Mark Thomas: Lehi's Dream: An American Apocalypse

Lehi's Dream: An American Apocalypse

A paper presented at the Fourth Annual Symposium of
The Association for Mormon Letters,
Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah, October 13, 1979

Mark Thomas

Writings that proclaim a cataclysmic end of the world are called apocalyptic. Apocalyptic writings and imagery have been a constant source of inspiration for the arts and the beginnings of religious movements, including Christianity and Mormonism. Their doctrines continue to the present in literal and metaphorical form in various theologies and political ideologies. They have influenced us all.

As we examine Lehi's dream and Nephi's vision (I Ne. 8-]6:6), we see that it is written in the form of an ancient Judeo-Christian apocalypse. The Book of Mormon claims to be an ancient document. However, in order to speak to the widest possible audience, this paper will suspend the important question of when it was written. Regardless of when it was written, we need to recognize the ancient biblical form it employs, if we wish to interpret Lehi's dream correctly. Jewish and Christian apocalyptic was a literary-prophetic movement that had its roots in Jewish prophecy -- but it was "prophecy in a new idiom." The books of Revelation and Daniel are the only full-blooded apocalyptic works in the canon, but there are many others outside of the canon. The form of these works is quite flexible. Yet they contain certain characteristic features in common with 1 Nephi 8-]6:6. Let us examine those features.(1)

Apocalyptic authors claim God has revealed to them the secrets of the imminent end of the world. This revelation is in the form of dreams or visions containing unnatural and bizarre, often archetypal, symbols. For example, in one apocalypse we read of rocks bleeding. In the book of Revelation there is a red dragon with seven heads, seven crowns, and ten horns. The vision is often followed by a prayer or request for interpretation.2 An angel then appears to interpret. This angel interprets the symbols as allegorical representations of a series of historical events. This historical panorama is either from creation to the end of the world, or from the time of the supposed author to the end.(2)

In the vision, the last days are filled with decadence, persecution of the righteous, and the rise of the Evil One (in Christian terms, the Antichrist). Near the end, there are also awesome occurrences in nature and a final universal war between the powers of good and evil. In apocalyptic we have a fully developed moral and cosmic dualism. All creation is involved in the struggle between good and evil. Finally, God or his superhuman representative destroys evil. At this point, a new age begins. So apocalyptic authors believed in two distinct ages. They saw themselves in the last days of the first age which was totally controlled by evil. These authors viewed their times with utter despair and pessimism. The second age became known among Christians as the millennium.

It is important to understand that apocalyptic was written during times of extreme difficulty and persecution. It could be when the Syrian overlord, Antiochus Epiphanes, killed Jews who practiced their religion. Or it could be during the Roman persecution of early Christians. In any case, evil prospered and the righteous were powerless and persecuted. But more severe than the terrors of persecution were the threats of meaninglessness. How could God permit these terrors? Aren't we supposed to prosper when we keep God's commandments? Why do evil men prosper? What is the meaning of this unbearable chaos? Apocalyptic sought hope and courage for those in hopeless desperation, and meaning when the old answers did not satisfy.

We shall now examine how 1 Nephi 8-16:6 expresses its content through its apocalyptic form. It begins with Lehi's tree of life dream and prophecy. Then Nephi asks the Lord's Spirit to see and understand his father's dream. An angel then descends and interprets the dream to signify events from Lehi's time down to the end (all of this according to form). Nephi sees a series of visions which the angel introduces with the command, "Look." He responds, "And I beheld," or "I saw," or some such statement. Apocalyptic often contains such sequential visions. And as introduction to each vision we find commands by the angel to look and the response from the seer in precisely the same words Nephi uses ("I looked," or "I saw" or "I looked and beheld").4

In line with its apocalyptic tradition, Nephi's vision portrays the last days as times of decadence because of the world-wide dominion of the great and abominable church (the Evil One). There is the mention of universal war and a final showdown between good and evil, at which time God destroys the Evil One. The details of the end itself are left to the Apocalypse, the Revelation of John (1 Nephi 14: 18-27).

Throughout the visions we see the recurrent apocalyptic symbols: the Lamb and the symbolic use of the colors white and scarlet.5 We find whole phrases borrowed from biblical apocalyptic, such as: The whore upon many waters,.the mother of harlots, the garments made white in the blood of the Lamb.6 And there are many others. We also find the apocalyptic hermeneutic used to understand scripture. Unfortunately, we do not have time to discuss any of these here. Rather, I wish to discuss one aspect of the apocalyptic use of symbols in Lehi's dream.

