By Rachel Hunt Steenblik

The Gospel Doctrine lesson #3 manual objective is “To help class members understand the symbols in the vision of the tree of life and the application of these symbols in their lives.”

Our Objective

To help class members consider that the tree of life might be a symbol for Heavenly Mother, in addition to being a symbol for Her Son.


In May 2005, just weeks before I entered the MTC to begin my full-time missionary service, I sat with my father in front of our family’s old desktop computer, and streamed “The Worlds of Joseph Smith”: An International Academic Conference at the Library of Congress, marking Joseph Smith’s bicentennial. One of my BYU philosophy professors would be speaking. It was not his words that blew me away, but a woman, an Old Testament scholar, named Margaret Barker. My brother transcribed her words here.

She began the relevant portion by stating that “the familiar story of Adam and Eve is the reworking of an older story, after memories of the loss of Eden and the loss of the older temple had merged. The tree that had been intended in Eden for human food was the Tree of Life,” which tree “gave wisdom and eternal life.”*

Barker continued,

Isaiah, who prophesied in the years before 700 BCE, spoke of a female figure and her son and also of a great tree that had been cut down…His contemporary, the prophet Micah, spoke of a woman in travail, who had gone out of the city, but would give birth to the great Shepherd of Israel. Who was this mother and what was the great tree?

Piecing together other contemporary evidence, we could conclude that she was Wisdom, the one whom Josiah eventually purged from the temple, but whose symbol, the Tree of Life, had been removed many years earlier, in the time of Isaiah, and then replaced. …Her son was the Lord. We can deduce this from the Dead Sea Scrolls’ version of Isaiah’s Immanuel prophecy (Isaiah chapter 7).

And here is the part that cracked me open:

…The Tree of Life made one happy according to the Book of Proverbs, but for other detailed descriptions of the tree we have to rely on the non-canonical texts. Enoch described it as perfumed, with fruits like grapes. But a text discovered in Egypt in 1945 described the tree as beautiful, fiery, and with fruits like white grapes. I don’t know of any other source which describes the fruit as white grapes, so you can imagine my surprise when I read the account of Lehi’s vision of the tree whose white fruits made one happy; and the interpretation of the vision, that the virgin in Nazareth was the mother of the Son of God after the manner of the flesh.

This is the Heavenly Mother (represented by the Tree of Life), and then Mary and her son on the earth. This revelation to Joseph Smith was the exact ancient Wisdom symbolism, intact, and almost certainly as it was known in 600 BCE.

I have since heard Fiona Givens suggest many of these same things, including that the tree of life (and trees more generally) may be symbols of our Heavenly Mother. It helps me to look for Her, and to see Her, in our world and our sacred texts. It’s one of the reasons I love the book, Girls Who Choose God: Stories of Strong Women from the Book of Mormon so much. The illustrator, Kathleen Peterson, included a native mesoamerican tree alongside every story.

*Michael Austin wrote a very thoughtful post at By Common Consent, recently, considering the Adam and Eve story alongside the story of Nephi and Lehi’s visions. “The narrative arc of this vision—the act of eating a piece of fruit and being ashamed—is one of those stories that invariably focus our attention back to a type: the story of Adam and Eve in the Book of Genesis. But there is a difference here–and it is one with profound implications for the way that we read the entire Book of Mormon: in Lehi’s vision, eating the fruit is the right thing to do.”

Related Mormon Women Project Interviews

Ties That Bind, Pauline Sanchez

We’ve just begun, earth life is just the Primary. We know in the pre-mortal life we were there with our Heavenly Father and our Heavenly Mother. We were there in this wonderful place where we learned with each other, but in a very sterile situation. We are let free here on the earth. We are a little more expanded, experienced. We won’t experience everything because we aren’t capable of experiencing everything yet. But there’s going to be enough joy and enough sadness, enough light and darkness in our lives, enough storms and enough suffering to enjoy the blessed peace and love and happiness so that we can move forward to another experience.

Patience and Joy, Patience Omorodion

Because there’s something that gives me joy from the Book of Mormon—when Lehi talked about the spacious building. How the people who were walking went to eat the sweet fruit, how they pick it and they eat. But when they look at those that were in the spacious building and they did turn away. They turn away because they were many, and they thought because they are few in that place that they are not secure. I want to encourage every woman, as a Latter-day Saint, we should never be afraid of any group of people, no matter how many they may be. Whether they are outside or inside the Church. As long as we are holding on the tree, we are going on the right way. We should continue and never give up. We should never let any mockery disturb us from the right path. The only way we can resolve this problem is through constant prayer, constant scriptures reading, and be attentive to the Holy Ghost. I know that is very true. It has helped me a lot.

Taught By Her Mothers, Annalaura Solomon

And as I grew in my membership in the Church and grew into myself a bit, I’ve had too many thoughts on this to count, some I keep and some I don’t. I think that having a pattern of equal visibility for men and women is an eternal principle, that neither receives exhalation without the other satisfies much of my concern for an eternal pattern of women’s equal worth in the church. That there is a mother there, the LDS belief in Heavenly Mother, sort of complicates how we look at marriage in mortality. We can’t afford to over simplify or settle for empty justifications either. I’ve sort of hung my hat on that a few different times.

Other Related Women’s Voices

Hold On, Ann M. Dibbs

Holding to the iron rod is not always easy. We may let go because of peer pressure or pride, thinking we can find our own way back—later. When we do so, we are leaving our safety equipment behind. In Lehi’s vision he saw many who let go of the iron rod. Nephi says, “And many were lost from his view, wandering in strange roads” ( 1 Nephi 8:32 ). In difficult times in our own lives, we may find we are also “wandering in strange roads.” Let me reassure you that it is always possible for us to find our way back. Through repentance, made possible by the atoning sacrifice of our Savior, Jesus Christ, we can regain and recommit to a strong grip on the iron rod and feel the loving guidance of our Heavenly Father once again. The Savior has extended an open invitation to us: repent, hold on, and don’t let go.

The Scriptures, My Rod and My Strength, Lenet Hadley Read

In his vision of the tree of life, Lehi portrays those who cling to the iron rod (the “word of God”—1 Ne. 15:23–24) as opposed to those who are drawn to the great and spacious building. How does that vision relate to woman? What are the special lures that the great and spacious building offers the woman of today? Is it only priesthood holders who must cling to the rod? How can a woman “cling” to that which she does not know? Or how can she delineate clearly the distinction between rod and mist unless she thoroughly knows the circumference of the rod?

If my study of the scriptures has done no other thing for me, it has made me painfully conscious that God’s people have often tended to fall into a slumber of security (the mist)—believing their present state of being to be the right one, possessing Christ’s name and his teachings—but all the while drifting slowly into the ways of the world. Lehi’s vision is pertinent—in our day! Its powerful message of the need to cling to the iron rod (a solid, thoroughly known iron rod) is true—in our day! That rod is for man—and also for woman.

Women in the Church are constantly receiving counsel regarding things we ought to do to improve ourselves in different areas. We are encouraged to improve in cultural accomplishments, homemaking skills, physical capacities, etc. All such counsel is of worth. Yet we must not forget that there are greater and lesser counsels. The scriptures themselves teach this. The most pointed example is the incident of Mary and Martha.

Looking for additional perspectives on this lesson? We recommend Mormon Sunday School, Meridian Magazine and LDSLiving.