Tending the Garden
Lavina Fielding Anderson, editors
Book of Mormon Imagery
Richard Dilworth Rust
[p.81]They were many times buried in the depths of the sea, because of the mountain waves which broke upon them, and also the great and terrible tempests which were caused by the fierceness of the wind. —Eth. 6:6
[Wicked king Noah] shalt be as a stalk, even as a dry stalk of the field, which is run over by the beasts and trodden under foot. —Mosiah 12:11
And now, my sons, remember, remember that it is upon the rock of our Redeemer, who is Christ, the Son of God, that ye must build your foundation; that when the devil shall send forth his mighty winds, yea, his shafts in the whirlwind, yea, when all his hail and his mighty storm shall beat upon you, it shall have no power over you to drag you down to the gulf of misery and endless wo, because of the rock upon which ye are built, which is a sure foundation, a foundation whereon if men build they cannot fall. —Hel. 5:12
Each of these Book of Mormon passages is given life by its imagery, either directly, as in the description of the “mountain waves” and [p.82]”terrible tempests,” or figuratively, as in the likening of King Noah to a vulnerable dry stalk of the field. Were we to strip them of their imagery, the passages would lose beauty and vitality. Consider the blandness of these quite accurate paraphrases: (1) “The Jaredites faced great difficulty in crossing the ocean.” (2) “The life of King Noah shall become of little value.” (3) “And now, my sons, remember, remember that you must establish your lives on our Redeemer, who is Christ, the Son of God, that when the devil causes trouble, it shall have no power over you because of the way you have established your lives.”
Imagery helps make the Book of Mormon appeal to all our senses-our sight, hearing, touch, smell, taste, and even our spiritual sense. Indeed, some of our deepest responses to truth are through our senses and emotions. Further, by stepping back and looking at imagery, in the Book of Mormon as a whole, we can discover patterns below the surface that increase for us the meaning and impact of the book.
Overall, Book of Mormon imagery confirms Lehi’s understanding that “it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things” (2 Ne. 2:11) and that opposition ultimately can be beneficial to the righteous. This and related spiritual truths are presented to us in vivid physical images or comparisons, the most prominent of which are: (1) fire, (2) light and darkness, (3) captivity and deliverance, (4) wilderness or wandering, (5) water or fruitfulness, and (6) dust.
Writers and speakers in the Book of Mormon use image-stimulating language to support and explain Lehi’s teaching. Mental pictures raised within us thus deepen our understanding and anchor in our memories the principle that opposition can benefit the righteous. With some of these images, the opposition is obvious, as in the contrast between light and darkness or between captivity and deliverance. But even the single images, like fire, are used to emphasize opposition. Fire was a blessing to Lehi as part of his prophetic call (we are reminded of Moses and the burning bush in this regard), yet while the righteous shall be saved by fire, the wicked will be destroyed by the same element (1 Ne. 22:17). To approach the tree of life is to risk wandering into mists or death by drowning. For some of Lehi’s family, salvation comes through departing into the wilderness, yet the rebellious sons see this in reverse: from their perspective, Lehi had [p.83]led them out to “perish in the wilderness” (1 Ne. 2:11). Thus, as with essentially all of the Book of Mormon images, while there is a risk of loss or death associated with an image such as fire or water, there are also great rewards that come from going through the water, being enveloped in flames, coming out of dust, breaking the chains of bondage, wandering through the wilderness, and the like. This pattern will become more apparent as we look briefly at each major group of images.
As interpreted by Nephi, Lehi’s dream showed that the justice of God which divides the wicked from the righteous is like a flaming fire (1 Ne. 15:30). From that point on to the end of the Book of Mormon, fire operates in opposite ways. Nephi’s fire-like strength in 1 Nephi 17 is a sign of his having the Lord’s power but is a threat to his brothers, who would wither as a dried reed if they touched him. Fire figures paradoxically in the experience of the brothers Nephi and Lehi in prison: Under threat of death, these prophets are encircled about by fire—which instead of being destructive turns into a type of the Holy Ghost, a connecting link with heaven. This encircling leads to a release from prison for Nephi and Lehi. Likewise, those who had been imprisoned by hatred and error are encircled by a pillar of fire without and filled as if with fire” of the Holy Ghost within. While the Lamanites at first are immobilized by a cloud of darkness (typifying their spiritual condition), their eventual faith brings light out of darkness. Shaken by the tremors under the prison, the Lamanites are to the soul by “a still voice of perfect mildness” and later hear pleasant voice” whisper peace unto them (Hel. 5).
As with those in the Lamanite prison, the people who witness the Christ in America experience light, an encircling by fire, wholeness out of a terrifying condition of intense darkness, fires, and fragmentation. In like manner, Mormon says righteous are to be baptized “first with water, then with fire and the Holy Ghost,” while the holiness of Jesus Christ “will kindle flame of unquenchable fire” upon the wicked (Morm. 7:10, 9:5). while the source of fire is ultimately the same, its effect of [p.84]punishment or of glorification depends on the spiritual condition of the recipient.