As I stated previously, apocalyptic dreams and visions are an allegorical representation of a series of historical events down to the end of the present age. A familiar example to Latter-day Saints is the image in the book of Daniel. Each part of the body of this image is made of a different substance. The head of gold is Babylon. As we move down the body each part, made of a different metal, represents the succeeding world power. The feet of iron mixed with clay represent the ruling powers in the last days during the time of Antiochus Epiphanes. Then the stone cut without hands rolls on to consume all of these kingdoms.

Now the symbols in Lehi's dream itself differ from apocalyptic symbols in one important respect: they are not a historical allegory. As Nephi recognizes (1 Ne. 15:31-32), they cannot be equated with only one series of historical events. Rather, they represent a metahistorical summary of spiritual realities, a spiritual map. The angel applies this

map to certain historical events from Nephi's time to the end. The angel's interpretation gives this section of the Book of Mormon all of the apocalyptic elements mentioned above. It is the angel's interpretation that transforms it from a dream with apocalyptic overtones into a full apocalypse.

Despite some differences, the symbols in Lehi's dream have important affinities with apocalyptic symbols. As we would expect in apocalyptic, its symbols are unnatural. Interpreters have frequently tried to make apocalyptic symbols literal. But the power of the symbols lies in their unrealistic strangeness.7 Nibley has tried to demonstrate that the symbols in Lehi's dream are authentic reflections of Arabian life.8 For example, he says that the building floating in the air is a real building whose foundation we cannot see. Reducing the symbols to realistic images destroys their power. I can think of no more provoking image for evil and pride than a spacious building actually floating in the air.

Symbols in Lehi's dream, like apocalyptic symbols, are archetypal. That is, they express a bundle of meanings that have deep roots in the consciousness of man as man. Let us now see how the archetypal symbols Ln Lehi's world view or spiritual map express themselves individually and as a group. Both the tree of life and the difficult path are widely used mythic symbols that express the passage from one mode of being to another.9 In Lehi's dream, the tree represents salvation, fulfillment, true humanity. These can only be attained by traveling the dark narrow path. The fruit is the phenomenal description of that fulfillment: white, delicious, and joyous beyond description. But because of the attraction and temptation of evil, few try and fewer make it. Evil is an obstacle in reaching the tree; it is the source of the universal lim-itations of man. Evil is a power that binds the saints and blinds the seekers.10 It is personified as a mist and an institution. For most of us, every institution has its evil, but for the Book of Mormon, evil has its institutions. Hence, evil has its social element, its traditions, its history, and all the other dynamics of an institution. Here we see the whole of reality divided into a cosmic dualism. The plot is a struggle between good and evil. There are only two churches, only two types of characters, and only two paths.11 The river of God's justice immutably separates them; we cannot dabble in both.

No one is born in the building. No one begins at the tree. Characters start at the crossroads of choice. Life is seen as a moral choice and a journey. Human life is only half full and we must choose to fill it. True life is only a potential of life, reached by traveling the difficult path. This is the journey each one must make: to find his true nature and fulfill it.

Because of the overwhelming control of evil, the seer is not at home in this world with its worldly wisdom, wealth and pride. Life is symbolically described by Lehi as wandering in "a dark and dreary wilderness."12 The apocalyptic hope lies in God's future deliverance in the end. But the despair in Lehi's dream is not so final as in many apocalyptic works. The hope is deflected into the present by the present experience of the tree. The whiteness of the tree and fruit stands in sharp contrast to the rest of the dark imagery in the dream. The represents the longing for objective certainty, an infallible guide in a confused and lost state, the answer to the limits of the human condition.

In summary, these archetypal symbols express the consciousness of evil and the longing for its destruction. (In the end, the building falls.) They express the spiritual limitedness of man and the joy of overcoming -- the joy of the fulfilled life. This dream represents the vindication of the righteous who are persecuted and powerless. It is a summons to give heed to God's word and to obey his commands. But more, it is the longing of the human heart in the face of overwhelming evil. It longs to break the power of binding and blinding.

