As we begin our final discussion about the tree of life and the Book of Mormon, I quote the words of C. Wilfred Griggs, professor of ancient scripture:
"The Book of Mormon brought the tree of life to our attention long before modern scholarship revealed how common the tree was in ancient history. The symbol of that tree pervades the art and literature of every Mediterranean culture from centuries before the time of Lehi until well after the time of Moroni. This fact, and the fact that Lehi and Nephi portrayed the spiritual meaning of that symbol much the same way other ancient cultures portrayed it, demonstrates that the Book of Mormon is an ancient text, not an invention of the 19th-century social milieu."
For another example of such ancient Old World parallels, I turn to the research of Daniel Peterson, a regular speaker at the annual FAIR Apologetics Conference, an Islamic scholar and the founder of the Mormon Scholars Testify website.
Despite most people's perception of the ancient Israelites, modern scholars recognize that the Israelites were not typically monotheistic (they didn't believe in a single God). For many years under the reign of the judges, many Israelites worshipped a female virgin deity — a consort to God — by the name of Asherah. Some biblical scholars believe that Jeremiah — a contemporary prophet of Lehi — mocked and denounced Asherah worship.
So popular and important was Asherah during Israelite history that "an image or symbol of Asherah stood in Solomon's temple at Jerusalem for nearly two-thirds of its existence." The image had a female body from the waist up and a single column from the waist down. The top half represented her maternal nurturing powers; the single column represented a tree trunk. Asherah was not only associated with the sacred tree of life but was, in fact, considered to be the tree of life. Likewise, the Menorah — the seven-branch candle that stood for centuries in the Jerusalem temple — is said to represent a stylized almond tree that, at certain points in its life cycle, was radiantly white. The Greek word almond likely derives from a Hebrew term that means "Great Mother."
After Lehi fled Jerusalem, the city fell to the Babylonians. When the city was restored under the prophet Ezra, Asherah worship finally ended. Lehi and Nephi, however, would undoubtedly have been familiar with Asherah. Once Judaism became opposed to Asherah worship, reforming priests filtered and reshaped the Bible and effectively removed most references and details of this female deity. While trace hints remain, there is little surviving text that teaches us about her character or nature.
After hearing Lehi's recital of his vision of the tree of life, Nephi sought understanding by way of his own vision. In Nephi's vision he is guided by a "spirit" or angel who asks Nephi what he desired. "To know the interpretation thereof," replied Nephi. Instead of answering Nephi directly, the Spirit showed Nephi more things in the vision (1 Nephi 11:4–22).
The Spirit asked Nephi what he saw. "A virgin, most beautiful and fair above all other virgins," Nephi replies (verses 14-15). The Spirit explained that the virgin is the mother of the Son of God, and when Nephi finally saw the baby, the Spirit told Nephi that this is the Son of the Eternal Father (verses 18-21).
So in response to Nephi's question to know the interpretation of the tree of life, the Spirit showed Nephi Mary and then the baby Jesus.
There is nothing discussed about trees or fruit, yet the Spirit asks, "Knowest thou the meaning of the tree which thy father saw?" (verse 21) To which Nephi responded, "Yea, it is the love of God … wherefore, it is the most desirable above all things" (verse 22).
What young adult in Jacksonian America — or modern America for that matter — would make a connection between a sacred tree, the Virgin Mary and God's love? In Nephi and Lehi's day, however, the connection would have been obvious, and obviously colored by their cultural background. Mary was a perfect mortal typification of Asherah — she was a virgin, fair ("white"), and the mother of the most joyous thing in the world.
While Mary is not Asherah, it's easy to see how Nephi's culture would have prepared him to understand such an interpretation. But how did Joseph Smith know this in 1830? Methodist scholar Margaret Barker observed that both Nephi's vision and ancient Near Eastern traditions symbolized the tree as the Heavenly Mother. "This revelation to Joseph Smith," she said, was the ancient Mother symbolism, "intact, and almost certainly as it was known in 600 BCE."