Friday, May 30, 2008

Nephi and his Asherah

Towards the beginning of the Book of Mormon, Lehi, a prophet who was contemporary with Jeremiah, is recorded by his son Nephi as having a glorious vision of the Tree of Life (1 Nephi 8). In this vision, Lehi describes how he beheld a tree full of white fruit that "was desirable to make one happy" (1 Nephi 8:10). Lehi also explains how the fruit was "sweet" (v. 11) and that his soul was "filled with exceedingly great joy" (v. 12) when he ate it.

Nephi, later in his record, details how, in an attempt to better understand his father's vision, he asked for revelation from the Lord to explain what his father had said. 1 Nephi 11-14 details Nephi's apocalyptic vision, which contain some interesting correlations to other ancient Jewish texts from Lehi's time (circa 600 BCE) known collectively as ascension visions or apocalypses. These texts generally have similar themes that include the following:

1. A protagonist, usually a prophet, is lifted into the heavens via a grand vision by God (hence, the word ascension).

2. The protagonist is given revelation concerning the will of the Lord.

3. The protagonist is usually given some idea as to the end of the world.

4. The protagonist is usually told either one of two things. He is either told to keep his visions a secret (a common theme in Egyptian ascension texts) or to impart the words of the Lord to his fellow men (a feature more common in Jewish literature).

5. The protagonist is given a divine status in the council of the gods by some sort of theosis or deification.

6. An angelic being or guide is often present to guide the protagonist through the cosmos and eventually to the throne of God.

7. Usually a tree of life motif is present in the vision and is always connected with feminine identities or qualities. This tree of life often imparts divine wisdom or happiness to the protagonist, who partakes of some sort of white fruit (the Enochian literature mentions grapes, which I shall deal with later) in order to inherit eternal life.

I wish to discuss number 7 in that list, since I find it the most startling and amazing theme in the visions of Lehi and Nephi.

Nephi, in his vision, records the following:
And it came to pass that the Spirit said unto me: Look! And I looked and beheld a tree; and it was like unto the tree which my father had seen; and the beauty thereof was far beyond, yea, exceeding of all beauty; and the whiteness thereof did exceed the whiteness of the driven snow.
And it came to pass after I had seen the tree, I said unto the Spirit: I behold thou hast shown unto me the tree which is precious above all.
And he said unto me: What desirest thou?
And I said unto him: To know the interpretation thereof. . . . (1 Nephi 11:8–11)
Nephi's later writes:
And it came to pass that he [the angel] said unto me: Look! And I looked as if to look upon him, and I saw him not; for he had gone from before my presence.
And it came to pass that I looked and beheld the great city of Jerusalem, and also other cities. And I beheld the city of Nazareth; and in the city of Nazareth I beheld a virgin, and she was exceedingly fair and white.
And it came to pass that I saw the heavens open; and an angel came down and stood before me; and he said unto me: Nephi, what beholdest thou?
And I said unto him: A virgin, most beautiful and fair above all other virgins.
And he said unto me: Knowest thou the condescension of God?
And I said unto him: I know that he loveth his children; nevertheless, I do not know the meaning of all things.
And he said unto me: Behold, the virgin whom thou seest is the mother of the Son of God, after the manner of the flesh.
And it came to pass that I beheld that she was carried away in the Spirit; and after she had been carried away in the Spirit for the space of a time the angel spake unto me, saying: Look!
And I looked and beheld the virgin again, bearing a child in her arms.
And the angel said unto me: Behold the Lamb of God, yea, even the Son of the Eternal Father! (1 Nephi 11:12–21)
Thus we see an unmistakable connection between Lehi's and Nephi's Tree of Life vision and Mary, the mother of God. Not only that, but we see a connection between this tree and white fruit that made one happy. So we see two distinct connections between the tree and other elements: white fruit that produces happiness and the Mother of God.

Daniel C. Peterson, a professor of Islamic Studies and Arabic at BYU, has written an essay entitled Nephi and his Asherah which discusses the Tree of Life motif in the Book of Mormon and its connection to other ancient Near Eastern texts.

