I was reading Elder Uchtdorf’s Three Sisters talk from this past General Conference and something he said prompted me to look at Lehi’s vision again. I went looking for a particular verse that illustrated the moment the people went from holding the rod to grasping the fruit of the tree.
“…they came and caught hold of the end of the rod of iron; and they did press their way forward, continually holding fast to the rod of iron, until they came forth and fell down and partook of the fruit of the tree.” (1 Nephi 8:30)
Notice that the iron rod in this vision has a beginning and an end. I don’t think that means that God’s word has a beginning or an end so why use this as a metaphor? There could be many reasons, but I’ll focus on what comes to my mind.
First, consider what hands represent. “The hand … is the corporeal manifestation of the inner state of the human being and … it expresses an attitude of mind.” (Draper, Opening the Seven Seals, pg. 95-96, quoted in Alonzo Gaskill’s The Lost Language of Symbolism) In this verse we see the hands doing several things:
- Catching the end of the rod
- Holding fast to the rod
- Releasing the rod
- Grasping(?) the fruit
The people in the vision find their way to the path, presumably empty-handed, and then catch the end of the rod of iron. So there comes the point at which the hand, and by extension, the mind, catches the word of God and then holds fast to it.
Look at the language Alma uses when he describes his conversion experience to his son “Now, as my mind caught hold upon this thought, I cried within my heart: O Jesus, thou Son of God, have mercy on me…”. (Alma 36:18) I think there is a double entendre happening with the phrase “word of God.” Often the word of God is what we think of as scripture, but the word “Word” is also a title for Jesus Christ himself which is the “Word” Alma’s mind caught hold of while racked with darkness and torment.
I think it is very likely that Alma was well-acquainted with the tree of life vision because he often uses very similar language. Consider the following verse:
“…ye shall pluck the fruit thereof, which is most precious, which is sweet above all that is sweet, and which is white above all that is white, yea, and pure above all that is pure; and ye shall feast upon this fruit even until ye are filled, that ye hunger not, neither shall ye thirst.” (Alma 32:42)
Now compare that with Lehi’s description of the fruit in his vision.
“I did go forth and partake of the fruit thereof; and I beheld that it was most sweet, above all that I ever before tasted. Yea, and I beheld that the fruit thereof was white, to exceed all the whiteness that I had ever seen.” (1 Nephi 8:11)
Alma uses very similar language to Lehi with phrases that are used in the exact same order; this is not coincidental. I don’t think that there is any doubt that Alma understood how his conversion experience related to the patterns in the tree of life vision and tried to teach those things to others on several occasions. I think a closer examination of Alma’s doctrines and that vision would be an interesting study.
The vision portrays that it is only by holding fast to the word, like Alma, that one makes it through the mists of darkness. They hold on to the rod until (note the “until” here) they “[come] forth and [fall] down.” Note that they release the rod once they are within reach of the fruit.
This is very interesting to me. Why do they “fall down”? Out of exhaustion or respect? Is this a display of weakness or humility? I’m not sure, but it does seem that between releasing the rod and partaking of the fruit there is a moment where the hands are empty again, a moment of vulnerability perhaps. Then they are no longer holding the rod but the fruit. They then take a bite and taste. Touch has been the dominant sense up to this point, and now it is touch plus taste. The mind is engaged in receiving new information via another sense that has been dormant up until now.
This moment of vulnerability though, where the hands are empty again, what could it mean? I think there is a space between the revealed word of God that guides our steps and what we experience from God. There comes a time where we must go and experience God in all His glory. The word revealed to us is a guide, not the destination. I’m not negating the value of scripture here. Even though we receive this word via human-made languages, it still has the power to lead one to God, just like an iron rod can lead one to the tree.
That said, all of us here on earth can read the same verses of scripture and understand things so differently. Our prejudices, traditions, and cultural influences act like a mist of darkness preventing us from seeing the tree in all its glory. While scores of people endlessly debate their versions of the truth, there sits the tree. One must find their way through that darkness while holding fast until they reach the end of where the word of God can take them. At some point, we must each partake of God’s presence and, like Alma, receive from Him the promised blessings.
We must empty our hands to fill them with something new. The rod, the path, the journey through darkness, they all prepare us for that moment where we can reach out and taste for ourselves the fruit of our faith; something “desirable to make one happy.” (1 Nephi 8:10)