Sunday, January 20, 2008

of rods and mothers of gods

the following comes from my sunday school lesson which i gave in my ward today.

in lehi and nephi's vision of the tree of life, the common interpretation of the tree itself is that the tree represents jesus christ, while the fruit of the tree represents eternal life, salvation, or some other gift offered by the savior. however, by taking a closer look at the text itself i believe this is not the intended interpretation by the authors.

in the eleventh chapter of first nephi, nephi is given the opportunity to see the same vision that his father lehi saw in a dream. however, in nephi's case he is also accompanied by the spirit of god to give him a hand in interpreting the vision. nephi gives four descriptions of the tree. he describes it as possessing "beauty . . . exceeding all beauty" and "whiteness . . . exceed[ing] the whiteness of the snow" (vs. 8). the tree is "precious above all" (vs.9). and finally, the tree "bore the fruit" which lehi had tasted in his vision (vs. 7).

what exactly does it mean to be "precious above all"? in moroni 9:9 this exact phrase is used to describe the chastity and virtue of the daughters of the lamanites. in proverbs 3, which nephi would have been well read in, wisdom (also the name of a feminine deity) is described in the feminine form as being "more precious than rubies: and all the things that thou canst desire are not to be compared unto her" (vs 15). furthermore, "she is a tree of life to them that lay hold upon her" (vs. 18). finally, in proverbs 31 the price of "a virtuous woman," like wisdom, is " far above rubies" (vs 10).

after seeing the tree, nephi asks for the interpretation of it. as soon as he's done asking, he looks again and the tree is replaced with a vision of jerusalem and mary, jesus's mother. nephi describes her as a virgin (vss. 13, 15, 20), "exceedingly . . . white" (vs 13), and "most beautiful and fair above all other virgins" (vs. 15). finally, she is "bearing a child in her arms" (vs 20).

to sum things up...

tree .................................................. mary
very white .......................................... very white
very beautiful ...................................... very beautiful
feminine, virtuous, chaste ........................ female, virgin
bears fruit ........................................... bears a child

it should seem clear from this that the tree of life in this vision is not meant to represent jesus, but is rather meant to allude to mary the mother of christ bearing the christ child. however, i am not advocating any kind of catholic maryology. the importance of the tree is dependent on the fruit it is bearing, likewise the importance of mary is signified by the child in her arms. this is made clear when the spirit asks nephi, "knowest thou the condescension of god?" (vs. 16). what the tree represents is just that - the all-powerful god of israel who divested himself of his divinity, becoming a man, to save his people.

to further show this point, when the book of mormon was first translated by joseph smith, the short phrase 'the son of' was not in the original texts of verses 18, 21, and 32. these additions were made in the 1837 second edition of the book of mormon as joseph smith (somewhat anachronistically) changed the texts to match up with his modern conception of god. in they're original form, these verses better reflect the strict monotheism of nephi's judaism and the utter-powerfulness of the vision of the messiah that he envisioned.

"behold the virgin whom thou seest is the mother of god, after the manner of the flesh." (vs 18)

"and i looked and beheld the virgin again, bearing a child in her arms. and the angel said unto me: behold the lamb of god, yea even the eternal father." (vss 20-21)

"and i looked and beheld the lamb of god, that he was taken by the people; yea the everlasting god was judged of the world; . . . he was lifted up and slain for the sins of the world." (vss 32-33)

i think too often in mormon culture, we have reacted too sharply against the trinity of traditional christianity and have unfortunately had a tendency to de-emphasize the divinity of christ. and in the process have lost much of the importance of who jesus really is. for nephi (and as it should be for all of us) jesus wasn't just the son of god, but is - for all intents and purposes - god. jesus was the judge and lawgiver who spoke to moses on mount sinai. jesus was the all powerful god who stepped down from throne to be born as a mortal child. jesus was the allmighty god of israel who set that aside to be judged, beaten, and crucified by his very people.

it is this "condescension of god" that the rod of iron leads to, by bringing others to a knowledge of the love exemplified through this act. as the iron rod is the word of god, this is also one of the primary messages of the book of mormon as expressed in the title page, moroni writes that the book of mormon was written for" the convincing of the jew and gentile that jesus is the christ, the eternal god, manifesting himself unto all nations" (title page).

