Wednesday, March 05, 2008

hold to the iron divining rod

the handrail of iron

seemingly without exception, every painting of lehi's dream of the tree of life (from 1 nephi 8 & 11) depicts the infamous iron rod as a long hand rail extending across the scene. followers are shown holding onto the hand rail, traversing the plain as they follow the iron hand rail, never letting it loose from their grips.

this standard artistic depiction is also the standard interpretation given in sunday school lessons, general conferences, family home evenings, scriptural exegeses, institute classes, and etc. i have never heard any other interpretation of what lehi's rod of iron was.

unfortunately, this common understanding is wrong. the rod of iron in lehi's dream was not a metal handrail constructed across the landscape, but should be understood as a 'magical' hand-held metallic divining rod.

what is a divining rod?

also known as dowsing rods, witching sticks, and sometimes 'rods of aaron', the use of divining rods were popular throughout europe and the americas up until the 20th century (and are still in use today by folk magicians and scam-artists). they are best known as y-shaped sticks held by both hands which guide the users to underground water.

however, divining rods were not limited to sticks and water. they were also at times forged from metal and were used to find treasures or ascertain answers from god or other entities.

according to folk magicians of the 19th century, a rod held in the hands would often extend by itself away from the user toward the water or treasure - even pulling the rodsman (a person specializing in the use of divining rods) forward. if one did not grip the rod tightly, it would occasionally fly out of the users hand, leaving him lost and treasureless.

oliver cowdery and his father were both rodsmen and it was his skill in rods that is described as oliver's gift in doctrine and covenants 8:6-8

Now this is not all thy gift; for you have another gift, which is the gift of Aaron; behold, it has told you many things; Behold, there is no other power, save the power of God, that can cause this gift of Aaron to be with you. Therefore, doubt not, for it is the gift of God; and you shall hold it in your hands, and do marvelous works; and no power shall be able to take it away out of your hands, for it is the work of God.
in the original book of commandments (the predecessor to the doctrine and covenants), this passage read
Now this is not all, for you have another gift, which is the gift of working with the rod: behold it has told you things: behold there is no other power save God, that can cause this rod of nature, to work in your hands, for it is the work of God.
when brigham young famously stuck his cane into the ground and announced "this is the place" in the salt lake valley, his 'cane' was actually oliver cowdery's rod which he received from oliver's brother.

rods and rods of iron in the scriptures

in every instance of the use of 'rod' in the standard works, the word is used to denote a hand-held cane, staff, stick, or length of metal. there is not a single instance in the standard works where the word is used to describe a handrail. while 'rod' is prevalent throughout the bible, it is only used by nephi in the book of mormon. likewise, it is used to denote a cane or staff, not a handrail. for example, nephi uses 'rod' to indicate that which his brothers beat him with.
And it came to pass that Laman was angry with me, and also with my father; and also was Lemuel, for he hearkened unto the words of Laman. Wherefore Laman and Lemuel did speak many hard words unto us, their younger brothers, and they did smite us even with a rod. And it came to pass as they smote us with a rod, behold, an angel of the Lord came and stood before them, and he spake unto them, saying: Why do ye smite your younger brother with a rod? Know ye not that the Lord hath chosen him to be a ruler over you, and this because of your iniquities? Behold ye shall go up to Jerusalem again, and the Lord will deliver Laban into your hands. (1 nephi 3:28-29)

in the four times 'rod of iron' is used in the scriptures outside of lehi's dream (once in psalms, thrice in revelation), it is similarly used to denote a hand-held cane or staff.

the divining rod of iron

with this background, let's revisit nephi and lehi's description of the rod of iron.

1 Ne. 8: 19-20, 24, 30

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.
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.
• • •
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.
• • •
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.
1 Ne. 11: 25

25 And it came to pass that I beheld that the rod of iron, which my father had seen, was the word of God, which led to the fountain of living waters, or to the tree of life; which waters are a representation of the love of God; and I also beheld that the tree of life was a representation of the love of God.
1 Ne. 15: 23-24

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.
as we can see, there is nothing here that indicates the rod of iron is some lengthy handrail, but fits much better within the context of divining rods. like the divining rods that led to water and treasures, lehi's rod of iron, when held, would extended and lead its holder to the tree of life. if not held firmly, the user would find him or herself lost and unable to find the goal.


