week Two: Genesis 1–2; Moses 2–3; Abraham 4–5
I love studying the Bible using the sacred texts in conjunction with ancient secular histories and literary writings, religious scholar, and archeological discoveries. But, pre-flood, very few of those outside witnesses exist. Still, certain ideas and events were so stunning that they were kept alive within multiple cultures through the ages, told from father to son, or mother to daughter, until they emerged as legend. One such example is the tree of life and fountain of living water from the Garden of Eden.
In Genesis, right after forming man, God plants a garden and puts man in it. The first specific tree he mentions is the Tree of Life. Then he says, “And a river went out of Eden to water the garden.” (Gen 2:10) In the Book of Mormon, Lehi also sees a symbolic version of the Tree of Life with an iron rod leading to it, and a river beside it. Later when asking for an interpretation, his son Nephi specifies that “the rod of iron, which my father had seen, was the word of God, which led to the fountain of living waters, or to the tree of life.” (1 Nephi 11:25).
When the deceived Eve took of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, and Adam, through her encouragement, did the same, they were cast out of the garden, “lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live forever.” (Gen. 3:22) The idea of a fruit, nectar or water that would bring healing and immortality has echoed throughout history ever since.
In the Epic of Gilgamesh, written some two thousand years before Christ, the Mesopotamian King went in search for immortality. He seeks advice from a survivor of the Great Flood and is sent on a journey to find the Elixir of Life that would bring immortality, but it is stolen by a snake. The Greeks held that ambrosia was the food of the gods and eating it would make a mortal become as them. Achilles was bathed in ambrosia by his mother as an infant, all except for his heel, which proved to be his downfall. Two centuries before Christ, Chinese alchemist Xu Fu was sent with 500 young men and 500 young women to find the immortal elixir in the Penglai Mountain but returned without finding it. He left on second voyage with 3000 young men and women but never returned. Many believe they discovered Japan instead. Hindu scripture speaks of Amrita, an elixir that if consumed even in the tiniest portion will grant eternal life. Only, when the Devas drink, they are cursed and lose their immortality. Finally, shortly after the Americas were found by the Spanish, Juan Ponce de Leon was said to discover the fountain of youth in Florida, although some doubt that claim since he passed away in his forties. “Despite debunking efforts,” says the Smithsonian, “the story of Ponce’s fountain won’t die.” https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/ponce-de-leon-never-searched-for-the-fountain-of-youth-72629888/
Unfortunately, all these stories end in tragedy, where the precious immortality is denied. Some may even mistakenly look at the end of the fall of Adam and Eve when “cherubim and a flaming sword” are set to guard the way of the Tree of Life and think that humankind is in the same predicament, but if one continues reading, that is clearly not the case.
In Revelations the Lord says, “He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches; To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the tree of life, which is in the midst of the paradise of God.” This corresponds with the uncanonized ancient texts of the Secrets of Enoch and the Testament of Levi. Enoch is shown the eternal dwelling place of the righteous where stands the tree of life. In Levi 18:9-11, Enoch prophesies that in the last days the Lord “shall open the gates of paradise, and shall remove the threatening sword against Adam. And he shall give to the saints to eat from the tree of life, and the spirit of holiness shall be on them.” (As quoted from https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/ensign/1988/06/the-tree-of-life-in-ancient-cultures?lang=eng) Although that face-to-face literal experience of standing by the Tree of Life, a symbol of Christ himself, will most likely not be ours until the afterlife or during millennium, like Lehi we can take of the symbolic fruit now, by living by his words. In Alma the Younger’s great sermon in Alma 5 where he asks if we have experienced a mighty change of heart, have we been stripped of pride, have we received his image in our countenance, Alma rehearsed the Lord’s words, “Yea, he saith; Come unto me and ye shall partake of the tree of life; yea, ye shall eat and drink of the bread and the waters of life freely.” (Alma 5:34)
A call to drink of living water also occurs with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well where Christ said, “whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into eternal life.” (John 4:14). Christ reiterated this statement at the Feast of the Tabernacles or the Sukkot when all the people would follow the priest to the Pool of Siloam where the priest filled a gold ewer on the great last day. To explain the symbolism of this ritual and even its fulfillment, Christ declared, “If any man thirst, let him come unto me and drink.” (Jesus The Christ, Talmage, p. 403)
Now, I know this happens through our conversion to Christ and his gospel, through baptism and external ordinances affecting internal change. We partake of the symbolic fruit or bread and the water through weekly sacrament ordinances when we let it change and strengthen us. Yet at times I still struggle to feel its power. When I’m overwhelmed or see a friend caught in confusion or pain, it’s hard to know that it is really working.
Kathleen Hughes of the Relief Society general presidency spoke on this subject and gave one of the best explanations I’ve found of recognizing the power or partaking of the fruit or drinking from the fountain of living waters. She said, “There is so much suffering in mortality, so many causes for pain. I know people who have sent loved ones into harm’s way and who daily pray for their safety in battle. I talk to parents who are frightened for their children, aware of the temptations they face. I have dear friends who are suffering from the ravaging effects of chemotherapy. I know single parents, abandoned by spouses, who are rearing children alone. I have dealt myself with the debilitating effects of depression. But I have learned from my own experience, and I learn from those I meet, that we are never left to our own resources. We are never abandoned. A wellspring of goodness, of strength and confidence is within us, and when we listen with a feeling of trust, we are raised up. We are healed. We not only survive, but we love life. We laugh; we enjoy; we go forward with faith.”
We can feel the joy of partaking of the fruit daily by making time in our lives for the Savior. The Elixir of Life sought by those of legend was simply the living water offered by Jesus. Let us drinking and not only have our happy endings, but our great happy middles as well.
Other Reading: If you want to find out more about living water, Louis Tverberg has a brilliant article here: https://engediresourcecenter.com/2015/10/06/what-is-living-water/; BYU Religious Studies has an awesome article about baptism in living water and the early church here: https://rsc.byu.edu/our-rites-worship/doctrine-baptism-immersions-qumran-baptisms-john-earliest-christians-book-mormon; Kathleen Hughes’ entire talk Blessed by Living Water can be found here: https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/2003/04/blessed-by-living-water?lang=eng.