1 Nephi Chapter 8
1 Nephi 8 Lehi's vision of the tree of life
This chapter contains Nephi's record of his father's vision of the dark and dreary wilderness or waste, the tree of life and its precious fruit, the rod of iron and the path through the darkness, and the great and spacious building to which some apostatized. This is Lehi's so-called "vision of the tree of life."
Trees were among the favorite objects of biblical imagery and symbolism. Trees usually represent people. Comparing the characteristics of trees to the human experience was a familiar teaching approach among the Jewish sages for centuries. The following is an example from the most known and used part of the Mishnah (volumes of rabbinic writings). One rabbi used to say, "One whose wisdom is greater than his deeds what is he like? A tree whose branches are many and its roots few. And the wind comes and roots it up and overturns it on its face. . . . But one whose deeds exceed his wisdom what is he like? A tree whose branches are few and its roots many; so that even if all the winds that are in the world come and blow upon it they stir it not from its place" (Pirke Aboth, III:22, 92-93). From Jesus and his disciples came many examples of trees as object lessons. Bad trees produce ill will, negativism, criticism, accusation, cynicism, and all kind of destructive thinking and sinful behavior. Good trees produce good fruit. Joseph Smith was a good tree. The Book of Mormon is a good tree. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a good tree. Jesus Christ himself is the best tree of all-the Tree of Life. You can know the trees; that is, you can know the hearts and souls of people perfectly by their fruit, that is, by what comes out of them in the form of thoughts, words, feelings, and actions. In a sense, we seldom speak or act truly impulsively. We say and do what we are.
The issues addressed in Lehi's vision of the tree of life are so fundamental and important in this mortal phase that the reader may wish to give careful thought to Lehi's vision. The interested reader may find it helpful to read two articles in Ye Shall Know of the Doctrine, volume 1, chapter 5, The Natural Self and the Spiritual Self and chapter 6, The Gospel and the Two Natures of Man before commencing a study of this chapter.
Later on, Nephi desired to witness the things his father had seen. In response to his desire, we will read that Nephi was "caught away" to "an exceedingly high mountain" (1 Nephi 11:1), where he was shown an impressive vision. Nephi saw what had been revealed to his father, and he was also shown the interpretation of several of the major symbols of the vision, which he later recorded (1 Nephi 11-15). We will make use of Nephi's account of this same vision in our discussion of chapter 8.
The most important symbol in Lehi's vision is the tree. It represents the love of God the Father, particularly the love of God as manifest in the gift of his Son. Therefore the tree is actually a symbol or "type" of Jesus Christ himself. Toward him men press forward on the strait and narrow path. He is the way (John 14:6). Only he can make it possible for us to obtain eternal life. An expanded meaning of the symbol of the tree, then, is eternal life in the presence of the Father.
Lehi's vision basically consists of the scene of the tree of life and the efforts of some people to obtain its fruits. Nephi's vision, to be discussed later in chapters 11-15, consists of much more.
1 And it came to pass that we had gathered together all manner of seeds of every kind, both of grain of every kind, and also of the seeds of fruit of every kind.
verse 1 This is an interesting informational verse, though it seems a bit out of context here. It has become apparent, especially to interested scholars, that the Book of Mormon peoples depended on well-developed agriculture. More that sixty passages refer to agriculture in the Book of Mormon, most of them incidental to historical accounts but some of them allegorical. It would seem most likely that this gathering together of seeds was in preparation for their eventual departure from the valley of Lemuel. These could have been gathered together while the family was still in Jerusalem. Or, some of them could have been obtained from the valley of Lemuel. The seeds available today in the wadi Tayyib al-Ism, the valley of Lemuel, include a few varieties of grain and dates. There are stories of Arabs' surviving for long periods of time on dates and water.
In spite of eight years in the wilderness, time during which many seeds may lose their ability to germinate, the seeds brought from Jerusalem "did grow exceedingly" when cultivated in the promised land (1 Nephi 18:24). The Jaredites also carried seeds to the promised land along with domestic and wild animals, including flocks, fowl, fish, and honey-bees (Ether 1:41; Ether 2:1-3).
