Musings on the Making of Mormon's Book: 1 Nephi 8

1 Nephi 8:1

This is a fascinating insertion of a mundane event in between a prophetically required return to Jerusalem and the next prophetic event. Nephi will begin his discussion of the vision of the Tree of Life which will serve as a major textual shift. Perhaps it was Nephi’s way of indicating that there was some time in between these larger and more important events.

Perhaps little real world time passes between gathering the seeds and the departure from the first camp as they move on toward the location they will call Shazer. In text-time and space, there is a massive amount of information between this more historical event and the next. Nevertheless, the actual time might have been short.

1 Nephi 8:2-4

Nephi anchors the location of the vision in the wilderness and at their first camp. Although that is probably important, it is interesting that he felt it important to repeat as the introduction to this vision. The rest of his narrative has already established both location and general chronology.

As Lehi begins to recount the vision, he prefaces it with the conclusion. We know before it begins that Nephi and Sam fare well and Laman and Lemuel will not. This might have made Laman and Lemuel much less interested in the details (they have already derided their father as a visionary man, 1 Ne. 2:11).  Accepting that Lehi began his recitation in this way, he likely thought that the vision was only a depiction of a possible outcome, one that might be changed if Laman and Lemuel’s hearts could be touched insomuch that they too would hold to the rod and eat of the fruit of the tree.

1 Nephi 8:4-7

I have repeated the reference to verse 4 because I think that we should see that verse as two sentences that should be conceptually separated. The first clause finishes the first idea and the second is part of an interesting structural beginning to the vision.

There is important cultural information that explains the expectation of a guide in this vision, but these verses are also interesting in that they represent repeated information.

From the end of verse 4 we have Lehi in a “dark and dreary wilderness.” Verses 5 and 6 describe the guide, with the command to follow and the indication that Lehi followed. As Lehi follows, verse 7 says that he was in a “dark and dreary waste.” With the direct repetition of “dark and dreary” we should see “wilderness” and “waste” as equivalents. There is probably only habitual literary parallelism here rather than one intended to highlight any specific ulterior meaning. I suspect that writing in literary parallels was a natural part of Nephi’s language, and that literary heritage explains this parallel. Although Nephi is recounting Lehi’s dream, he is retelling more than quoting (perhaps evidenced by the fact that Nephi says that Lehi had many words to speak about this vision—1 Ne. 8:32—and Nephi’s recounting covers much more space). Therefore I see this as reflecting Nephi’s literary tendencies rather than his father’s actual words.

1 Nephi 8:8-10

Lehi’s dream and Nephi’s begin very differently. For Lehi, his initial experience is in a wilderness and it is apparently a problematic beginning because Lehi finds that he must pray for mercy (verse 8). Only after that prayer has been answered does the vision of the tree appear.

Nephi also prays for knowledge of his father’s vision, but his vision opens with the spirit-guide rejoicing over what Nephi has desired and his faith in his father’s words (1 Ne. 11:6).

Perhaps the point is that the true vision of the tree comes after prayer. Nephi begins with the prayer and therefore perhaps skips the dark and dreary wilderness. Perhaps there is some parallel between Lehi’s experience and that of Joseph Smith praying in the grove where he began in darkness and then a prayer for mercy showed a new vision that presented the author of that mercy (Joseph Smith—History 1:15-16).

1 Nephi 9:11-12

This presents the most important difference between the Hebrew legends of the Tree of Life and Lehi’s experience. Perhaps it is this most fundamental change that made it so that Nephi had to ask for an explanation. The fruit of the traditional Tree of Life promised mortal life. It was an extension of the physical being. One Hebrew legend has it providing mortal health and healing even if it didn’t supply immortality. Of the assumption of immortality, the Genesis account itself has the way to the tree prohibited (Gen. 3:24).

This tree does not explicitly deal with life. Lehi eats and receives “great joy.” We may speculate that what he tastes is eternal life (as opposed to immortal life). See Elder Wirthlin’s talk “What is the Difference between Immortality and Eternal Life?” The fruit still provides life, but the focus of the vision is a very different quality (and timing) of life.

1 Nephi 8: 13-14

The river running by the tree is part of the Hebrew tradition, but typically the water flows from the tree. In this recounting, Lehi’s family is standing at “the head thereof a little way off.” This suggests a river flowing to the tree.

The imagery of the river in this recounting of the vision only appears to locate Lehi’s family as traveling toward the tree. It might therefore symbolize a road rather than represent specific Tree of Life imagery. It functions only to orient the family to the tree rather than represent the water of the Tree as would be part of the traditional imagery. It may be yet another reason that Nephi had to have an interpretation since this went counter to the typical use of the water. This will become even more different when Nephi’s version of the dream shows a different aspect of the water that clearly doesn’t replicate the expected water from the tree.

