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Challenging Issues, Keeping the Faith: Michael R. Ash: Old World narratives and Lehi's dream

Last week's installment began talking about Lehi's vision of the tree of life. While this vision is full of theological significance, it also has some interesting parallels to ancient Old World narratives.

First, however, I want to note up front that Lehi's vision is also an interesting modern parallel — one which some critics are quick to claim was the true source for the description of Lehi's vision in the Book of Mormon. (In a couple of weeks I'll devote a column to the topic of "parallels" in general.)

According to Lucy Mack Smith (Joseph's mother), Joseph Sr. had a dream in 1811 that has some striking parallels to Lehi's vision (although Lehi's vision is longer and more detailed). There are at least two problems with the automatic assumption that Joseph Smith Jr. based Lehi's vision on his father's dream: First, it's not impossible that the Lord revealed similar images to different people in order to teach similar lessons (more on this below), and second, while the dream supposedly occurred in 1811, it wasn't until 1844 (15 years after Joseph translated the Book of Mormon) that Lucy recounted the dream in her memoirs.

Lucy's account is not only secondhand — we don't have Joseph Sr.'s recollection of his dream — but late, which suggests that her recollection was strongly influenced by what she read in the Book of Mormon. In effect, Lehi's vision may have influenced Lucy's recollection of her husband's dream.

When we look to see if Lehi's vision is at home in the ancient Near Eastern milieu, we find some exciting parallels. LDS scholar John Welch, for instance, points to an early Christian writing titled the "Narrative of Zosimus." This narrative — written in Hebrew and dating to about the time of Christ or earlier — purports to tell a tale that could date to Lehi's day.

There is no evidence that the narrative was known in an English-speaking land prior to the publication of the Book of Mormon and the first known modern appearance of the narrative was a Russian translation from an Old Church Slavonic text dating to the 1870s.

While Lehi's vision and the narrative are not 100 percent identical (which could only happen if one were a direct copy of the other) there are too many similarities to be coincidental — including metaphors, specific words, phrases and images.

The "Narrative of Zosimus," Welch notes, tells of a righteous family that God had led away from Jerusalem prior to its destruction by the Babylonians around 600 B.C. and how this group escaped to a land of blessedness where they kept records on metal plates soft enough to be inscribed by their fingernails. In the story, Zosimus was allowed to visit these people in vision. In order to get to their land, he had to journey through the wilderness, pass through impenetrable mists of darkness, cross the ocean, and come to a tree that bore pure fruit and gave forth water sweet as honey and was the fountain of living waters.

Other similarities include being greeted by an escort, being interrogated as to desires, beholding a vision of the Son of God, receiving revelations concerning the wickedness of the people of Jerusalem, and yet obtaining assurances of the mercy to be extended to the inhabitants of Jerusalem. A few parallels might be counted as lucky guesses, but such numerous parallels suggest some sort of connection between the Book of Mormon and the world from which it claims to have derived. From where did Joseph Smith learn these things? Some studies suggest that both Lehi's vision and the "Narrative of Zosimus" share a common ancient source or tradition.

We now know, for example, of similar motifs — dating to the fifth through third century B.C. — from Italy, Sicily, Crete and Macedonia which depict the dead wandering through a world of darkness in search of a white cypress tree. Non-Mormon commentators agree that the cypress tree represents the tree of life and that this mythology most likely originated in Egypt.

British scholar Margaret Barker (who is a Methodist preacher and president of the Society for Old Testament Study) claims that in these ancient traditions the tree of life's purpose is to make one "happy" and the fruit is described as "beautiful, fiery," and much "like white grapes."

"Imagine my surprise," Barker wrote, "when I read the account of Lehi's vision of the tree whose white fruit made one happy." Barker also explains that while biblical rods typically represent rulership, a more accurate symbol is found among shepherd's rods as a symbol for guidance. "Lehi's vision," she notes, "has the iron rod guiding people to the great tree." This, she explains, is "the older and probably the original understanding of the word (rod)."