Several specific cultivated plants are mentioned in the Book of Mormon. The Nephite civilization had corn, wheat, barley, neas, and sheum (see Mosiah 9:9 and its commentary). In the Bible, the word corn typically refers to a cereal grain of some type, such as wheat or barley (e.g., Isaiah 28:28). However, the corn mentioned in Mosiah 9:9 was probably maize (called corn in the United States) because wheat and barley are mentioned separately in the same verse. Indeed, maize was among the most important staple foods of ancient American civilizations and was found throughout the Americas at the time of European contact. The single reference to neas and sheum in Mosiah 9:9 provides no additional information about these plants other than their agricultural importance. Olives are mentioned several times prior to the allegory of the olive tree in Jacob 5 but never in a context of cultivation in the New World. After the allegory of the olive tree, there is no further reference to the olive in the Book of Mormon. Grape is not specifically mentioned, although there are several references to wine. King Noah planted vineyards and built wine-presses. Indeed, people cultivated grapes in both the Old and new Worlds prior to European contact.
No fiber-producing plants are specifically mentioned. Linen, which is derived from flax (a plant of Old World origin), is mentioned on several occasions in the Book of Mormon (Mosiah 10:5; Alma 1:29; Ether 9:17). Cotton is a domesticated native of both the Old and New Worlds, but there is no reference to it in the Book of Mormon.
Agriculture includes animal husbandry. For a discussion of animals in the Book of Mormon, see the commentary on 1 Nephi 18:25. While it is clear that the Jaredites brought domesticated animals with them from the Old World to the Americas (Ether 1:41; Ether 2:1-3), there is no indication that Lehi's group carried such animals on their voyage. In fact, there are evidences that they did not do so. For example, during their time in the wilderness, Lehi's group hunted wild animals for meat, and they were unable to obtain food when the bow of Nephi was broken, suggesting that they had no domestic animals with them that they could use for food. Yet, we will learn that upon their arrival in the promised land, they will discover domestic animals, including "the cow and the ox, and the ass and the horse, and the goat" (see 1 Nephi 18:25 and its commentary).
2 And it came to pass that while my father tarried in the wilderness he spake unto us, saying: Behold, I have dreamed a dream; or, in other words, I have seen a vision.
verse 2 "while my father tarried in the wilderness" All of the events in this chapter occurred while Lehi and his extended family were camped in the valley of Lemuel. Nephi will now take a long quote of his father Lehi from the record of Lehi (see the commentary for 1 Nephi 1:17). This quotation of his father will extend through verse 28.
3 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.
verse 3 Keep in mind that the speaker or first person in these verses is Lehi, not Nephi.
"saved" The most common interpretation of this word, when used in the Book of Mormon, is exalted.
4 But behold, Laman and Lemuel, I fear exceedingly because of you; for behold, methought I saw in my dream, a dark and dreary wilderness.
verse 4 The "dark and dreary wilderness" (or "dark and dreary waste" in verse 7) seems to be symbolic of the fallen state of man in the lone and dreary world.
"Methought" is the preterite tense of methinks. It means "it seemed to me; I thought."
5 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.
6 And it came to pass that he spake unto me, and bade me follow him.
verses 5-6 The "man . . . dressed in a white robe" is Lehi's guide, a heavenly messenger or angel. Some have suggested that this messenger might have been the Holy Ghost (James E. Talmage, Articles of Faith, 30th edition, 32; Sidney B. Sperry, Answers to Gospel Doctrine Questions, 27-30) or even Jesus Christ.
7 And it came to pass that as I followed him I beheld myself that I was in a dark and dreary waste.
verse 7 Again, the "dark and dreary waste" seems to be symbolic of the fallen state of man in the lone and dreary world.
The geography of Lehi's vision is more at home in Arabia than it is in western New York. The scenes in Lehi's dream alternate between long, lonely stretches of desert crossed at night and regions of dense population (see verses 21, 24, 27, 30, 33). Lehi also wrote of deep canyons, known as wadis, that were almost impossible to traverse (compare "a great and a terrible gulf" in 1 Nephi 12:18 and "an awful gulf" in 1 Nephi 15:28). After rains, the seasonal streams in the wadis fill with mud and debris (called "filthy water" in 1 Nephi 12:16 and "filthiness" in 1 Nephi 15:26-27).
