Finding more in Lehi’s dream

September 15, 2006    By: Jacob J @ 12:37 am   Category: Scriptures

I really like Lehi’s dream, but I don’t usually care for Gospel Doctrine lessons on Lehi’s dream. You are all studying the Old Testament, but I am in Primary so I get to study whatever I want. So, rather than another post on Job, I thought I’d take a stab at digging something interesting out of Lehi’s dream.

The Exodus story, the Temple, and Lehi’s dream are all just different portrayals of the same plan of salvation. It was very helpful to me when I realized this. Some of the symbols in Lehi’s dream take on added meaning when we see how the same symbol appeared in the Exodus or in the ancient temple. But I get ahead of myself, the symbols will have to wait for subsequent posts. To see how these frameworks tie together, it is useful to take notice of a particularly inconspicuous scriptural term: “the way.” The first mention of the way occurs when Adam and Eve are driven out of the Garden of Eden:

So he drove out the man; and he placed at the east of the garden of Eden Cherubims, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life. (Genesis 3:24)

The Temple

From the verse above, we see that the way leads back to the tree of life and that it has been guarded since the fall. The Garden of Eden was the first temple. Donald Parry does a good job of summarizing the connection to the temple:

Once a year on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, Adam’s eastward expulsion from the Garden is reversed when the high priest travels west past the consuming fire of the sacrifice and the purifying water of the laver, through the veil woven with images of cherubim. (Temples of the Ancient World pg. 135).

The cherubim embroidered on the veil of the ancient temple were set there to symbolize the cherubim God placed to protect the way of the tree of life. This also calls to mind Brigham Young’s statement that the purpose of the endowment is “to enable you to walk back to the presence of the Father, passing the angels who stand as sentinels” (JD 2:31).

The Hebrew word translated as “the way” is derek which can refer to a literal road, a journey, or even a moral character. A familiar verse in Isaiah illustrates the latter usage when it speaks of people in the last days inviting others to the temple:

Come ye, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; and he will teach us of his ways, and we will walk in his paths (Isa. 2:3).

The way is not a literal road, but a symbolic path representing a course of life or a manner of living. The people in Isaiah’s vision went to the temple to learn how to live a godly life. They went to learn the manner in which they must live in order to return to the tree of life and partake of its fruit. This manner of living is also referred to as the “name” of the Lord. When Moses asked God to “shew me now thy way,” God responds by proclaiming the name of the Lord:

Now therefore, I pray thee, if I have found grace in thy sight, shew me now thy way that I may know thee, that I may find grace in thy sight: and consider that this nation is thy people. (Ex. 33:13)

5 And the LORD descended in the cloud, and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name of the LORD.
6 And the LORD passed by before him, and proclaimed, The LORD, The LORD God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth,
7 Keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, and that will by no means clear the guilty; visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children’s children, unto the third and to the fourth generation. (Ex. 34)

The Lord revealed his name as a list of his attributes. It is clear that the way/name of the Lord is a manner of living. This adds deeper meaning to the concept of taking upon ourselves the name of the Lord. Taking on Christ’s name involves a new manner of living, taking upon ourselves his attributes, becoming as he is. The way and the name are closely related. Thus, Nephi concludes a chapter in which he had not previously used the word “name” by saying: “this is the way; and there is none other way nor name given under heaven whereby man can be saved” (2 Ne 31:21). We’ll get back to that passage momentarily.

The Exodus

The way is expanded and developed by the symbolism of the Exodus. The Exodus story sets up the most important typology of the Old Testament. The symbolism of the Exodus is drawn on constantly in subsequent scriptures, including modern revelations. The story of the Exodus contains many parallels to the ancient temple which should be familiar to any student of the Old Testament.

