Monday, October 18, 2010
Why I Disagree With Daniel C. Peterson’s Interpretation of 1 Nephi 11
In his recent article in the Mormon Times: “How Nephi understood the Tree of Life,” Dr. Peterson reiterates his personal interpretation of 1 Nephi 11, which he had previously expressed in a longer article called “Nephi and His Asherah: A Note on 1 Nephi 11:8–23,” published by the Maxwell Institute. The main thesis of his paper, or the main question he tries to answer, is expressed in the following paragraph quoted from the original article:
The question to be treated in this paper is, Why would Nephi, without any explicit direction from his guide, have seen an immediate connection between a tree and the virginal mother of a divine child? In other words, how, without any real explanation, would he recognize a depiction of Mary and Jesus as an elucidation of the meaning of a beautiful tree? In order to answer that question, I believe we must examine a facet of the history of ancient Israelite worship that has become much clearer only in the light of very recent research.
The problem with his analysis starts right here. He is basically asking the wrong question. He has misunderstood the “connection” in 1 Nephi 11. The connection is not between the “tree” and the “virginal mother”. The connection is between the tree and the coming of the Redeemer into the world. The “virginal mother” is unrelated to the symbolism of the three. She appears on the scene because she happens to be the conduit through whom the Redeemer was born. She was the parachute, so to speak, by means of which the Redeemer descended to earth. The symbolism of the tree does not relate to the parachute. It relates to the Person Who descended by means of it. His entire paper then centers on answering that wrong question; which of course explains why he gets the wrong answers. You don’t come up with right answers by asking, and then answering wrong questions. His article in Mormon Times starts as follows:
Nephi’s vision of the tree of life, among the best-known passages in the Book of Mormon, expands upon the vision received earlier by his father, Lehi.
“And it came to pass that the Spirit said unto me: Look! And I looked and beheld a tree; and it was like unto the tree which my father had seen; and the beauty thereof was far beyond, yea, exceeding of all beauty; and the whiteness thereof did exceed the whiteness of the driven snow.
“And it came to pass after I had seen the tree, I said unto the Spirit: I behold thou hast shown unto me the tree which is precious above all.
“And he said unto me: What desirest thou?
“And I said unto him: To know the interpretation thereof” (1 Nephi 11:8-11).
Because Nephi wanted to know the meaning of the tree that his father had seen and that he himself now saw, we would expect “the Spirit” to answer Nephi’s question. But, instead, Nephi is first shown a young virgin and then, after an interval, sees the same virgin holding a child in her arms. And he is told that she is “the mother of the Son of God, after the manner of the flesh” (1 Nephi 11:18).
The flaw in this reasoning is that he has jumped from verse 11 to verse 18, and overlooked the significant verses in the middle. Here are the verses he has skipped over:
12 And it came to pass that he said unto me: Look! And I looked as if to look upon him, and I saw him not; for he had gone from before my presence.
13 And it came to pass that I looked and beheld the great city of Jerusalem, and also other cities. And I beheld the city of Nazareth; and in the city of Nazareth I beheld a virgin, and she was exceedingly fair and white.
14 And it came to pass that I saw the heavens open; and an angel came down and stood before me; and he said unto me: Nephi, what beholdest thou?
15 And I said unto him: A virgin, most beautiful and fair above all other virgins.
16 And he said unto me: Knowest thou the condescension of God?
17 And I said unto him: I know that he loveth his children; nevertheless, I do not know the meaning of all things.
The key to understanding the symbolism of the tree is in verse 16: “Knowest thou the condescension of God?” The meaning of that will be discussed later; but let us continue with his reasoning:
Then “the Spirit” asks Nephi the question that Nephi himself had posed only a few verses before: “Knowest thou the meaning of the tree which thy father saw?” (1 Nephi 11:21).
Strikingly, though the vision of Mary seems irrelevant to Nephi’s question—for the tree is nowhere mentioned in the angelic guide’s response—Nephi himself now replies that, yes, he knows the answer (1 Nephi 11:22-23).
Again, he has jumped over the significant verses. Let’s look at these verses in more detail:
19 And it came to pass that I beheld that she was carried away in the Spirit; and after she had been carried away in the Spirit for the space of a time the angel spake unto me, saying: Look!
20 And I looked and beheld the virgin again, bearing a child in her arms.
21 And the angel said unto me: Behold the Lamb of God, yea, even the Son of the Eternal Father! Knowest thou the meaning of the tree which thy father saw?
22 And I answered him, saying: Yea, it is the love of God, which sheddeth itself abroad in the hearts of the children of men; wherefore, it is the most desirable above all things.
