I believe that passages of scripture can have multiple layers of meaning, allowing people at differing levels of understanding to see the same words differently and both be correct. I don’t believe that means that any or every interpretation is correct or equally helpful. Some interpretations are incorrect. I have heard teachers  describe the fruit of the tree of life in Lehi’s vision as though any member who had received sweet and sacred spiritual witnesses had tasted of the fruit of the tree of life. Another commentator said: “Partaking of the fruit of the tree represents the receiving of ordinances and covenants whereby the Atonement can become fully efficacious in our lives” (source). The Book of Mormon gives us some significant keys to interpret the meaning of the fruit and the other symbols in the scene. It can help us evaluate the helpfulness and validity of these interpretations. Put together, these keys reveal that Lehi’s vision is a story of heavenly ascent.

Ascension stories

There is a genre of scripture and ancient literature made up of heavenly ascents and apocalyptic visions. Whether the visionary ascends to heaven, or sees the heavens open before them, or whether God and angels descend to meet them on earth, these accounts are known as ascension texts or ascension stories. Here is a diagram showing the basic structure and typical elements of ascension stories:

Ascension stories diagram

The candidate begins in the telestial world beset by false messengers and wickedness. Through repentance and exceeding faith, they cry to God and he begins to rescue them from their awful situation. They are conducted upward by angels, being clothes in garments of light, and find themselves in a holy place, a high mountain or the heavenly temple. There they receive eternal covenants, a message to share, and knowledge they are to keep secret. They join the family of God as his Son or Daughter. The vision of the tree of life fits this structure well: Lehi begins the vision in the lone and dreary world and is approached by a messenger in priestly robes who demands allegiance but can lead only downward. His ascension begins after he cries out to God for mercy and the way is revealed. His walks the path to the tree and partakes of the fruit that fills his soul with joy. He then begins his ministry, beckoning others to join him.

Reading the tree of life vision as an ascension story

Nephi wrote this vision, as well as his other writings, with one purpose in mind:

For the fulness of mine intent is that I may persuade men to come unto the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, and be saved. (1 Nephi 6:4)

To understand how we can place ourselves within this ascent story and how it teaches us how to come unto God and be saved, we can study not only 1 Nephi 8 (in black below), but 1 Nephi 11 and 2 Nephi 31-33 (in blue and red, respectively). In 1 Nephi 11, Nephi questions his heavenly guides about the meaning of the symbols in Lehi’s dream. In 2 Nephi 31-32, Nephi revisits the same symbolic motif with added detail, helping us place specific landmarks along the path.

The tree of life and ascent to GodHere are some significant truths that combining Nephi’s various accounts reveal: 

  • The path begins in a great field, “as if it had been a world”. In other words, our ascent begins in “the world in which we now live”, the telestial kingdom. This is the default state of all mankind, estranged from God and fully ignorant of his mysteries. 
  • The gate to enter the path is repentance, baptism by water, and receiving a baptism of fire and of the Holy Ghost. Note that Nephi didn’t say “confirmation”. The baptism of fire is something you need to obtain from God. While it will come to all who truly repent and are baptized, we do such a poor job of teaching the gospel in general and repentance specifically that most who are baptized by water falsely equate the baptism of fire with the ordinance of confirmation. Many never know they are missing something. We mistakenly tell every person who has been confirmed that they now have the gift of the holy ghost (for instance), when in reality they have merely been encouraged to receive it (“I say unto you, receive the holy ghost.”). Read the scriptural accounts of people being baptized by fire and by the holy ghost. Read the miraculous gifts that attend and follow that baptism. Until you have been similarly baptized, and are similarly receiving revelation to guide you, you don’t have a hand on the rod of iron. Which bring us to…
  • The rod of iron is said to be “the word of God”. But which word? Too often I hear that it symbolizes the scriptures, such as in the words of the same commentator quoted at the beginning of this post (source). Nephi clarifies further in 2 Nephi 31-32. When a person receives the baptism of fire and of the Holy Ghost, they can now speak with the “tongue of angels” and “shout praises to the Holy One of Israel”, because “angels speak by the power of the Holy Ghost, wherefore they speak the words of Christ”.  It is those words of Christ upon which we must feast, because the words of Christ given to us through the Holy Ghost will tell each of us what we must do. Just as we observed Nephi talking with God and receiving specific instructions, we must do the same if we hope to be “clinging to the rod” or “holding fast” in a way that will lead us to the tree. Both the iron rod and the command to “feast upon the words of Christ” are about personal revelation through the Holy Ghost and heavenly messengers, not about reading scripture. 
  • As often as we talk about it, the tree of life is still an underexamined symbol in our classrooms and personal reading. Lehi would have recognized it, but Nephi needed some extra help. Why would Lehi recognize it? When Lehi was a young man, the divine mother had been symbolized by a stylized tree, the tree of life. Remnants of this belief are still found in scripture: in Proverbs 3 for instance the Lady Wisdom is said to be a tree of life that makes those who find her “happy”, and that she was a participant with God in the creation. Lehi may have watched in person as her symbol was cut from the temple, probably the original menorah being removed, and burned in the valley below. When Nephi asks to know the meaning of the tree his father saw, he is shown the “mother of God” holding her baby. Nephi recognizes her as “the love of God”. Appropriate language. When you feel that love shed abroad in your heart, you are being touched by the blossoms falling from Mother’s branches. For further information see the following:

