Aldo Leopold, who taught us to see the difference between a “wilderness” and a “waste”

In 1 Nephi chapter 8, Lehi has a vision that begins in “a dark and dreary wilderness.”  He describes the action that follows:

5 And it came to pass that I saw a man, and he was dressed in a white robe; and he came and stood before me. 6 And it came to pass that he spake unto me, and bade me follow him. 7 And it came to pass that as I followed him I beheld myself that I was in a dark and dreary waste.

8 And after I had traveled for the space of many hours in darkness, I began to pray unto the Lord that he would have mercy on me, according to the multitude of his tender mercies. 9 And it came to pass after I had prayed unto the Lord I beheld a large and spacious field. 10 And it came to pass that I beheld a tree, whose fruit was desirable to make one happy.

I have noticed that it is commonly assumed that the man who approaches Lehi is an angel (For example). Some people will notice the problems with that assumption:

The being who led Lehi into the dark and dreary waste is described as

  • “a man” (not identified as an angel, as you can only identify a true messenger by the fruits they present and this being had not offered anything yet)
  • who was “dressed in a white robe” (denoting his power and priesthoods)
  • who “bade [Lehi] follow him” (and when Lehi complied he led Lehi from a “wilderness” to a “waste”)
  • He then appears to have left Lehi to wander alone ( as Lehi says he prayed “after I had traveled for many hours in darkness”)

If we were judging this man by his fruit, we would not conclude he were an angel, or true messenger sent from the presence of God. The journey from a “wilderness” to a “waste” isn’t even a lateral move, it is a serious regression. Wilderness, though untamed and seemingly inhospitable, is invariably a functioning ecosystem with robust paths for routing the sun’s energy in cascades of intelligence—as plants receive sunlight, animals eat plants, and others eat those animals, passing the chemical energy on to new beings. A wilderness enriches itself over time. The Hebrew word for wilderness is midbar. It is a fertile land, though uninhabited, full of life and potential; it is a place where livestock may be led and grazed; it symbolizes a place of internal reflection, of communion and speech with God, and meditation. “A “waste” is, by definition, the product of mankind’s iniquity. Whatever ecosystem was there has been laid waste by short-sighted greed. Ecosystems collapsed due to excessive hunting, fishing, harvesting, or grazing. Sunlight now falls on rock scraped clean of soil by mountain-topping, erosion, or poisoning. The sun’s energy is now literally “waste”-ed. The Hebrew word for waste is chorbah, which means “a place laid waste, ruin, waste, desolation”. The transition from unspoiled “wilderness” to a “waste” is a clue to the true nature of this man in a white robe.

Lehi’s vision is structured as an ascension story, much like the Endowment ritual in the temple. If we map Lehi’s story onto the journey from the Telestial world to the veil (who is Christ, the fruit of the tree), then we find that this man in a white robe appears exactly when Lucifer (and formerly his preacher) appears in the endowment. This man in a white robe says and does everything Lucifer does in the ritual, and serves the same liturgical function: to dramatize the futility of following and trusting in man. We could say that every time a wilderness is turned into a waste it is the work of Lucifer’s hired armies and navies, and his false priests who oppress and tyrants who destroy. Both Lehi and Adam are rescued from these messengers and the institutions they represent in response to a cry to God de profundis, and are led from darkness to light by personal revelation.

In 600 BC Jerusalem, Lehi had fled a bloodthirsty hierarchy made up of “prophets and priests” who claimed they possessed an invincible dispensation (Jeremiah 26 & 28). Jeremiah quotes the same people as they plotted against him (Jeremiah 18:18):

¶ Then said they, Come, and let us devise devices against Jeremiah; for the law shall not perish from the priest, nor counsel from the wise, nor the word from the prophet. Come, and let us smite him with the tongue, and let us not give heed to any of his words.

Those were the teachings Lehi had been offered in his upbringing, surrounded by men in white robes bidding Lehi to follow them because “the law shall not perish from the priest…nor the word from the prophet”. The Lord would surely not allow them to lead Lehi astray. The presence of a false messenger in a white robe was a powerful teaching tool for Lehi and his children which drew own  their own biography to show the universal human journey: the journey from a corrupt institution which inculcated a trust in the arm of the flesh, to a redemption granted by trusting in God alone.

According to the ceremonies of the Temple, we are also confronted by men adorned with emblems of their power and priesthoods who bid us to “follow” them, but have no power to lead anyone in the way of life and salvation. Not only do they fail to add light, they lay waste to the light that was already present. The wise wanderer will learn from Lehi how to respond, and cry out to God for mercy.

True messengers may also appear in response to faith (Moroni 7:29-30). When they do they will point to the tree and her fruit, not to themselves (Ibid vs. 31; 2 Nephi 26:29). They will persuade by meekly teaching truth rather than by proclaiming that their priesthood regalia obligates you to follow them (D&C 121:41-42). They will be able to lead others in the way of life and salvation because they have walked that path to the end already, partaking of the fruit which is communion with Christ himself (Alma 13:6).