Reading Nephi – 11:13-18

068-068-the-liahona-fullAs commanded, Nephi looks, and what does he see? Interesting that the first thing he sees is cities, including Jerusalem and then Nazareth. What are the other cities? Why does he see cities? This is all in the context of Nephi being guided to come to understand the meaning of the tree. Ultimately Nephi determines it to represent the love of God, which sheddeth itself abroad in the hearts of all God’s children. I wonder, then, if the purpose of seeing the cities was merely to orient Nephi toward the greater context of the meaning of what he sees—this isn’t a vision whose significance is merely for Lehi’s family, nor even for the Jews only (though apparently the only two cities Nephi recognizes are Jewish). Instead, Nephi’s shown the population centers of the earth—this is a vision encompassing humankind.

There’s no indication that Nephi notices this or any other meaning to the cities he sees. When the (new) angel asks him what he sees, he responds only that he sees a virgin, one whose appearance in the vision mirrors the fruit of the tree. And yet it is her fruit that is the focus, rather than herself. But still, she is the one who is white and beautiful—the two traits Nephi earlier noticed concerning the fruit. Trees bear fruit and fruits bear trees.

Verse 17 is one of the great verses in all of scripture, one that my heart has loved since I first discovered it in the MTC. One I lean upon. Nevertheless, I can’t help but notice Nephi’s uttering it here in a kind of bumbling ignorance. I can hardly fault Nephi on this (who wouldn’t bumble when suddenly confronted by an angel and then interrogated?). In my slower, not-real-life, not-bedazzled reading, however, I can notice that the angel’s asking about God’s condescension—and awkwardly, the first thing Nephi thinks of is the fact that God loves us. Really? Love as a form of condescension? Isn’t that contradictory? Isn’t love exactly the sort of thing with which one cannot condescend? If one’s love is condescending, then one doesn’t really love. But this strikes me as exactly the sort of mistake that we humans have generally made with respect to God, and I don’t see anyone outside of Joseph Smith and some of those working out his ideas who don’t make this same mistake—including Nephi and other prophets in the scriptures. Of course Moses’s reaction to seeing God is to marvel at humankind’s nothingness. Of course Allah hu Akhbar. And we generally interpret God’s greatness and the distance between God and ourselves to imply a strange, isomorphic relationship, where anything we gain from God is a condescension, a mercy, a grace. And I suppose in a sense it always is that. Yet we’re blind to the fact that it is also reciprotory. It is that love and grace offered that makes God great, it is the content or substance of God’s greatness. God’s work and glory is indeed us—because we are, in ourselves, a glorious medium and end. God’s love is precisely not a condescension.

Finally, here, we get the only reference I’ve yet found to our Heavenly Mother in the Book of Mormon. And it comes not from a Nephite—all of whom appear to have been entirely ignorant of or at least ignored Her. Instead it comes from the angel. The virgin is the Mother of the Son of God—after the manner of the flesh. Here is she who stands in the earthly, fleshy role of Her who fills this role in the heavens.

Perhaps Peterson and others are right that Nephi immediately grasps the allusion to Ashterah or the Mother of the Son of God in the Mesopotamian pantheons; that for Nephi, it literally went without saying. I hope that for us today, we can and do say, since it’s clear it does not go without saying for us.

16 comments for “Reading Nephi – 11:13-18

  1. James, I’m a bit puzzled by this: “Love as a form of condescension? Isn’t that contradictory? Isn’t love exactly the sort of thing with which one cannot condescend? If one’s love is condescending, then one doesn’t really love.”

    This seems to import a modern sense of the word condescend that I’m not sure can fairly apply in this context. The latin means, literally, to come down with, and the modern negative connotation is not there. In the 14th century, it took on the meaning of deferring. You might say that you condescend to agree with an adversary in the same way that we might say that we defer to somebody. In the mid to late 15th century it began to take on the meaning of a superior willingly being equal with inferiors–in one sense you could say that to condescend in this earlier sense is to willingly erase the difference between a superior and an inferior. It did not begin to take on the negative (somewhat sarcastic) connotation that it has now until the late 18th century, and even then it was not universal. If I’m remembering correctly, you see it used in both the older and the newer sarcastic sense, for example, in Jane Austen.