Video: “A Divine Mother in the Book of Mormon”  by Daniel C. Peterson

Nephi and His Asherah” by Daniel C. Peterson

“What did King Josiah Reform?” by Margaret Barker

“Where Shall Wisdom be Found?” by Margaret Barker

  • The fruit of the mother tree, then, is Jesus Christ whose life Nephi then sees in vision. Nephi says that the strait and narrow path leads “to eternal life,” in 2 Nephi 31. To eat the fruit of the tree is to commune with Jesus Christ and know him, whom to know is life eternal ( (1 Nephi 15:36; D&C 14:7; John 17:3). The “words of Christ” given to us through the first comforter, the Holy Ghost, will lead us to the second comforter, Jesus Christ. He will manifest himself to us in the flesh and give us further light and knowledge (2 Nephi 32:1-6). He will seal us up to salvation and instruct us fully in the mysteries of God (source, source). In that sense, describing the fruit as “the blessings of the atonement” is correct, as long as one’s description of atonement includes God’s offer to come to us personally and make his abode with us in mortality. 

And so we see the same ascent story experienced by Nephi and Lehi written out in the symbolic scene, and we are more empowered to “liken” the scriptures unto ourselves by placing ourselves within that narrative and gauging our true position in relation to God. What is your next step? Are you on the path? Have you grasped the rod of iron and begun walking? 

Do you see that the temple endowment is the story of Adam and Eve’s ascent into God’s presence while in mortality? 1 Nephi 1-15 is the story of Nephi’s endowment. Does the endowment ritual in the temple give you all the blessings, power, and knowledge of Nephi, or does it merely invite you and instruct you how to receive them in reality? If you have only participated in an endowment ritual, have you truly been endowed with power?

Mists of darkness and fiery darts

I don’t think anyone will question the value of trying to deeply analyze this vision. But why go through the effort of critically evaluating other proposed systems of meaning? Isn’t that unnecessary, critical, and negative?

Suppose someone believes that partaking of the fruit of the tree means having spiritual feelings of interaction with God. Or suppose someone believes that “Partaking of the fruit of the tree represents the receiving of ordinances and covenants whereby the Atonement can become fully efficacious in our lives” (source).  Once the person has “gained a testimony”, or once they have participated in all the ritual covenant-making that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has to offer, they will think they have ascended as far as one can; they will place themselves among the groups standing around under the tree trying to hold their current footing while ignoring criticism from outsiders. They will try to “endure to the end” while standing still at the gate of the path. They will not see the miles of ascent left to travel, and will not seek nor obtain the blessings that attend that path. Such false interpretations of Lehi’s vision blind people to their spiritual state and to the great blessings they are offered, just as surely as though a thick mist of darkness had descended upon them. Eventually many people tire of this spiritual “holding pattern” and will simply wander off into strange paths and lose themselves. They will find countless philosophies that are more inspiring than the insipid and impotent gospel they were offered. The low activity rate of Church members suggest this is a common problem.

One of Joseph Smith’s primary criticisms of the Churches of his day is that they offered a false hope of salvation to their followers. They did not bring people to know God, and therefore did not offer eternal life. “He remarked that the disappointment of hopes and expectations at the resurrection, would be indescribably dreadful” (source).  Those who allow themselves to be blinded by false teachings and who refrain from coming all the way to God to have their garments washed white by Christ, will not possess sufficient glory to withstand his presence at judgment. This apocalyptic understanding of what they might have gained will “kindle a flame of unquenchable fire upon” them (Mormon 9:5).

Joseph Smith warned:

” the servants of God go forth warning the nations, both priests and people, and as they harden their hearts and reject the light of truth, these first being delivered over to the buffetings of Satan, and the law and the testimony being closed up, as it was in the case of the Jews, they are left in darkness, and delivered over unto the day of burning; thus being bound up by their creeds, and their bands being made strong by their priests, are prepared for the fulfilment of the saying of the Savior–“The Son of Man shall send forth His angels, and gather out of His Kingdom all things that offend, and them which do iniquity, and shall cast them into a furnace of fire, there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth.” (JS, Letter, Kirtland, OH, to the elders of the church, Dec. 1835; Latter Day Saints’ Messenger and Advocate, Dec.
1835, pp. 225–230.)

In that light, detecting and disarming the false creeds is absolutely essential. It is not an outward work of projecting criticism and negativity, but an inward work of correcting your own beliefs. If you can clearly and decisively replace error with truth, you have the power to disperse mists of darkness for yourself and others. If you can see the tree in the distance, and help others to see it, maybe you can inspire them to hold fast to the words of Christ and press forward.