Feast upon the Word Blog

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Does “Iron Rod” = “Scriptures”?

Posted by BrianJ on December 27, 2009

I pondered this question for the first time today. As long as I can remember, that’s what I’ve been told: the Iron Rod Lehi and Nephi saw in vision symbolizes the scriptures; hold fast to the scriptures and they will guide you through the mists of darkness, etc.

But that’s not what Nephi writes. He says that the “I beheld that the rod of iron was the word of God”—it’s up to us to draw the line from “word of God” to “scriptures.”

Certainly that’s an obvious connection to make—but was it what Nephi (or the angel guiding him) meant?

What are some other possible interpretations of “word of God”? Whatever we consider should fit with what we know from the vision: the rod of iron A) guided people along the correct path B) through the mists of darkness C) to the love of God.

  1. the scriptures/words of modern prophets (the standard interpretation that certainly agrees with A-C above).
  2. “the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1).
  3. “word” = “promise,” as in “a man is only as good as his word” (Cf. Alma 37:16)—except that when we talk about God, we usually use the term “covenant” instead of “promise.” Do the covenants of God (or those we make with him) guide us, help us avoid temptation, and help us enjoy God’s love?
  4. I’m interested in other ideas you may have.

I don’t see any of these as necessarily exclusive, although I think #3 is perhaps the most inclusive and yet most meaningful. I think what prompted this thought in the first place was when today’s instructor asked “How can the Bible be seen as the iron rod given that for centuries people have used it and nevertheless gotten further from the truth?” In other words, one can hold to the scriptures and still go astray. Can the same be said about someone who holds to his/her covenants? I don’t think so….

The instructor even asked me to clarify my pondering comment in the form of a Venn diagram. My response was that “The Word of God, aka The Promises of God, aka Covenants” include such things as the scriptures—because the scriptures reveal and expound the covenants of God but are neither greater than those covenants nor are they “saving.”

Anyway, just sharing my priesthood meeting musings….

29 Responses to “Does “Iron Rod” = “Scriptures”?”

  1. RobF said

    Love this word=promise=covenant=bond line of thinking. I think that ties in to your #2 as well. In the beginning was the promise of a Savior and promises to follow Him, and these words abide! Thanks for helping me think about this today.

  2. BrianJ said

    robf: yes, and now I’m thinking of D&C 82:10, paraphrasing: “I am bound/sealed to you when you keep my covenant.”

  3. Jacob B. said

    Brian, very insightful. I’m thinking it is significant that Lehi reaches the Tree of Life without apparently even noticing a rod along the path. As Lehi begins to desire that his family partake of the fruit he begins to notice more of the topography–when he locates the “faithful” ones (Sariah, Nephi, Sam) he makes note of a river of water that ran along the path. But again, they reach the tree easily, without the assistance of a rod guide them. It’s not until he locates Laman and Lemuel, the “not-so-faithful,” and after they reject his invitation, that Lehi notices a rod running along the path and leading to the tree. It’s then that a mist of darkness rises and some people take advantage of the rod by clinging to it.

    So, the “faithful” don’t even make use of the rod in their journey to the tree; perhaps it wasn’t even there for them to make use of at all. It makes no difference because they take no notice of it. It was of no assistance to them in reaching the tree and partaking of the fruit (the love of God). Presumably, it could have assisted Laman and Lemuel, had they embarked on the path at all (and it seems that they don’t).

    I don’t know the full upshot of all this. But the angel tells Nephi that the rod is the word of God which leads to the fountain of living waters, or to the tree (the angel implies that there is no substantive distinction, they both represent the love of God). With the common scriptural appellation of Christ as the Word of God, it seems appropriate to interpret the rod as Christ, or that it is Christ that leads us to, and indeed is, the love of God. Perhaps in the case of Lehi, Sariah, Nephi, and Sam, they already had their eyes fixed on Christ; the rod was not necessary for them to reach the goal. Perhaps, including your interpretation, they need no added assistance to keep their covenant; the grace of Christ was sufficient. For others, however, who waver and stumble occasionally (i.e., most of humanity) the rod is necessary as an additional tool or resource that turns us to Christ (scriptures, prophets, inspired parents, leaders), a rod that eventually, after initial use, is indistinguishable from Christ and is welded to his love.

