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1 Nephi 8
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1 Nephi 8
1 Nephi 8:1
1 And it came to pass that we had gathered together all manner of seeds of every kind, both of grain of every kind, and also of the seeds of fruit of every kind.
This is an unusual interjection into Nephi’s narrative. He ended the previous by having all of the brothers and Ishmael’s family return to the tent of his father. They are now all in the same place. That makes it logical that the event of gathering the grain and seeds might happen at this time, but it is unusual that Nephi tosses this sentence in without any context or any reason. Perhaps he was indicating that they would remain there for a while, but that doesn’t really appear to be the case. Right after this sentence, Nephi will begin to recount his father’s dream of the tree of life, and then give his own version of that vision. He will teach his brothers, but when that discussion is over, he will quickly have the brothers get married (1 Nephi 16:7).
Nephi will not tell us how much time passed, but Lehi receives another dream that they should depart further into the wilderness (1 Nephi 16:9). It is at that point that Nephi speaks of gathering their provisions, and seed of every kind (1 Nephi 16:11). This verse in Chapter 8 appears to belong to the story in 1 Nephi 16. Perhaps Nephi intended it here, or perhaps he skipped to that part of the story and realized that he had jumped ahead.
This does not appear to be a case of repetitive resumption. Not only is it a very long inclusion, but the inclusion covers both the visions and the discovery of the Liahona. I suggest that it is an innocuous error where Nephi jumped to the wrong story, and quickly got back to the intended outline.
Lehi’s Dream of the Tree of Life
1 Nephi 8:2–4
2 And it came to pass that while my father tarried in the wilderness he spake unto us, saying: Behold, I have dreamed a dream; or, in other words, I have seen a vision.
3 And behold, because of the thing which I have seen, I have reason to rejoice in the Lord because of Nephi and also of Sam; for I have reason to suppose that they, and also many of their seed, will be saved.
4 But behold, Laman and Lemuel, I fear exceedingly because of you; for behold, methought I saw in my dream, a dark and dreary wilderness.
The function of “and it came to pass” in the Book of Mormon is to move narrated events from one event to the text. Book of Mormon writers were not writing in English and wrote long before ideas of punctuation had been invented and inserted into texts. The function of punctuation is to replicate some of the pauses we use in speech that allow our listeners to make sense of what we are saying. Rather than punctuation, Book of Mormon writers use linguistic markers that let their readers understand what is occurring in the text. Thus, there are many types of repeated phrases, and they often function as substitutes for punctuation. Even the ubiquitous “and”, which accompanies the majority of sentences, serves to link ideas, and to create connections where there are no punctuation marks.
In this case, the “and it came to pass” notes that Lehi’s dream occurs at some time after the previous events. That is reinforced when Nephi says that this happened after his father tarried in the wilderness. We don’t know how long between events this was, and marking the specifics of the timing wasn’t what Nephi was interested in. Nephi wants to record his father’s dream. Certainly, he does this because it was important, but the dream is included more for what it meant for Nephi than what it meant to Lehi.
Lehi summarizes the meaning that he understands of the dream in verses 3 and 4. He has reason to rejoice because of Nephi and Sam, but reason to fear exceedingly because of Laman and Lemuel. The point of Lehi’s dream is in the specific sons who partake of the fruit. Nephi’s version of the same vision will have a dramatically expanded significance.
1 Nephi 8:4–8
4 But behold, Laman and Lemuel, I fear exceedingly because of you; for behold, methought I saw in my dream, a dark and dreary wilderness.
5 And it came to pass that I saw a man, and he was dressed in a white robe; and he came and stood before me.
6 And it came to pass that he spake unto me, and bade me follow him.
7 And it came to pass that as I followed him I beheld myself that I was in a dark and dreary waste.
8 And after I had traveled for the space of many hours in darkness, I began to pray unto the Lord that he would have mercy on me, according to the multitude of his tender mercies.
We looked at verse 4 in the last comment, but that comment was concerned only with the first phrase where Lehi is afraid of Laman and Lemuel. Verse 4 is repeated here because it is in the second phrase that the dream begins.
