Book of Mormon Lesson 03
January 13–19 (1 Nephi 8–10)

SYMBOLIC DREAMS

● As our lesson manual points out, many symbolic dreams and visions are recorded in the scriptures:

— King Nebuchadnezzar dreamed of a large image, or statue, of a man. Each part of the man’s body was made of a different material. A stone destroyed the image and became a mountain, filling the whole earth. (Daniel 2:31–45; D&C 65:2). The various parts of the image represented kingdoms that have reigned on the earth. The stone represented the kingdom of God, which would consume all other kingdoms in the latter days.

— Pharaoh dreamed of seven lean and ill cattle devouring seven fat and healthy cattle and seven poor ears of corn devouring seven good ears of corn. (Genesis 41:17–31). The seven healthy cattle and seven good ears of corn represented seven years of prosperity that would come to Egypt. The seven ill cattle and seven poor ears of corn represented seven years of famine that would follow the years of plenty.

— The Apostle Peter in a dream saw unclean animals lowered from heaven in a great sheet, and he was commanded to kill and eat these animals. (Acts 10:9–16, 28, 34–350. The unclean animals represented the Gentiles, who were now to be taught the gospel.

● This week’s lesson discusses another symbolic dream: the vision of the tree of life received by Lehi and Nephi.

THE TREE OF LIFE

An Ancient and Pervasive Symbol

● Lehi was neither the first nor the only prophet to speak of the tree of life. It is an ancient. and pervasive symbol used throughout the Bible and in many other cultures and religions.

Genesis 2:9 It was an actual tree in the garden representing eternal life.
Revelation 2:7 It is still located in the midst of Paradise.
Revelation 22:1–6,14 It will be present on the celestialized Earth.
2 Nephi 2:15 The tree with forbidden fruit represents the opposite: death.
Alma 5:34 God invites all his children to partake of the tree of life’s fruit.

— In most ancient cultures the tree of life was represented as a palm tree.
— The white dates these trees produce are very sweet.
— They sustain life in the harsh desert environment because they do not spoil in hot sun.
— For this reason, Arabs call palm trees “trees of life.”

● Heavenly Father showed the depth of His love for us when He “gave his only begotten Son” (John 3:16). The Atonement is evidence of Jesus Christ’s great love for us.

Elder Jeffrey R. Holland taught that the tree of life is a symbol of Jesus Christ:

“The images of Christ and the tree [are] inextricably linked. . . . At the very outset of the Book of Mormon, . . . Christ is portrayed as the source of eternal life and joy, the living evidence of divine love, and the means whereby God will fulfill his covenant with the house of Israel and indeed the entire family of man, returning them all to their eternal promises.”1

The Location of the Dream

● The fruitfulness of the location where Lehi’s family was then dwelling set the stage for Lehi’s vision (1 Nephi 8:1). The symbols in the dream all came from this environment.

● Lehi received a vision (1 Nephi 8:2). This was not his first nor his only vision. Nephi indicated that his father had written many prophecies and many visions of which he (Nephi) would not make a full account (1 Nephi 1:16).

● But this vision —the Tree of Life vision—is described by Nephi in great detail.

The Symbols (Taken from the world around Lehi and his family)

— Dark and dreary waste           Getting lost in the wilderness at night was deadly ( 8:7).
— Large and spacious field        Maidan (Arab, “world”) = “large & spacious field” (8:9, 20).
— Tree (a “tree of life”)               Desert palm trees = “trees of life” (8:10; 11:25; 15:21–22).
— Fruit of the tree                        The fruit of palm trees was white and sweet (8:11–12).
— River of filthy water                Calls to mind a violent flash flood in a wadi (8:13;12:16).
— Mist of darkness                      Calls to mind a thick fog at nighttime (8:23).
— Rod of iron                               Guides people through the mists of darkness (8:19).
— Great & spacious building     Inspired by towering cliffs in the wadi (8:26).

THE INTERPRETATION

● “He that diligently seeketh shall find” (1 Nephi 10:19). Nephi felt the need to understand the symbols of his father’s vision, and he prayed for this understanding (1 Nephi 10:17–19; 11:1–6.) He wanted to know he meaning of the symbols presented in his father’s vision (1 Nephi 10:17).

● By contrast, his brothers Laman and Lemuel considered their father “a dreamer” and did not ask concerning the meaning of what Lehi received (1 Nephi 15:1–2.) And for this reason, they were unable to understand the truths Lehi had taught them? (1 Nephi 15:3, 8–11.)

A Highly Symbolic Vision

Nephi received the interpretation of the symbols by a direct revelation of his own:

— Dark and dreary waste           The world (8:20).
— Large and spacious field        The world (8:9, 20).
— The tree of life                          The love of God (11:21–22).
— The fruit of the tree                 Represents eternal life in God’s kingdom.
— River of filthy water                Hell and the depths thereof (12:16; 15:26–36).
— The rod of iron                        The word of God (11:25; 15:23–25).
— The mist of darkness              Temptations of the devil (12:17).
— Great & spacious building     The pride, wisdom, and vain imaginations of the world (11:35–36, 12:18).

The Application of Their Principles

With this knowledge, Nephi proceeded to offer examples of how these symbols may be used to represent gospel events or principles:

Symbol: Example of an event or principle that illustrates it:
— The tree (love of God)                  The coming of the Son of God (11:13–22).
— The river of filthy water (hell)    Wickedness and war.
— The rod of iron (word of God)    The ministry of the Son of God (11:24–25).