In contrast, Lehi described occasional green fields next to the desert graced not only by abundant water (there were already extensive irrigation works in south Arabia that supported a larger population than the one living there now) but also by lush vegetation represented by the tree full of delicious fruit (see 1 Nephi 8:9-13). He saw heavily traveled paths leading to the green areas (see verses 20-21) as well as "forbidden paths" and "strange roads" of the surrounding desert where the unwary would become "lost" (verses 23, 28, 32). Further, Lehi's mention of "a mist of darkness" (verse 23) reminds one of the heavy mists and fogs that blanket the coasts of Arabia (especially during the monsoon season) including the place where the family most likely emerged from the desert.
The dream is also true to other cultural and geographical dimensions of the family's world. For example, Lehi's dream began in "a dark and dreary wilderness" wherein Lehi and a guide walked "in darkness" for "many hours" (1 Nephi 8:4; 1 Nephi 8:8). Plainly, they were walking at night, the preferred time for traveling through the hot desert. Further, when Lehi reached the tree that grew in "a large and spacious field," which field is different from the wilderness, he partook of the fruit of the tree and then looked for his family, apparently expecting to see them (see verses 9, 12-14). This sort of detail meshes with the custom of family travel in the Near East, with the father going as a vanguard to look for danger and for food while the mother and younger children follow. When there are other adult members in a clan or family, the males form a rear guard, as did Laman and Lemuel in this set of scenes (verses 17-18). Hence, in the dream Lehi was evidently not alone with the guide as they traveled. His family members were following him, but at a safe distance as custom required.
The dream of Lehi teems with people. Lehi saw multitudes (1 Nephi 8:21-22; 1 Nephi 8:24; 1 Nephi 8:26-27; 1 Nephi 8:30-31). Where did all these people come from? Was not Arabia basically an empty place? The answer is yes and no. There are vast regions where no human inhabitant lives. The problem in those areas, of course, is a lack of water. But anciently both the northwest and southwest sections of the Arabian Peninsula supported large populations.
The "great and spacious building" of Lehi's dream appeared unusual enough to his eye that he called it "strange" (1 Nephi 8:33). Why would Lehi, who had possibly traveled a good deal during his life, call a building strange? And does the word strange fit with the fact that the building soared into "the air, high above the earth" (1 Nephi 8:26)? Evidently, Lehi's descriptions of this building point to architecture unfamiliar to him. Furthermore, his words prophetically anticipate architecture that he and his party would see in south Arabia. Recent studies have show that the so-called skyscraper architecture of modern Yemen has been common since at least the eighth century BC and is apparently unique in the ancient world. In this light, it seems evident that Lehi was seeing the architecture of ancient south Arabia in his dream. For contemporary buildings there "stood as it were in the air," rising to five or six stories in height.
Could Joseph Smith have known that any of these architectural features existed in the days of Lehi and Sariah? The answer has to be no. Dr. S. Kent Brown has found that no classic source about ancient Arabia was available to Joseph Smith (Echoes and Evidences of the Book of Mormon, ed. Donald W. Parry, Daniel C. Peterson, and John W. Welch [FARMS], 69-76).
8 And after I had traveled for the space of many hours in darkness, I began to pray unto the Lord that he would have mercy on me, according to the multitude of his tender mercies.
verse 8 Lehi grew weary of the dreary darkness of man's fallen state, and he prayed for light.
"have mercy on me, according to the multitude of his tender mercies" This interesting phrase is not unique to this verse of scripture. It is also found in Psalm 106:45; Isaiah 63:7; Lamentations 3:32; and Ether 6:12.
9 And it came to pass after I had prayed unto the Lord I beheld a large and spacious field.
verse 9 The "large and spacious field" is the world (see Matthew 13:38; 1 Nephi 8:20).
10 And it came to pass that I beheld a tree, whose fruit was desirable to make one happy.
verse 10 "I beheld a tree" It is interesting to note that a tree of life is a part of the cultural symbolism of several Near Eastern cultures including Hebrew, Mesopotamian, and Egyptian (C. Wilfred Griggs, "The Tree of Life in Ancient Cultures" Ensign, June 1988, 26-31). In a similar vision had by Lehi's son Nephi, we will read that the tree of life is associated the waters of life (1 Nephi 11:25). This is reminiscent of an ancient Jewish tradition that "the tree of life is planted near the source of the water of life" (Bernard Chapira, "Legendes Bibliques," Revue des etudes juives 69 : 105 n. 4). Also the tree of life and its connection with the waters of life also occur in ancient Egyptian religion and literature (Edmund Hermsen, Lebensbaumsymbolik im alten Agypten [Cologne: Brill, 1981], 3).