The dream begins in a dark and dreary wilderness. When a man dressed in white appears and is a guide, Lehi follows him, through a dark and dreary waste. Why is Lehi, the prophet, spending so much time in the darkness? Nephi doesn’t explain this darkness. When he has his own vision, it begins with the tree, not the darkness.
The answer is found in future texts. Two things are important. The first is that when Lehi ends speaking of the dream, he will prophecy, and most of his prophecy concerns the atoning mission of the Messiah (1 Nephi 10:4–10). The next comes in the great sermon Lehi gives in the New World, which is recorded in 2 Nephi 2. Importantly, he says:
11 For it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things. If not so, my firstborn in the wilderness, righteousness could not be brought to pass, neither wickedness, neither holiness nor misery, neither good nor bad. Wherefore, all things must needs be a compound in one; wherefore, if it should be one body it must needs remain as dead, having no life neither death, nor corruption nor incorruption, happiness nor misery, neither sense nor insensibility.
12 Wherefore, it must needs have been created for a thing of naught; wherefore there would have been no purpose in the end of its creation. Wherefore, this thing must needs destroy the wisdom of God and his eternal purposes, and also the power, and the mercy, and the justice of God. (2 Nephi 2:11–12)
This is the meaning of the darkness. It is the necessary darkness of a world without an atoning Messiah.
1 Nephi 8:9–12
9 And it came to pass after I had prayed unto the Lord I beheld a large and spacious field.
10 And it came to pass that I beheld a tree, whose fruit was desirable to make one happy.
11 And it came to pass that I did go forth and partake of the fruit thereof; and I beheld that it was most sweet, above all that I ever before tasted. Yea, and I beheld that the fruit thereof was white, to exceed all the whiteness that I had ever seen.
12 And as I partook of the fruit thereof it filled my soul with exceedingly great joy; wherefore, I began to be desirous that my family should partake of it also; for I knew that it was desirable above all other fruit.
The contrast between the dark and dreary part of the journey does not explicitly mention light, but the fact that he can see, and note the whiteness of the fruit, implies the contrast between the vision before he prayed, and what he sees after that prayer for mercy.
What he sees is a tree. Lehi did not call this the tree of life. Nephi gives it that name in his vision (1 Nephi 11:25). It is appropriate there, but not here. Lehi knew the scriptures and knew what the tree of life was all about. This tree was similar, but certainly not the same. It didn’t heal or give lasting life—it made one happy.
Of course, we can argue that eternal life and divine joy are the same thing, but Lehi doesn’t mention life. The point of his vision is joy. When he partakes of the fruit, he is not healed. He is not made immortal. Knowing what the scriptural story of the tree of life was, Lehi saw this as different.
After partaking of that fruit and joy himself, he desired what all good parents desire—that their families have that same joy.
1 Nephi 8:13–16
13 And as I cast my eyes round about, that perhaps I might discover my family also, I beheld a river of water; and it ran along, and it was near the tree of which I was partaking the fruit.
14 And I looked to behold from whence it came; and I saw the head thereof a little way off; and at the head thereof I beheld your mother Sariah, and Sam, and Nephi; and they stood as if they knew not whither they should go.
15 And it came to pass that I beckoned unto them; and I also did say unto them with a loud voice that they should come unto me, and partake of the fruit, which was desirable above all other fruit.
16 And it came to pass that they did come unto me and partake of the fruit also.
As Lehi desires his family to partake of the fruit, he looks, and sees Sariah, Sam, and Nephi. He doesn’t see the men’s wives. He doesn’t see Ishmael. This is a very personal vision, and it is only his immediate family that becomes the subject. In the case of the husbands, it was presumed that the wives would follow.
As he sees Sariah, Sam, and Nephi, he notes that “they knew not whither they should go.” This is a symbolic dream, and so this part of the dream depicts the family as a general humanity that has not yet received the gospel. All Lehi does is catch their attention and beckon them to come to him. That was the direction they required. Once they knew where they were to go, they could not only begin, but arrive.
