman, into the world to save us — to share with us Eternal Life! There is no greater or sweeter gift that we could possibly ask for!

Chapter 11 of 1 Nephi, along with the following chapters, contain many more amazing examples of ancient religious thought, some of which I have pointed out in previous posts. However, I felt very strongly about these points as I read over these verses, and wanted to share them here. May we all hold fast to that iron rod that leads to the precious Tree and endure on until we can eat of that most desirable fruit, and share the journey with those we love.

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2 Comments

  1. Posted July 15, 2010 at 11:24 am | Permalink

    “The Spirit here (and I’m assuming that this is the Holy Spirit, the third member of the Godhead), serves as Nephi’s angelus interpres, the “interpreting angel” that usually accompanies the visionary in similar accounts, explaining to him what he is seeing.”

    I do not believe that this is who you feel it is. I would love to share my insights on this but would prefer not to do it through a comment. I tried to contact you directly through your contact information but that option is not working on your Blog. If you are interested in dialoging about this please contact me at my Email address given.

  2. bnuffer
    Posted July 19, 2010 at 5:28 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the post. I have been working my way through Nibley’s latest/final installment becoming more and more impressed by the work of the prophet Joseph Smith. As I was reading through your post I thought how important were those hundreds of years which we call the ‘dark ages’ to the restoration of the gospel. It seems that I am regularly reading of how Joseph taught things that were taught by the ancients; thinking that was completely forgotten and foreign at the time of Joseph Smith, but are now rediscovered through modern scholarship. I guess what I am now seeing is that those ‘dark ages’ allowed western man to forget the the teachings of the ancients. Then when they were revealed again by the hand of an uneducated farm boy removed in every way from the teachings and way of thinking of the ancients it could only be seen as a marvelous work and a wonder that could only be brought to pass by the hand of God. Thanks again for sharing your studies.

One Trackback

  • By Trees of Life | Birth Faith on February 12, 2011 at 12:29 am

    […] “[A] text discovered in Egypt in 1945 described the tree [of life] as beautiful, fiery, and with fruits like white grapes. I don’t know of any other source which describes the fruit as white grapes, so you can imagine my surprise when I read the account of Lehi’s vision of the tree whose white fruits made one happy; and the interpretation of the vision, that the virgin in Nazareth was the mother of the Son of God after the manner of the flesh.” -Margaret Barker […]

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