Professor Peterson explains:

"How has Nephi come to this understanding? Clearly, the glimpse given to Nephi of the virgin mother with her child is the answer to his question about the meaning of the tree. Indeed, it is evident that in some sense the virgin is the tree. This is apparent from the structure of the pericope, of course, but also in the parallel descriptions given of the tree and the virgin. Just as she was "exceedingly fair and white," "most beautiful and fair above all other virgins," so was the beauty of the tree "far beyond, yea, exceeding of all beauty; and the whiteness thereof did exceed the whiteness of the driven snow." In one sense, therefore, the fruit of the tree—which was "desirable to make one happy" (1 Nephi 8:10), "desirable above all other fruit" (verses 12, 15), "most sweet, above all that [Lehi] ever before tasted" (verse 11), and which "filled [his] soul with exceedingly great joy" (verse 12)—is clearly the fruit of Mary's womb, Jesus. Moreover, it is evident that the mere sight of the virgin, by herself, leaves Nephi still a bit bewildered. It is only when she appears with a baby and is identified as "the mother of the Son of God" that he grasps the meaning of the tree."

Professor Peterson goes on to elaborate on how in Preexilic Israel, that is, before the Babylonian conquest, Asherah was believed by the Israelites as being the divine goddess, consort of El and exemplified by the sacred tree. The Israelites held Asherah in such high esteem, in fact, that cultic centers were created to worship her and a motif of Asherah was placed in Solomon's Temple. She even is exemplified with Biblical Wisdom in some texts. Later, however, under the reformations of Josiah, Asherah fell out of favor with Israelites, who soon began to replace her motif in the Temple with the Menorah and abandon her cultic centers.

However, a rich corpus of literature still exists that details that Asherah, the mother goddess who was connected with the sacred tree, played a prominent role in Preexilic Israelite religion.

This is an interesting correlation with the Book of Mormon, whose authors would have undoubtedly been familiar with the Asherah motif. It is very interesting that the Book of Mormon fits perfectly in this corpus of ancient literature, which was unknown in Joseph Smith's day, and draws upon the same connections (i.e. tree = mother goddess).

However, this is just one connection to the ancient world that the Book of Mormon makes in this regard. I mentioned the white fruit that makes one happy in connection with the tree of life and other ancient texts. With this regards, Margaret Barker, a non-LDS Old Testament scholar who has written extensively on Preexilic Israelite belief, explained at the 2005 Bicentennial Conference on Joseph Smith that the Book of Mormon's connection between the sacred tree and white fruit also has stark parallels to other ancient texts. She explains that the sacred tree in these ascension texts is more often than not connected to white fruit that makes one happy. For example, in the apocryphal Book of 1 Enoch, Enoch is led to the sacred tree and partakes of white grapes that give him joy. Barker notes that this is a direct correlation to the Book of Mormon's narrative of Lehi eating the white fruit that made him happy. Barker explains:

"I do not know of any other source that describes the fruit as being white grapes. Imagine my surprise when I read the account of Lehi's vision of the tree whose white fruit made one happy, and the interpretation that the Virgin in Nazareth was the Mother of the Son of God after the manner of the flesh (1 Nephi 11:14-23). This is the Heavenly Mother, represented by the tree of life...this revelation to Joseph Smith was the ancient Wisdom symbolism, intact, and almost certainly as it was known in 600 BCE." (see The Worlds of Joseph Smith, edited by John Welch, 2006, page 76)

In short, the Tree of Life as being connected with the mother goddess and having white fruit is well attested in ancient literature not available to Joseph Smith. It is an authentic theme in this type of literature, within which the Book of Mormon fits rather nicely.

To quote Dr. Peterson:
"The inclusion in 1 Nephi of an authentically preexilic religious symbol that could scarcely have been deduced by the New York farmboy Joseph Smith from the Bible—especially given his severely limited knowledge of that book in the late 1820s, when he was translating the golden plates—suggests that the Book of Mormon is, indeed, an ancient historical record. And that, in turn, suggests that God did, indeed, so love the world that he gave his Only Begotten Son to save us. The Book of Mormon is, as it claims to be, a second witness for Christ."
For further reading, see the following:

Joseph Smith and Preexilic Israelite Religion by Margaret Barker in The Worlds of Joseph Smith. Edited by John W. Welch and published in 2006 with BYU Press