Light and Darkness
As Christ is called a fire, so is he a light in the wilderness and, in Lehi’s vision, is seen as having a luster above that of the sun. In like manner, Christ’s apostles are foreseen in startlingly white garments (1 Ne. 1:10, 12:10, 14:19). Both physically and figuratively, light or whiteness is associated with truth, purity, and divine guidance, just as darkness is frequently associated with unbelief. The transition from darkness to light gives concrete meaning to the process of redemption as in Lamoni’s trance-like experience, similar to Alma’s, in which the “dark veil of unbelief was being cast away from his mind, and the light…of everlasting life was lit up in his soul” (Alma 19:6).
The most dramatic opposition of light and dark is connected with the advent of Jesus Christ in the Old World and, after his resurrection, in the New World. Samuel the Lamanite predicts that there shall be great lights in heaven at the Savior’s birth, but then prophesies also of the darkness attending the Savior’s death (Hel. 14:12, 20). In the first part of Samuel’s prophecy, light and order are associated with the Creator and creation (a new star). On the other hand, the chaos of things splitting apart and intense darkness—the opposite of creation—is associated with the death of the Creator. The Savior’s coming to the Nephites out of darkness and great destruction is a great miracle of light: After the earth “did cleave together again, that it stood,” a Man descended out of heaven clothed in a white robe and declared, “I am the light and the life of the world” (3 Ne. 10:10; 11:8, 11). In a series of unforgettable instructions, the Savior taught the gathered multitude that they should be “the light of this people,” to realize that “the light of the body is the eye,” that “I am the law, and the light,” and that they should hold up their light “that it may shine unto the world.” Then he caused the “light of his countenance” to shine upon his disciples, “and behold they were as white as the countenance and also the garments of Jesus” (3 Ne. 12:14, 13:22, 15:9, 18:24, 19:25).
Feeling the power of the imagery of light and darkness, we can declare with Moroni our gratitude for the Book of Mormon and the [p.85]Lord’s prophet who brought it forth: “And blessed be he that shall bring this thing to light; for it shall be brought out of darkness unto light, according to the word of God; yea, it shall be brought out of the earth, and it shall shine forth out of darkness, and come unto the knowledge of the people; and it shall be done by the power of God” (Morro. 8:16).
Captivity and Deliverance
Joseph in Egypt foretold the manifestation of the Messiah to latter-day Lamanites “unto the bringing of them out of darkness unto light-yea, out of hidden darkness and out of captivity unto freedom” (2 Ne. 3:5). Here and elsewhere we see the linking of darkness and light with captivity and deliverance. With both sets of images, there is a process of rebirth, of becoming whole, of coming to the temporal or spiritual promised land. Again and again individuals or people in the Book of Mormon are delivered from bondage. Nephi bursts the cords with which his brothers had bound him in the wilderness and later on shipboard is loosed from his bonds. The first instance is followed by Lehi’s vision of the tree of life (a spiritual promised land) and the second precedes the family’s arrival at the physical land of promise.
Other individuals put into bondage, especially through being cast into prison, are Abinadi, Alma and Amulek, Ammon and his brethren, Nephi and Lehi, and the Three Nephites. Their deliverance parallels that of Moses and the Israelites and of Lehi and his family (often linked, as in 1 Ne. 4:2 and Alma 36:28-29), of Limhi and his people, and of Alma and those who followed him. In each instance, bondage is associated with the powers of Satan—with his prisons of death and hell—while deliverance comes through the power of God.
Bondage seems to be almost a necessary condition in the process of conversion or salvation. After Aaron is delivered (Alma 21:14-15), he and his brothers are tremendously successful—as though they somehow needed to go through the experience of bondage in order to deliver others from spiritual bondage. Further, the bondage of peoples such as Alma’s is beyond human solution, leading to manifestations of the power of God. (“They were in bondage, and none [p.86]could deliver them except it were the Lord their God” [Mosiah 24:21].)
In like manner, spiritual bondage of the most oppressive sort is overcome miraculously by the power of God. Such a conviction forms the core of Alma the Younger’s testimony, and such is the experience of the Lamanites taught by Ammon and his brethren, in which the constricting closure of Satan’s bonds is transformed into the refuge of God’s love (Alma 26:15).
Wilderness or Wandering
While God provides the solution to freedom from bondage, leading people through a wilderness often seems to be the way he does it. The pattern of escape into a wilderness is found in the stories of Moses, Lehi, Nephi, Mulek, Mosiah, Limhi, Alma, Jared, and King Omer.