    Now, we might say that since the negative sense was beginning to be established before 1830, that’s what applies. I’m not so sure, since the positive sense still existed alongside the negative sense, especially in the religious context. And I’m also half persuaded by the work of Royal Skousen suggesting that the language of the Book of Mormon is closer to 15th and 16th century English than 19th century english. In any case, the 15th century meaning of condescend is definitely consistent with love and seems to me to make the most sense in the context of Nephi’s vision.

    Reading the virgin as an earthly reflection of heavenly mother is interesting, and I think it works, as long as it isn’t pushed to far. Responding to your comment on the last post, though I confess that I don’t see that as incompatible in any way with reading this as Mary.

    I have my issues with Peterson’s asherah argument. But that’s probably a different discussion. Peterson is astute enough to notice that the virgin is the answer to Nephi’s question what does the tree represent, but I’m not sure I buy his premise that that answer is “surprising” and I don’t think I agree with him that Nephi would have needed to have knowledge of the asherah tradition in order to grasp that the virgin is the tree, because the angel basically explains it to him. The asherah connection is interesting, but I think Peterson and others push it too far.

    Finally, don’t take my disagreement with some of your conclusions to mean that I don’t like what you are doing here. This is a great and very interesting series.

  2. I read it not that the woman is the fruit but that the woman is the tree and the fruit is the manifestation of the love of God which is Jesus as the condescension of God. That is he is the fruit.

  3. That’s how I read it as well, Clark. Nephi doesn’t really describe the fruit the way Lehi does; but he does spend some time going into detail about the tree, using the same terms that he later uses to describe the virgin (exceeding whiteness and exceeding beauty).

    My take on it is that the virgin is, to use the Spirit’s phrase “the tree which bore the fruit” because she literally bore Jesus, who is symbolically the fruit of the Father’s love.

    And if Jesus is the fruit, then the people in the vision are symbolically eating Jesus, which ties in in interesting ways to the way Jesus later speaks of the sacrament as “my flesh and blood” in 3 Nephi.

  4. Interesting take on condescension, James. I like the idea that when Nephi sees Mary, he is seeing not just the condescension of God, but God herself. I had never thought of it that way.

    As for Ashterah, in reading the Hebrew Bible I have never seen her as any different than any of the other non-Israelite gods that the people often worshiped, such as Baal. I know many others see it differently and equate her with a female equivalent of Jehovah, but reading the text, I have just never gotten that impression, just as I have never equated the Ephesian worship of Diana in the New Testament with Heavenly Mother. I feel any special status she receives has been superimposed by people determined to find a feminine version of the Hebrew Bible’s God. New Testament-era Gnostic versions of a feminine God just seem so much more explicitly non-pagan. With Ashterah things just seem so forced. But that’s just my opinion, and by no means have I read all the scholarship out there. Maybe there is an author that has more persuasive evidence than the ones I have read.

  5. Mirror, I think the views about Ashterah are wrapped up in the idea of there being competing visions of what Judaism was. Not just the J, P, E, D sources of the post exilic period but earlier traditions too. As I mentioned in the other thread since the late 80’s I think it’s more or less accepted that the Hebrews had views very influenced by the Canaanites. Further that even some of the clear divide we make between the two groups is somewhat arbitrary.

    That said, I also agree that there’s a lot of reading Heavenly Mother back into things for either apologetic reasons or feminist reasons when the evidence often is no where near as strong. However at the same time Wisdom worship in pre-Christian times seems a pretty strong tradition and this gets absorbed by the gnostics with how they treat Sophia.

    I think the one consensus is that there were many more strains of Judaism than most people assume was the case. The problem for apologists or others reading back into these is that one can’t easily just pick and choose what parts you like just because they parallel Mormon thought.

