The Filthy Waters of Life – Reading Nephi – 15:21-36 part II

This post is part of a series of reflections on I Nephi. If you’re interested, the introduction to the series is here. To peruse earlier entries, click the authors tab at the top of the page and then click on my name. I welcome your own thoughts on these specific verses (or on my reflections) in the comments below.

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Three more quick points: first, the tree is no longer merely metaphorically or symbolically, but now explicitly made to be the Tree of Life. The world has grown up around Eden, but the tree of life is still there, only now it is a journey, a following the word of the Lord, that allows us to pass by the angels and sentinels and gain access to the fruit. Herein is cosmic significance.

Second, we focus on the river being a river of filthy water. As happens elsewhere, here the various elements dropped about confusedly earlier in the narrative are made clear or revealed. And we get a hint of an earlier conversation that is now lost. In our own tellings and re-creations, however, or perhaps in the translation itself, things remain muddled. There are three bodies of water mentioned: the waters of life that flow from the tree, the fountain/river of filthy water, and the fountain/river of water that flows near the tree.

  • 8:13: a river flowing near the tree, whose head is a little way off;
  • 8:19 same river, flows beside the rod of iron;
  • 8:20 the rod & path lead from the tree to over by the “head of the fountain,” which I assume is the head of the river mentioned in the verse before;
  • 8:26 the river divides the rod/path from the great and spacious building;
  • 8:32 some of those pressing forward to reach the building are drowned in the depths of the fountain (the river? or some separate fountain of filthiness?);
  • 11:25 Nephi sees the rod & path leading to “the fountain of living waters, or the tree of life;” here it is almost as if Nephi doesn’t see the tree but instead sees a fountain, but knows that the two are one and the same, both representing the love of God; also, living waters have two meanings—the “nectar of the Gods” that we normally take it as (i.e., the water Christ gives us), and a natural, free flowing body of water;
  • 12:16 the angel shows Nephi 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;” incontrovertibly links the head of the river and the head of the fountain; so now the rod of iron or word of God leads us from the source of hell, parallels its banks, but eventually brings us to the tree of life (which remains near the filthy river).
  • 12:17 the mists of darkness; mists arise from water sources (like the Potomac that often issues forth mists); here, perhaps the mists that are the temptations are arising from the filthy waters.
  • 12:18 now it’s the word of God (instead of the river/fountain) that is the awful gulf dividing the righteous and the wicked; this is opposed to Nephi’s interpretation, that the gulf is the river; visually, they both do
  • 13:10-16 “many waters” divide Lehi’s (dwindled/wicked) posterity from the Gentiles; then the Spirit of the Lord descends upon them and leads them across that Gulf to the land of Lehi’s descendants; this directly parallels the word of God leading from the filthy fountain to the tree of life.
  • 13:17-19 the mother Gentiles follow the divinely inspired Gentiles across the water and wage war; but God delivers the inspired Gentiles.
  • 13:29 the Gentiles take the book containing the word of God across the many waters
  • 14:11 the whore of all the earth “sat upon many waters” and so exercises dominion and power over the greater part of the earth, holding back the church of the Lamb of God.

Looking back over these verses from Nephi’s grand vision mentioning water, I don’t think we have enough information to visually portray the different bodies of water in Lehi’s & Nephi’s visions. Nor am I convinced that what is described are separate bodies of water—they often appear to be one and the same. The love of God (waters of life) indeed get perverted and become filthy, a torrent that drowns us or that separates us from God. The devil quotes scripture too, and the mists of temptation indeed arise out of perverse interpretations of scripture. Perhaps it is the soul that comes in contact with those waters that makes them into either the waters of life or the waters of death (Mormon 9:1-6).

Finally, in this passage Laman asks a key question on behalf of us all: does “this thing” concern this life and body, does it concern the soul in the next life, or does it concern temporal things? “This thing” seems to refer to “that awful hell.” I find it useful, however, to think of “this thing” in terms of the whole conversation—just as Nephi seems to do at the conclusion of the conversation—including the Tree of Life. This life, this body, this temporality—as well as whatever comes in eternity—is where we suffer hell, where we are divided from God, where we journey along various paths and un-paths, and where we can partake of the fruit of eternal life and enter into God’s presence.

9 comments for “The Filthy Waters of Life – Reading Nephi – 15:21-36 part II

  1. October 2, 2017 at 1:56 pm

    For years I have wondered about this question. Can we, through our choices on the way, perhaps by letting go the iron rod for some of them, pollute the waters of life and render them filthy, and is Lehi’s failure to notice the filthiness of the water suggest that perhaps for him, the water may be pure? All ponderings welcome please!

  2. Robert Osborn
    October 3, 2017 at 1:02 am

    The river of filthy water is a representation of hell. It has its own head, or source, of which is not from the tree of life. The narrow and strait path is next to the rod of iron which is itself running parallel to the river of filthiness but on the dame side as the tree of life. Opposite of this side is the great and spacious building. The river itself is spoken of as the gulf that divides the righteous from the wicked. So, there are basically two fountains spoken of. One is the tree of life which is also the fountain of all righteousness, the love of God. The other is the fountain of all unrighteousness. Their sources come from opposite ends.