In 1941, in Izapa, in southern Mexico a carved stone slab was discovered which dates to about 200 to 300 BC. It is an apparent depiction of the tree of life. It is referred to as Stela 5 and is one of 164 sculptures discovered at Izapa, an ancient temple center located near the Pacific coast. Some Book of Mormon researchers have become interested in trying to associate this stela with Lehi's vision of the tree of life, and Stela 5 has even been called the "Lehi stone" in some LDS circles. The stone portrays a complicated scene of humans and supernatural beings seated or standing around a magnificent fruit tree. Although the stela may represent a tree of life, there is no written inscription accompanying the carved scene, and thus positive interpretation of the other images is impossible. It would seem that archaeological science is a long way from making any truly confirmed association between Stela 5 and Lehi's vision of the tree of life.
11 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.
verse 11 The words "white" and "whiteness" might be interpreted as "full of eternal glory, and instilling everlasting joy."
12 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.
verses 12 "I partook of the fruit thereof" According to modern interpretation, "to partake of" means to eat or drink something. On the other hand Webster's 1828 Dictionary of the English Language defines the phrase "to partake of" as "to take a part, portion, or share in common with others." In other words, "partaking of" something, according to Webster, was a communal act where, as part of a group, one shared things in common with the others in the group (see Moroni 6:6; D&C 20:75).
To partake of the fruit of the tree, then, is to, along with others, accept Christ and his gospel and thus ultimately enjoy the greatest of all the gifts of God-eternal life in his presence.
13 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.
verse 13 We will later learn that Lehi was so distracted with concerns over his family that he did not notice the filthiness of the water in the river (1 Nephi 12:16; 1 Nephi 12:15:27). This river of filthy water represents filthiness or the depths of hell or "an awful gulf which separated the wicked from the tree of life, and also from the saints of God" (1 Nephi 15:28).
A similar "gulf" existed in the spirit world before the resurrection of Jesus which separated the righteous in paradise from the wicked in prison. Figuratively this river seems to represent the distance in spiritual progress and receptivity that separated the righteous from the wicked. It is symbolic of the hopeless and desperate situation of those who have given themselves over to influences of the world.
14 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.
verse 14 One of the definitions of the word whence in Webster's 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language is "from what source." The word from just prior to whence is thus redundant. The "head" of the river is the point of its beginning.
15 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.
16 And it came to pass that they did come unto me and partake of the fruit also.
17 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.
18 And it came to pass that I saw them, but they would not come unto me and partake of the fruit.
19 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.
verse 19 The "rod of iron" represents the word of God or the gospel of Jesus Christ. An expanded meaning is that Christ and his gospel are the only means by which we can attain the presence of the Father-our exaltation. The location of the rod of iron in Lehi's vision is pertinent since it extended along the bank of the river of filthiness. One had to maintain a firm hold on the rod of iron to keep from losing one's way and slipping into the river, particularly since mists of darkness tended to impair vision along the path (see verse 23).
20 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.
verse 20 The word "strait" does not mean straight. Rather it means narrow, restricted, rigorous, difficult, and exacting. He who walks the path must do so carefully with his eyes fixed upon the Lord and his anointed servants.
While some may object to the use of the word strait here rather than straight, there is significant justification for its use as discussed in the supplemental article Strait and Straight in the Book of Mormon.
"the head of the fountain" A "fountain" is a spring or a river, and its "head" is the place where it begins or emerges from the ground. The fountain mentioned here has been thought by some to be the "fountain of living waters" which will be mentioned in 1 Nephi 11:25. It seems more likely, however, that it is instead the river of filthy water (see 1 Nephi 8:32; 1 Nephi 12:16).
Here we are given to understand that the "strait and narrow path" led from the world (the large and spacious field) past the head of the river, to the tree.
"as if it had been a world" This phrase simply emphasizes that the symbol of the large and spacious field represents, as stated previously, the world.
verses 21-23 In these verses which follow, Lehi describes people who are responsive to the light of Christ within them, and they even set out to seek for their eternal purpose and destiny. However, the path is rigorous, and they are eventually distracted and turned away by the extraneous and unnecessary things which the world offers in abundance. These things include seeking for wealth, power, fame, and the unrighteous satisfaction of sexual appetites.
21 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.
