Saturday, May 30, 2009

The Tree of Life

As Mormon ideas go, the whole Tree of Life vision is standard for us: it seems remarkably simple and too often we leave it at that. But when we do not go into depth, there is a lot we miss out on, and in particular, things that relate to virtuous living.

Prior to the Babylonian Exile, the Jews like to personify Wisdom as a real person, who was symbolized as both a tree and a fountain. This is seen in 1 Ne. 11 when Nephi asks about the meaning of the Tree of Life, and is shown the Virgin Mary, to which Nephi responds with what we might paraphrase as, "Oh, duh, I get it now". What is it that Nephi understood that made the image of a tree or fountain make so much sense to him?

We can get a sense of this from reading the Old Testament, especially those parts that we call "Wisdom Literature".

To start in Proverbs,
13 ¶ Happy is the man that findeth wisdom, and the man that getteth understanding.
14 For the merchandise of it is better than the merchandise of silver, and the gain thereof than fine gold.
15 She is more precious than rubies: and all the things thou canst desire are not to be compared unto her.
16 Length of days is in her right hand; and in her left hand riches and honour.
17 Her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace.
18 She is a tree of life to them that lay hold upon her: and happy is every one that retaineth her.
Prov. 3:13-18
Many things are associated with the tree of life in Proverbs, but prominently among them is Wisdom, which is closely associated with Virtue.

"Understanding is a wellspring of life unto him that hath it" Prov. 16:22

We see more in ch. 7

4 Say unto wisdom, Thou art my sister; and call understanding thy kinswoman:
5 That they may keep thee from the strange woman, from the stranger which flattereth with her words.
One characteristic of Wisdom literature is the juxtiposition of wisdom and virtue versus unvirtue and hartlotry. The rest of chapter 7 is an example of this. It is also seen in Nephi's vision with his discussion of a great and abominable harlot.

But what has impressed me the most is fountain of living waters and the fountain of filthy waters in Nephi's and Lehi's vision.

Waters are especially associated with virtue and lovemaking:
15 ¶ Drink waters out of thine own cistern, and running waters out of thine own well.
16 Let thy fountains be dispersed abroad, and rivers of waters in the streets.
17 Let them be only thine own, and not strangers’ with thee.
18 Let thy fountain be blessed: and rejoice with the wife of thy youth.
19 Let her be as the loving hind and pleasant roe; let her breasts satisfy thee at all times; and be thou ravished always with her love.
20 And why wilt thou, my son, be ravished with a strange woman, and embrace the bosom of a stranger?
Prov. 5:15-20
Chapter 5 has more to say about being virtous.

On the other hand, compare ch. 9, which starts off contrasting wisdom and understanding to sins of chastity, and ends with,
18 But he knoweth not that the dead are there; and that her guests are in the depths of hell.
with 1 Ne. 12:16

16 And the angel spake unto me, saying: Behold the fountain of filthy water which thy father saw; yea, even the river of which he spake; and the depths thereof are the depths of hell.
As far as I can determine, these are the only two places that use that particular turn of phrase. Virtue, the clean waters, are life itself, while the filthy waters, (in Proverbs 9:18 it was the intimate company of a loose woman) are death and the very depths of hell.

If you want to read more, Meridian has a nice article, while the figure of the fountain and tree in Nephi's vision is examined in careful detail by BYU professor, Daniel Peterson in "Nephi and his Asherah".

A look at the meaning the verses about usage of the word "Rod" in Proverbs. Some good Protestants point out that "Rod" has far more to do with correction, than with beating. It seems that "spare the rod, spoil the child" has far more to do with teaching children the Gospel, than beating them. While from the Neal A Maxwell Institute, we get "What Meaneth the Rod of Iron"?

No comments:

Post a Comment