An Ancient Perspective on 5 Symbols in Lehi’s Dream


As we study 1 Nephi 8–10 this week, the Come Follow Me manual invites us to create a chart pairing five symbols from Lehi’s dream with the meaning of that symbol, and consider questions to ponder about each symbol. Many readers are of course aware that Nephi has a vision that offers expansive interpretations of the many symbols, and the manual encourages us to read passages from the vision while doing this exercise. There is also extensive modern commentary on the dream from General Authorities and religious educators. All of those are wonderful resources.

Here, I’d like to offer some ancient Israelite and Near Eastern perspectives on the main five symbols of Lehi’s dream, not as a replacement of the interpretations by Nephi or modern commentators, but as a complimentary supplement—something additional to consider and ponder. In many cases, these ancient perspectives actually support the interpretations by Nephi, or at least help us understand how he deciphered the symbolism put before him by his angelic guide.

As you read Lehi’s dream this week, I hope these ancient perspectives can enhance both your understanding of the dream as Lehi experienced it and your own effort to experience the dream and apply its symbolism to your own life and circumstances.

1. The Tree and Its Fruit
The tree of life, or sacred tree (also called “world tree” by some cultures) is one of the most universal symbols in antiquity throughout the world. Virtually every culture has a tree of life symbol. In ancient Israel, the menorah was a symbol of the tree of life, representing an almond tree, which bloomed with radiant white blossoms in the spring. Other iconographic depictions of the tree of life in the ancient Near East portray it as the date palm tree, while others represent it is a white cypress (even though cypress is usually a very dark tree). Other sources describe the tree as bright and fiery, like the sun. It’s fruit, in one source, is described as being like “white grapes.”

The tree in Lehi’s dream is given a similar description:
  • the beauty [of the tree] was far beyond, yea, exceeding of all beauty
  • the whiteness thereof did exceed the whiteness of the driven snow.
  • the tree … is precious above all. (1 Nephi 11:8)

As is the fruit:
  • [the] fruit was desirable to make one happy.
  • it was most sweet, above all that I ever before tasted.
  • the fruit thereof was white, to exceed all the whiteness that I had ever seen.
  • [eating the fruit] filled my soul with exceedingly great joy (1 Nephi 8:10–12)

In the ancient Near East, the tree of life was commonly associated with a goddess regarded as the “mother of the gods/sons of god.” In early Israelite religion this was manifest in a Heavenly Mother figure known as Asherah, who was not only the mother of divine beings in the heavenly council, but was also regarded as the mother of the Davidic king—i.e., the Messiah. (Belief in such a Heavenly Mother figure is no problem for Latter-day Saints.)

Nephi’s vision actually reflects this understanding in an interesting way. When he asks the meaning of the tree, he is shown a virgin, who eventually bears a child her arms—a child identified as the Son of God and Messiah (1 Nephi 11:9–23). Compare Nephi’s description of the virgin to that of the tree and its fruit:
  • she was exceedingly fair and white.
  • most beautiful and fair above all other virgins. (1 Nephi 11:13, 15)

And the virgin is identified as “the mother of [the Son of] God, after the manner of the flesh” (1 Nephi 11:18, brackets added in 1837). As Daniel C. Peterson has pointed out, Nephi appears to have transferred the tree of life imagery and symbolism of the Messiah’s divine mother and applied it to the Messiah’s earthly mother—Mary. The fruit of the tree, then, is quite naturally the fruit of Mary’s womb—the divine Messianic child, Jesus of Nazareth.

Hence, Nephi is able to understand that the tree and its fruit represent the “love of God,” embodied in God the Son’s condescension as a defenseless child to a mortal mother in humble circumstances (1 Nephi (1 Nephi 11:16–22).

2. The River
Lehi sees a river of water running near by the tree (1 Nephi 8:13). In the real world Lehi was traveling through at this time—ancient Arabia—rivers ran through deep, often narrow canyons or gorges known as wadis, which if encountered from a top the mountains were typically impassable divides. Indeed, the river-valley he was camping in at the time, known as the “Valley of Lemuel” was likely one of these wadis. Most of these wadis only had flowing water in them during (and immediately after) the rainy season, but the heavy rains combined with the narrowness of the canyons frequently turned these wadis into torrents of filthy, muddy water which quickly swept away anybody caught in their deep and rapid flows of mud and debris.