22 And it came to pass that they did come forth, and commence in the path which led to the tree.
23 And it came to pass that there arose a mist of darkness; yea, even an exceedingly great mist of darkness, insomuch that they who had commenced in the path did lose their way, that they wandered off and were lost.
verse 23 The "mist of darkness" represents things of the world or the temptations of the world.
verses 24-28 This second group of people accept the gospel but eventually they are "ashamed" or dissuaded by the taunts and scorn of worldly people. They are deceived by those offering counsel based upon wisdom, intellectualism, philosophies, and opinions of the world.
24 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 mist of darkness, clinging to the rod of iron, even until they did come forth and partake of the fruit of the tree.
25 And after they had partaken of the fruit of the tree they did cast their eyes about as if they were ashamed.
26 And I also cast my eyes round 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 above the earth.
verse 26 The "great and spacious building" represents the world and the wisdom thereof and the vain imaginations and pride of the children of men.
27 And it was filled with people, both old and young, both male and female; and their manner of dress was exceedingly fine; and they were in the attitude of mocking and pointing their fingers towards those who had come at and were partaking of the fruit.
28 And after they had tasted of the fruit they were ashamed, because of those that were scoffing at them; and they fell away into forbidden paths and were lost.
29 And now I, Nephi, do not speak all the words of my father.
verse 29 Nephi indicates some type of gap in his description of his father's vision. We do not know what was omitted here. The following verse suggests that Nephi found it expedient to do some redacting and summarizing of Lehi's account.
30 But, to be short in writing, behold, he saw other multitudes pressing forward; and they came and caught hold of the end of the rod of iron; and they did 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.
verse 30 "they came forth and fell down" It is notable that Webster's 1828 Dictionary of the English Language defines the phrase "to fall down" as "to prostrate one's self in worship" and "to bend or bow as a suppliant." It is probable that these individuals prostrated themselves in worship upon recognizing the significance of the tree (see also 1 Nephi 17:55).
Apparently these people remained steadfast and inherited eternal life.
verses 31-33 These people never did grab hold of the rod nor did they seek for the tree of life. They became lost while "feeling their way" toward the great and spacious building. They sought for the pleasures of the world and the approval of the worldly wise. Once they achieve worldly status, they are inclined to scoff and mock those who are trying to live a simple, godly, and spiritual life.
31 And he also saw other multitudes feeling their way towards that great and spacious building.
verse 31 "feeling their way" One point of some interest, but of little importance, is that the original Book of Mormon manuscript rendered this phrase, "pressing their way." Apparently an error was made as the original manuscript was read and copied to create the printers manuscript. Dr. Royal Skousen has observed that the original manuscript version is wholly consistent in representing people as pressing, and not feeling, their way.
32 And it came to pass that many were drowned in the depths of the fountain; and many were lost from his view, wandering in strange roads.
verse 32 "many were drowned in the depths of the fountain" This "fountain" is obviously the river of filthiness, worldliness, referred to in 1 Nephi 8:13-14.
33 And great was the multitude that did enter into that strange building. And after they did enter into that building they did point the finger of scorn at me and those that were partaking of the fruit also; but we heeded them not.
34 These are the words of my father: For as many as heeded them, had fallen away.
verse 34 "Them" does not refer to "the words of my father," rather it refers to the taunts of the inhabitants of the great and spacious building. Those who have accepted the gospel but heed the ridicule of the worldly wise are likely to be led away from the gospel.
35 And Laman and Lemuel partook not of the fruit, said my father.
36 And it came to pass after my father had spoken all the words of his dream or vision, which were many, he said unto us, because of these things which he saw in a vision, he exceedingly feared for Laman and Lemuel; yea, he feared lest they should be cast off from the presence of the Lord.
37 And he did exhort them then with all the feeling of a tender parent, that they would hearken to his words, that perhaps the Lord would be merciful to them, and not cast them off; yea, my father did preach unto them.
verse 37 This verse is all the more meaningful if we keep in mind that under ancient Israelite law the father had enormous legal power, to the point of disinheriting or even putting to death a rebellious child (Welch, John W., The Book of Mormon: Second Nephi, The Doctrinal Structure [Salt Lake City and Religious Studies Center Brigham Young University: Bookcraft, 1989], 66). Thus, Lehi's restraint here is real evidence of the tender and loving feeling he had for his wayward sons.
38 And after he had preached unto them, and also prophesied unto them of many things, he bade them to keep the commandments of the Lord; and he did cease speaking unto them.