Alma 42:1-4, LeGrand Baker, symbolism of the tree of life.

Alma 42:1-4, LeGrand Baker, symbolism of the tree of life.

Alma 42:1-41
And now, my son, I perceive there is somewhat more which doth worry your mind, which ye cannot understand—which is concerning the justice of God in the punishment of the sinner; for ye do try to suppose that it is injustice that the sinner should be consigned to a state of misery.
2 Now behold, my son, I will explain this thing unto thee. For behold, after the Lord God sent our first parents forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground, from whence they were taken—yea, he drew out the man, and he placed at the east end of the garden of Eden, cherubim, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the tree of life—
3 Now, we see that the man had become as God, knowing good and evil; and lest he should put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat and live forever, the Lord God placed cherubim and the flaming sword, that he should not partake of the fruit—
4 And thus we see, that there was a time granted unto man to repent, yea, a probationary time, a time to repent and serve God.

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The ancient Hebrew temple rituals at the time of Solomon’s Temple were a dramatic presentation of the cosmic myth and the plan of redemption. In that presentation, the sense of aloneness and longing for home that we find in the Hymn of the Pearl is shown to be a consequence of the fall of Adam and Eve, when they were expelled from the Garden of Eden. There they had walked and talked with God, and had unrestricted access to the fruit of the tree of life and to the waters of life. Jewish tradition holds that they had been clothed in a garment of light, which Nibley suggests was the Shechinah. (Hugh Nibley, Abraham in Egypt (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1981, 2000), 373; Nibley, Abraham in Egypt, in CWHN 14:373. See “Shechinah” in LDS Bible dictionary.) Their loss of all of these things their—their personal relationship with God, the clothing that defined them as sacred space, and the food and drink that kept their bodies forever young—the loss of those things left humankind naked, vulnerable, hungry, and increasingly feeble until only death could release them from their infirmities.

Yearning to return home again was the foundation principle of the ancient Israelite religion and of their temple service. It was an expression of hope that somehow they might regain access to the paradisiacal world, partake of the fruit, and participate in the society of the gods. (Essentially it was the same hope whose fulfillment is described in the last three chapters of the Book of Revelation.) That hope was most vividly expressed on the last day of their eight-day temple festival. For mankind, the wish to return to the presence of God is the wish to return to sacred time in sacred space.

According to ancient tradition, when Adam left the Garden of Eden, he took two things with him. One was the garment of skins that replaced his garment of light, representing his priesthood, and would be his protection from the things of this world. The other was a branch of the tree of life. This branch became his kingly scepter. Adam was thus the world’s first high priest and its first king.

In his book about of the menorah, Yarden suggests that at the time of the Exodus, the symbol of the tree of life was the almond tree. He reports that the “almond is the first tree of spring in the Near East” and “the last to shed its leaves.” It has large white blossoms that were chosen by the Lord to be the pattern for the bowls of the lamps at the end of each arm of the menorah (Exodus 25:33-34). When Aaron’s staff blossomed and bore fruit, it “yielded almonds” (Numbers 17:8).

There are many kinds of trees and other plants that have been used to represent the tree of life—the olive tree, date palm, and grape vines. Wheat might also represent the tree of life. The bread that is made from wheat is one of the most important symbols of the fruit of the tree of life. The Savior used it when he spoke of his body as the bread of life.

In the New Testament, the Savior also spoke of himself as a grape vine, and that it was symbolic of the tree of life (John 15:1-9). It appears that when the Savior described himself as a vine, he was citing an ancient prophecy that we do not now have in our scriptures. Apparently, from that same ancient source both Nephi and Alma used the same simile, suggesting there may have been a prophecy on the brass plates with which the people were familiar (Alma 16:17).

Nephi wrote of the “true vine” and the “true olive tree” as though they were the same representation of the tree of life (1 Nephi 15:15-16, 21-22).