Although this is the eternal goal, it wasn’t the point of the dream. This part of the dream functions as the contrast to the experience with Laman and Lemuel. The dream is about them, and by extension, all who have difficulty in hearing, heeding, and persisting in following God’s path.
1 Nephi 8:17–18
17 And it came to pass that I was desirous that Laman and Lemuel should come and partake of the fruit also; wherefore, I cast mine eyes towards the head of the river, that perhaps I might see them.
18 And it came to pass that I saw them, but they would not come unto me and partake of the fruit.
In the previous verses, Lehi saw Sariah, Sam, and Nephi at a distance. They didn’t know where to go, so Lehi called to them. They came.
In this part of the dream, we get the contrast. Lehi also sees Laman and Lemuel afar off. As a good parent, he desires the same for them as for his other sons. Sam and Nephi have partaken of the fruit and have partaken of the joy that Lehi knew when he partook of the fruit. That joy was one to be shared. Now Lehi wishes to share it with Laman and Lemuel.
As with the others, Lehi sees them. As with the others, he certainly beckoned them. The difference is that they would not come. That is a statement of individual will. It wasn’t that they just didn’t know where to go. Perhaps they were as Sariah, Sam, and Nephi in the beginning, not knowing where to go. However, the way had been shown just as clearly as it had been shown to Sariah, Sam, and Nephi.
They now clearly heard the call. They were certainly informed of the desirability of the goal. Yet they refused. The vision will continue by expanding Laman and Lemuel into a broader vision of God’s children as all attempt to find the joy to which we are beckoned.
1 Nephi 8:19–20
19 And I beheld a rod of iron, and it extended along the bank of the river, and led to the tree by which I stood.
20 And I also beheld a strait and narrow path, which came along by the rod of iron, even to the tree by which I stood; and it also led by the head of the fountain, unto a large and spacious field, as if it had been a world.
This vision of the tree with a rod of iron leading to it is similar to a dream Joseph Smith, Sr. had, which his wife, Lucy Mack Smith, recorded in her history. That was one of several dreams that he had. The similarities are striking. However, they were written down long after the fact, and long after the Book of Mormon had been published. Thus, it is quite likely that they are similar because Lucy’s memory colored the similar dream her husband had with the details from the more recent and more familiar dream recorded in the Book of Mormon.
Both dreams had something to hold on to next to the path, but Joseph Smith, Sr.’s dream had a rope rather than a rod of iron. The rod of iron certainly indicates precision and permanence. Perhaps those are the images that are more important than the rigidity of the rod.
The rod of iron is next to a strait and narrow path. This language echoes Matthew 7:14: “Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.” In other locations in the dictation of the Book of Mormon, the homonym straight is interchanged with its sound-alike. The use of strait in Matthew is parallel to narrow. It sets up two images that would be well-known; a gate and a path. In both cases, they do not accommodate large numbers, and strait and narrow are used as synonyms.
Lehi’s path is accompanied by what is presumed a straight (not curved) rod of iron. The imagery of Lehi’s dream is a wider path that accommodates many who will begin. It assumes that it is possible for many to achieve the joy at the end of the path. The dream will discuss why that doesn’t happen.
Thus, we have borrowed language from the New Testament without borrowing the concepts behind the use of the phrase in the New Testament. The New Testament encouraged the relatively few believers as they worked their way to their heavenly reward.
Lehi speaks of the larger issue of those who have the opportunity for that reward but find ways to decline it.
1 Nephi 8:21–23
21 And I saw numberless concourses of people, many of whom were pressing forward, that they might obtain the path which led unto the tree by which I stood.
22 And it came to pass that they did come forth, and commence in the path which led to the tree.
23 And it came to pass that there arose a mist of darkness; yea, even an exceedingly great mist of darkness, insomuch that they who had commenced in the path did lose their way, that they wandered off and were lost.