    The reason they are interesting is that the debate about the Deuteronimist tradition, especially in whatever pre-exilic form it took with the Josiah controversies, end up tied into these questions about cultic centralization and especially worship in high places. Lehi, by how he offers up sacrifice seems opposed to the centralization tendencies. Further his use of high places circumstantially ties him into the issue of the divine mother tied to such places. Yet, as I think we all notice, a very notable absence in the Book of Mormon is women treated as leaders, prophetesses and more. (Again this might be a reaction to Josiah’s reforms) However it’s odd to see the divine mother while simultaneously the Nephites are the most regressive towards women of anyone in scripture. IMO.

  6. “I also agree that there’s a lot of reading Heavenly Mother back into things for either apologetic reasons or feminist reasons when the evidence often is no where near as strong.”

    I think all supposed evidences of heavenly mother(s) is reading back into things for apologetic or feminist reasons.

  7. Clark, have you read many Gnostic teachings? They were a very diverse group, but many of them had a divine feminine that does not seem to have any relation to Jewish Wisdom worship. Also, many Gnostic groups had a much more developed sense of gender equality than orthodox Christian groups, which seems to be a natural development from believing in a supreme female or gender-neutral God.

    I don’t see a lot of gender equality in any ancient strains of Judaism, which is one of the reasons I think making Asherah a Jehovah equivalent is completely flawed. Nephi does express a bit of gender equivalency theologically, but it seems entirely absent from the society he constructed. He only has a single named woman in his narrative, his mother, compared with a dozen or so named males. The monarchy and priesthood also both seem to have been set up as a patriarchal order.

    So were there competing visions of what it meant to follow Israel’s God? Of course. But until we have explicit evidence for a movement that promoted the position of women in society, it seems like there is insufficient evidence for a belief in an Israelite Heavenly Mother. Israelites may have been polytheistic at times, but polytheism is very different from the idea of an all-powerful Mother in Heaven Who is equal to Jehovah.

    To propose such an idea, I feel you need not only evidence that Israelites worshiped a female, but that they worshiped her on the same level as Jehovah, or even instead of Him. Do you have any evidence of that?

    And finally, I think it is premature to make Lehi’s worship equivalent with worship in groves or high places—The Book of Mormon never has him make use of either. Also, wasn’t Asherah worship tied to groves, and not high places? Groves, high places, and altars are often written of together in the Hebrew Bible as abominations, but I believe that is because all were considered blasphemous practices, in the same way a person would condemn lying, murder, and adultery together, even though each is a distinct sin with distinct motivations. Proximity does not prove equivalency, as it were.

  8. All — thank you for keeping up the conversation. My life hasn’t been conducive to responding, but I’d like to jump in on a number of notes. Will try to do so soon.

    For now just one quick comment to ji #6: you’re leaving out what I think is the largest part of what actually takes place (if not the largest part of what gets bandied about in the bloggernacle), and that’s the genuinely revelatory, personal moments in the scriptures. Our eyes can only see so much, and all texts recognized as scripture or literature offer the experience of rich readings and re-readings. We don’t need to be disingenuously re-interpreting things. We can, rather, simply be reading them with new eyes or eyes inspired by the Spirit.

  9. Thank you James and others. My wife and I are gaining a lot of depth of understanding from you efforts.
    How can Nephi recognise a virgin on sight?

  10. Geoff–the answer is that the term refers to “young woman” not necessarily a “virgin” in the technical sense. That’s well-known in literature of the period.

  11. Mirror, yup, I’ve read most of the gnostic stuff. It’s much more Platonic than I think most people realize. To me what’s interesting about it are the particular metaphors used for Platonic ideas. The most obvious being the Gospel of Philip with many things that sound very familiar to Mormons. It’s not being used in Mormon ways, so apologists need be careful. But there’s a lot going on.