Of the variety of trees that represented the tree of life, the one that is most frequently associated with it is the olive tree. Its fruit is edible; its oil was one of the most precious commodities in the ancient Near East. The oil was used for many things, most notably for cooking, for light, for healing the body, and for ceremonial anointing. Its fruit represented the fruit of the tree of life, while its oil represented the waters of life. In an excellent paper, Stephen Ricks cited a number of ancient sources to show that the olive tree was most commonly associated with the tree of life.Stephen Ricks cited a number of ancient sources to show that the olive tree was most commonly associated with the tree of life. { 1 }

In an incomplete Serbian version of the Secrets of Enoch, the tree of life is described as being “in that place where God rests.” Enoch saw the Garden and wrote:

Every tree sweet-flowering, every fruit ripe, all manner of food perpetually bubbling with all pleasant smells, and four rivers flowing by with quiet course, and every [thing that] growth is good, bearing fruit for food, and the tree of life is at that place, at which God rests when he goes up into Paradise, and that tree is ineffable for the goodness of its sweet scent, and another olive tree alongside was always discharging the oil of its fruit. { 2 }

The phrase, “another olive tree alongside,” suggests that the tree of life was an olive tree. In the Revelation of John, he says “the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations” (Revelation 22:2). It is likely that Joseph Smith had that scripture in mind when he sent a copy of the revolution that is now section 88 of the Doctrine and Covenants to W. W. Phelps. Joseph wrote,

I send you the “olive leaf” which we have plucked from the tree of Paradise, the Lord’s message of peace to us.

According to ancient tradition, when Adam left the Garden of Eden, he took two things with him. One was the garment of skins that represented his priesthood and would be his protection. The other was a branch of the tree of life. This branch became his kingly scepter. { 3 } Adam was thus the world’s first high priest and its first king.{ 4 }

Tradition also holds that the branch of the tree of life that Adam took from the garden was passed down through the generations until it became Moses’s “rod of God” (Exodus 4:20,17:9). Moses gave it to his brother Aaron, { 5 } for whom it blossomed as an evidence of his priesthood authority. Thereafter, it was kept in the Ark of the Covenant in the Holy of Holies in the Tabernacle.

As one would expect, in other ancient cultures, where the king had no legitimate claim to priesthood supported kingship, the kings adopted the forms and titles of legitimacy. Thus the tradition of a tree of life as a source of power and goodness is found in Mesopotamia, Egypt, Palestine, Greece, { 6 } and in ancient America. { 7 }

Almond represented the tree of life.

In his book about of the menorah, Yarden suggests that at the time of the Exodus, the symbol of the tree of life was the almond tree. He reports that in the Near East, the “almond is the first tree of spring in the Near East” and “the last to shed its leaves.” { 8 } It has large white blossoms that were chosen by the Lord to be the pattern for the bowls of the lamps at the end of each arm of the menorah (Exodus 25:33-34). When Aaron’s staff blossomed and bore fruit, it “yielded almonds” (Numbers 17:8).{ 9 }

There are many kinds of trees and other plants that have been used to represent the tree of life—the olive tree, date palm, { 10 } and grape vines. { 11 } Wheat might also represent the tree of life. The bread that is made from wheat is one of the most important symbols of the fruit of the tree of life.

Grape vine represented the tree of life.

In the New Testament, the Savior spoke of himself as a grape vine, and that it was symbolic of the tree of life (John 15:1-9). It appears that when the Savior described himself as a vine, he was citing an ancient prophecy that we do not now have in our scriptures. Apparently, from that same ancient source both Nephi and Alma used the same simile, suggesting there may have been a prophecy on the brass plates with which the people were familiar (Alma 16:17).

Olive tree represented the tree of life.

Nephi wrote of the “true vine” and the “true olive tree” as though they were the same representation of the tree of life (1 Nephi 15:15-16, 21-22).

Of the variety of trees that represented the tree of life, the one that is most frequently associated with it is the olive tree. Its fruit is edible; its oil was one of the most precious commodities in the ancient near East. The oil was used for many things, most notably for cooking, for light, for healing the body, and for ceremonial anointing. Its fruit represented the fruit of the tree of life, while its oil represented the waters of life. In an excellent paper, Stephen Ricks cited a number of ancient sources to show that the olive tree was most commonly associated with the tree of life. { 12 }

In an incomplete Serbian version of the Secrets of Enoch, the tree of life is described as being “in that place where God rests.” Enoch saw the Garden and wrote:

Every tree sweet-flowering, every fruit ripe, all manner of food perpetually bubbling with all pleasant smells, and four rivers flowing by with quiet course, and every [thing that] growth is good, bearing fruit for food, and the tree of life is at that place, at which God rests when he goes up into Paradise, and that tree is ineffable for the goodness of its sweet scent, and another olive tree alongside was always discharging the oil of its fruit. { 13 }

The phrase, “another olive tree alongside,” suggests that the tree of life was an olive tree. In the Revelation of John, he says “the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations” (Revelation 22:2). It is likely that Joseph Smith had that scripture in mind when he sent a copy of the revolution that is now section 88 of the Doctrine and Covenants to W. W. Phelps. Joseph wrote,

I send you the “olive leaf” which we have plucked from the tree of Paradise, the Lord’s message of peace to us. { 14 }

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ENDNOTES

1} Stephen D. Ricks, “Olive Culture in the Second Temple Era and Early Rabbinic Period,” in Stephen D. Ricks and John W. Welch, eds., The Allegory of the Olive Tree: The Olive, the Bible, and Jacob 5 (Salt Lake City, Deseret Book and FARMS, 464-65.

2} The Secrets of Enoch, MSS B, 8:1-3, in R.H. Charles, The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1913), 2:434.

3} Geo Widengren, “King and Covenant,” in Journal of Semitic Studies, Vol. II, No. I, 1957.

4} Geo Widengren, The King and the Tree of Life in Ancient Near Eastern Religion (Uppsala Universitets Arsskrift, 1951), 10-59.

5} Geo Widengren, The King and the Tree of Life in Ancient Near Eastern Religion, Uppsala Universitets Arsskrift, 1951. 38-41.

6} Rachel Hachlili, The Menorah, the Ancient Seven-armed Candelabrum, Origin, Form and Significance (Leiden, Brill, 2001), 36-39. C. Wilfred Griggs, “The Book of Mormon as an Ancient Book,” in Noel B. Reynolds, ed., Book of Mormon Authorship (Provo, Utah, Religious Studies Center, BYU, 1982), 75-102. Also his “The Tree of Life in Ancient Cultures,” in Ensign, June 198, 26-31.

7} See, M. Wells Jakeman, Stela 5, Izapa, Chiapas, Mexico; a Major Archaeological Discovery of the New World (University Archaeological Society, Special Publication No. 2, Provo, 1958); V. Garth Norman, “Izapa Sculpture,” Part 2, Brigham Young University, New World Archaeological Foundation Papers, No. 30 (1976):165–235. Irene Briggs, “The Tree of Life in Ancient America: Its Representations and Significance,” Bulletin, University Archaeological Society, No. 4 (March 1953):1–18.

8} Leon Yarden, The Tree of Light, A Study of the Menorah, The Seven-branched Lampstand, Cornell University Press, Ithaca, New York, 1971, 40.

9} Geo Widengren, The King and the Tree of Life in Ancient Near Eastern Religion, Uppsala Universitets Arsskrift, 1951, 38-41.

10} For discussions of the widespread use of the symbol of the tree of life see C. Wilfred Griggs, “The Tree of Life in Ancient Cultures,” in Ensign, June, 1988, 26-31; and Griggs’s, “The Book of Mormon as an Ancient Book,” in Noel B. Reynolds, ed., Book of Mormon Authorship (Provo, Utah, Religious Studies Center, BYU, 1982), 75-101.

11} Ad de Vries, Dictionary of Symbols and Imagery (London, North-Holland, 1974), 474.

Stephen D. Ricks, “Olive Culture in the Second Temple Era and Early Rabbinic Period,” in Stephen D. Ricks and John W. Welch, eds., The Allegory of the Olive Tree: The Olive, the Bible, and Jacob 5 (Salt Lake City, Deseret Book and FARMS, 1994), 464-66.

12} Stephen D. Ricks, “Olive Culture in the Second Temple Era and Early Rabbinic Period,” in Stephen D. Ricks and John W. Welch, eds., The Allegory of the Olive Tree: The Olive, the Bible, and Jacob 5 (Salt Lake City, Deseret Book and FARMS, 464-65.

13} The Secrets of Enoch, MSS B, 8:1-3, in R.H. Charles, The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1913), 2:434.

14} Joseph Smith, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, selected and arranged by Joseph Fielding Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1976), 18.

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