Just as the temple drama depicts the journey from the captivity of sin to the tree of life, the Exodus story describes a journey from captivity in Egypt to the promised land. The temple was divided by two barriers into three areas: the outer court, the holy place, and the holy of holies. In the Exodus story, Egypt is divided from the wilderness by the Red Sea, which is, in turn, divided from the promised land by the Jordan River. Egypt, like the outer courtyard of the temple, was representative of man in his fallen condition and under the bondage of sin. An offering at the altar of sacrifice and a washing in the laver of water were required in order to enter the holy place from the outer courtyard. The altar of sacrifice is paralleled by the Passover, in which all the firstborn sons who were not covered by the blood of the lamb on their door posts were killed. The laver is represented by the Red Sea in which the children of Israel received their baptism (cf. 1 Cor 10:1-2). The holy place of the temple was modeled by the wilderness in which the children of Israel received manna from heaven (shewbred) and were guided by a pillar of fire (candlestick). The children of Israel crossed the Jordan River (final veil) into the promised land, representing their entrance into the holy of holies.

Our inconspicuous friend the way makes several appearances in the Exodus story:

And the LORD went before them by day in a pillar of a cloud, to lead them the way; and by night in a pillar of fire, to give them light; to go by day and night (Ex 13:21).

Isaiah later referred to the path through the Red Sea in the same terminology:

Art thou not it which hath dried the sea, the waters of the great deep; that hath made the depths of the sea a way for the ransomed to pass over (Isa 51:10; cf. Isa 43:16)

When the children of Israel started worshiping an idol they were described as having “turned aside quickly out of the way which I commanded them: they have made them a molten calf, and have worshipped it” (Ex 32:8). It is worth noting that the Lord drew on this imagery and terminology in modern revelation when describing the last days:

They have strayed from mine ordinances, and have broken mine everlasting covenant; They seek not the Lord to establish his righteousness, but every man walketh in his own way, and after the image of his own god, whose image is in the likeness of the world, and whose substance is that of an idol. (D&C 1:15-16)

Lehi’s Dream

In Lehi’s dream the way is called “a path.” Indeed, it is the “strait and narrow path” we hear so much about. It should be no surprise at this point that the path in Lehi’s dream leads to the tree of life. The strait and narrow path is the path through the temple, from the outer court to the holy of holies, from Egypt to the promised land, from the “dark and dreary waste” (1 Nephi 8:7) to the tree of life. When Nephi spoke about the strait and narrow path, he mingled temple imagery into his language:

17 …For the gate by which ye should enter is repentance and baptism by water; and then cometh a remission of your sins by fire and by the Holy Ghost.
19 And now, my beloved brethren, after ye have gotten into this strait and narrow path, I would ask if all is done? Behold, I say unto you, Nay…
20 Wherefore, ye must press forward with a steadfastness in Christ, having a perfect brightness of hope, and a love of God and of all men. Wherefore, if ye shall press forward, feasting upon the word of Christ, and endure to the end, behold, thus saith the Father: Ye shall have eternal life. (2 Ne 31)

Before entering the holy place, a priest would prepared himself by making sacrifice and cleansing himself at the laver of water. Nephi says the gate by which we enter is repentance (sacrifice) and baptism (cleansing by water) and then “we are on the straight and narrow path.” The lampstand in the temple burned pure olive oil. In D&C 45:56-58, light from such a source is compared to the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Nephi says once we enter into the way we receive the Holy Ghost (vs. 18). Reception of the Holy Ghost is not the end however: “Ye must press forward with a perfect brightness (lampstand) of hope …feasting (shewbread) upon the words of Christ” (2 Nephi 31:20). If you endure to the end (all the way to the veil), the Father will say, “Ye shall have eternal life.” “And now, behold, …this is the way” (2 Nephi 31:21).

Nephi continues in the next chapter. He says that once we enter the way and receive the Holy Ghost we can receive the word of Christ from angels because “angels speak by the power of the Holy Ghost” (2 Nephi 32:3). Again he admonishes us to “feast upon the words of Christ.” He says that if we do not understand it is because we are not asking or knocking, hence, we are not brought into celestial light (vs. 4). Nephi gets a little frustrated in verses 5-7. He says that the Holy Ghost is the one who is supposed to teach us this and that the Spirit is stopping him from saying more (vs 7), however, he does give one more clue as to what the spirit might teach us. He says that the spirit teaches a man to pray (2 Nephi 32:8). It seems more than coincidence that the Altar of Incense represents the prayers of the saints (Rev. 8:3-4). The smoke from the Altar of Incense represented the prayers of the saints ascending up to God. So, Nephi gets in a mention of every piece of furniture from the ancient temple while discussing the strait and narrow way.