    I don’t think one could accuse ancient Judaism of being gender equal. However in many ways women had more of a role in certain strains. Consider the very notion of a prophetess for instance. So Miriam, Aaron’s sister is called a prophetess. There’s also Deborah, Huldah, Noadiah, and many others. In at least certain strains of Judaism they simply have a much bigger role than they do among the Nephites. The NT is a bit more mixed for various reasons. But in some traditions it seems they had more of a role as well.

    Now what is meant by prophetess in all the various passages isn’t completely clear. After all in our own tradition, which generally isn’t taken to be gender egalitarian, women are supposed to be prophets in a strong sense yet simultaneously aren’t given priesthood responsibilities in terms of leadership. (Although of course this is blurry since Relief Society President, is in my mind a key leadership position — our very notion of priesthood is rather fuzzy I think despite Pres. Oaks attempted to clarify things)

    I’d just note that there’s no evidence of anything like Zina Huntington or Eliza R. Snow among the Nephites and certainly nothing like the OT. Again this might be related to Josiah and his reforms. After all the whole controversial finding of the law is tied to the prophetess Huldah. As we’ve noted there are strong reasons to think the Nephites are anti-deuteronomists perhaps even seeing this “rediscovered” law as a forgery. Given the role of Hudah (see 2 Kings 22:14-17 and 2 Chronicles 34:22) and the at best “complex” relationship with Jeremiah this may have affected the Nephites conceptions of women’s roles quite a bit. (Obviously a lot of “what ifs” in that — at best very circumstantial)

    We should note that the gnostic idea of gender neutral or more often gender unified (male and female aspects) comes from earlier Jewish notions which ultimately have their origin in the idea of Eve being taken from Adam’s rib. The traditional Jewish notion is that the first Adam was thus a combination of male/female and this Adam Kadmon is what we must return to. Again some interesting Mormon parallels although we have to be careful. Especially once this becomes heavily platonized and allegorized by the gnostics and Jewish mystics.

    Regarding groves and so forth. Typically scholars see this as a conflict between different strains of Judaism with one strain (in particular the Deuteronomists) trying to centralize cultic worship. The fact Lehi offers sacrifice and isn’t part of the centralized movement strongly suggests he’s part of the other strains. We don’t get groves/high places although the very earthly geography and high mountain of Lehi’s and Nephi’s vision is once again part and parcel of this earlier tradition. When you look at how heavenly ascents and merkabah develop they loose this geographic aspect with time, partially as these other traditions win out.

  12. Geoff, I’d second Terry. The idea of virgin as “untouched” comes later, possibly as people simply loose connection with the original Hebrew Bible. That’s not to say she wasn’t a virgin, just that the Old Testament texts are more ambiguous. If I recall most scholars assume Mary would have been between 12 – 14. Which is extremely shocking to our sensibilities obviously but was not at all uncommon for the times.

  13. So we’re in agreement, Clark Goble, that Asherah doesn’t work as a Jehovah equivalent?

    I do agree that in certain schools of Judaism women were more equal than others, although the evidence is so scant, it’s hard to know to what degree. As you said, prophetesses, while rare, are mentioned multiple times in the Hebrew Bible, but never is much detail given about them, so we’re left to speculate about what their role really was in comparison to male prophets.

    I have to say, for me, the fact that Lehi offers sacrifice does not suggest he is part of any other strain. Remember in Lehi’s dream, he spends much of it alone, and when he first left Jerusalem, it was only with his own family. He pretty clearly saw himself as separate from all of Judaism, and not part of a particular smaller subset. And does Lehi’s vision involve mountains of any type, or any experience associated with him? Nephi certainly makes use of mountains as sacred places multiple times, but I am not aware of any times that Lehi does.

    I think there is a tendency in history to want to fit everyone into preexisting schools of thought, but I think that is a flawed approach, particularly when studying revolutionary figures like Lehi and Nephi. I feel for such figures, it is useful to contextualize them in their contemporary societies, but it is essential to realize that what they do transcends those societies by its very nature. For example, Jesus was certainly raised in a culture of messianic expectation, but what he taught went beyond all of that, offering something truly, distinctly unique. Christianity was not just part of the Pharisaic or Essene tradition of Jewish Messianic thought. Likewise, Buddha was clearly not just a member of a particular school of Hinduism. Joseph Smith was not just a Second Great Awakening preacher.

