PART I: THE IRON ROD
The image of the iron rod is found in several passages of the Bible. It has been described as a rod used to discipline and punish the wicked, as well as a shepherd’s rod to guide a flock. Though it is used in a variety of contexts in the Bible, it’s use in Lehi’s and Nephi’s vision of the Tree of Life is mostly unique, and yet consistent with Biblical metaphors. In addition, the Lehi’s and Nephi’s vision bears a striking similarity to a specific passage of the Koran. The following commentary and references are meant to reveal the complexity, uniqueness, and consistency of the vision of the Tree of Life, which can be found in 1 Nephi 8 and 1 Nephi 11-14.
In the Book of Mormon, both Nephi and Lehi are given a vision in which they see a tree that bears fruit, and a rod of iron that leads along a straight path toward the tree. A mist of darkness covers the land and the only way to reach the tree and eat its fruit is to cling to the rod of iron. Those who do not hold to the rod of iron, are lost and drowned in a river. Lehi states “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. And I also beheld a strait and narrow path, which came along by the rod of iron, even to the tree by which I stood; and it also led by the head of the fountain, unto a large and spacious field, as if it had been a world. And I saw numberless concourses of people, many of whom were pressing forward, that they might obtain the path which led unto the tree by which I stood” (1 Nephi 8:20-21).
A few chapters later, Nephi desires to see the same vision. His account gives additional information in the form of visions of Jesus Christ’s earthly ministry. Nephi’s father, Lehi, does not give his children the exact meaning of the symbolism in his vision, but Nephi is able to ascertain the meaning of Lehi’s dream with his additional visions. Nephi identifies the meaning of the rod of iron after seeing a vision of Jesus Christ on the earth:
“I beheld the Son of God going forth among the children of men; and I saw many fall down at his feet and worship him. 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…” (1 Nephi 11:24-25).
Interestingly, Nephi is able to understand that the rod of iron represents the word of God after seeing the Savior’s ministry. The source of Nephi’s understanding can be found in various passages of the Bible. For example, when the Book of Mormon quotes Isaiah’s messianic prophecies, he states:
a) “And the Lord is near, and he justifieth me. Who will contend with me? Let us stand together. Who is mine adversary? Let him come near me, and I will smite him with the strength of my mouth.” (2 Nephi 7:8)
b) “And with righteousness shall the Lord God judge the poor, and reprove with equity for the meek of the earth. And he shall smite the earth with the rod of his mouth; and with the breath of his lips shall he slay the wicked” (2 Nephi 30:9)
Since Nephi knew the revelations of Isaiah very well, upon seeing the Savior in his vision, he immediately knew that Christ was synonymous with the Word of God, which would proceed out of his mouth. This metaphor is further solidified by John when he stated:
“And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14)
Other metaphorical allusions to the rod of iron can be found in the Old and New Testaments. Conjuring similar imagery to Lehi’s vision, Psalm 23:3-4 uses the metaphor of the Lord guiding his people along righteous paths with his rod:
“He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me” (Psalm 23:3-4)
It is most likely that in this context the rod refers to a rod used by a shepherd to guide his flock, as suggested in the following passage:
“O God, why hast thou cast us off for ever? Why doth thine anger smoke against the sheep of thy pasture? Remember thy congregation, which thou hast purchased of old; the rod of thine inheritance, which thou hast redeemed; this mount Zion, wherein thou hast dwelt” (Psalm 74:1-2)
These passages from Psalms are similar to the vision given to Lehi and Nephi, but is greatly expanded. It is important to reiterate once again that even though the same metaphor is being employed, its presentation in the vision of the tree of life and other references in the Bible is entirely unique. In addition to Biblical references in the vision of the tree of life, it may be enlightening to look at other middle-eastern religious texts for possible cultural origins of the vision. For example, the Koran describes Islam as being a “cord” that the followers must hold on to, as found in the following passage:
“And hold ye fast by the cord of God, all of you, and break not loose from it; and remember God’s goodness towards you, how that when ye were enemies, He united your hearts, and by his favour ye became brethren.” (Sura 3:98)
In describing the meaning of their father’s vision to his brothers, Nephi similarly states:
“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 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, to lead them away to destruction.” (1 Nephi 15:23-24)
Commentary on the Koran in the 1838 edition of the book “The Koran: Commonly Called the Alcoran of Mohommed” states:
“Literally, Hold fast by the cord of God. That is, secure yourselves by adhering to Islam, which is here metaphorically expressed by a cord, because it is as sure a means of saving those who profess it from perishing hereafter, as holding by a rope is to prevent one’s falling into a well, or other like place. It is said that Mohammed used, for the same reason, to call the Koran Habl Allah al Matin, i. e. The sure cord of God.” (p. 44)
In the Book of Mormon vision of the tree of life we have a synthesis of two separate metaphors. Jesus Christ, who is the word of God and whose words are likened to a rod of iron, and the “cord of God” of the Koran, which is seen as saving those who hold on to it. Those in Lehi’s vision, who do not grasp to the rod of iron, much like the “cord” described in the commentary of the Koran, are drowned in a river of water.