23 And he spake unto me, saying: Yea, and the most joyous to the soul.
The meaning of the tree is directly linked to the “Lamb of God, the Son of the Eternal Father,” not to Mary. Mary has nothing to do with the symbolism of the tree at all. His attempt to link the two together is contrived, and is not borne out by the obvious meaning of the text.
His observation is correct that the angel does not directly answer Nephi’s question, but instead shows him a vision of the coming of the Savior into the world; and Nephi’s mind appears to miraculously light up, and comprehends the meaning of the tree! That phenomenon occurs in relation to the meaning of the “rod of iron,” and the “great and spacious building” as well. The angel does not directly tell Nephi the meanings of them; instead he shows him a vision of other things, and Nephi’s mind seems to light up, and discover for himself what they mean! If Nephi needed a prop to understand what the symbolism of the tree was (i.e. association with Asherah, according to DCP), what were the props that enabled him to comprehend the meanings of the “rod of iron” and the “great and spacious building”? The answer is that no props were needed. The meanings were revealed to him by light of the Spirit as the vision unfolded.
But Daniel makes two mistakes here. Firstly, he incorrectly associates the symbolism of the tree with Mary, whereas the symbolism relates exclusively to the coming of the Savior into the world. And then, having made that incorrect association, he tries to find an arbitrary explanation for Nephi’s inexplicable realization of the meaning of the tree by making the assumption that Nephi’s sudden realization is the result of the association of the symbolism of the tree with the Asherah mythology of the ancient Near East, which is a completely tendentious argument based entirely on an unlikely speculation. Daniel then continues his narrative as follows:
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.
Not so! The symbolism of the tree has nothing to do with the “virgin mother”. And Nephi’s inexplicable “realization” can be explained in more scriptural, more logical ways. We have a similar situation arising in the vision of the redemption of the dead given to Jpseph F. Smith:
28 And I wondered at the words of Peter—wherein he said that the Son of God preached unto the spirits in prison, who sometime were disobedient, when once the long-suffering of God waited in the days of Noah—and how it was possible for him to preach to those spirits and perform the necessary labor among them in so short a time.
29 And as I wondered, my eyes were opened, and my understanding quickened, and I perceived that the Lord went not in person among the wicked and the disobedient who had rejected the truth, to teach them;
Here Joseph F. Smith is not given explicitly the answer to his question; instead, he is shown a vision of the redemption of the dead; and then he perceives the answer to his question by the light of the Sprit without needing to be expressly “told”. Nephi is undergoing a similar experience. He is having a spiritual vision. Spirit is communicating with his spirit. He doesn’t need the angel to verbally explain to him the meaning of every phenomenon he observes. He perceives things by the light of the Spirit as the vision unfolds. No prop, no “Asherah” mythology is needed to explain his ability to “know” things without being “told”.
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.”
The linguistic similarities are incidental. It is hardly adequate to make the connection, in the light of all the evidence against it.
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.
Not so! He grasps the meaning when he is told by the angel: “Behold the Lamb of God, yea, even the Son of the Eternal Father! . . .” (1 Nephi 11:21.) The connection is made with the “Lamb of God,” not with Mary.
Why would Nephi see a connection between a tree and the virginal mother of a divine child?
The answer is that he doesn’t!
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. . . .
The rest of his article basically becomes irrelevant from this point forward. Whether the Asherah mythology has, or ever has had an element of truth behind it, or whether it is just a myth pure and simple, I wouldn’t know, and I don’t think it is a significant factor in the discussion. Ancient cultures are full of mythologies of various kinds, some of which may or may not have been based on forgotten truths. I personally don’t think my time would be well spent trying to sift through them, a pursuit that is unlikely to ever lead to the discovery of undiluted truth. The rest of Nephi’s teachings in chapter 11, however, are worth examining in more detail:
24 And after he had said these words, he said unto me: Look! And I looked, and I beheld the Son of God going forth among the children of men; and I saw many fall down at his feet and worship him.
25 And it came to pass that I beheld that the rod of iron, which my father had seen, was the word of God, which led to the fountain of living waters, or to the tree of life; which waters are a representation of the love of God; and I also beheld that the tree of life was a representation of the love of God.
26 And the angel said unto me again: Look and behold the condescension of God!
27 And I looked and beheld the Redeemer of the world, of whom my father had spoken; . . .
28 And I beheld that he went forth ministering unto the people, in power and great glory; and the multitudes were gathered together to hear him; and I beheld that they cast him out from among them. . . .