    Just a fragment of a thought.

  4. Robert C. said

    Brian, I also love this covenantal interpretation of the rod.

    In light of 2 Nephi 32, I’ve often thought that the rod represents the words given to us through the Holy Ghost (esp. 32:5), obtained by praying to God, presumably….

  5. Jim F. said

    I have to admit that I’m partial to the “iron rod” = “Christ” interpretation, but as RobF pointed out that interpretation is not exclusive of the covenantal interpretation. The covenantal interpretion is entailed by the interpretation of the rod as Christ.

  6. m&m said

    I did some study on this a while back and was intrigued by possible connections with the rods of Moses and Aaron — items that were tied to power in the OT. May not be the same kind of rod, but it still intrigued me.

    I love the concept of the rod as the Word, too. I tend to think there are many ways to look at this.

    A favorite quote on this is from Bruce Hafen, from the book The Broken Heart:

    Bruce C. Hafen:
    In his dream of the tree of life, Lehi found himself in a dark and dreary wasteland and saw others surrounded by a great mist of darkness.
    The pathway home from this darkness was the way to the tree of life—the same tree, I suppose, as the one from which Adam and Eve were barred until they, too, had walked the trail Lehi took. The path was marked by the iron rod, the word of God (see 1 Ne. 8:7–30). Holding fast to this rod in the mists of darkness, we, as did Lehi, grope and move our way homeward. As we do, we are likely to find that the cold rod of iron will begin to feel in our hands as the warm, firm, loving hand of him who literally pulls us along the way. We find that hand strong enough to rescue us, warm enough to assure us that home is not far away; and we summon our deepest resources to reciprocate, until we are again embraced in the arms of the Lord.

  7. joespencer said

    Nice discussion, all. I’ve toyed around before with a possible allusion to Isaiah 11:1-5 (which Nephi copies into 2 Nephi 21:1-5): might the rod (though of iron…) be growing out of the roots of the tree? The rod in the Isaiah passage is clearly a messianic figure. Maybe there are some possibilities there (particularly matching up with the Word—rather than word—interpretation). I should probably also mention that this tree business is central to the entire Isaiah 6-12 gathering of chapters (note that in the 1830 edition of the Book of Mormon, these seven chapters were all one chapter). When Isaiah receives his complex call to condemn his people, the Lord announces that the people will be cut down like a tree, but that the stump that is left behind will become a kind of seed. The hardening of the hearts theme that is introduced in the same verses in Isaiah 6 then occupies Isaiah through chapter 8, at which point it becomes intertwined with the shift from the oral to the written word. That word, sealed up, points to the dawn of a messianic royal figure in chapter 9, compared with the anti-messianic royal figure of chapter 10, all of which leads up to the announcement, at the beginning of chapter 11, of the dead stump finally sprouting (this is 11:1-5). That Nephi—and Joseph Smith!—interpreted these passages (and the theme of the tree more generally!) to refer less to the (first) coming of the Messiah than to the fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant at the time of the final gathering, might there be a tying together here of the three possibilities of word=scripture (Isaiah’s sealed text), word=Word (the messianic rod), and word=covenant (the promise of a final gathering, etc.)?

    Anyway, enough overly complex entanglement of texts.

    A quick response to Jacob in particular:

    I like your point about the non-necessity of the rod for Sariah, Sam, and Nephi. Incidentally, I think that the emergence in the vision of the rod (and associated path) is, as you point out, a direct consequence of Laman and Lemuel’s refusal to come. I think the best interpretation of 1 Nephi 8 within its context is to take it not as Lehi’s overly abridged account of the same vision Nephi was about to have (in 1 Nephi 11-14), but as a classic Israelite prophetic vision about Jerusalem: the tree and river are the tree and river where the family is encamped; the field and world, etc., are the desert they’ve just traveled through; the large and spacious building is (and here one must point to Jeremiah as the parallel) the Jerusalem temple; etc. Interpreted this way, the trek for Sariah, Sam, and Nephi to the tree is so “simple” because they simply follow Lehi into the wilderness. Laman and Lemuel’s refusal to come then marks Lehi’s concern that they will abandon the group to return to Jerusalem (cf. 1 Nephi 7). And this concern on Lehi’s part draws his attention to everything else going on in Jerusalem: can people escape the city before the destruction? It is at this point that Lehi sees the rod leading out into the wilderness and toward the tree.