In the last comment we noted that the language of the New Testament led to the description of the straight and narrow path. When we see “numberless concourses of people pressing forward, that they might obtain the path,” we see the wider expanse of Lehi ‘s vision. Where the New Testament was interested in those who had entered through the strait gate onto the narrow path, Lehi is concerned with the multitudes who begin in the correct direction, but do not make it.
When the large numbers “commence in the path which led to the tree” we understand that while the New Testament language was applied to Lehi’s dream, it doesn’t quite fit the imagery. In Lehi’s dream there are large numbers who begin on the path. That isn’t the effect of a strait gate, or even a narrow path. There is certainly a path, but the importance in Lehi’s dream is the destination of the path, not its size. Lehi will make it clear that it is not the size of the path that winnows out the many who are pressing forward, but their own choices. The difference may be related to Lehi receiving the vision while part of the greater House of Israel. In the New Testament, Christ’s followers were significantly fewer (in the beginning).
The first image of how people miss the path is the mists of darkness. Lehi doesn’t define what they are, and didn’t need to. Anything which obscures the clear vision of where we should go can lead us to become lost. As Lehi presents the mists, they affect everyone. They are a part of the process. It will not be an obstacle without a solution, but it will still be an obstacle that will require specific effort to overcome.
At this point, some of the numberless concourses of people, who begin, have been lost.
1 Nephi 8:24–25
24 And it came to pass that I beheld others pressing forward, and they came forth and caught hold of the end of the rod of iron; and they did press forward through the mist of darkness, clinging to the rod of iron, even until they did come forth and partake of the fruit of the tree.
25 And after they had partaken of the fruit of the tree they did cast their eyes about as if they were ashamed.
The mists of darkness obscured the goal and the path. However, humanity is not fated to live in a darkness that prevents them from obtaining the fruit of the tree. This is where the rod of iron comes into play. It is a guide through the mists.
The effectiveness of the guide is simply stated. Those who were fumbling in the mists of darkness found the rod and grasped it. By “clinging to the rod of iron” they arrived at the destination. In spite of the interim difficulties, they received the fruit of the tree. It may not be an intended image, but the verse says they were “clinging” to the rod.
Through our own mists of darkness, they may come times when the darkness is more active than passive. In our darkness, strong winds often arise. There may be times when the hardships of mortal life attempt to blow us away from the rod. In those times, “clinging” may be the correct image.
In verse 25 we find yet another reason why this tree is not the expected image of the tree of life. In the stories of the tree of life, eating the fruit immediately makes a permanent change. In this case, the image of the fruit of the tree can be temporary. In this dream, it is possible that we may follow the rod, we may taste of the joy of the fruit, but we may also lose that feeling. This image is an analogy that expands behind the stories of the tree of life in the Garden. The trees in the garden had a different purpose. This image is more a tree of lifetime than a tree of life. It describes our mortal journey and interaction with the fruit of God’s plan.
1 Nephi 8:26–28
26 And I also cast my eyes round about, and beheld, on the other side of the river of water, a great and spacious building; and it stood as it were in the air, high above the earth.
27 And it was filled with people, both old and young, both male and female; and their manner of dress was exceedingly fine; and they were in the attitude of mocking and pointing their fingers towards those who had come at and were partaking of the fruit.
28 And after they had tasted of the fruit they were ashamed, because of those that were scoffing at them; and they fell away into forbidden paths and were lost.
The next impediment to those who attempt to follow the path comes from the nature of the world. This is a world that is founded on what Lehi will call an opposition in all things. It is founded upon the necessity of making choices. There are many ways in which we make choices. Some of them are almost made for us. We develop habits that allow us to perform actions without spending much time thinking about them. How much toothpaste we apply to our toothbrushes is a frequent choice, but one without much consequence. Hence, we develop a habit. We make an initial choice of about how much toothpaste we need, and that is what we do.
Habits are important shortcuts for the brain, and they are extremely helpful—if they are good habits. Bad habits have the same functions, and the same ability to replicate actions without conscious thought. To correct a bad habit requires significant mental effort.
