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.