    (Might one play around here with the idea that the rod is the brass plates? That their disappearance from Jerusalem would have drawn the faithful out into the desert? Quite speculative, but….)

  8. Robert C. said

    Joe, this is fascinating.

    I’d never noticed that one of the words for “rod” in Isaiah, matteh, comes from the same root as natah, “to stretch forth.” I think this is particularly fascinating in light of Nephi’s reinterpretation of the stretched forth hand in Isaiah as a welcoming, embracing gesture, rather than (purely) as a disciplinary gesture. I think there’s something quite fascinating going on here. (There’s nothing about these words in the Theological Lexicon of the Old Testament, but I’ll check the Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament as soon as I can get to the library….)

    • Robert C. said

      I posted some relevant verses at the Feast wiki a while ago regarding this here. I’ll copy and past the comment below.

      __

      The “stretched out arm” in this verse foreshadows Moses repeatedly stretching out his arm to bring about the plagues on Egypt (cf. Ex 7:5, 19; 8:5-6, 16-17; 9:22-23; 10:12-13, 21-22) and to control the Red Sea (Ex 14:16, 21, 26-27; 15:12). In this sense, the stretched out arm suggests God smiting Israel’s enemies. Several other scriptures (particularly in Isaiah) also seem to use this phrase in this way. However, the “I will take you to me” phrase in verse 7 suggests a welcoming/embracing connotation. This connotation is also suggested in: 2 Ne 28:32; Mosiah 16:12, 29:20; Alma 19:36, 29:10, and 3 Ne 9:14 (though not necessarily extended, the following scriptures use arms metaphorically connoting mercy, love or peace: 2 Ne 1:15; Jacob 6:4-5; Alma 34:16; Morm 5:11, 6:17; see also Ps 136:12, Jacob 5:47, and D&C 133:67).

    • Robert C. said

      Also, in searching the entry for natah and matteh in the Theological Wordbook of the Old Testement, I read, “At first, apparently, each tribal ruler led his group with a staff [or “rod”]. This suggests that the ruler’s staff may have originally been a symbol of the tribe (cf. Num 17:2-10) and eventually betokened leadership and authority (cf. Ps 110:2; Jer 48:17)” (p. 574). This is further reason to connect the rod with the covenant and gathering of the tribes….

    • joespencer said

      Interesting stuff, Robert. I like where this is headed.

      Incidentally, Nibley discusses the tradition of the staff-tribe connection somewhere….

  9. RuthS said

    Lehi has a guide who tells him to follow. After a long time in darkness so thick he can’t see anything, he prays and asks God to extend his mercy to him. When the mist lifts the first thing he sees is the tree. He does not look around to discover anything about the landscape. He walks directly to the tree and take some of the fruit. It is not until he looks around that he becomes aware of the other things in the dream scape such as his family, the river and the iron rod.

    If this were not a dream then the order in which things appear might be significant. But dreams being the way they are the order may not be significant at all. It seems odd to me that there would be two even three symbols for the same concept (the tree, the fountain of living waters and the iron rod), while one of them appears to have a different function.

    In the interpretation given to Nephi (1Nephi 11) The rod of iron leads to the fountain of living water and the tree of life both of which represent Christ. If tree and the fountain of living waters are not Christ but instead represent is the atonement; the rod might be Christ because following his example brings us to an acceptance of the atonement. And, the atonement is effectual through God’s love and example of righteous living.

    I find that problematic because we don’t actually believe that the atonement works because of God’s love alone, or Christ’s perfect example alone. We are tied to the Christ as victor concept, the word of his mouth being judgment. We are all tied up in the justice and mercy dicotomy. By interpreting the iron rod as God’s word as given to us through revelation by the Holy Ghost, the standard works and modern revelation things are much simpler and easy to understand. These are all things that help lead us to the fountain of living water and the tree of life.

