Tree of Life
Four images of the Tree of Life are significant for Latter-day Saints: in the Garden of Eden; in Lehi's vision (1 Ne. 8); in the parable of Alma2 comparing the word to a seed that can grow to be "a tree springing up unto everlasting life" (Alma 32:28—43); and in the so-called Tree of Life Stone from pre-Hispanic Mexico.
From earliest times, people in many cultures have venerated trees because they are majestic and, compared to a person's life span, seemingly immortal. Groves were among the first places used for sacred rites, and many cultures envisioned the heavens supported by the branches of a giant tree whose roots led to the underworld and whose sturdy trunk formed the link between the two realms. The most important attribute ascribed to the Tree of Life by those for whom such a symbol existed was its ability to provide immortality to those who ate its fruit. The Tree of Life was present in the Garden of Eden (Gen. 2:9) and is a standard symbol in ancient temples, as well as in temples of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It will be present at the end and its fruit available to eat for "him that overcometh" (Rev. 2:7).
Lehi's vision conveys an unforgettable message of the need to "give heed to the word of God and remember to keep his commandments always in all things" (1 Ne. 15:25). In his vision, Lehi saw by a fountain of living waters a tree "whose fruit was desirable to make one happy" (1 Ne. 8:10). The tree represented "the love of God" (1 Ne. 11:25). A path led to the tree, and great numbers of people walked the path, but many became lost in a mist of darkness. A "rod of iron" ran along the path, and only those in the multitude who pressed "their way forward, continually holding fast to the rod" (1 Ne. 8:30), reached the tree and partook of the desired fruit.
Alma used the Tree of Life image to teach about the acquisition of faith in the word of God, which he compared to a seed. When planted in one's heart and nourished with much care, it would grow in the believer to yield the same sweet and pure fruit described by Lehi. By diligence and patience, one can "feast upon [this] fruit even until ye are filled, that ye hunger not, neither shall ye thirst" (Alma 32:42). Other ancient texts also describe the faithful as trees in God's paradise (Ps. 1:3; Odes of Solomon 11).
Interest was generated among Latter-day Saints in the 1950s by the discovery of a pre-Columbian sculpture that bore a complex Tree of Life scene similar to those found in the ancient Near East. Izapa Stela 5, carved sometime between 100 B.C. and A.D. 100, portrays a large tree in full leaf, laden with fruit, and surrounded by several persons and objects, including water. Some investigators are convinced that the scene is a depiction of Lehi's vision; others are less certain, since the scene also contains items that are difficult to understand, such as triangles and U-shaped elements. The elaborate clothing and headdresses worn by the people, the various objects they hold, and an array of other elements make this carving, which is one of the most complex from this period in Mexico, exceptionally difficult to interpret.
Another intricate Tree of Life carving discovered in Mexico is the beautiful sarcophagus lid from the tomb in the Temple of the Inscriptions at Palenque. Once thought to depict a deity, it is now thought to portray a king named Pacal (meaning "shield") at the moment of his death. As he falls to the earth (represented by the monster face), the sacred ceiba tree rises toward the heavens, topped by the divine serpent-bird, and flanked by two oval cartouches emblematic of the sun.
Whether or not such artworks are related to the Book of Mormon, the remains of cultures from the Near East (CWHN 6:254—55; 7:189—92) and Mesoamerica show that the Tree of Life was a significant image in many areas of the world.
Christensen, Ross, ed. The Tree of Life in Ancient America. Provo, Utah, 1968; on Izapa Stela 5 research up to 1965.
James, E. O. The Tree of Life: An Archaeological Study. Leiden, 1966.
Norman, V. Garth. Izapa Sculpture. Provo, Utah, 1973; for the most complete description of Izapa Stela 5.
Robertson, Merle G. The Sculpture of Palenque, Vol. 1, fig. 99. Princeton, 1983.
Brewer, Stewart W. "The History of an Idea: The Scene on Stela 5 from Izapa, Mexico, as a Representation of Lehi's Vision of the Tree of Life." Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 8/1 (1999): 12—21.
Clark, John E. "A New Artistic Rendering of Izapa Stela 5: A Step toward Improved Interpretation." Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 8/1 (1999): 22—33.
Oman, Richard G. "Lehi's Vision of the Tree of Life: A Cross-Cultural Perspective in Contemporary Latter-day Saint Art." BYU Studies 32 (Fall 1992): 5—34.