  3. James Olsen
    October 3, 2017 at 9:24 am

    BevP: I like the interpretation that the reason Lehi fails to notice it’s filthiness is because of his own righteousness (which could be a way of interpreting Lehi’s “mind” being so “taking up” with other things).

    Robert: That’s a consistent way of interpreting the text, but one that goes well beyond what the text itself gives us.

  4. Clark
    October 3, 2017 at 9:50 am

    A few thoughts.

    1. While the tree is equated with the tree of life, the tree of life itself is extremely symbolic in many ways
    2. It’s worth comparing Nephi’s vision to Enochian literature. In particular a lot of the geography bears many similarities with 1 Enoch. (See the brief discussion in the comments to one of your earlier posts) So for instance 1 Enoch 17 has a “great river” and a place of “great darkness.” Many tie it to greek myths of the land of the dead. Broadly a dark region is typically the realm of the dead although a few suggest it’s the darkness on the otherside of the vault of heaven.
    3. The filthy river isn’t in 1 Enoch although as anyone who has seen a desert flash flood knows, this is an easy metaphor to make. However there are two different rivers – one is a river of living waters and the other is clearly infernal
    4. In 1 Enoch beyond the darkness is the Garden of Eden. (see 24-25) Typically (but not universally) scholars see this as a the tree of life.
    5. Michael in 1 Enoch says the fruit of the tree of life is inaccessible until after judgment.
    6. Reading 1 Enoch with Nephi suggests the vision is partially what we today would call Spirit Prison and Paradise while awaiting judgment/resurrection.
    7. Michael Austin at BCC did an interesting post last year arguing Nephi’s vision is a corrective on Genesis 2. (We should note that it’s not clear what creation accounts Nephi had – typically Gen 2-3 is dated to the Babylonian exile.
    8. The imagery paralleling the ocean separating new world from old is a good one. I’d never noticed it although the Exodus pattern also fits where the river Jordan has a similar role.

  5. James Olsen
    October 5, 2017 at 11:35 am

    Clark, this is fascinating. It’s been years since I’ve read the Enoch texts, and I didn’t remember any of this. And I’m particularly intrigued by the idea of water (in all it’s religious symbolism) as a dividing element.

  6. Clark
    October 5, 2017 at 1:44 pm

    Water as dividing is a classic image of the Exodus pattern where the Jordan river separates the promised land from the wilderness. Interesting Nephi ties the river symbolically to baptism.

    The difference in the “sin” river between Enoch and Nephi is intriguing. For Enoch the infernal river is of fire with more traditional “hell” imagery you associate with the second temple period.

    There’s also a tower in the section called the animal apocalypse (85-90). There various animals and a shepherd symbolize Israel’s history. The house (temple) is made “great and spacious” (1 Enoch 89:50) Water, darkness and mist increases. Various symbolic events happen by wild beasts devouring the sheep and the house is destroyed (the exile). They rebuild the house and tower but offer polluted food. etc.

    It’s not a perfect match and clearly reflects a relatively late (say 100 BCE) tradition. It’s more the symbolism that’s interesting. The this apocalypse the “great and spacious” sometimes is the temple and sometimes is a corrupt version. However it may reflect an earlier tradition that’d presumably have different use. There are other towers in the text as well that Enoch is taken to in order to see various destructions. So the use of a tower to represent pride is missing. Instead the tower is the temple and it’s height the ideal mountain (remnant of ideas from before the Josiah removal of high places most likely).

  7. Terry H
    October 5, 2017 at 4:44 pm

    James, there are several new publications about Enoch (including some in BYU Studies from a conference held a few years ago). Nickelsburg’s 2 volume 1 Enoch Hermeneia (2d vol. with James Van Der Kam) is kind of the gold standard, although there’s a couple of commentaries on the “Animal Apocalypse”, one by Daniel Olsen (Brill, 2013), and Tiller (SBL, 1993). Also there’s one on 91-108 by Loren Stuckenbruck. Not a full commentary, but a valuable tool is Kelly Coblentz Bautch’s “No One Has Seen What I Have Seen”, an analysis of the geography of 1 En. 17-19 (Brill, 2003). The Nickelsburg-Van Dam translation is available in e-book format and is fairly cheap (although the Hermeneia volumes are expensive). Jack Welch reviewed the first volume in an old FARMS review. Nickelsburg even mentioned Nibley’s Enoch the Prophet in it (as an example of how thorough it is in its coverage).

  8. Clark Goble
    October 5, 2017 at 6:02 pm

    Brill’s A Study of the Geography of 1 Enoch 17-19 is well worth checking out too and is where many of the parallels arise.

    I should note that while some 1 Enoch parallels are striking, often the differences are quite glaring as well. And of course 1 Enoch is clearly a very late composite text likely composed between 100 BCE and 100 AD although presumably made up of reworked earlier traditions and texts. As such too much parallel could be seen as anachronistic for Nephi and a problem. For instance the question of the spirit world of the dead for the gloomy wilderness would be a problem. Of course Nephi doesn’t equate it with the underworld or the land of the dead.

    There’s also a more apologetic debate over whether Joseph would have had access to 1 Enoch. (See this FPR post from last week for instance)

  9. Terry H
    October 6, 2017 at 6:20 pm

    Clark, Unfortunately, my library is going into boxes for a while so I can’t provide more details other than general references, but your FPR post citation helped answer something I’d been wondering for a long time. Thanks for the link!

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