    I like that.

  10. KirkC said

    #3 Jacob, great insights. I have never thought about those on the path never actually using the rod. Interesting!

    Now this next issue is somewhat off topic, but thought provoking nonetheless. It has to do with those in the great and spacious building. I think they are ex-fruit eaters, not simply “non-members” (or the world) for lack of a better term.

    8:24-25, people made it through the darkness “clinging to the rod” and reached the fruit, which they ate. After they eat they are “ashamed.”

    8:25-28, people in the building start to mock the fruit eaters, which in turn makes them feel “ashamed.” With this feeling “they fell away into forbidden paths and were lost.”

    If the “rod” leads to Christ, then I would surmise any other “path” would be forbidden because it could only lead to the large and spacious building. So then maybe the rod is anything that not only leads us to the fruit, but that keeps us on the path?

    Therefore, everyone (or most) of those in the building doing the mocking are ex-fruit eaters, not just common people.

    Do others read the text the same way?

    • Robert C. said

      Kirk, very interesting. I’ve wondered if some are ex-fruit eaters, but I’ve never thought about all being such….

      • KirkC said

        I am a little unsure of my own reasoning, to be honest, if all those in the building are ex-fruit eaters or not. However, my thought is this; the Church can only be destroyed (brought into apostasy) by those on the inside of it, not by any outside forces. Therefore, if those in the building are actually to have such a profound effect on leading the fruit eaters always from the Church, then they must be people the fruit eaters trust.

        For example, if we see the Romans as the ones in the building, it would not make sense that so many fell away. The Romans (or any other government) cannot destroy the Kingdom. However, if we see those in the building as ex-fruit eaters, it is then easy to understand that they are open rebellion against God, and thus, have power to bring about an apostasy.

        Paul said, “grievous wolves [shall] enter in among you, not sparing the flock. Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them” (Acts 20-29-30). Ex-fruit eaters are the grievous wolves.

        Now, of course in order to agree with me, you must agree that those in the building can bring about an apostasy in the Church. This will greatly apply depend on what era you are applying the text (like the parables of Jesus, I think it can be applied to many). I like to compare the destruction of the building to the Temple destruction in AD 70, and leading into the great apostasy.

  11. Matt W. said

    Maybe I’m a simpleton, but I guess I’ve thought of the “word of God” as all revelation/direction from God.(Thus the iron rod/liahona analogy has always been somewhat silly to me) I do like that you’ve teased out this idea of God’s promise though, very interesting.

  12. Lorin said

    Joseph Fielding Smith has an interesting take on this in his book Gospel Symbolism. I would paste it here, but my Gospel Link account is past due.

  13. KirkC said

    Lorin, could you provide a brief summary maybe in your own words? Just to give us an idea of his thinking.

  14. Rolando said

    Food for thought: When does a revelation or declaration become scripture? Answer: when it is canonized by the Church. The word “canon” originates from the Greek “Kanon”- a rod used for measuring. Rod= canon= scripture. Hmmm. Must have been Jos. Smith’s Oxford years…

  15. NathanG said

    Interesting thought. Do you think Kanon was more important that it was a rod or that it was something for measuring, a standard of sorts. Are the canon of scriptures more important as the guide or the standard to measure our personal revelation against?

    Is a measuring rod appropriate comparison to the iron rod which was along the path? Perhaps the rod along the path is a standard for people to know the path they are taking is THE path to be taking to lead to the tree of life as opposed to the forbidden paths mentioned.