  1. Hmm . . . interesting interpretation, but I'm not persuaded, and that's not for lack of wanting of be persuaded -- I like divining rods. The part about the rod extending along the river doesn't seem to work with your interpretation.

  2. I wouldn't be bothered if the rod in Lehi's dream really was a divining rod; that would be no more mystical than, say, the Urim and Thummim or Moses' serpent staff (both of which I can accept).

    So, Loyd, you definitely make a compelling argument. However, I think a person could look at the description of the rod in 1 Nephi and argue the other way just as well. Perhaps not better, but equally as well. Maybe there's no good way to know for sure. But regardless of which way you'd like to accept, I think the message of the dream isn't altered, nor is the purpose of the rod.

  3. So, I get the background of the diving rod. I think you could argue (given the background that Joseph and Oliver had) that the image they meant by those words was that of a diving rod. And if it's true that the word "rod" never meant anything else to Old Testament authors (which you don't really substantiate, though I believe that you probably know what you're talking about) then I think you could argue that it's what Nephi meant, too. However, when you quote the scriptures at the end of your post, I don't really see the connection or how one of the images (handrail or diving rod) fits the text better than the other.

    But either way, handrail or diving rod, does it really matter? I mean, what's the point, exactly? Does it change how we interpret the vision if the rod were something else? I don't think it changes the symbolism that Nephi is given.

    Or is this information just intended to change the way we look at diving rods?

  4. lincoln... that's why i abandoned this theory a few years ago. it was after i came across a 19th century divining manual a few months ago that described the rod as extending toward the treasure that it made sense to me. also, i recall reading in quinn or somewhere about rods sometimes moving through the air by themselves without being held, guiding the user to treasures.

  5. You make a compelling argument here, but like Lincoln said, the extending along the river seems too big of a hurdle for it. Everything else fits nicely though.

    My personal experience also makes me hesitant to accept this. In my mission I came across a few people that used divining rods to find water. They recounted stories first hand that were very believable and my knowledge of their honesty and low likelihood of self deceiving made me believe them. The unfortunate part of the experiences was that every person involved with these divining rods became interested in the power and further research lead them away from Christianity (whatever form that was for them) towards black magic. This lead me to believe it was a slick tool of the adversary to pull people away from the other source of power in this world. At least that is how it ended up in the few cases that I had experience with. That being said, you can't deny the folk magic aspects of early Mormonism.

  6. Although I don't know the details, didn't Joseph Sr. have the same dream, but instead of iron it was a rope? That would also seem to suggest handrail imagery instead of a divining rod, unless there are divining ropes too, or if the dreams are completely unrelated and I'm misremembering it.

  7. carson,

    what do you mean by "The unfortunate part of the experiences was that every person involved with these divining rods became interested in the power and further research lead them away from Christianity (whatever form that was for them) towards black magic."? brigham young used divination with a divining rod to find the location to build the salt lake temple. oliver cowdery's gift of divination was given divine (pun intended) endorsement in the doctrine and covenants. the use of peepstones, which is just as folk-magicky as divining rods is no different - as i'm sure you are aware that the text of the book of mormon we have today was translated with a peepstone (not the urim and thummim).

  8. carson,

    i'll see if i can find that source about divining rods extending.


    while lucy smith's account of joseph sr's vision should not be completely dismissed, her frequent (probably unintentional) historical revisionism (especially her tendency to place herself and her husband as the heroes of her story) should cause us to question the authenticity of her account. as she often misremebered history and the only detailed account we have of this particular vision was recorded 50+ years after its occurrence, it seems quite plausible that lehi's vision was the source of her version of joseph sr's dream.

    of course, if that was the case, then that probably meant that she saw lehi's rod as a handrail. this would at first seem to go against my view as her [purported] heavy involvement in folk magic ought to have led her to see the rod as a divining rod. however, this assumes that she had herself done an in-depth reading of the book of mormon, and that a handrail interpretation from another had not already influenced her thinking.