This all makes it much more interesting when Jesus claims to be “the way.” There is no doubt that Jesus was fully aware of the implications of that statement. Christ’s claim that he is the way indicates that all the models of the way (the Exodus, the Temple, Lehi’s dream) are ultimately representations of Christ and his mission. John tells us that Christ, ultimately, is the temple (Rev. 21:22; John 2:21). Christ is the sacrifice on the altar of sacrifice, he is the cleansing water in the laver, he is the light of the world (candlestick), he is the bread of life (showbread), he is the intercessor of our prayers (altar of incense), he is the veil of the temple (Heb 10:20). The iron rod is the word of God; Christ is the Word of God. The tree of life represents his condescension (1 Ne. 11).

The point I am trying to make is that all of these things must be studied together as different versions of the same thing. In a later post I will try to use the connections discussed above to find new insights into the symbols in Lehi’s dream. See: The River by the Tree.


  1. We see the path in Lehi’s dream manifest other places too:

    A = 1 Nephi 8, B = Mosiah 4, C = Alma 36

    A. dark and dreary waste…, B. viewed themselves in own carnal state…, C. I was tormented with the pains of hell…

    A. I began to pray…, B. Cried aloud with one voice…, C. I cried within my heart…

    A. I beheld a tree whose fruit was desirable…, B. We believe in Jesus Christ…, C. I remembered…of one Jesus Christ…

    A. It filled my soul with exceeding great joy…, B. They were filled with joy, having received…, C. oh, what joy…

    A. Perhaps I might discover my family…, B. shall not have a mind to injure one another…, C. from that time…I have labored…that I might bring souls…

    Comment by Hal H. — September 15, 2006 @ 11:26 am

  2. Very nice.

    Comment by Mark Butler — September 15, 2006 @ 11:44 am

  3. Hal H, Nice comment, I have never made that connection. I think that Lehi’s dream was very influential on the rest of the BofM and I’ll pull out some other references back to Lehi’s dream from later in the BofM in coming posts.

    Mark, thanks.

    Comment by Jacob — September 15, 2006 @ 12:14 pm

  4. Jacob, great post and great comments Mark and Hal (are you the Hal H. down the hall from me on in the TNRB??). I think all of this is very interesting in light of the faith, hope and charity relationship which Nephi addresses in 2 Ne 31:19-20 (see here for some discussion we’ve posted at the wiki).

    Also, I think it would be very interesting to tie in the notion of “speaking with the tongue of angels” with Christ and the iron rod as the Word of God (see some discussion here), as well as the notion of becoming one with God as the Godhead itself is one (here is relevant discussion regarding 3 Ne 11:27). One thing that strikes me is how the only action Lehi takes in relation to his family is verbal. In 1 Ne 8:15 Lehi says “I beckoned unto them; and I also did say unto them with a loud voice that they should come unto me.” How should we relate Lehi’s speaking here (as a prophet or as a father?) to the tongue of angels and the Word of God? Notice this parallels Isa 6:5 in interesting ways (note our extensive wiki discussion of this here): once Isaiah is cleansed by the coal, he is called to declare the word of God (which is exactly the pattern that Lehi follows and essentially what Nephi does also).

    Comment by Robert C. — September 16, 2006 @ 7:09 pm

  5. Robert C.,

    I think that speaking with the tongue of angels and speaking with the spirit of prophecy are pretty much the same thing – knowing and feeling by the Spirit, even in the moment, what our Father in heaven wishes you to say in any given circumstance, according to the spirit of revelation and understanding.

    I wish I had more of it – too many times I just brain dump everything I can think of on a subject, unable to appreciate what would be the most straightforward and expedient thing to say. And if it doesn’t make sense to who you are speaking or writing to, isn’t it just a waste of breath, however significant it seems in your own mind?