The agency built into our earth experience requires more than habit. It requires making thoughtful choices. In the case of the great and spacious building we have the image of Lehi’s opposition. There is no true opposition unless it is an attractive choice. Choosing to pick up a hot pan with a potholder or a bare hand is a choice, but not one we are likely to mistake very often. Real opposition is more often a good/better/best type of choice than a good/bad choice.
The great and spacious building is certainly the world and the opinions of the world. It isn’t a rundown shack with destitute people mocking. It is attractive. It is full of people we might want to be. There are times when the attraction of the good, or even the better, of the world can distract us from the taste that we have had of the best.
1 Nephi 8:29–35
29 And now I, Nephi, do not speak all the words of my father.
30 But, to be short in writing, behold, he saw other multitudes pressing forward; and they came and caught hold of the end of the rod of iron; and they did press their way forward, continually holding fast to the rod of iron, until they came forth and fell down and partook of the fruit of the tree.
31 And he also saw other multitudes feeling their way towards that great and spacious building.
32 And it came to pass that many were drowned in the depths of the fountain; and many were lost from his view, wandering in strange roads.
33 And great was the multitude that did enter into that strange building. And after they did enter into that building they did point the finger of scorn at me and those that were partaking of the fruit also; but we heeded them not.
34 These are the words of my father: For as many as heeded them, had fallen away.
35 And Laman and Lemuel partook not of the fruit, said my father.
Lehi has told his father’s dream for two reasons. First, it reinforced his continued characterization of Laman and Lemuel as enemies. Second was that his father’s dream became the springboard to his own experience. Nephi wanted to get on to that experience.
Nephi therefore breaks into his narrative. He speaks directly to his readers and tells us what he is doing. He has told us all the details that he cares to from his father’s dream. The next sentences quickly summarized the whole of the dream. Some people caught the rod of iron and made it to the tree. Some were distracted by the great and spacious building.
Finally, Nephi brings the grand imagery of all of God’s children back to the personal. He notes that those who had fallen away “did point the finger of scorn at me and those that were partaking of the fruit.” It would be easy to cynically note that Nephi has found a way to make it all about him, but that misses the point. This really is all about him. That is the entire purpose of 1 Nephi. It wasn’t self-pride, but an argument for his descendants to show how and why Yahweh put him in the position to be the ruler and teacher over his brethren.
Nephi closes by summarizing Lehi’s point of the dream. Laman and Lemuel “partook not of the fruit.”
1 Nephi 8:36–38
36 And it came to pass after my father had spoken all the words of his dream or vision, which were many, he said unto us, because of these things which he saw in a vision, he exceedingly feared for Laman and Lemuel; yea, he feared lest they should be cast off from the presence of the Lord.
37 And he did exhort them then with all the feeling of a tender parent, that they would hearken to his words, that perhaps the Lord would be merciful to them, and not cast them off; yea, my father did preach unto them.
38 And after he had preached unto them, and also prophesied unto them of many things, he bade them to keep the commandments of the Lord; and he did cease speaking unto them.
There is no chapter break at this point in the 1830 edition. It is somewhat unfortunate that we have a chapter break at this very point, because it makes it feel that these verses are the conclusion to Lehi’s vision. They are not. Even though they continue to speak of Lehi’s concern for Laman and Lemuel, they serve to transition from the sad vision of Laman and Lemuel not partaking of the fruit to Lehi’s explanation of how that might not be their ultimate fate.
The dream caused Lehi to exhort them “to all diligence” as we discover in 1 Nephi 10:3. Nephi’s plan for this dream was to lead into his father’s discussion of the coming Messiah, the theme that Nephi will demonstrate was the real message of the dream. We miss the powerful turning point between the dream and the next exhortation that flows from it. It is obscured because Nephi got sidetracked. The next chapter (after the first verse), was not a planned part of Nephi’s narrative.
If we want the desired literary effect, we can read to the end of 1 Nephi 8, then read verse 1 of Chapter 9. Then skip to verse 2 of Chapter 10. What comes between is interesting and important, but it is an aside.
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