Its no wonder, then, that when Nephi saw this same river, he saw a river of filthiness, forming an impenetrable gulf between the righteous and the wicked, and representing the depths of hell (1 Nephi 12:16, 18; 15:26–29).

3. The Rod of Iron
Lehi also sees a rod of iron leading to the tree (1 Nephi 8:19). Modern readers typically envision this as a railing of some sort. But railings are rare in the ancient world. Instead, scholars have suggested this was more like a staff or scepter. It maybe hard to imagine a staff or scepter extending a long a path and leading people who grab hold of it forward to the tree, but just remember that this is a dream—sometimes things are strange and unusual in dreams.

In the ancient Near East, rods were symbols of authority (e.g., like the king’s scepter), but they could also take on the guiding or shepherding, such as the shepherd’s staff. Hence, in Lehi’s dream, the rod leads and guides people to the tree (1 Nephi 8:19), as Margaret Barker observed. It’s also interesting, however, that Nephi understands the meaning of the rod after witnessing people fall down and worship Jesus Christ (1 Nephi 11:24)—hence reflecting the rod as a symbol of authority or rulership. 

Indeed, whether it was the king or the Lord, they ruled by their word. Thus, as John Thompson pointed out, Nephi understands from the scene of worshipers at the feet of the Son of God that the iron rod is the authoritative word of God (1 Nephi 11:25). In fact, in ancient Egyptian, the words for rod and word are identical and thus the association likely represents a wordplay on Nephi’s part.

4. The Mist of Darkness
Lehi also saw a “mist of darkness” settle in over the scene, and obscure the path for all who failed to grab hold of the rod (1 Nephi 8:21–24). Like the filthy river, this is an element of the real world Lehi was traveling in. Near the coasts of Arabia—where Lehi was at that moment encamped—foggy, dusty mists were known to emerge and obscure the path of travelers. This was especially common during the monsoon season (the same time the rivers were flooded and filthy).

Hugh Nibley wrote that according to the Arabian poets, “the culminating horror is almost always a ‘mist of darkness,’ a depressing mixture of dust, and clammy fog, which, added to the night, completes the confusion of any who wander in the waste.” It’s not hard to imagine the terror of wandering blind through barren desert wilderness through thick fog or mist, not knowing where to find food, clean water, and shelter, especially with the added risk of falling into the deep ravines and torrential mud flows talked about above.

This terrifying reality would have driven home for Lehi just how hopeless and lost those who turned away from the guiding rod were. Trying to grope their way in the darkness, the wound up on “forbidden paths” (1 Nephi 8:28).

5. The Great and Spacious Building
Finally, Lehi sees a “great and spacious building” which looks like it is “in the air, high above the earth” (1 Nephi 8:26). In this case, there are two interesting interpretations based on Lehi’s real world. One possibility, originally suggested by Hugh Nibley, was that Lehi was seeing a tall, multistoried building like those known in southern Arabia. Skyscrapers of the ancient world, the setting of these buildings in cities positioned in the opening of wadis where the filthy flood waters and foggy mists already mentioned would come sweeping through, complements the other real world features of Lehi’s dream, making it easy to imagine the whole dream set outside in fields from one of these south Arabian cities.

Another possibility suggested by some scholars is that it was actually Solomon’s temple, being run at the time by corrupt and apostate priests (at least from Lehi’s perspective). The Hebrew term hekal frequently used for the temple can also refer to a palace and essentially means “a large public building,” such as the “great and spacious building” of Lehi’s dream. The people in the building wearing “exceedingly fine” clothing—reminiscent of the priestly garments, frequently described as “fine” in the Old Testament.

If the temple is, indeed, what Lehi saw as the “great and spacious building,” then it would have confirmed to him that the people of Jerusalem, including the temple priests, were in a state of apostasy and ripe for destruction.

Concluding Thoughts

There is a lot more that could be said about each of these symbols and the ancient world in which Lehi lived, along with some of the additional symbols of Lehi’s dream such as the “dark and dreary waste,” and the “great and spacious field.” But I hope these abbreviated remarks about these five symbols are helpful as you study Lehi’s dream this week and ponder over both it’s universal meaning and appeal and it’s personal application to your own life and circumstances.

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