Now we must clearly face the consequences of recognizing 1 Nephi 8-16:6 as a Judeo-Christian apocalypse. Jewish oracles were added to the prophetic writings down to about 200 B.C. After that, prophecy was believed to have ceased.13 Apocalyptic began in this intertestamental period and lasted for several hundred years. But in order to get a hearing they had to use the pseudonyms of former prophets and wise men. They claimed to be ancient texts that were sealed up to come forth in the last days when the real author lived.14 Since Lehi lived 400 years before the first apocalypse was believed written, it is the task of Mormons to demonstrate the authentic antiquity of this tradition, as Nibley has recently attempted with the books of Enoch. The non-Mormon must explain the incredible ability of Joseph Smith to place ancient forms in a modern context and to explain his affinity to apocalyptic. The only full apocalyptic works available to Joseph Smith were Daniel, 2 Esdras and the book of Revelation. However, almost every New Testament book contains apocalyptic influence.

The central rhetorical claim of apocalyptic is the claim to be an ancient text that addresses a latter-day audience. This is true of the Book of .Mormon as a whole. Lehi prophesied that the Book of Mormon and the Bible "shall grow together unto the confounding of false doctrines laying down of contentions and establishing peace in the latter-days."15

What is the significance of this apocalypse for its latter-day audience? Most of its prophecies were fulfilled prior to 1830. Therefore, the prophecies function more to interpret history and establish the prophetic authority of the book than to predict future events. It involves the audience by placing them at the apex of an apocalyptic drama -- we live the apocalypse. So not only does the restoration include priesthood and knowledge but also a restoration of mythic time and sacred history. Christians no longer need rely on an ancient sacred history alone. Sacred history includes the present, especially the present. Apocalyptic is an appropriate restoration form. It is all the more appropriate considering the apocalyptic rhetoric of the primitivist and nativist movements when it was first published. But that is another paper. We also see the theme we might expect in apocalyptic. Both in Lehi's dream and Nephi's vision we see the wicked killing and persecuting the righteous. It functions as consolation and meaning during the early nineteenth century ridicule and persecution. It provides certainty in the dark confusion of religious pluralism and comfort to those who are religiously and socially disinherited. But it serves another important function for its latter-day audience. This one is not so typical of apocalyptic. We read through this lengthy Book of Mormon apocalypse of dreams and history. Finally we read, near the end, the crux of the latter-day decision:

Wo be unto the Gentiles if it so be that they harden their hearts against the Lamb of God. For the time cometh, saith the Lamb of God, that I will work a great and a marvelous work among the children of men; a work which shall be everlasting, either on the one hand or the other -- either to the convincing of them unto peace and life eternal, or unto the deliverance of them to the hardness of their minds unto their being brought down into captivity, and also into destruction, both temporally and spiritually ...."16

So the critical decision of the last days is the decision to accept the "marvelous work" or the anticipated restoration just prior to the end. The imminent end makes that decision all the more urgent and final.

We have been examining some of the obvious ways in which the text wishes to address its latter-day audience. But this Nephite apocalypse can speak to our present circumstance in ways not anticipated by the text itself. What does it mean for us today? Apocalyptic is written when the traditional symbols lose their power and when psychic and cultural structures erode. We live in such times. Our age is an age of secular skepticism in which the mythic quality of the American saga and the American dream have eroded. This new present requires a usable interpretation of history and a meaningful world view. Regardless of whether we believe in Nephi's vision as literal prophecy or as a symbolic representation of our situation, in the face of our atomic and environmental Armageddon, who can listen with anything less than solemnity? Who can doubt that we live at the crossroads of Lehi's apocalyptic choice? So both in its universal archetypal symbols and its world view, the Nephite apocalypse speaks -- even to a secular twentieth century.

Lehi's dream can speak to us not only through what we have in common with it, but also by how we differ. Its world view in certain ways is so fundamentally different from our own today, that it provides for us a true insight into our own unnoticed assumptions about the world. I will end this paper with a brief view of one such doctrine -- namely, one aspect of its moral dualism. Lehi's dream contains what I call "apocalyptic primitivism.# This is a belief that all the churches except the one true church are abominable apostasies from ancient Christianity and constitute the apocalyptic whore in the last days. The Nephite apocalypse anticipates the restoration of ancient religious truths. This is only one small part of the moral dualism within the entire Book of Mormon. Everything is either black or white. But for most of us, nothing is black or white. We value ambiguity too highly; we are too cosmopolitan to accept such a moral dualism. The claim to he the only true church seems to many people today a provincial form of pride and exceedingly egocentric. Today's most common world view is entirely different from that in the Book of Mormon. I do not experience its despair of the world. When I eat the fruit of the tree, the world is as likely to applaud as point its finger. Because of my absolute commitment to the ecumenical spirit, I struggle with Lehi. And yet I learn from Lehi. The claim to be the only source of religious truth and the depreciation of all other churches is not spoken out of pride but out of despair. It denies the world, in order to rise above it. It challenges us to rise above moral circumstance, to be something higher than the mere products of a morally corrupt environment. It is an affirmation of life that has passed through a negation of life.