32 And it came to pass that the angel spake unto me again, saying: Look! And I looked and beheld the Lamb of God, that he was taken by the people; yea, the Son of the everlasting God was judged of the world; and I saw and bear record.
33 And I, Nephi, saw that he was lifted up upon the cross and slain for the sins of the world.
That is what is meant by the “condescension of God,” and that is the real meaning of the symbolism of the tree. The word “condescend” (and its derivatives) as used in the biblical language of the KJV, do not have the negative connotations associated with it in modern English. Paul, for example, counsels the saints, “Mind not high things, but condescend to men of low estate” (Romans 12:16). What he means by that is to humble oneself to bring oneself down to the level of the common man, rather than aspire to those of high station in society because of wealth or privilege. It is another way of saying, “Don’t be class conscious!” It means, “Don’t stay aloof from the common people because you consider yourself better than them because of high birth, wealth, high intelligence, or privilege in society”. When Jesus washed his disciples’ feet, that was a great act of “condescension” on His part. He did it in order to set an example for them, so that they should do likewise. This is the explanation He gave after washing their feet:
13 Ye call me Master and Lord: and ye say well; for so I am.
14 If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet; ye also ought to wash one another’s feet.
15 For I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done to you.
Washing people’s feet in those days was degrading task that would have been assigned to the lowliest servant. No king, ruler, lord, or master would have stooped so low as to wash his own servant’s feet. Jesus by this great act of “condescension” sets them an example to follow. Jesus elsewhere teaches the same doctrine in these words:
24 And there was also a strife among them, which of them should be accounted the greatest.
25 And he said unto them, The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them; and they that exercise authority upon them are called benefactors.
26 But ye shall not be so: but he that is greatest among you, let him be as the younger; and he that is chief, as he that doth serve.
27 For whether is greater, he that sitteth at meat, or he that serveth? is not he that sitteth at meat? but I am among you as he that serveth.
However, Jesus’ greatest act of “condescension” was in leaving his father’s throne in heaven as the God of gods and Lord of lords, to come down to earth and be born as a mortal, keep company with us and instruct us at our own level, and ultimately offer Himself as a willing sacrifice for the sins of all the world, and the great love that was manifested by the Father and the Son by this tremendous sacrifice. There are many scriptures that in various ways refer to this great act of “condescension” by the Father and the Son. Here are some:
16 For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.
17 For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved.
5 Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus:
6 Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God:
7 But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men:
8 And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.
1 John 4:
9 In this was manifested the love of God toward us, because that God sent his only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through him.
10 Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.
5 For behold, the time cometh, and is not far distant, that with power, the Lord Omnipotent who reigneth, who was, and is from all eternity to all eternity, shall come down from heaven among the children of men, and shall dwell in a tabernacle of clay, and shall go forth amongst men, working mighty miracles, such as healing the sick, raising the dead, causing the lame to walk, the blind to receive their sight, and the deaf to hear, and curing all manner of diseases.
6 And he shall cast out devils, or the evil spirits which dwell in the hearts of the children of men.
7 And lo, he shall suffer temptations, and pain of body, hunger, thirst, and fatigue, even more than man can suffer, except it be unto death; for behold, blood cometh from every pore, so great shall be his anguish for the wickedness and the abominations of his people.
2 And reflecting upon the great atoning sacrifice that was made by the Son of God, for the redemption of the world;
3 And the great and wonderful love made manifest by the Father and the Son in the coming of the Redeemer into the world;
4 That through his atonement, and by obedience to the principles of the gospel, mankind might be saved.
That was the great “condescension” that Nephi was talking about: the great love that was manifested by the Father and the Son in sending the Redeemer into the world to save the world by His death. The tree represents that love of God that was manifested through that act of “condescension”. That is what the vision of the “virgin mother and child” was intended to convey to Nephi. It is a representation of that “love” manifested by God in the coming of Christ into the world to humble Himself as the common man, and die to redeem all mankind. The symbolism of the tree has nothing to do with Mary at all.
Daniel also has a secondary thesis to his article, in addition to the primary one discussed above. He hopes, and expects, that his reasoning provides evidence that the Book of Mormon is an “ancient historical record in the Semitic tradition”. Well, I agree that the Book of Mormon is an ancient historical record in the Semitic tradition. As a Mormon I firmly believe that that is the case. But I don’t see that Daniel’s paper provides evidence in support of that claim. His article fails on both accounts. If “Asherah” was the last thing that Nephi had in mind as he saw and understood the vision of the three of life, then his secondary thesis fails just as his primary one does.