The Rod Along the Bank (more on Lehi’s dream)

July 1, 2007    By: Jacob J @ 6:16 pm   Category: Scriptures

This recent exchange reminded me of my “Lehi’s dream” series, which I never finished. Part of the problem was that I couldn’t figure out how to edit this post (below) down to a reasonable length. Also Geoff was less than enthusiastic about the series. Nevertheless, I decided to post this installment to finish off the series, even though it is clearly far too long for a blog post. Oh well, don’t read it if you don’t want to!

And I beheld a rod of iron, and it extended along the bank of the river, and led to the tree by which I stood. (1 Ne. 8:19)

Once again, I will be building on the connections between the Exodus, the Garden of Eden, the ancient temple, and Lehi’s dream. I believe these connections add a depth of meaning to the symbols in Lehi’s dream that cannot be appreciated if the dream is studied in isolation. In order to appreciate the richness of the symbolism attached to the rod of iron, we need to go back to the first use of this symbol in the scriptures and see how it was used elsewhere. The rod is one of the most diverse elements of Lehi’s dream. As a representation of the word of God, it is connected to a variety of related symbols. The word of God is also represented in the scriptures by a lamp, a sword, a seed, a fire, bread, and the Liahona (Ps. 119:105, D&C 6:2, Alma 32:28, Jer. 23:29, Deut 8:3, Alma 37:44).

The Rod as the Scriptures (a.k.a. the obvious interpretation)

Of course, Nephi interpreted the meaning of the rod of iron for his brothers as “the word of God.” He told them that “whoso would hearken unto the word of God, and would hold fast unto it, they would never perish; neither could the temptations and the fiery darts of the adversary overpower them unto blindness [think mist of darkness], to lead them away to destruction (1 Ne. 15:24).”

The most common interpretation offered in Primary is that the word of God refers to the scriptures. This interpretation is fully supported by Nephi’s vision. When Nephi wants to know what his father’s dream means, an angel superimposes various pieces of history on the symbols in the dream. Nephi sees a future day when a group of Gentiles leave captivity and cross many waters to arrive in the promised land of the Americas (1 Ne 13:12-16). As mentioned previously, this follows the Exodus patter of leaving captivity and crossing a body of water to get to the promised land, and it also alludes to the river in the dream. Once these Gentiles are on the path, so to speak, the discussion turns to an important book, which we interpret to be the Bible (1 Ne 13:20-23). There is a problem, which is that “plain and precious” things have been removed from the book (1 Ne 13:29), a direct attack on the integrity of the iron rod.

The removal of the plain and precious things is textually linked to the mist of darkness. Recall that “the mists of darkness are the temptations of the devil, which blindeth the eyes, and hardeneth the hearts of the children of men, and leadeth them away into broad roads, that they perish and are lost” (1 Ne 12:17). The angel tells Nephi that God will not “suffer that the Gentiles shall forever remain in that awful state of blindness, which thou beholdest they are in, because of the plain and most precious parts of the gospel of the Lamb which have been kept back” (1 Ne 13:32). They are being overcome by the mist of darkness because of the assault on the rod of iron.

As the vision continues, Nephi sees that the Book of Mormon comes forth to repair the damaged iron rod so that it might thereby lead them through the mist of darkness, or in other words their state of blindness (1 Ne 13:32-35).

This was the history that the angel superimposed over the rod of iron. It illustrates the importance of the written word of God and validates the common association of the iron rod with the scriptures. However, this may not be the only meaning to be found in the rod of iron.

Psalms 1 and 2

When Nephi and his brothers returned from obtaining the Brass Plates, “Lehi, took the records which were engraven upon the plates of brass and he did search them from the beginning” (1 Ne 5:10). He found that they contained the five books of Moses, the writings of the prophets through Isaiah, and a genealogy of his fathers (1 Ne 5:11-14). The things he read lead him to “prophesy concerning his seed” (1 Ne. 5:18). After he finishes prophesying, he sends his sons back to get some women (1 Ne. 7:1-2). When they return, Lehi informs them that he has “dreamed a dream; or, in other words, …seen a vision” (1 Ne. 8:1).

