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Personal Scripture Study
I love to read the scriptures. But I love even more to study the scriptures, to find myself on a meandering path through doctrine, history, culture, discovery and personal revelation. This week’s lesson on the Tree of Life is a perfect opportunity to go down that path.
First of all, there’s a big clue to this whole chapter (1 Nephi 8) in the first verse. It seems like a very trivial thing, but it’s not. Nothing in the Book of Mormon is happenstance or trivial.
“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.”
What an interesting introduction to the vision of the Tree of Life. Lehi is going to tell us about the seed HE has gathered—about Lehi’s posterity and the whole dream hinges on his own concerns for his family.
Only a Small Part
Verses 29 and 30 intrigue me. “And now I, Nephi, do not speak all the words of my father. But, to be short in writing…” Please! Don’t be short! I want all his words! Give me more! We see this same pattern in many places in the scriptures.
Joseph Smith does this same thing in the 1838 canonical account of the First Vision: “…and many other things did he say unto me, which I cannot write at this time.” (JSH 1:20) NO! I want more, more, more!
Joseph does it again when he talks of the vision of Moroni: “He quoted many other passages of scripture, and offered many explanations which cannot be mentioned here.” (JSH 1:41) Ahhhh! I would love to have all those explanations and scriptures.
I once type-scripted all the things that Joseph recorded Moroni said, including the long form of every scripture he referred to and some brief history and some added-in words of the history of the Nephites, etc. I read it slowly aloud. It took me about 16 minutes! Yet, the three visits of Moroni took the whole of the night! Those small phrases in verses 20 and 41 of the Joseph Smith History account for the vast majority of the experiences Joseph had!
Mormon does the same thing in his record. Four different times he essentially says: “And now there cannot be written in this book even a hundredth part of the things…” (see Words of Mormon 1:5; 3 Nephi 5:8; 3 Nephi 26:6 and Helaman 3:14). Jacob, Nephi’s brother, says the same thing: “And a hundredth part of the proceedings of this people…cannot be written upon these plates…” (Jacob 3:13). Mormon says in another place, “Behold, I was about to write the names of those who were never to taste of death, but the Lord forbade; therefore I write them not, for they are hid from the world.” Again, I want to know these things!
John refers to this same issue: “And there are also many other things which Jesus did, the which, if they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written.” (John 21:25)
Back to the Tree of Life: Nephi only gives us a part of his father’s words, but then he does show us a pattern of how to obtain the rest of them. I will talk about that pattern in a subsequent article for Lesson 4.
The Tree of Life in Numerous Cultures
The Tree of Life plays an important role in numerous ancient and modern cultures and religions. It is found throughout ancient Iran or Persia. It was found in ancient Egypt where the spheres of the Tree of Life demonstrated the order, the process and method of creation. It was drawn on the fortresses and the armor of ancient Armenia. It was found in Assyria. It is important in the Baha’i Faith. It is central to Buddhism. It was under this tree (called the Bo Tree) where the Buddha sat and obtained Enlightenment. It is important to ancient Chinese traditions. The list could go on and on.
The Tree of Life in Creation
From the Books of Genesis and Abraham we learn the significant location of the Tree of Life. It was “in the midst of the garden.” (see Genesis 2:9 and Abraham 5:9). The midst is the middle or center of the Garden of Eden. But we learn more about its location: “And a river went out of Eden to water the garden; and from thence it was parted, and became into four heads.” (see Genesis 2:10; Abraham 5:10; Moses 3:10). It appears then that the river flowed from the center of the garden, or from the Tree of Life itself and then watered the whole earth. For the water to flow from the tree or the midst or middle of the garden, based on the law of gravity, that center place had to be the highest point of the garden. So, the whole earth received its nourishment from the Tree of Life.
Joseph Smith’s Father Sees the Tree of Life
Lehi and Nephi are not the only ones to have a vision of the Tree of Life. Joseph Smith’s father saw the Tree of Life vision at least 9 years before the First Vision and 19 years before the Book of Mormon was published!