    Lehi and Nephi were surely influenced to varying degrees by the Jewish movements of their day, but in a very real sense, they were founders of a new religion. Not everything they did, therefore, will exactly fit into any of the groups that already existed. If they did, there would have been no need for Lehi and Nephi to receive all of the visions they did.

    I personally don’t see any connection between Lehi and worship in high places or groves. Lehi does offer sacrifice, but that seems to be the only similarity—there is no mention of his constructing his altar in a place of spiritually-significant geography, which, from the little we know, seems to have been important for both worship in high places and in groves. I don’t think the Tree of Life equates to a grove of Asherah.

    Thank you for the explanation of Adam Kadmon. I was not familiar with the Jewish Kabbalist roots of the concept. Honestly I know little of Kaballist tradition, and need to take the time sometime soon to learn a lot more.

  14. mirror: The issue of Lehi and his offerings (and altars) is one that bear additional scrutiny. I’ve just finished this morning reading “The Mosaic Tabernacle as the Only Legitimate Sanctuary: The Biblical Tabernacle in Samaritanism” by Reinhard Plummer (pp. 125-150) from The Temple Of Jerusalem: From Moses To The Messiah, ed. Steven Fine (Brill 2011). The Samaritan Temple on Gerizim is disputed even today, and it has been used in the past to argue that Lehi was within his rights to make offerings once he was from the temple. I don’t think that your argument about Lehi and Nephi’s “revolutionary status” holds up quite as well. I don’t believe that Lehi and Nephi were doing “something new”. I also don’t think Jesus was doing something new. Sure, it was new to what we have from the Hebrew Bible at the time (provided that the Deuteronomist arguments we’ve handled in these posts hold up) but there’s quite a bit of literature about Jesus that disputes whether he was doing something new and radical or whether he was following a tradition that we don’t have as much evidence for. My inclination is to the latter. Without going too far afield, that even ties in with Dave Banack’s recent post about Christology. I do agree with you, however, about the Tree of Life NOT equating to a grove of Asherah. I would also recommend Barker’s Mother of the Son of God, Vol. 1 for more information on the Mother Goddess and Wisdom in a context that might apply more easily here than the traditional Ashteroth, Astarte, Aherah, “groves” thesis.

  15. Terry H, how can you not think Lehi and Nephi were doing something new? As far as I know, they are the only Jewish group to leave Jerusalem with the intent of finding a new Promised Land across the ocean. That alone seems quite revolutionary to me, and would qualify them for the title.

    But then again, if you’re not convinced Jesus was a radical innovator, perhaps your bar is so high that you don’t believe in true innovation at all, because I honestly cannot think of a historical figure more revolutionary than he was in his ideas about society, including the status of rich versus poor, women versus men, in-group versus out-group, ritual purity, the proper and improper use of physical violence, and so much more.

  16. Also, I think it’s important to note that even when ideas are similar, that is not necessarily evidence that one is derived from the other. Early Anabaptist groups practiced polygamy and communal living just a few centuries before Joseph Smith did, but there is no evidence Joseph’s practice of those things was in any way derived from Anabaptist beliefs. So even in places where Lehi’s or Nephi’s behavior seems similar to a certain sect, that does not by itself prove that sect is the source for the beliefs.

    This is particularly true since Judaism, according to The Book of Mormon, was a religious group with a written canon of scripture, which Lehi and Nephi were in possession of. By reading those scriptures, they may have come to similar conclusions as other groups, even without being directly influenced by them, in the same way Joseph discovered polygamy and communal living in the Bible independent of the many other historical groups that had discovered the same things.

    I just think everything is a lot more complicated and uncertain than you seem to be making it.

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