Tree of life vision

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A depiction of the vision in the Hill Cumorah Pageant

The tree of life vision is a vision from the Book of Mormon, a religious text of the Latter Day Saint movement. According to the Book of Mormon, the vision was received in a dream by the prophet Lehi, and later in vision by his son Nephi, who wrote about it in the First Book of Nephi. The vision includes a path leading to a tree symbolizing salvation, with an iron rod along the path whereby followers of Jesus may hold to the rod and avoid wandering off the path into pits or waters, symbolizing the ways of sin. The vision also includes a large building wherein the wicked look down on the righteous and mock them.

The vision is said to symbolize the spiritual plight of humanity and is a well-known and cited story among members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church). Corbin T. Volluz, a Latter-day Saint lawyer, reflected a common belief of church members that the vision is "one of the richest, most flexible, and far-reaching pieces of symbolic prophecy contained in the standard works [scriptures]."[1]: 30 [2]


According to the Book of Mormon, the prophet Lehi received the vision in a dream during his exile in the Arabian wilderness sometime after 600 B.C. He awoke and recounted it to his children as described in the 8th chapter of the First Book of Nephi. Lehi's son, Nephi, recorded the vision on the golden plates, and later had the same vision, albeit a more detailed version, which he records later in the same book.[3] Nephi's vision also included an interpretation of the vision.

In the vision, Lehi is in a "dark and dreary"[4] wilderness, where he follows a man in a white robe to a "dark and dreary waste"[5] where he travels in darkness. After praying for mercy, he sees a tree next to a river and eats its fruit, which makes him joyful. Wishing to share the fruit with his family, he sees his wife, Sariah, and two sons, Nephi and Sam, who come and eat it with him. His two oldest sons, Laman and Lemuel, stay near the river and do not eat the fruit. Then Lehi sees a "rod of iron" and a "strait and narrow path" which leads to the tree.[6] People try to get to the tree, but are lost in the "mist of darkness".[7] Some are able to hold to the rod and make it to the tree, but they are ashamed when they eat the fruit. Across the river, a "great and spacious building" is full of people who are making fun of the people who ate the fruit, and subsequently, the fruit-eaters become lost.[8][9]


The story of the vision is well known among members of the LDS Church and is widely cited. The "rod of iron" specifically is mentioned often referring to the scriptures or the words of the Lord, in order to convey the importance of heeding God's teachings.[10]


Literary interpretation[edit]

Writing in 1977, Brigham Young University (BYU) English professor Bruce Jorgensen introduced an interpretation of the tree of life vision as a key to understanding the Book of Mormon's typological unity. Lehi's dream enacts the pattern of moving from a wasteland to a land of promise, a pattern which occurs several times in the Book of Mormon, both in earthly and spiritual realities. Alma's experience being dramatically converted by an angel reflects a transformation from darkness into light. Alma's sermon on faith compares faith to a seed that can grow into a "tree springing up unto everlasting life"Alma 32:41. He tells his listeners that they can "taste the light".[11] These references are, for Jorgensen, clear allusions to the tree of life vision. He sees Jacob's Parable of the Olive Tree as the other side of the figural coin to Lehi's dream.[12]

BYU religion professor Charles Swift sees the vision as part of visionary literature. Citing Leland Ryken's work, Swift shows that visionary literature, including the tree of life vision, includes a strange, imaginary other world rich in symbolism, a reversal of ordinary reality, elements of transcendence, and a "kaleidoscopic" structure.[13] There are imaginative elements in the vision: the fruit doesn't fill Lehi's stomach, but his heart; a rod of iron appears in the wilderness, not attached to another structure; the great and spacious building floats in the air. The reversals include subverting our expectations, like the guide taking Lehi to another dreary wilderness and people who eat the fruit but are ashamed and become lost. Elements of disconnect are when objects like the rod suddenly appear, and when scenes and groups of people do not interacting with one another.[14]


As interpreted by Nephi to his brothers, the tree of life and represents God's love, the rod of iron represent the "word of God," the great and spacious building represents the "pride of the world," the river represents the "depths of hell," and the mists of darkness represent the "temptations of the devil."[15] For Volluz, there is an additional layer of symbolism to the vision. Writing in the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, he sees the entire tree of life vision as a symbolic version of the vision of the future Nephi receives later. When the angel in Nephi's vision explains the symbolism of various parts of Lehi's vision, Nephi juxtaposes the explanations with Nephi's vision of the future. The explanation of the symbolism of the tree as the love of God is followed by a vision of Christ's birth. The living water represents the baptism of Jesus, with the rod of iron representing his ministry. The "multitudes" who gather to fight against the apostles correspond to those gathered in the large and spacious building, with its fall representing the scattering of the house of Israel. Volluz further interprets the three different groups of people in Lehi's dream as Nephi's descendants who are destroyed in wickedness, come to Christ and fall away, or who come to Christ and remain.[16] In the same article, Volluz offers another symbolic possibility of the vision: as corresponding to the events in the afterlife, with the righteous and unrighteous parted by the river representing the justice of God, the iron rod acting as the judgement "bar," and the righteous partaking of the fruit representing eternal life.[17]