Responses to the wilderness are dramatically different. For righteous Nephi, the wilderness is a place of receiving revelation, but Laman and Lemuel fear that they will perish in it. For Nephi, the wilderness experience taught faith, the rewards of obedience, and gratitude to God: “He hath led me through mine afflictions in the wilderness” (2 Ne. 4:20). For Laman and Lemuel and their posterity, it was a place where they became a “wild, and ferocious, and a blood-thirsty people…dwelling in tents, and wandering about in the wilderness with a short skin girdle about their loins and their heads shaven” (Enos 20).
The essential difference is that the Lord intended his people to go through the wilderness, as do Lehi and Alma, not remain in it, as do the priests of Noah. A tent is necessary for a time, but a temple is the desired permanent structure. While wandering is a condition for a while of even the most righteous saints (see Jacob 7:26 and Alma 26:36), we remember that a root meaning of “wander” is to “lose one’s way,” the spiritual condition of many of the descendants of Laman and Lemuel (Morm. 5:18). The key solution is to have a Liahona, the word of Christ, to point “a straight course to eternal bliss,” to show that the ultimate destination of humanity is not the wilderness nor “this vale of sorrow” but the heavenly promised land (Alma 37:44, 45).
[p.87]Water or Fruitfulness
In the Book of Mormon’s system of oppositions, it is appropriate that in his dream Lehi must go through “a dark and dreary wilderness” to reach the tree “whose fruit was desirable to make one happy” (1 Ne. 8:4, 10). Representing the love of God, this tree of life is a richly complex symbol which in various parts of the Book of Mormon is linked with water and with references to vineyards and olive trees. For example, Alma’s auditors in Zarahemla are invited to come to the tree of life and to drink freely of the waters of life.
Approaching the tree is a sacramental experience: “Come unto me,” Alma quotes the Lord as saying, “and ye shall partake of the fruit of the tree of life; yea, ye shall eat and drink of the bread and the waters of life freely; yea, come unto me and bring forth works of righteousness.” The alternative, though, is to be “hewn down and cast into the fire” (Alma 5:34, 35).
Indeed, agricultural and water images work both ways. The fountain of living waters in Lehi’s dream is opposed by the river of filthy waters. Wholeness and safety from the storm are found in Ammon’s assertion that the converted Lamanites were a ripe field and have become sheaves “gathered into the garners,” not to be beaten down by the storm at the last day; “they are in the hands of the Lord of the harvest” (Alma 26:5-7). In contrast, the wicked condemned by Abinadi are as the dry stalks of the field, run over by beasts and trodden under foot; they are as blossoms of a thistle blown forth upon the face of the land (Mosiah 12:11-12). The tree of life has its opposite in the tree of death upon which Zemnarihah was hanged.
The primary elements of water, fire, and earth are involved climactically in the destruction of the Nephite and Lamanite cities recorded in 3 Nephi 8 and 9, with cities sunk in the sea, Zarahemla burned, and Moronihah covered with earth. Yet in 3 Nephi 11, the greatest uplifting and salvation comes through those same three elements: baptism by immersion in water, visitation with fire and with the Holy Ghost, and the solidity of being built upon Christ’s rock.
The extreme opposite of water and fruitfulness is dust, an image associated in the Book of Mormon with mortality, humiliation, [p.88]captivity, obscurity, destruction, and death. Grief nearly brings Lehi and Sariah to an early death in which they would “lie low in the dust”; the great and abominable church, Nephi prophesies, “shall tumble to the dust” and the wicked shall be “brought low in the dust”; and the humbled people of King Benjamin “viewed themselves in their own carnal state, even less than the dust of the earth” (1 Ne. 18:18; 1 Ne. 22:14, 23; Mosiah 4:2).
Yet we remember that the Book of Mormon itself is prophesied to come “out of the dust,” with other great blessings as well coming from the dust. Echoing Isaiah, Moroni cries: “Arise from the dust, O Jerusalem; yea, and put on try beautiful garments.” Laman and Lemuel are exhorted to “arise from the dust,” to “awake from a deep sleep, yea, even from the sleep of hell.” And after the people of Lehi have been brought “down low in the dust, … yet the words of the righteous shall be written,” and the Lord God shall speak concerning them “even as it were out of the ground; and their speech shall whisper out of the dust” (Moro. 10:27, 31; 2 Ne. 1:14, 13; 2 Ne. 26:15-16). In other words, the latter-day Lamanites shall obtain renewal through repentance from a voice considered dead; life shall come out of death, words of eternal life from the voice out of the dust.
Finally, at the very core, the book’s six major kinds of images appeal to our senses in helping us feel the atoning power of Christ—who is “a refiner’s fire,” “the light of Israel,” deliverer of those who wander in the wilderness, “the fountain of living waters,” and one who helped create humankind out of the dust of the earth and who shall lift up the faithful at the last day.