    Comment by Mark Butler — September 17, 2006 @ 2:42 pm

  6. Wonderful post, Jacob.

    I wonder if your comments on 2 Nephi 31-32, and of course your comments on 1 Nephi 8, might be collated in a broader structuration of 1-2 Nephi. As I read those fifty-five chapters, there is a clear structure that parallels all of these themes:

    1 Nephi 1-18 tells a sort of creation story, a how-the-Lehites-got-to-be-a-people-in-this-particular-location story. 1 Nephi 19-2 Nephi 5 tells a sort of fall story, a how-the-Lehites-split-in-two-and-one-of-these-two-groups-was-cut-off-from-the-presence-of-the-Lord story. 2 Nephi 6-30 tells a sort of atonement story, a how-three-messengers-showed-up-to-teach-how-these-two-separated-groups-might-come-back-together-again-in-the-last-days story. And 2 Nephi 31-33 offers a sort of veil story, some final instruction on passing through the veil.

    Of significance there are at least two implications. First, 2 Nephi 31-33 seems to be, from the very start, characterized by its placement as the denouement, the veil experience, following the creation/fall/atonement series, and that not only accords well with the temple imagery you are reading there, but may be the explanation of why Nephi employs temple imagery there. Second, 1 Nephi 8 is found in an interesting place textually. But to explain this, I need to offer a sub-structuring:

    1 Nephi 1-2 offer two parallel covenant experiences: Lehi receives a covenant (the “Lehitic” covenant), and then Nephi receives the same. 1 Nephi 3-7 tells two stories that flesh out the details of that covenant (since it mentions the “commandments” and Nephi’s “seed,” God is bound to provide the commandments through the plates–one return to Jerusalem–and the seed through marriagiable women–a second return). 1 Nephi 8-15 presents two parallel visionary experiences (both double experiences, double because each centers around two trees), balancing on a passage that explains the route from Lehi’s experience to Nephi’s; these two double visions seem together to articulate the historical (read: Abrahamic covenantal) implications of the “Lehitic” covenant. 1 Nephi 16-18 recounts the double journey from the first site, a journey on land and a journey on sea, interrupted by Nephi’s wonderful discourse of legitimation in between.

    More intricately still: 1 Nephi 8-15. Lehi’s vision: 8-10. Nephi’s vision: 11-14. Lehi’s vision is twofold: chapter 8 tells his vision concerning one tree, and chapter 10 tells his vision concerning another tree (all of this will have to be read in terms of Ezekiel 37 in the end). Chapter 8, then, is the first of two tree visions that articulate the role of the “Lehitic” covenant in the broader scheme of the Abrahamic covenant’s history. If chapter 8 explores the history of the Nephites/Lamanites, then chapter 10 explores the history of Israel (Nephi’s vision will explore these two themes separately and intertwiningly as well).

    The point of all of this is to say that the placement of 1 Nephi 8 is significant because it is a first prophetic exploration of the role of the Lehites in the broader covenantal scheme, a covenantal history which itself ends up paralleling the temple pattern, etc. 1 Nephi 8 points inevitably to 2 Nephi 31-32, since the possibility of the Nephites/Lamanites entering into the presence of the Lord is through the covenantal ties between Lehi and Abraham (Lehi is quite clearly an Abraham figure in the Book of Mormon).

    One word of apology: I have spent a great deal of time writing such things on the wiki (it is thence I come here), and I’m finding it difficult to write much of significance briefly. I apologize for the length and for the forced obscurity. Perhaps I should echo Robert’s obvious plea for others to explore these themes on the wiki.

    Comment by Joe Spencer — September 17, 2006 @ 5:06 pm

  7. I have a post that is relevant to the question of the way here:

    The general subject is why is it that Christ (a person) is the Way? Why isn’t a philosophy the Way? Why aren’t a set of immutable divine attributes (a la Orson Pratt) the Way? Why a Person?

    Comment by Mark Butler — September 17, 2006 @ 6:08 pm

  8. This is great stuff. Thanks to all.

    Comment by mullingandmusing (m&m) — September 17, 2006 @ 6:26 pm

  9. Robert,

    Thanks for the comment and the links. Your page on angelification with respect to speaking with the “tongue of angels” was interesting. As to the rod of iron, that is one of the two follow-up posts I have planned (which will probably be second after one on the river first). I have never had any big theories about the tongue of angels, so you will have to tell me if my thoughts on the rod complement your own view or not when you read that post.

