Lehi’s Tree of Life vision and the Book of Revelation
Near the end of June, I was teaching my final institute class on the New Testament. By that point, the class had dwindled to only a couple of people, and I probably should have ended things earlier. With only two people in the class on the final day, the discussion of the second half of the Book of Revelation was more than a little awkward. But I think I probably got more out of than they did, especially when I began to think about connections between Revelation 21-22 and the Tree of Life vision in the Book of Mormon.
Revelation 21-22, if you recall, is the “New Jerusalem” section where Christ comes to reign on the Earth, evil is finally banished, a great city with lots of stones is constructed, and general good times are to be had by all. The most obvious point of connection between this section and 1 Ne. 8 is the reference to the tree of life in Revelation 22:2 (there are two, actually, one on each side of the river). But as I noticed this connection, I began to see some more symbolic links between the two visions.
For instance, both involve visions of a city or large building in the air. In Revelation, the New Jerusalem descends from heaven, while the “large and spacious building” of Lehi’s vision hovers above the ground. Both also have a river running through their visionary landscapes: in Revelation, that river is salvific, while it is the fount of iniquity in 1 Ne. 8. Finally, light and darkness are inverted in these visions: the New Jerusalem needs no sun, moon, or stars, because God’s light illuminates everything all the time (21:23). Lehi’s vision, on the other hand, is filled with darkness, starting with his struggle to make sense of his surroundings and followed by the “mists of darkness” that envelop those searching for the tree of life.
So the the visions have symbolic connections, but the Lehi’s vision is in many ways an inversion of John’s: there is not light everywhere, but darkness. The river is not life-giving, but polluted. The city is not a sanctuary, but a temple of worldliness. Only the Tree of Life exists in both worlds with the same symbolic meaning.
I’m not entirely sure what to make of this symbolic inversion, but I think it suggests a few different things.
One, that Lehi’s vision identifies the difference between mortality and heaven as a transformation of the symbolic economy one already exists within. The symbols of river, city, tree, and light exist in both, but in mortality, those meanings are inverted or counterfeit. The coming of the New Jerusalem is not a matter of wiping the slate clean but renewing the symbols so that the river is not hell but the fount of heaven, the spacious building crumbles but the New Jerusalem rises in its place.
Much of Lehi’s vision, after all, is shrouded in mystery, and the darkness that hovers over the rod-of-iron path occludes the interpretation of the dream’s symbols. Lehi experiences his vision, but there is very little interpretation by him or anyone else in the dreamscape. His response to tasting the fruit is visceral, but he doesn’t seem to know what else to say about it except that it filled him with joy and he wanted his family to have some. Sariah, Sam, and Nephi are standing around “as if they knew not wither they should go.” Lehi speculates, but is unsure, about the “large and spacious field, as if it had been a world” (that Lehi uses nearly an identical phrase to describe the great and spacious building suggests that these words are not indicative that the building is evil per se). Even people that have experienced the fruit don’t seem to know what to make of it, some feeling ashamed and wandering off. The dreamscape is filled with “strange” paths and a “strange” building (in 1830 parlance: foreign, new). Lehi does a lot of “beholding” but very little understanding.
The second implication is that Nephi’s own vision, where he seeks “To know the interpretation thereof,” serves as a bridge from Lehi’s mysterious dream to the full-fledged vision of the New Jerusalem in Revelation. Nephi’s heavenly messenger, much like the angel in Rev. 21, takes him up to a high mountain to explain that the river running by the tree is not actually a “fountain of living water,” as he initially presumed, but “the depths of hell,” that the large building represents the “pride” of the world, and that the darkness represents the temptations of Satan. Much like Moroni talks about the relationship between the Book of Mormon and the Bible in Morm. 8, Lehi’s and Nephi’s vision are supplementary to John’s, filling in the gaps and stretching out the revelation to cover human history and the transformation from mortality to the millennium. There is nearly a literal passing of the torch from Nephi to John at the end of 1 Ne. 14, when Nephi is restrained from finishing the vision he has of the end of the world since John will write about it later.
The transformation, then, from Lehi’s vision of mortality to John’s vision of the New Jerusalem relies heavily on interpretation for salvation–we first must make sense of these symbols for them to be renewed. In a way, Nephi’s own desire to make sense of his father’s vision is similar to Joseph Smith’s own longing to understand the symbols of the Book of Revelation, a project he’ll return to again and again in his sermons. For both, interpreting the symbols is the first step into fulfilling their purpose: repentance (what Nephi asks of his brothers after his vision). There’s similar to a temple ceremony going on in Nephi’s experience, where mortality (Lehi’s vision) begins to bleed into the heaven (John’s). One of Joseph Smith’s most trenchant insights is that heaven is really based on the “society” of this world, only added upon by glory. Understanding the symbolic economy of Lehi’s dreary world is the first step in the transformative process of revitalizing those symbols in preparation for Zion.
I’ll have to think more about this, but this is what I got so far.