All of this leads me to believe that Lehi’s dream was received in response to his study of something in the Brass Plates, and my money is on Psalms 1 and 2 as the scriptural springboard. The first scriptural mention of an iron rod is in Psalm 2:9. In fact, many familiar symbols are found in the first two Psalms: a tree, a river, a rod of iron, the way (or “path” in some translations) of the righteous, and a congregation of sinners gathering together to fight against the kingdom of God. Of course, Psalms 1 and 2 do not use these symbols in precisely the same way they are employed in Lehi’s dream, but the similarities seem more than coincidental.

The Sword and the Rod in Revelation

In the second psalm, the rod of iron is portrayed as a weapon with which the Lord will rule the earth. In John’s Apocalypse, he mentions the rod of iron three times. In the first reference, he makes it clear he is drawing on Psalm 2:

  Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron; thou shalt dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel. (Psalm 2:9)

  And he that overcometh, and keepeth my works unto the end, to him will I give power over the nations:
  And he shall rule them with a rod of iron; as the vessels of a potter shall they be broken to shivers: even as I received of my Father. (Rev 2:26-27)

The third reference in the Revelation builds on this symbolism and links the rod of iron to several important concepts: judgment, the word of God, a sharp sword, and an implement of rule.

  And I saw heaven opened, and behold a white horse; and he that sat upon him was called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he doth judge and make war.
  His eyes were as a flame of fire, and on his head were many crowns; and he had a name written, that no man knew, but he himself.
  And he was clothed with a vesture dipped in blood: and his name is called The Word of God.
  And the armies which were in heaven followed him upon white horses, clothed in fine linen, white and clean.
  And out of his mouth goeth a sharp sword, that with it he should smite the nations: and he shall rule them with a rod of iron: and he treadeth the winepress of the fierceness and wrath of Almighty God. (Rev 19:11-15)

The rider of the white horse judges in righteousness, is called the Word of God, has a sharp sword coming out of his mouth (a clear reference to the word of God), and rules the nations with a rod of iron. It is very interesting to note the close connection between the sharp sword and the rod of iron.

We are more familiar with the aspect of the rod of iron that leads and directs the righteous through the temptations of Satan.

  And it came to pass that I beheld that the rod of iron, which my father had seen, was the word of God, which led to the fountain of living waters, or to the tree of life. (1 Ne. 11:25)

  the words of Christ, if we follow their course, carry us beyond this vale of sorrow into a far better land of promise. (Alma 37:5)

As this last verse says, the words of Christ only have this blessing affect if we follow their course. The rod of iron administers justice, which has both a blessing and a cursing function.

  Therefore I command you to repent–repent, lest I smite you by the rod of my mouth, and by my wrath, and by my anger, and your sufferings be sore–how sore you know not, how exquisite you know not, yea, how hard to bear you know not. (D&C 19:15)

Thus, the symbol of the iron rod is used to illustrate God leading us home, or conversely, if we disobey and fail to repent, the rod is used to smite us. Also notice that instead of a sword going out of his mouth to smite the nations (as in Revelation 19), in D&C 19 he says he will smite the unrepentant by the “rod” of my mouth. “Rod” and “sword” are used interchangeably. The rod has that duality that so often exists in the Lord’s symbols. It encompasses both blessing and cursing. The word of God is the word of judgment; it pronounces blessings on the faithful and condemnation on the wicked. This leads us to the two-edged sword.

Putting Another Edge on the Sword

  Behold, I am God; give heed unto my word, which is quick and powerful, sharper than a two-edged sword, to the dividing asunder of both joints and marrow; therefore give heed unto my words. (D&C 6:2)

The “dividing asunder of both joints and morrow” refers to the ancient manner of covenant making. A sacrificial animal would be cut down the middle lengthwise and the two halves of the animal would be laid on the ground with a space between them (see Gen 15). The parties making the covenant would pass between the pieces, signifying their obligation to the covenant. The sacrificial animal represented what would happen to them if they did not live up to their covenants.

Anciently, it was a common oath formula to say something like, “may the Lord do so to me, and more also” if I do not keep this covenant. (cf. Ruth 1:17; 1 Sam 3:17; 25:22; 20:13; 2 Sam 3:9;1 Kings 2:23; 19:2; 20:10; 2 Kings 6:31). The point of saying this was that if they did not keep their covenant, the Lord could divide them just as the sacrificial animal had been divided. This statement was not always accompanied by an actual animal sacrifice. Other ritual actions could take the place of an animal sacrifice, perhaps even ritual gestures symbolizing the penalties associated with violating the covenant.[1] If you keep the covenant, the animal represents Jesus slain for your sins, but if you break the covenant, you become the sacrificial animal yourself (cf. D&C 19:15).