    Comment by Jacob — September 17, 2006 @ 7:12 pm

  10. Mark,

    Your #5 might be the most perceptive piece of self-analysis I have read in a long time. Well done.

    Comment by Jacob — September 17, 2006 @ 7:14 pm

  11. Joe Spencer,

    Thanks for the meaty comment. We are on the same page with many of the points you make. I will have to sit down and compare your comment more closely on some of the finer points of your suggested structure. The Ezekiel 37 reference is key. I will make mention of it when talking about the river of water for obvious reasons.

    M&M, thanks.

    Comment by Jacob — September 17, 2006 @ 7:21 pm

  12. Mark,
    Thank you for the comment #5. I’m glad I came across it.

    Comment by Bored in Vernal — September 17, 2006 @ 7:28 pm

  13. Jacob,

    I am not sure exactly how to take that. You sound like a guidance counselor. Standard problem – ideas aching to burst forth, but no idea how to communicate them properly. Some principles are so straightforward three paragraphs and it is Q.E.D. Others seem so subtle to the degree I feel like I would need to write a dissertation to persuade anyone that they are worth anything. Those are the ones I have a hard time with – I wouldn’t even bother of course if I didn’t feel they were more than relevant to the topic under discussion. I will also admit that one some days I am a far worse writer than on others. Brain cloud, I guess.

    Comment by Mark Butler — September 17, 2006 @ 9:15 pm

  14. Mark,

    Guidance counselor – lol. I know you are often frustrated that many interesting and important issues cannot be adequately expressed in a few paragraphs. I know the feeling. The point you made in #5 is a good one and it is really something that all of us must struggle with. Talking and writing are a lot easier than communicating.

    As for how to take it, I hope you will forgive me for ribbing you a bit in #10. You do get your fair share of responses that start out “I have no idea what you are talking about” which was what made me laugh when I saw you state the problem so perceptively. I was just heckling you in a friendly spirit, no attempt at guidance counselling.

    Comment by Jacob — September 17, 2006 @ 9:44 pm

  15. Jacob,

    I think there is a worse problem – as any philosopher or theologian starts to develop his own (hopefully inspired) understanding, the semantics of terms used tends to diverge from common usage. Some philosophers are so prone to this that it is impossible to read them without months of study. I do not think the semantics of scriptural terms are that bad – but they are often mysterious resolutions of some first class paradoxes.

    And those resolutions cannot be summarily described in the language of analytical philsophy, and when you try to explain in clear language (right or wrong) people tend to think you are a heretic because you so radically dissent from the accepted view. So you are reduced to using exactly the same metaphors as are in the scriptures themselves, and then readers think you are either just parrotting and conveying no new meaning, or being purposely obtuse, obscure (puzzle talk) or pretentious.

    [Guidance counseling is fine – it is sarcasm that I hate (Not that I expected it from you, Jacob).]

    Comment by Mark Butler — September 17, 2006 @ 10:35 pm

  16. Not only that I wrote today what I believe to be a coherent post on what is almost certainly the watershed issue in LDS theology and metaphysics, one that raises some extremely critical practical implications, and though it is a little longer than usual, not a single person has yet to comment on it.

    Is the interest in the fundamentals of LDS theology really that weak? One gets the impression that the Utah pioneers thrived on this stuff. I understand that an LDS household without a copy of Orson Pratt’s collected writings was hardly to be found. Am I harder to read or less interesting than he? Or doesn’t anyone care anymore?

    Comment by Mark Butler — September 17, 2006 @ 10:45 pm

  17. Robert C. #4,
    No, I’m not the Hal H. in TNRB. Don’t blame him. I’m in a different state and better looking.

    Comment by Hal H. — September 18, 2006 @ 3:28 am

  18. This is a great post. I love how complex this dream story can be, and how beautifully it illustrates several points and lessons.

    Related to this topic, I just posted, on Jettboy’s Book of Mormon Symposium, this post on how the Tree of Life is both an individual and communalistic symbol of the Atonement.

    Comment by Connor Boyack — September 30, 2006 @ 2:12 pm

  19. Thanks Connor.

    Comment by Jacob — September 30, 2006 @ 9:29 pm