  16. Robert C. said

    There’s a short Insights article regarding possible/likely Hebrew and Egyptian connections between “rod” and “word/speak” at:

    “What Meaneth the Rod of Iron” by Matt Bowen (v. 25 no. 2, 2005)

  17. Robert C. said

    Also, following up to Joe’s comment above about the rod as a shoot out of the tree, here is an interesting and relevant comment from Dan Peterson’s article “Nephi and His Asherah”:

    Several parallels between the language of Proverbs 1—9 and the language of the visions in 1 Nephi will be apparent to careful readers. Note, for example, in Proverbs 3:18, quoted above, the image of “taking hold,” which recalls the iron rod of Lehi and Nephi’s visions.78 The New English Bible translation of Proverbs 3:18 speaks of “grasp[ing] her” and “hold[ing] her fast”—in very much the same way that Lehi and Nephi’s visions speak of “catching hold of” and “holding fast to” the rod of iron. Pro verbs 4:13 advises us to “take fast hold of instruction; let her not go: keep her; for she is thy life.” Apocryphal Baruch 4:1 declares that “all who hold fast to [Wisdom] shall live, but those who forsake her shall die.” Both the advice of Proverbs and the images of Lehi’s dream, furthermore, are expressly directed to youths, to sons specifically or to children.79 (“O, remember, my son,” says Alma 37:35, echoing this theme, “and learn wisdom in thy youth; yea, learn in thy youth to keep the commandments of God.”) Both Proverbs and 1 Nephi constantly use the imagery of “ways,” “paths,” and “walking” and warn against “going astray,” “wandering off,” and “wandering in strange roads.”80 Proverbs 3:17 declares that “her [Wisdom’s] ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace.” In subsequent Nephite tradition, King Benjamin speaks of “the Spirit of the Lord” that “guide[s] . . . in wisdom’s paths” (Mosiah 2:36), and Mormon laments “how slow” people are “to walk in wisdom’s paths” (Helaman 12:5).

    Also, here is John Tvedtnes’s article that Matt Bowen cited: “Rod and Sword as the Word of God”

  18. Robert C. said

    There’s a great article by Steve Olsen in the latest FARMS Review that talks about the covenantal themes in the Neph-slaying-Laban story: “The Death of Laban”.

    I’ll take the liberty of pasting the most relevant (and interesting!) part of the article here, as pertaining to covenantal remembrance:

    A third related connotation of remember in the Book of Mormon is revealed by defining its opposite, which is not “forget” but “dis-member.” From this perspective, when a covenant with God is broken, the rebellious are cut off or cast out from God’s presence or from the covenant community (e.g., Genesis 17:14; Leviticus 18:29; Isaiah 53:8). In this sense, they are then “dis-membered,” or not “re-membered.” That is, they are not eliminated from one’s temporal consciousness but are separated from the covenant and its constituted community that had defined their eternal identity and place in the kingdom of God. From this perspective, for the ancient peoples of God, the sign of a covenant—such as circumcising the foreskin (Genesis 17:10; 34:15), sacrificing an animal (Moses 5:5–7; Abraham 2:7–8), or rending a garment, as in Moroni’s title of liberty (Alma 46:12–21)—often involved cutting, severing, or cleaving, indicative of the consequence of breaking or “dis-membering” the covenant.

    Thus God’s directing Nephi to slay a Jewish religious leader by cutting off his head with his own sword symbolically indicates that Jehovah severed his covenant with the people of Israel at Jerusalem because of their wickedness. Lehi and his family were now to be the rightful heirs of the promised blessings of the covenant. From this perspective, Nephi’s preservation of Laban’s sword as one of the Nephites’ sacred artifacts and its later use as a model for Nephite armaments are seen more fundamentally as symbols of the covenant with God that defines and distinguishes their chosen identity and guides their lives in search of the covenantal promises of salvation.

    A graphic detail from the story of obtaining the brass plates suggests the degree to which Nephi’s crafting of the narrative reveals its covenantal significance. The image that Nephi paints in his brief description of the nighttime scene is tragic and gruesome: he finds Laban drunken and lying unconscious and then leaves him in a pool of his own blood after cutting off his head with his own sword (1 Nephi 4:7, 18–19). Taken out of context, this description might give the impression that Nephi took morbid pleasure in the details of this tragedy.