Consider the vision of Joseph Smith, Sr. in 1811 as recorded in Lucy Mack Smith’s history compared back and forth with Lehi’s vision:
“I thought,” said [Joseph Smith, Sr.], “I was traveling in an open, desolate field which appeared to be very barren. As I was thus traveling, the thought suddenly came into my mind that I had better stop and reflect upon what I was doing before I went any farther. So I asked myself, ‘What motive can I have in traveling here, and what place can this be?’”
Notice in Lehi’s vision he says: “methought I saw in my dream, a dark and dreary wilderness.”
Joseph Smith, Sr. continues:
“My guide, who was by my side as before, said, ‘This is the desolate world, but travel on.’ The road was so broad and barren that I wondered why I should travel in it, for, said I to myself, ‘Broad is the road, and wide is the gate that leads to death, and many there be that walk therein; but narrow is the way, and strait is the gate that leads to everlasting life, and few there be that go in thereat.’”
Lehi recorded: “And it came to pass that as I followed him [his guide] I beheld myself that I was in a dark and dreary waste. 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.”
Joseph Smith, Sr. continued:
“Traveling a short distance further, I came to a narrow path. This path I entered, and, when I had traveled a little way in it, I beheld a beautiful stream of water which ran from the east to the west. Of this stream I could see neither the source nor yet the mouth, but as far as my eyes could extend I could see a rope, running along the bank of it about as high as a man could reach, and beyond me was a low but very pleasant valley in which stood a tree such as I had never seen before. It was exceedingly handsome, insomuch that I looked upon it with wonder and admiration. Its beautiful branches spread themselves somewhat like an umbrella, and it bore a kind of fruit, in shape much like a chestnut bur, and as white as snow, or, if possible, whiter. I gazed upon the same with considerable interest, and as I was doing so, the burs or shells commenced opening and shedding their particles, or the fruit which they contained, which was of dazzling whiteness. I drew near and began to eat of it, and I found it delicious beyond description.”
Lehi said of his vision: “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.”
Joseph Smith, Sr. recorded:
“As I was eating, I said in my heart, ‘I cannot eat this alone, I must bring my wife and children, that they may partake with me.’ Accordingly, I went and brought my family, which consisted of a wife and seven children, and we all commenced eating and praising God for this blessing. We were exceedingly happy, insomuch that our joy could not easily be expressed.”
Lehi said: “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…”
Both Lehi and Joseph Smith, Sr. could not partake of the fruit alone, they had to share it with their family and gather their families in to them (remember gathering seed of every kind?).
Joseph Smith, Sr. continued:
“While thus engaged, I beheld a spacious building standing opposite the valley which we were in, and it appeared to reach to the very heavens. It was full of doors and windows, and they were all filled with people, who were very finely dressed. When these people observed us in the low valley, under the tree, they pointed the finger of scorn at us, and treated us with all manner of disrespect and contempt. But their contumely we utterly disregarded.”
Lehi’s vision was similar: “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. 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.”[i]
Joseph Smith, Sr. was given special instructions to gather his own seed in the vision:
“I presently turned to my guide and inquired of him the meaning of the fruit that was so delicious. He told me it was the pure love of God, shed abroad in the hearts of all those who love him and keep his commandments. He then commanded me to go and bring the rest of my children. I told him that we were all there. ‘No,’ he replied, ‘look yonder, you have two more, and you must bring them also.’ Upon raising my eyes, I saw two small children standing some distance off. I immediately went to them and brought them to the tree, upon which they commenced eating with the rest, and we all rejoiced together. The more we ate, the more we seemed to desire, until we even got down upon our knees and scooped it up, eating it by double handfuls.”