finally, in what the introduction to the book of mormon calls the "crowning event recorded in the Book of Mormon," jesus himself declares:

"arise and come forth unto me, that ye may thrust your hands into my side, and also that ye may feel the prints of the nails in my hands and in my feet, that ye may know that i am the god of israel, and the god of the whole earth, and have been slain for the sins of the world." (3 nephi 11:14)

like the spirit of god asked nephi, we must ask ourselves, "knowest thou the condescension of god?" the affirmative answer to this is more than a mere acknowledgement of certain predicates - like knowing that columbus is the capital in ohio - but is the existential recognition and internalization of gods act of love for each of us.


as the title implies, this post was going to include a brief discussion of a different view of the iron rod - specifically that the rod of iron should not be understood as some handrail of iron, but fits better within the 19th century folk use of divining rods. but as this post has already gone too long, i'll leave that for another day.


  1. Nice post, I've always loved 1 Nephi 11, and over the last five years or so have really looked at it mroe from the perspective offered here in your post. That was somewhat furthered by a Journal of Book of Mormon Studies article that you very well may have read. It's from 2000, but I didn't read it till around 2004. Nephi and His Asherah

    If you haven't read it you ought to, you'd likely enjoy it.

    I look forward to your post on the rod as divining rod- it should be quite interesting.

  2. Are you a Sunday School teacher now? Hopefully. This was 120 times more interesting than our lesson. Our lesson hit the same points that I've heard every fourth year for my entire life. I struggled to stay conscious.

    How'd the lesson go over? Did you get a chance to address the divining rod topic in class? I'd like to see your notes for that.

  3. When our teacher kept pressing for how many people also saw this vision I couldn't help but add Joseph Smith Sr. to the list and surprisingly she spent the rest of the time comparing the two and why he would also receive it. I was pleasantly surprised.

    Interesting thoughts. I'll have to think that over some more.

  4. The Silent Observer1/23/2008 12:47 AM

    The Narrator,


    Steve M.,

    I heard the cure for church boredom whilst on my mission (it comes from Elder Widtsoe, I believe). Whenever there was a talk or lesson that didn't hold my interest, I'd open my notebook and write my own talk or lesson on the topic being discussed or taught. Also, I kept a running list of good stories, axioms, jokes, or teaching models from others. It completely transformed my church-going experience.

    After a while, I realized it would be a useful teaching tool if I organized it. So I got a new notebook that fits with my scriptures, divided the 200 or so pages among 50 or so gospel topics (leaving a sizeable section in the end blank for write-in topics), and copied all the information over topically. Now when someone shares a valuable insight in church, I record it under the appropriate topic. Other times I flesh out topics that seem a bit thin (I was noticing the other day my pages under "Family/Marriage" are almost full, whereas the ones under "Charity" are virtually blank --a result of spending much time in BYU wards. ZING!) Other times I write whole talks or lessons in the blank sanction, drawing from various topics. Also, I keep a few running lists, such as an X96-style list of "Things That Must Go (In Church)" which shall be my syllabus if I'm ever running the Teacher Development course. Etc. Have fun with it.

  5. S.O.,

    That's a really good idea. Thanks for sharing.

    I normally bring a (church-related) book to read in case of boredom. I read Prince's David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism and Arrington's Adventures of a Church Historian during sacrament meeting talks and Sunday School lessons last year.

    I think your suggestion is more productive though. I'll give it a try.

  6. Silent,
    I have always been too much of a tech geek and do the same thing in my electronic organizer (be that palm, windows mobile, phone).

  7. awesome, loydo. I'd like to hear the divining rod stuff, too.

  8. Thanks for the insight... I wish I could be in your SS class.

  9. That was excellent. I really hadn't thought of that before. Unfortunatly I have no idea what we talked about in SS last Sunday. The reality of having a baby in tow is that I never really get to focus on the lesson. (Plus, we're in the marriage and family relations class. I wish I were back in regular SS.)

  10. they let you teach a class at church?

    thats irony

  11. anonymous coward,

    please explain.


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