  9. more info...

    here are all of the uses of the word 'extend' in the standard work.

    here also is the definition of 'extend' in webster's 1828 dictionary:

    EXTEND', v.t. [L. extendo; ex and tendo, teneo.]

    1. To stretch in any direction; to carry forward, or continue in length, as a line; to spread in breadth; to expand or dilate in size. The word is particularly applied to length and breadth. We extend lines in surveying; we extend roads, limits, bounds; we extend metal plates by hammering.

    2. To stretch; to reach forth; as, to extend the arm of hand.

    3. To spread; to expand; to enlarge; to widen; as, to extend the capacities, or intellectual powers; to extend the sphere of usefulness; to extend commerce.

    4. To continue; to prolong; as, to extend the time of payment; to extend the season of trial.

    5. To communicate; to bestow on; to use or exercise towards.

    He hath extended mercy to me before the king. Ezra 7.

    6. To impart; to yield or give.

    I will extend peace to her like a river. Is.66.

    7. In law, to value lands taken by a writ of extent in satisfaction of a debt; or to levy on lands, as an execution.

    The execution was delivered to the sheriff, who extended the same on certain real estate.

    EXTEND', v.i. To stretch; to reach; to be continued in length or breadth. The state of Massachusetts extends west to the border of the state of New York. Connecticut river extends from Canada to the sound. How far will your argument or proposition extend? Let our charities extend to the heathen.

    it seems that the book of mormon's use of 'extend' is always used in the form of the 2nd (and maybe 3rd) defintion "To stretch; to reach forth; as, to extend the arm of hand."

    for example,

    Alma 5: 33
    33 Behold, he sendeth an invitation unto all men, for the arms of mercy are extended towards them, and he saith: Repent, and I will receive you.

  10. i just came across this FARMS article by john tvedtnes that seems to equate lehi's rod with a cane or scepter, but does not make the case of a divining rod.

  11. Yep, fully aware of the stone in a hat. I guess what I mean by that paragraph I wrote is that folk magic was pretty prevalent back in JS's day and may have been similar in the way the Lord worked through him for the translation. That being said, I think the adversary can also use it today to pull us down his path. So, folk magic is more of thing of the 1800's rather than an eternal method of the Lords.

    What I really do like about the diving rod theory is that it is something you hold in your hand and it guides you, that flows very well with the scripture symbolism that is intended.

    I'm not counting your theory out because it has some good stuff in it. I hate to say this because it sounds so CES, easy black and white answer, but maybe the divining rod is a false version of something "divine." Maybe that is where magic wands, dowsing rods, etc came from?

  12. Nice article, Loyd. I hadn't read anything of yours for far too long.

  13. who the hell cares? does this somehow change the entire meaning of the dream? is the church now apostate because it is teaching false doctrines? what is your point or do you even have one?

  14. anonymous,

    my point is that the iron rod should be understood as a divining rod and not a handrail. that's all.

    my less explicit point was that you're awfully annoying and should just not comment my blog anymore.

  15. Loyd, around 8-28-2006 you had a post of a mock conversation between Job and God. What ensued was the typical "was it literal or an analogy" discussion. I find it curious that at the time you were on the "non-literal" interpretation side. Here I find you on the other side of the fence. So I must ask myself why? I would like to ask the anon-cowards questions myself.

    Seeing how you have taken both stances as it fits you why the need for such literal interpretation now? Does it change anything about the story, the meaning/implications in ones own life, or even the doctrines of the church? Your post is the same as asking if Job was real or not.