Amy Easton-Flake, a religion professor at BYU, uses the same metaphor between the visions of Lehi and Nephi, but with a different interpretation. Using the "word of God" as a name of Christ, she interprets the rod of iron as a symbol for Christ. Christ performs multiple functions in the vision, also being symbolized by the fountain of living water and the tree of life. Nephi uses language as a shorthand for corresponding parts of Nephi's and Lehi's vision, like when the children of men fall down and worship Christ, and when people in Lehi's dream fall down and eat the fruit. The large and spacious field symbolizes the land promised to Lehi and, according to Daniel L. Belnap, becomes a new narrative for Lehi's family. The great and spacious building becomes a symbol of the Nephites and Lamanites battling one another, and the mist of darkness symbolizes the actual darkness that covers the land at the time of Jesus' death in the Book of Mormon. The great and spacious building represents the "great and abominable church", etc.[18]

Mesoamerican interpretations[edit]

Latter-day Saint archaeologist M. Wells Jakeman wrote in 1958 that Izapa Stela 5, an ancient stela found in Mesoamerica in the 1930s, is a depiction of the tree of life vision.[19] This interpretation is not supported by mainstream scholars. Mesoamerican researchers identify the central image as a Mesoamerican world tree, connecting the sky above and the water or underworld below. Mesoamerican art scholar Julia Guernsey Kappelman does not support this association between Izapa Stela 5 and the Book of Mormon. Kappelman has stated that Jakeman's research disregards the cultural context behind Izapa Stela 5 in favor of his own interpretations and biases.[20]

Codex Boturini, folios 2-3, as presented in The Story of the Book of Mormon

In his book The Story of the Book of Mormon (published in 1888), LDS Church general authority George Reynolds interpreted folios 2-3 of Codex Boturini to be a representation of Lehi's dream.[21] In this interpretation, of the group of five people closest to the tree, three are Sariah, Sam, and Nephi eating its fruit, and the other two are Laman and Lemuel refusing to eat. Further to the right, the death of Ishmael is depicted. In contrast, the mainstream scholarly interpretation is that the people and broken tree illustrated in these folios represent the split of the Mexica people from the Aztec people.[22] The figure to the immediate right of the tree trunk is the Aztec god Huitzilopochtli.[22]

Naturalistic explanation for inspiration[edit]

The vision is similar to the second vision recounted by Joseph Smith's father, Joseph Smith Sr., prior to publication of the Book of Mormon. The vision of Smith Sr. contained a tree with delicious fruit, a path, and a large building where the wicked looked down in scorn of the righteous; however, the vision of Smith Sr. contained a rope rather than an iron rod, and there were other minor differences.[23] Because of the similarity, secular church scholars postulate that Smith Sr.'s dream is the source for the tree of life vision.[24] Smith Sr.'s dream was first recorded by his wife, Lucy Mack Smith, after publication of the Book of Mormon, and some Latter-day Saint scholars suggest that the text of the Book of Mormon may have influenced Lucy's account, rather than vice versa.[citation needed] Other apologetic scholars, such as Hugh Nibley, postulate that Lehi and Smith Sr. simply had the same archetypal vision.[25]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Volluz 1993, p. 30.
  2. ^ Volluz, Corbin (11 December 2016). "The Ghost of Eternal Polygamy". Rational Faiths | Mormon Blog. Retrieved 20 November 2023.
  3. ^ See 1 Nephi chapters 11–14
  4. ^ 1 Nephi 8:4
  5. ^ 1 Nephi 8:7
  6. ^ 1 Nephi 8:19-20
  7. ^ 1 Nephi 8:23
  8. ^ 1 Nephi 8:26
  9. ^ Swift 2005, p. 60.
  10. ^ Bednar, David A. (October 2011), "Lehi's Dream: Holding Fast to the Rod", Ensign
  11. ^ Alma 32:35
  12. ^ Jorgensen 1981.
  13. ^ Swift 2005, pp. 54–61.
  14. ^ Swift 2005, pp. 55–56.
  15. ^ Volluz 1993, p. 15.
  16. ^ Volluz 1993, pp. 16–27.
  17. ^ Volluz 1993, pp. 29–34.
  18. ^ Easton-Flake 2011; Stack, Peggy Fletcher (27 August 2013). "Historic hire at Mormon-owned BYU: scripture prof who is a young mom". The Salt Lake Tribune.
  19. ^ See Jakeman.
  20. ^ Guernsey, p. 53.
  21. ^ Reynolds, George (1888). The Story of the Book of Mormon. Independence, Missouri: Zion's Printing and Publishing Co. pp. 32–34.
  22. ^ a b Rajagopalan, Angela Herren (2019). Portraying the Aztec Past: The Codices Boturini, Azcatitlan, and Aubin. University of Texas Press. pp. 28–32. ISBN 9781477316078.
  23. ^ Smith (1853, p. 59).
  24. ^ Fawn M. Brodie, No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1945), 58. Grant H. Palmer, An Insider's View of Mormon Origins (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2002) 70-71. Dan Vogel, Joseph Smith: The Making of a Prophet (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2004).
  25. ^ Nibley, Hugh. Lehi in the Desert, The Collected Works of Hugh Nibley, Volume 5. Deseret Book Company, Salt Lake City, and F.A.R.M.S., Provo, Utah, 1988, p. 44.

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