This whole vision, stretching over the next few chapters, is difficult; I’d say downright oblique. It moves in rapid fire with the angel continually saying, “Look!” and Nephi following up with barely a glimpse and only an occasional editorial word before our looking and pondering gets interrupted with another, “Look!” or a “Behold!” It’s hard to string these short literary jolts all together. It’s hard to even see the significance of some of the “look” pericopaes, and even harder to see the logic between them all. Feeling a bit cranky about the whole vision, I wonder if Nephi never got past his juvenile outlook in vs. 17, but was unwilling to admit that, and so he throws everything at us that he can remember (it reminds me of those all-too-common student papers that wander around, consisting mostly of liberal quotations from other texts with the occasional editorial word on these quotations, but ne’eri a coherent framework or guiding thought in the whole thing).
Reading charitably, however, I can’t fault Nephi. He was young; he wasn’t particularly gifted on a literary level; and however dense and awkwardly strung together, I believe there is deep profundity here. This is a passage of scripture to spend generations on.
Overall, I find two interpretive frameworks most useful here:
First, keep in mind that all of this is in response to Nephi’s request to understand the tree from Lehi’s dream. ‘Tree = love of God’ is far too simplistic. The angel could’ve simply given Nephi that trite phrase that we chalk up on our Sunday School boards. Yes, the tree (and the fountain) represent the love of God. But we can’t understand what that means without understanding the rest of the vision—the life of Christ, the overall plan, and just as importantly, the history of our people, their betrayals and infidelity to God, their afflictions and destruction, and ultimately their redemption. The tree is a symbol of the whole process of the divine family and its covenantal relationship in a similar sense, I think, as the Sabbath. The love of God is the love that infuses and facilitates exaltation.
Second, in order to help Nephi along, the angel first asks and then demands that Nephi behold the condescension of God. Once again, I don’t think we can appropriately understand this condescension in terms of a God on one metaphysical plane that descends for love’s sake to another plane. That is, the traditional Christian interpretation (commonly imported into Mormon discourse) of the incarnation seems barred to us—not simply for doctrinal reasons, but because of the way that the revelations are presented in our scripture. Not only do these passages help us better understand what this divine condescension is, but likewise, we are to view and come to understand the different aspects of this epic vision in light of its revealing that condescension.
This obviously doesn’t clear everything up (e.g., while I think we can clearly reject standard takes on the condescension of God, I’m still not sure what this vision ultimately teaches). But these two lenses help me to bring focus to the overall meaning.