But Lehi's dream wishes to rise above the world by stereotyping it. Its virtue is its vice. It (like every sect) has its unique moral accomplishment, but it shuns the world's goodness as well as its evil. In the church today, we see an increasing desire to isolate ourselves from the world and deny it any significant religious statement.

But if we wish to be more than an isolationist group, if we wish to exercise a prophetic spirit within the world, we must learn the language of the world -- and yet never be one with it. We must also take seriously the truth claims of all religions and science. This tension must remain. We must stand on the border. We must learn to shake hands with the world without becoming lovers. Then we will combine the moral genous of apocalyptic and the cosmopolitan spirit of our own time. We then can honor the zeal of our religious heritage and the tolerance of our age.

In summary, our Nephite apocalypse does not teach us to calculate the day and hour of the end and await its coming on hilltops. It does not require us to fatalistically ignore duty or science. Rather, it restores high moral vision when meaning loses its sight. And its enduring element is to pour hope and courage into the midst of despair.


For short summaries of apocalyptic form and doctrine see Peake's Commentary on the Bible, pp. 484-88; Jerome Biblical Commentary,

pp. 336-43; Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, 1:157-61; Norman Perrin, The New Testament: An Introduction (New York/Chicago: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1974), pp. 65-87; C. K. Barrett, The New Testament Background: Selected Documents (New York: Harper and Row, 1961), pp. 227-55.

E. Henneck, and W. Schneemelcher, New Testament Apocrypha, Vol. 2, trans. R. McL. Wilson, (London: Lutterworth Press, 1965), p. 587. Specific examples of visions, prayers and interpretations can be seen throughout 2 Esdras and Daniel 6-9.

3. Ibid., p. 585.

Rev. 14:1; 15:1; 18:1; 17:1-3; Dan. 8:1-7; 12:5; 2 Esd. 11:1, 36, 37. I chose a few examples from 2 Esdras, Revelation, and Daniel because of ease of access. I could have included many others from these and other apocalyptic works.

5. On symbolic use of colors in apocalyptic: William A. Beadslee, Literary Criticism of the New Testament (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1970), pp. 59-60; Jerome Biblical Commentary, p. 343; D. S. Russell, The Method and Message of Jewish Apocalyptic (Philadelphia: Westminister Press, 1964), p. 126 ff.

6. Rev. 7:14; I Ne. 12:10-11; Rev. 17:1; I Ne. 14:11; Rev. 17:5; I Ne. 14:9-10.

For a discussion of apocalyptic symbols: Perrin, New Testament, pp. 69, 83-85; Amos Wilder, Early Christian Rhetoric: The Language of the Gospel (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971), pp. 118-28. Wilder, "Eschatological Imagery and Earthly Circumstance: New Testament Studies 5 (1958/9), pp. 229-45; Wilder, "The Rhetoric of Ancient and Modern Apocalyptic," Interpretation 25 (1971), 436-53.

8. Hugh Nibley, An Approach to the Book of Mormon, 2nd ed. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1976), pp. 217-28. Like apocalyptic in general, we recognize allegorical elements in Lehi's dream; each element in the dream has its own interpretation. The oneiric and

allegorical elements make the symbols unnatural.

Mircea Eliade, Images and Symbols: Studies in Religious Symbolism trans. Philip Mairet (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1961) esp. pp. 50-51.

10. The power of blinding and persecution is emphasized in Lehi's dream. The power of binding and persecution is emphasized in Nephi's vision. So it is a malicious power as well as the source of limitedness (e.g. limited in meaning, knowing, living righteously, etc.).

We must avoid the temptation to interpret Book of Mormon characters as we would characters in a modern novel. They are rather the agents of good and evil powers.

I Ne. 8:4-7 (see also Jac. 7:26). The angel in Joseph Smith Sr.'s tree of life vision interprets this not as the religious experience of the seer, but of the world: "This is the desolate world." Describing life as a journey in a wilderness is a common Christian analogy. (See Oxford English Dictionary for examples.) A famous example from Pilgrim'S Progress is, "As I walked through the wilderness of this world .... "

Russell, Method and Message, p. 73 ff. Ibid., pp. 282-83.

14. Ibid., pp. 282-83.

2 Ne. 3: 12.

16. I Ne. 14:6-7.