1 Nephi 8:15-18

These verses present the essential problem. Lehi’s family is offered the fruit of the tree and they come and partake. Laman and Lemuel are similarly offered the fruit, but they “would not come unto me and partake of the fruit (verse 18).” From a literary standpoint, the offers are intentionally parallel with the inversion occurring in the reactions of Laman and Lemuel and the rest of the family.

1 Nephi 8:19-22

The expanded allegory introduces a new set of symbols that further distances this vision from the traditional Tree of Life. There is a rod of iron extending along the river and beside that a “strait and narrow path.” It is perhaps confirmation that the river is itself seen as a symbolic path when it is paralleled by a literal path.

From the 1830 edition through 1981, this verse (and three other similar references) had a straight and narrow path rather than a strait and narrow path. There have been defenses of the earlier reading. Royal Skousen and Noel B. Reynolds to suggest: “We think the more recent revisions of six additional Book of Mormon passages (which describe the path as both “straight and narrow”) to read “strait and narrow” may lead readers to misread the intentions of the original Book of Mormon authors.” ((Reynolds and Skousen, “Was the Path Nephi Saw ‘Strait and Narrow’ or ‘Straight and Narrow’?” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 10, no. 2 (2002): 31.)) In spite of those defenses, I believe that the current reading of strait is undoubtedly correct. It is so obviously a parallel to Matt. 7:14 (Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it) that is hard to justify any other source of the phrase. That the homophones were confused in the fluid orthography of the times is also hardly surprising. Joseph’s tendency in translation to include phrases from the New Testament provide the best reason for the phrase itself, particularly since the context is appropriate to this allegory.

1 Nephi 8: 21-22

The vision expands away from  Lehi’s immediate family and becomes an allegory for all seekers rather than just Lehi’s family.

1 Nephi 8:23-24

This vision turned allegory now demonstrates the value of the rod of iron. The path is the one that everyone is on. The difference is that it is possible to wander off the path. Therefore, there are two types of people in the allegory, those who find the way and those who do not. The rod of iron is the difference.

If should be noted that in spite of Nephi’s emphasis on the redeeming mission of the Messiah, atonement and forgiveness are not part of this allegory. There are none who lose their way and then find it again. Therefore, while we might be tempted to see scripture as the iron rod (and in Lehi’s case, brass plates in an interesting possible parallel to the metal of the rod), it is more likely that this is more specifically to the Word of God even more than the written representation of it. It is faithfulness to Yahweh that is the guide to the reward.

Perhaps for this reading it is important to note Nephi’s question and the response received:

23 And they said unto me: What meaneth the rod of iron which our father saw, that led to the tree?

24 And I said unto them that it was the word of God; and whoso would hearken unto the word of God, and would hold fast unto it, they would never perish; neither could the temptations and the fiery darts of the adversary overpower them unto blindness, to lead them away to destruction. (1 Ne. 15:23–24)

1 Ne. 8:25-28

This part of the allegory is completely foreign to the Hebrew Tree of Life symbolism. Once one eats of the Tree of Life, she receives the benefit. There is no possibility of change thereafter (again, the reason that a flaming sword blocked the way to the Tree after Adam and Eve were cast from the Garden).

In this case, there are those who taste of the fruit of the tree and then walk away from it. Clearly, the allegory establishes a division between things of God and things of the world, with the world able to divert attention and desire away from God’s valuable gift. Thus the allegory shifts meaning again. The fruit is no longer a symbol of life, but of the value of faithful living of God’s commandments.  Again, the emphasis is on the ability to lose the benefit, not on any atonement to return to those benefits.

1 Ne. 8:29

This short verse is an important piece of the puzzle of how Nephi is constructing his text. This is one of the best opportunities for Nephi to copy directly from his father’s record. It is likely that he consulted that text. However, we are getting Lehi’s dream according to Nephi’s editing of what he thought was important to present. The volume of description of his father’s dream is significantly less than his explication of his own vision. Therefore, we are to understand that Nephi is being very selective when he indicates: “And now I, Nephi, do not speak all the words of my father.”

1 Ne. 8:30-35

Nephi provides a very abbreviated conclusion to the dream/vision/allegory. This is more of a recapitulation of what he has already written than an extension of the allegory. Everything we see in verses 30-35 we have already seen. Thus when Nephi declared that he wasn’t writing all of the words of his father, he hit a conclusion of the material he was taking from his father’s record. Now he summarizes what he copied as he transitions into his own descriptions of what followed.

1 Ne. 8:36-38

Nephi began the discussion of Lehi’s vision by indicating that it would not go well for Laman and Lemuel. Even though the allegory had moved beyond Lehi’s family, Lehi had not. For Lehi, regardless of anything else in the vision, it was about Laman and Lemuel. Surely he rejoiced for those who would follow him to the tree, but as a loving parent, his concern was for those who might not. Lehi preached to them hoping that the vision became an object lesson rather than a prediction.

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