Anciently they didn’t make covenant, they cut covenant (“karath” covenant). Again, this shows the dual nature of the rod of iron. It is the two edged sword that cuts both ways. It represents the blessings and the cursings of the covenant.

The Flaming Sword

If you combine the sword with a flame (frequently used to symbolize justice), you get a flaming sword. Of course, this symbol appears in the Garden of Eden story as cherubim and a flaming sword are placed to protect the way of the tree of life (recall that these same cherubim appear on the veil of the ancient temple). The job of this flaming sword was to separate the wicked from the tree of life.

A strikingly similar thing is found in Nephi’s dream. The angel explains:

  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; yea, even the word of the justice of the Eternal God. (1 Ne. 12:18)

If you’ve been following Royal Skousen’s work on the critical text of the Book of Mormon, you will recognize this as a verse in which he found a discrepancy between the current text and the original manuscript. The phrase “word of the justice of the Eternal God” should read “sword of the justice of the Eternal God.” It was misread by Oliver Cowdery when he was making the printer’s manuscript from the original manuscript.

So, here is a reference to a sword as the great and terrible gulf dividing the wicked from the righteous. In the previous post, we talked about the river as the great and terrible gulf dividing the wicked from the saints of God. This reference to the “sword of justice” sounds very much like meaning of the rod of iron in Psalm 2 and the Revelation, but in this scripture, the word “even” makes it look like this is just a description of the great and terrible gulf. In Nephi’s explanation to his brothers, he says that there were two things dividing the wicked from the righteous:

  And they said unto me: What meaneth the rod of iron which our father saw, that led to the tree?
  And I said unto them that it was the word of God…
  And they said unto me: What meaneth the river of water which our father saw?
  And I said unto them that it was an awful gulf, which separated the wicked from the tree of life, and also from the saints of God.
  And I said unto them that our father also saw that the justice of God did also divide the wicked from the righteous; and the brightness thereof was like unto the brightness of a flaming fire, which ascendeth up unto God forever and ever, and hath no end. (1 Ne. 15:23-26,28-30)

Note the word “also” in verse 30. Nephi explains that “the sword of the justice of the Eternal God” is a second divider between the wicked and the righteous. What is fascinating about verse 30 is that what was previously described as the sword of justice is described this time as being “like unto the brightness of a flaming fire.” It seems we have another flaming sword after all, and its purpose is identical to the one in the Garden of Eden, which is to divide the wicked from the righteous and from the tree of life. Incidentally, a very similar symbol is found in the Exodus story. Recall that when the children of Israel crossed the Red Sea they were lead by a pillar of fire as they crossed the gulf that would soon separate them from the Egyptians. It was a pillar of fire to the children of Israel, but it was a cloud of darkness to the Egyptians (Ex. 14:20).

All of these models (the ancient temple, Lehi’s dream, the Exodus, the Garden of Eden) portray the same basic thing. Each represents the journey that we must make to get from the fallen world where we live now back to the tree of life in the presence of God. As I study them, their symbols seem to continually fold back onto one another, and seeing the connections between them all helps me to appreciate them even more. The iron rod is a much richer symbol than we generally give it credit because we fail to see the connections to justice, the two-edged sword, and the flaming fire. The connections are there, however, and one need not look too hard to find them.


[1] An interesting paper on cutting covenant and ancient oath making is available online here: Bruce William Jones, Cutting Covenants and Cutting Animals: Biblical Rituals and Idioms

While fact checking this post, I ran into two related papers that might be of interest:
1. John A. Tvedtnes, Rod and Sword as the Word of God, Provo, Utah: Maxwell Institute, 1996. pg. 148–55.
2. Leslie A. Taylor, The Word of God, Provo, Utah: Maxwell Institute, 2003. pg. 52–63.

2 Comments »

  1. Good stuff Jacob. I think I’m buying what you are selling here (ie that there is a direct connection between the rod of iron and the sword of justice and the flaming sword — and they all represent the word(s) of God).

    Comment by Geoff J — July 2, 2007 @ 12:18 am

  2. I always thought the rod of iron was the Shamir or iron rod that Moses used to break the Red Sea, and not some stair support like you see in BoM pictures.
    Great info!

    Comment by cadams — July 3, 2007 @ 7:51 pm

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