“A Virgin, Most Beautiful and Fair Above All Other Virgins”

Brant Gardner

There is no transition at all from explaining Lehi’s dream of the tree of life into Nephi’s revelation of the Messiah’s mortal mission. Nephi does not say, “Because I looked again, I learned that.… ” Rather, when he tells the Spirit that he wants to know the interpretation of the tree, the answer is a vision of the virgin in Nazareth. Clearly the vision of Jesus’s mission is the explanation of the meaning of the tree.

As already discussed (see commentary accompanying 1 Nephi 8:2–3), from the Israelites’ conquest of Canaan until the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem just after Lehi’s departure, there was widespread worship of the Goddess Asherah in Israel. Asherah was considered to be Yahweh’s wife, and several recently discovered inscriptions specifically speak of “Yahweh and his Asherah,” indicating that this divine couple was widely known and worshipped in early Israel. Even more important for the Book of Mormon is that Asherah was also the mother of the gods in the Canaanite pantheon and a divine mother-image.

As discussed in that earlier introduction to the complex of symbols associated with the tree of life, there was a direct connection between Asherah and the tree such that the tree (or a pole as the surrogate of a tree) was placed in the temple near the altar.

Daniel C. Peterson notes the intimate connection between Asherah and a tree: “What was the ‘asherah’ that stood in the temple at Jerusalem and in Samaria? Asherah was associated with trees. A tenth-century cultic stand from Ta’anach, near Megiddo, features two representations of Asherah, first in human form and then as a sacred tree. She is the tree.”

In Lehi’s culture, the heavens were inhabited by a family headed by ’El, the most high God. The family concept extended to the sons of God. Hence Yahweh would also have had a wife, who was understood to be Asherah. From these associations, Lehi would easily move from the image of the tree to the story of the birth and mission of the Atoning Messiah. However we do not have Lehi’s version of the story. What we have is Nephi’s more carefully spelled-out revelation, suggesting again that Nephi had less familiarity with the symbols and therefore required the heavenly guide’s assistance (“fair and white”: see discussion accompanying 1 Nephi 13:5 and 2 Nephi 5:21).

Second Witness: Analytical & Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon, Vol. 1