Their joy could not be contained in partaking of the fruit together. Joseph Smith, Sr. concluded by asking what the meaning of the building was:
“After feasting in this manner a short time, I asked my guide what was the meaning of the spacious building which I saw. He replied, ‘It is Babylon, it is Babylon, and it must fall. The people in the doors and windows are the inhabitants thereof, who scorn and despise the Saints of God because of their humility.’ I soon awoke, clapping my hands together for joy.”[ii]
Nephi also explained the meaning of the spacious building from his own vision:
“And the multitude of the earth was gathered together; and I beheld that they were in a large and spacious building, like unto the building which my father saw. And the angel of the Lord spake unto me again, saying: Behold the world and the wisdom thereof; yea, behold the house of Israel hath gathered together to fight against the twelve apostles of the Lamb. And it came to pass that I saw and bear record, that the great and spacious building was the pride of the world; and it fell, and the fall thereof was exceedingly great. And the angel of the Lord spake unto me again, saying: Thus shall be the destruction of all nations, kindreds, tongues, and people, that shall fight against the twelve apostles of the Lamb.”[iii]
The Real Meaning to the Tree of Life
Nephi’s greatest desire in his own vision was not only to see the Tree of Life, but to understand what it was. When he was shown the tree by the Spirit, Nephi is asked what he wanted. “To know the interpretation thereof…”[iv] He wanted to know what the Tree meant.
An angel comes and shows him a series of visions. Nephi first sees Jerusalem (to give him orientation, I suppose) and many other cities in his ancient homeland. He is then shown Nazareth. In the city of Nazareth he sees a virgin who is exceedingly fair and white, and “most beautiful and fair above all other virgins.”[v]
Remember: Nephi has asked to know what this symbol of the Tree of Life means. He is shown all these things. He is then asked a question that he does not know the answer to: “Knowest thou the condescension of God?” Nephi fumbles for an answer, “I know that he loveth his children; nevertheless, I do not know the meaning of all things.”[vi]
The angel puts everything together now for Nephi:
“Behold, the virgin whom thou seest is the mother of the Son of God, after the manner of the flesh. And it came to pass that I beheld that she was carried away in the Spirit; and after she had been carried away in the Spirit for the space of a time the angel spake unto me, saying: Look! And I looked and beheld the virgin again, bearing a child in her arms.”[vii]
Then the angel says to Nephi, essentially, “NOW do you know the meaning of the Tree?” He does. The Tree of Life is the perfect representation of the Son of God—of Jesus Christ Himself. It is not just the ethereal love of God, or a symbolic manifestation of the sweetness of the Gospel, it is Jesus Christ—all those who come to the Tree are coming to partake of the Atonement of Jesus Christ and receive eternal life.
The first verse of the chapter now makes more sense about gathering all manner of seed. We are all to gather to the Tree—to come to the Atonement of Jesus Christ. And who are the seed of Christ?
“Behold I say unto you, that whosoever has heard the words of the prophets, yea, all the holy prophets who have prophesied concerning the coming of the Lord—I say unto you, that all those who have hearkened unto their words, and believed that the Lord would redeem his people, and have looked forward to that day for a remission of their sins, I say unto you, that these are his seed, or they are the heirs of the kingdom of God.”[viii]
This makes the dream or vision of Lehi and of Joseph Smith, Sr. all the more powerful—these are essential stories (in all cultures) to bring us to the Son of the Most High God, to Jesus Christ, the Messiah, the Savior of all. How blessed we are to have these visions recorded.
[i] See 1 Nephi 8: 2-28.
[ii] See Smith, Lucy Mack. The Revised and Enhanced History of Joseph Smith by His Mother. Edited by Scot Facer Proctor and Maurine Jensen Proctor. Bookcraft, Salt Lake City, Utah, 1996, pp. 64-66.
[iii] 1 Nephi 11: 35, 36.
[iv] 1 Nephi 11:11.
[v] 1 Nephi 11:13-15.
[vi] See 1 Nephi 11:16-17.
[vii] 1 Nephi 11:18-20.
[viii] Mosiah 15:11.