And as I cast my eyes round about…I beheld a river of water; and it ran along, and it was near the tree of which I was partaking the fruit. (1 Ne. 8:13)
In a previous post I explored a few connections between the Garden of Eden, the ancient temple, the Exodus story, and Lehi’s dream. In this post I’ll focus on the river of water.
There is a conspicuous error in every artistic depiction of Lehi’s dream that I have ever seen. It is that the river of water does not does not cut across the strait and narrow path. This is a pretty obvious error if you understand that Lehi’s dream is another version of the Exodus, because everyone knows from the Exodus that you must cross the Red Sea to get out of Egypt. The bondage in Egypt represents mankind’s captivity to sin in the fallen world; when the children of Israel fled that bondage to live by God’s law, they were divided from the wicked in Egypt by the Red Sea. The river in Lehi’s dream is described similarly:
16 And the angel spake unto me, saying: Behold 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.
18 And the large and spacious building, which thy father saw, is vain imaginations and the pride of the children of men. And a great and a terrible gulf divideth them. (1 Ne 12)
The river of water is described as a great and terrible gulf that divides the wicked. When Nephi is explaining the vision to his brothers he restates this in a significant way saying that this gulf “separated the wicked from the tree of life, and also from the saints of God” (1 Ne. 15:28).
Mormon provides some crucial interpretive insight when he breaks into the narrative in Helaman 3 to give one of his classic “and thus we see” commentaries (this is how he makes sure we don’t miss the point). I’ll bold the references to Lehi’s dream and italicize the interpretive springboard.
24 And it came to pass that in this same year there was exceedingly great prosperity in the church, insomuch that there were thousands who did join themselves unto the church and were baptized unto repentance.
26 And it came to pass that the work of the Lord did prosper unto the baptizing and uniting to the church of God, many souls, yea, even tens of thousands.
27 Thus we may see that the Lord is merciful unto all who will, in the sincerity of their hearts, call upon his holy name.
28 Yea, thus we see that
the gate of heaven is open unto all, even to those who will believe on the name of Jesus Christ, who is the Son of God.
29 Yea, we see that whosoever will may lay hold upon the word of God, which is quick and powerful, which shall divide asunder all the cunning and the snares and the wiles of the devil, and lead the man of Christ in a strait and narrow course across that everlasting gulf of misery which is prepared to engulf the wicked-
30 And land their souls, yea, their immortal souls, at the right hand of God in the kingdom of heaven, to sit down with Abraham, and Isaac, and with Jacob, and with all our holy fathers, to go no more out. (Helaman 3)
It is plain from this passage that Mormon associated crossing the everlasting gulf (the river) with baptism. If we want to draw the landscape how Mormon envisioned it, we need to have the river cutting across the path and under the iron rod so that a person in the spacious field can “lay hold upon the word of God” and then travel a strait and narrow course across the river. If you decide to redraw a version for me, make sure you don’t add a bridge because we cross the river through baptism.
At first this may seem to be at odds with the angel’s interpretation of the depths of the river being the “depths of hell.” Actually the symbolism holds together remarkably well. In the atonement, Christ descended below all things. He died and descended into hell, before being resurrected in triumph over death and hell. In baptism, we symbolically follow Christ into the depths of hell. We die with Christ in a watery grave, and then we are brought forth out of the water in likeness of the resurrection. Symbolically we have overcome death and hell. Thus the interpretation that the depths of the river represent the depths of hell corresponds well with the concept that we enter the straight and narrow path by crossing the river through baptism.
The ordinance of baptism typifies the resurrection. Lehi also speaks of coming forth out of the eternal gulf through the resurrection. He tells his straying children to awake (as in the resurrection) from the death and hell that they are headed toward:
13 O that ye would awake; awake from a deep sleep, yea, even from the sleep of hell, and shake off the awful chains by which ye are bound, which are the chains which bind the children of men, that they are carried away captive down to the eternal gulf of misery and woe.
14 Awake! and arise from the dust. (2 Ne. 1)
Once again, they are supposed to leave captivity and bondage (Egypt) by coming out of the eternal gulf. Paul did for the Exodus what Mormon did for the river in Lehi’s dream:
1 Moreover, brethren, I would not that ye should be ignorant, how that all our fathers were under the cloud, and all passed through the sea;
2 And were all baptized unto Moses in the cloud and in the sea (1 Cor 10)
While the children of Israel came forth out of the Red Sea on dry ground, the Egyptians were drowned in the Red Sea:
2 Therefore let us go up; let us be strong like unto Moses; for he truly spake unto the waters of the Red Sea and they divided hither and thither, and our fathers came through, out of captivity, on dry ground, and the armies of Pharaoh did follow and were drowned in the waters of the Red Sea. (1 Ne 4)
So also, the wicked were drowned in the river of Lehi’s dream:
32 And it came to pass that many were drowned in the depths of the fountain; and many were lost from his view, wandering in strange roads. (1 Ne 8:32)
Now, what of the filthiness of the river? You may recall that Lehi got carried away and didn’t notice that the water was filthy (1 Ne 15:27) but Nephi told his brothers that “that the water which my father saw was filthiness” (1 Ne 15:27). We don’t usually think of the waters of baptism as filthy, but it is not unfitting considering the fact that they contain the wicked and their works as well as the sins of the righteous which were symbolically washed away in baptism.
I have been hitting the Exodus parallel pretty hard, but it is even more striking when compared with the history the angel superimposes over the symbols of Lehi’s dream. In 1 Nephi 13 the angel shows Nephi the world at the time of Columbus. He sees the Columbus cross the Atlantic and settle America. He sees the Revolutionary War and the independence of America established. This history is related in terms of the Exodus and Lehi’s dream.
We are told that the great and abominable church is responsible for bringing the saints into captivity–this brings to mind the children of Israel in captivity in Egypt. We also learn that the great and abominable church sits upon “many waters” (1 Ne 14:11). “Many waters” is the Nephite name for the ocean (1 Ne. 17:5). Just as the river is a gulf that divides the wicked from the saints of God, Nephi “…looked and beheld many waters; and they divided the Gentiles from the seed of my brethren” (1 Ne 13:10). Thus, just as the children of Israel crossed the Red Sea, and those in the spacious field had to cross the river, so also the Pilgrims had to cross the “many waters” to get to the promised land of America. We are reminded five separate times that the Gentiles lead by Columbus were coming out of captivity (verses 13, 16, 19, 29, 30). The Atlantic Ocean served as the equivalent to the Red Sea in the Exodus lead by Columbus.
Before quitting, let me briefly mention a very important point about these symbols which recurs with nearly all symbols of covenant. The river serves, at once, as a symbol which saves the righteous while destroying the wicked. For the righteous it is baptism, but the wicked are drowned and carried away. The same is true of the sacrificial animal. For the covenant keeper, the animal represents Christ slain in the atonement, but the covenant breaker must become the sacrifice himself as punishment for breaking the covenant. The glory of the Lord at his second coming glorifies the righteous who are caught up with the Lord but burns the wicked as stubble. When we get to the rod of iron we’ll see that it similarly serves in a dual role to help the righteous while punishing the wicked. (See: The Rod Along the Bank)