Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Meaning of the Tree- 1 Nephi 11

(Forgive me for the long pause in teaching this particular process… I was bitten by the flu bug.)

In my last post I talked about the three step process of “the sign” which was given to Nephi from the Spirit of the Lord.  He was told he would see a tree, then a man descend out of Heaven, and then witness that this man was literally the Son of the Eternal Father.  

After Nephi witnessed that the Son of God was born of a Virgin, who is “the mother of the Son of God, after the manner of the flesh”, the Angel (not the Spirit of the Lord, remember different person…) proposed the following question:

1 Nephi 11: 21…Knowest thou the meaning of the tree which thy father saw?

Why would the Angel be so concerned about the tree?  

Although for us the meaning of the tree might not be very clear, Nephi, when posed with the above question, answered that he did know the meaning of the tree.  How does he know?

Daniel C. Peterson has explored this topic extensively and has explained his findings in the following:

“How has Nephi come to this understanding? Clearly, the answer to his question about the meaning of the tree lies in the virgin mother with her child. It seems, in fact, that the virgin actually is the tree, in some sense. Even the language used to describe her echoes that used for the tree. Just as she was "exceedingly fair and white," "most beautiful and fair above all other virgins," so was the tree's beauty "far beyond, yea, exceeding of all beauty; and the whiteness thereof did exceed the whiteness of the driven snow." Significantly, though, only when she appeared with a baby and was identified as "the mother of the Son of God" did Nephi grasp the tree's meaning.

Why would Nephi see a connection between a tree and the virginal mother of a divine child? His vision seems to reflect a meaning of the "sacred tree" that is unique to the ancient Near East and, in Israelite history, specifically to the period before the Babylonian captivity — Nephi's era. This can only be fully appreciated when the ancient Canaanite and Israelite associations of that tree are borne in mind.

Recent scholarship, including archaeological finds, has demonstrated that the goddess Asherah, worshipped among Israel's Canaanite neighbors as the wife of the supreme god, El, was also revered by many Israelites as the consort of El(ohim) and the (in some accounts, virginal) mother of his children. She was symbolized by a tree, and, in fact, a representation of such a tree stood within the temple at Jerusalem during the time of Lehi.”

(For a complete account of Dr. Peterson’s views you may want to read his article written for the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies called, Nephi and His Asherah.

Nephi did not understand the condescension of God.  Because of the perspective he had, looking to a future event, he did not know how God would come to earth, and how the Atonement would actually happen.  It simply had not happened yet.  The Lord answered his request to know how this loving act was to take place.  He showed him in the most simplistic way so he could understand.  We need that simplistic view too.  We simply complicate it too much.  

Go and read Daniel Peterson’s full article… digest this…and we will talk more.


Anthony E. Larson said...

What God showed Nephi was a preview of Christ's birth and mission using cosmological imagery. That's why Nephi and the angel used the metaphor or imagery of a tree, a virgin and a descending man -- all three components of universal, ancient, sacred and cosmological imagery. It was part of the universal vision or One Story, as I term it, shown to all the prophets. It's origins lay in the ancient sky pageant seen by all mankind and recorded in their traditions. This pattern, according to comparative mythologists, is to be found in the sacred traditions of virtually ever antique civilization, as with the example of the Asherah/El (aster-ah or "star") tradition. It is imagery that is certainly not unique to Nephi or the Book of Mormon. But knowing this important connection of Israelite tradition with cosmoligcal tradition worldwide helps us appreciate that Joseph Smith translated an authentic ancient text. These traditions were unknown among scholars in his day. This authenticates and confirms his claims to translating and ancient text through the power of revelation. And that is the ONLY explanation, the only way Joseph could have so accurately portrayed such an archane tradition correctly. Peterson, bless his heart, knows nothing of the cosmological events that inspired this imagery in Nephi. Thus his scholarly analysis comes up a bit short. But he has it right as far as he goes. It's just that the truth is much more ample than his narrow, scholarly vision.

Heatherlady said...

I'd love to hear more of your thoughts about this. This imagery is so powerful to me... the tree of life being linked to women and to motherhood in some way. I don't really understand it all but little by little I'm seeing more.