— Mist of darkness (temptations)   Apostasy, wickedness, war, great abominable church, plain and precious things
removed from the scriptures (12:19–23; 13:1–9, 20–29).

— Great & spacious bldg (pride)      The persecution of the followers of Christ (11:26–36) inspired by wealthy scoffers in Jerusalem.

The Tree of Life and its Fruit

● Lehi and Nephi provided a detailed description of the tree and its fruit:
— “Most sweet, above all that I ever before tasted” (1 Nephi 8:11).
— “White, to exceed all . . . whiteness” (1 Nephi 8:11; 1 Nephi 11:8).
— “Desirable above all other fruit” (1 Nephi 8:12; 1 Nephi 15:36).
— Having “beauty . . . exceeding of all beauty” (1 Nephi 11:8).
— “Precious above all”; “most precious” (1 Nephi 11:9; 15:36).
— “Most joyous to the soul” (1 Nephi 11:23; 1 Nephi 8:10).
— “The greatest of all the gifts of God” (1 Nephi 15:36).

● Eternal life is the “most sweet” and “most precious” blessing we can receive. Because of God’s love for us, this blessing is available to us through the Atonement of Jesus Christ.

“Knowest Thou the Condescension of God?” (1 Nephi 11:16)

After seeing the dream for himself, Nephi was asked by an angel if he understood the “condescension of God.” The word condescension means coming down voluntarily to a lower level.

Elder Bruce R. McConkie said, “The condescension of God (meaning the Father) consists in the fact that .. . he became the personal and literal Father of a mortal Offspring born of mortal woman. And the condescension of God (meaning the Son) consists in the fact that . . . he [Jesus Christ] submitted to all the trials of mortality, suffering `temptations, and pain of body, hunger, thirst, and fatigue, even more than man can suffer, except it be unto death’ (Mosiah 3:5–8), finally being put to death in a most ignominious manner.”2

The Love of God

● It is at this point that Nephi understood that the Tree of Life is a representation of the love of God, as manifested by the atoning sacrifice of His Son Jesus Christ.

● Thus, God’s love for us is the key truth at the center of the vision of the Tree of Life.

LEHI’S CONCERN FOR HIS FAMILY

The People in Lehi’s Dream

Having partook of the fruit of God’s love, Lehi’s first thought was of his family (1 Nephi 8:12). He wanted them to partake of the same fruit and enjoy the same eternal life. Is this not consistent with what all righteous parents would want?

Nephi and Sam made it to the tree; Laman and Lemuel did not (1 Nephi 8:2–4), despite Lehi’s plea for them to repent (1 Nephi 8:36–38).

Four Classes of People are identified in the dream:
— Those who never get on the path & head straight for worldly things (vv. 31–33).
— Those who start on the path but become lost (vv. 21–23).
— Those who obtain salvation but become ashamed and fall away (vv. 24–28).
— Those who have obtained salvation and remain faithful (v. 30).

● We should consider which of these groups we belong to.

DOCTRINAL INSIGHTS

The Use of Symbols to Teach

The vision of the Tree of Life was a highly symbolic vision (1 Nephi 8:4–20). We might ask, “Why does the Lord use such symbols to teach?” Wouldn’t it be easier for us to understand if the principles were plainly stated?

The answer is “no” for a variety of reasons:

(1) Symbols protect the innocent by masking the meaning from those who are not spiritually mature enough to be accountable for the consequences of the principles thus being taught.

(2) Symbols draw upon well-known and frequently-encountered objects and activities of life that provide a frequent reminder of the underlying principles.

(3) Symbols are an aid to memory because of their association with other readily remembered things.

(4) Well-chosen symbols (for example, those associated with ordinances) add a dimension of sanctity that would otherwise be lacking.

Symbols in Ordinances and Covenants:

Every ordinance has:
(1) an action we must physically perform.
(2) symbolic tokens used in performing symbolic actions.
(3) specific covenants we make with the Lord as we use those tokens to perform the ordinance.

The sacrament, for example, requires us to perform the action of eating (the action) bread and water (the symbolic tokens) while making specific covenants contained in the prayer offered by the priest. A similar analysis can be made of the baptismal ordinance and temple ordinances.

There is no saving grace in simply performing symbolic ordinances without thought concerning the tokens and covenants associated with them. We are commanded to seek to understand the symbolism of what we do when we perform ordinances.

John A. Widtsoe said:

“If we are to understand the mighty symbols that pass in review before us . . . Everything must be arranged to attune our hearts, our minds, and our souls to the work. Everything about us must contribute to the peace of mind that enables us to study and to understand the mysteries, if you choose, that are unfolded before us . . .

“We live in a world of symbols. [But we must learn to see], beyond the symbol, the mighty realities for which the symbols stand. . . . [A symbol] which was given by revelation can best be understood by revelation; and to those who seek most vigorously, with pure hearts, will the revelation be greatest.”3

● Upon careful thought, we can see that the symbols and tokens used in ordinances all have something to do with Jesus Christ, who is the author of our salvation.

Notes:

1. Christ and the New Covenant [1997], 160, 162.
2. Mormon Doctrine, 2nd ed. [1966], 155.
3. “Temple Worship,” The Utah Genealogical and Historical Magazine, April 1921, 60, 62–63.

 

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