    Yet these details reinforce the equally graphic image of an event of supremely spiritual significance in Nephi’s rehearsal of Christ’s ultimate victory over evil. Toward the end of his first book, Nephi applies the imagery of drunkenness and death not to the demise of a wicked individual but to the fall of the great and abominable church of the devil, which serves as the material symbol of the archenemy of the kingdom of God in the last days (1 Nephi 13–14). In the course of his larger narrative, following the successful arrival in and settlement of the promised land, Nephi cites prophecies of Isaiah concerning the eventual salvation of the house of Israel. Nephi enlarges upon Isaiah’s prophecies with several of his own regarding the collapse of the great and abominable church. In conclusion, he testifies, “And the blood of that great and abominable church, which is the whore of all the earth, shall turn upon their own heads; for they shall war among themselves, and the sword of their own hands shall fall upon their own heads, and they shall be drunken with their own blood” (22:13). In Nephi’s sacred record, both Laban and the church of the devil die by similar means (breaking the covenants of salvation) and through similar authority (the word and power of God). If these literary similarities are intentional, Nephi seems to imply that the death of Laban prefigures the destruction of evil at the end of time, as symbolized by the fall of the great and abominable church.

  19. joespencer said

    Let me also recommend Olsen’s article. It is a great example of how we ought to be reading Book of Mormon narrative.

  20. J. Madson said

    RobertC

    I appreciate the link. While it may certainly true that Nephi used the slaying of Laban as part of some elaborate covenantal remembrance, there is always the very real problem to me that the killing of Laban is not viewed by just “contemporary Jewish leaders at Jerusalem… as the murder of a defenseless religious leader, the theft of a sacred scriptural treasure, and the kidnap of a trusted servant,” but viewed that way by most people who don’t self identify with one side or another. So while I think Olsen certainly has some interesting insights I am always bothered by the scapegoat language used in 1 Nephi 4 and its exact parallel to the language used to murder Jesus. The “it is better that one” perish logic seems very inconsistent with the God I understand and the God revealed by Jesus. When there are so many other options short of slaying a drunken man, I have to wonder about the type of God we are worshipping if we take Nephi’s account at face value.

    Furthermore, the sword that Olsen describes as a symbol of covenant also become a much more nefarious symbol of Nephite rule and kingship. It is the model from which hundreds of other swords are created which in turn kill the new scapegoats found in the political body of Lamanite, Lemuelite, and Ishmaelites. I think part of our reading of BoM narrative must include the possibility that much of what Nephi is writing is meant as propaganda for his own descendants to explain why they are chosen and the “other” is not. That is not to say that Nephi is evil, bad, etc but that he is human are perhaps along with his spiritual insights and gifts he is also held hostage to our very human tendency to justify ourselves at the expense of others. just a thought

  21. joespencer said

    J, you’ll be interested to know that I’m currently working through a paper on the slaying of Laban, building on work in my manuscript (An Other Testament) but taking up a far more emphatically Girardian emphasis. I’m coming rapidly to the conviction that Girard would actually appreciate what 1 Nephi 4 is doing with the scapegoating language. Though it—like everything in the New Testament—can be used in order to reinforce violence, it doesn’t necessarily lead to that. The paper I’m writing will try to show that it is Girard precisely who might provide us with the keys for reading 1 Nephi 4 in a way that neither (1) leaves us with a God of foundational violence nor (2) leaves us with a naive Nephi who wrote a book of scripture we’ll have to reject.

    I’ll keep you updated on it as I get closer to finishing it (I need to have it done by mid-February, so it won’t be long).

  22. KirkC said

    “The ‘it is better that one’ perish logic seems very inconsistent with the God I understand and the God revealed by Jesus. When there are so many other options short of slaying a drunken man, I have to wonder about the type of God we are worshipping if we take Nephi’s account at face value.”
    -J, #20

    Intriguing thoughts here. I will have to think one this one some more.

    And your paper sounds interesting Joe!

  23. d.mor said

    It was pointed out to me that in Psalms 2:9 it says Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron; thou shalt dash themin pieces like a potter’s vessel. Now it may be that the rod of iron may be an early way of refering to the sword like the stick of Joseph refers to the scriptures and the rod of Moses refers to his staff. It appears that the only way to keep from being broken to pieces is to hold on to the rod of iron but be careful not to be cut because it is a two edged sword.

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