    Please don't misread me, I'm not saying you are wrong. When I was learning a foreign language my teacher took me outside, walked up to a tree and said "this is not a tree." I was confused at first but he then said "it is what it is, in english we call it a tree to identify it but that doesn't change what it is." The 'iron rod' is symbolic of the Word of God, regardless of what we use to symbolize it. It could be a Handrail, it could be Divining Rods, it could be a Rope --- doesn't change what it is.

    So if your point really is "... that the iron rod should be understood as a divining rod and not a handrail" then why? What does it change in comparisson to it being represented as anything else?


  16. So I take it there is no reason for this literral interpretation other than your own desire to pontificate. :P

  17. I see no comprehensive benefit in understanding the iron rod of Lehi's dream as a sort of divining rod as opposed to the handrail conjured up through artistic impression.

    Clearly, the rod of iron effectually denotes neither a handrail nor a divining rod, but the word of God. I do however, like the imagery suggested in the FARMS article you mentioned; that of the word of God as a staff or a rod which is used both as a support and a weapon against those darned fiery darts.

    As for the handrail/divining rod debate your post has started....I think I prefer the handrail. I prefer the image of Christ's followers holding to one rod/the same rod/one word. PLUS, if all LDS were to concur that the rod of iron in Lehi's dream should physically be interpreted as a sort of divining rod, then we'd have to modify nearly all the artistic interpretations of the passage. We'd have to erase all the handrails and insert a bucket full of diving rods at the head of the path with a sign that reads "You are invited to take one and hold on tight."

    You don't know me and I don't know you, but I found your blog the way most people find a blog - boredom and lots of mouse clicking. Anyway, interesting blog. Have a good day.

  18. I see no comprehensive benefit in understanding the iron rod of Lehi's dream as a sort of divining rod as opposed to the handrail conjured up through artistic impression.

    How about it just being an interesting notion that is intellectually enjoyable to mull over and spiritually enjoyable to consider other possibilities of significance that will deepen your understanding of the intended metaphor that Lehi/Nehi/Etc. tried to convey???

  19. Way Awesome, Loyd! This interpretation has me looking at Lehi's dream in new ways. Plus, I've always wondered what O. Cowdery's gift was in that D&C passage.

    I'm ready to start work on my new artist's rendering of Lehi's dream.

  20. Just checking to see if this will work.

  21. Not anonymous, but Katy. Just didn't want to go through the hassle of setting up account...
    Interesting commentary. I sometimes wonder about modern day interpretations of literature, art, scriptures, etc. In this case, I'm wondering if Lehi or Nephi ever saw an iron handrail in Jerusalem. Where would it most likely have been? Seems rather unlikely, yet possible I guess. Why would the angel interpret a dream where the explanation included an unknown concept? That doesn't seem like an explanation it seems like another puzzle. Once we take people out of their historical, cultural, traditional context we are more likely to make inaccurate conclusions about their lives. Thanks to the person that left the Farms reference. Looked up the article and quite enjoyed it. Perhaps we need to look at the "word of God" as being literal rather than symbolic.
    I quite like a good jolt to everday complacency which leads to acceptance of another person's ideas. It stimulates a more personal revelation of scripture.
    carry on.

  22. It's almost ironic (is that almost a pun?) how you described the artists' depiction of the iron rod as "extending" across the scene. (1828 definition #1? Would Joseph Smith utilize a word according to what he understood the meaning to be, not necessarily the same word that Nephi would have used?)

    On the other hand, maybe there were no iron handrails in Lehi's time. I'm not an expert in archeology (or anything else!) Yet, maybe Lehi, like John the Revelator, needed to convey things seen in vision or dream that were not from normal everyday experience--using the limited vocabulary terms of that day? And no matter how much we think we understand the term as used back in that day, that understanding might not take us too close to understanding an object description of something out of the norm of the time?

    Because of these possibilities, to me, your statement, "unfortunately, this common understanding is wrong" is too strong. But I'm also willing to admit that your interpretation hasn't been proven wrong, either!
    :) Very interesting.

    "Not Ryan"

  23. Great post. it is very interesting and informative. Thank you for the sharing.
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