Evidence #427 | November 7, 2023

Nephi and Asherah

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Scripture Central


In Nephi’s vision of the Tree of Life, his angelic guide showed him a vision of the Virgin Mary holding a child in her arms to help him better understand the meaning of the sacred tree and its fruit. Such relationships correlate with female deities depicted as trees in the ancient Near East, such as Asherah in ancient Israel and the Lady Wisdom tradition found in both biblical and extrabiblical sources.

After Lehi shared his dream of the Tree of Life with his family, his son Nephi was shown a similar vision (1 Nephi 8; 11). Yet Nephi’s revelation was more expansive and provided further light on the meaning of its various symbols. One particular explanation, concerning the Tree of Life and its association with the Virgin Mary, has caught the attention of Latter-day Saint scholars, as well as some outside the faith.1

Nephi’s Vision

After Nephi beheld the Tree of Life, the angel asked him, “What desirest thou?” (1 Nephi 11:10). Nephi replied that he wanted to “know the interpretation thereof” (v. 11). Yet rather than just giving him a straightforward answer, the angel instead showed him a “virgin” in Nazareth who was “exceedingly fair and white” (v. 13) and who was “most beautiful and fair above all other virgins” (v. 15).

Mary, the Mother of Jesus. Image via churchofjesuschrist.org. 

Notably, this language parallels the earlier description of the Tree itself, which “was far beyond, yea, exceeding of all beauty; and the whiteness thereof did exceed the whiteness of the driven snow” (v. 8). In other words, the vision clearly establishes a link between the Tree of Life and this virgin. The angel then explained to Nephi that “the virgin whom thou seest is the mother of the Son of God, after the manner of the flesh” (v. 18). In the next visionary frame, Nephi “beheld the virgin again, bearing a child in her arms” (v. 20). Thus, the Christ Child appears to be equivalent to the fruit of the tree.

Surprisingly—at least to most modern readers—after witnessing these scenes, Nephi was able to report to the angel that he now knew the interpretation of the Tree: “Yea, it is the love of God, which sheddeth itself abroad in the hearts of the children of men; wherefore, it is the most desirable above all things” (v. 22). Daniel C. Peterson asks,

How has Nephi come to this understanding? Clearly, the answer to his question about the meaning of the tree lies in the virgin mother with her child. It seems, in fact, that the virgin is the tree in some sense. …. Why would Nephi see a connection between a tree and the virginal mother of a divine child? I believe that Nephi’s vision reflects a meaning of the “sacred tree” that is unique to the ancient Near East, and that, indeed, can only be fully appreciated when the ancient Canaanite and Israelite associations of that tree are borne in mind.2

Asherah: An Ancient Near Eastern Tree Goddess

Although it is commonly believed today that early Israelites were strictly monotheistic, the historical and archaeological data suggests a more nuanced interpretation is needed. Israelites indeed worshiped one supreme deity, but they also acknowledged the existence of other lesser divine beings, such as those who were part of what biblical scholars commonly refer to as the “divine council.”3 Of particular interest, in connection with Nephi’s vision, was the veneration of a female deity figure known as Asherah.

Among the neighboring Canaanite peoples, Asherah was the consort of El, the patriarchal leader of their pantheon. She was also “the mother and wet nurse of the other gods” and was even “connected with the birth of Canaanite rulers.”4 Scholars believe that a similar conception may have been held among the Israelites.5

Judean female clay "pillar figurines." Image via thetorah.com. 

Due in part to the “thousands of mass-produced goddess figurines [that] have been found at Israelite sites,” we can trace the worship or admiration of Asherah “over a period extending from the conquest of Canaan in the second millennium before Christ to the fall of Jerusalem in 586 BC—the time of Lehi’s departure with his family from the Old World.”6 Whereas the Canaanite deity was depicted in an overtly sexualized manner, the Israelite version of this goddess was portrayed more modestly as a nursing mother.7 Concerning the Israelite figurines, Peterson explains,

It will be recalled that their upper bodies are unmistakably anthropomorphic and female, but their lower bodies, in contrast to those of their pagan Canaanite counterparts, are simple columns. William Dever suggests that these columnar lower bodies represent tree trunks. And why not? Asherah “is a tree goddess, and as such is associated with the oak, the tamarisk, the date palm, the sycamore, and many other species. This association led to her identification with sacred trees or the tree of life.” The rabbinic authors of the Jewish Mishna (second–third century AD) explain the asherah as a tree that was worshipped.8

Space doesn’t allow for it here, but Peterson provides additional layers of evidence associating Asherah with the nurturing aspects of motherhood, with virginity, and with various types of trees in ancient Near Eastern texts and iconography.9 In a separate study, John Thompson has shown how similar motifs show up in ancient Egyptian contexts and that unique details within these sources share commonalities with details in Israelite scripture, including the Book of Mormon.10 What is clear is that Nephi’s vision of a Tree of Life in association with a virgin mother fits exceptionally well within this ancient Near Eastern tradition.

Various depictions of life-giving trees and tree deities from various ancient Near Eastern cultures. 

Asherah’s Role in Early Israelite Religion

Despite abundant archaeological evidence for the prominence of this nurturing tree-like deity, it is hard to know precisely what early Israelites thought of Asherah. Was she simply part of the heretical polytheism that is reported in many Old Testament texts?11 Or was she once part and parcel of orthodox Israelite religion? Could both possibilities, to some extent, be true at the same time? Peterson explains,

By the time of Israel’s Babylonian exile and subsequent restoration under Ezra, … opposition to Asherah was universal in Judaism. Indeed, the developing Israelite conception of Yahweh seems, to a certain extent, to have absorbed her functions and epithets much as it had earlier absorbed those of Yahweh’s father, El. Thus, Asherah was basically eliminated from the history of Israel and subsequent Judaism. In the text of the Bible as we now read it, filtered and reshaped as it appears to have been by the reforming Deuteronomist priests around 600 BC, hints of the goddess remain, but little survives that gives us a detailed understanding of her character or nature.12

Be that as it may, several lines of evidence lend support for Asherah’s mainstream acceptance in earlier periods of Israelite thought. For instance, when Hezekiah removed the asherah from the temple at Jerusalem, he also “brake in pieces the brasen serpent that Moses had made” (2 Kings 18:4). Yet there can be little doubt that the brazen serpent was previously an orthodox religious icon (Numbers 21:8–9), and “there is no reason to believe that the asherah was any different in this respect.”13 Furthermore, according to Peterson,

What is striking in the long story of Israel’s Asherah is the identity of those who did not oppose her. No prophet appears to have denounced Asherah before the eighth century b.c. The great Yahwist prophets Amos and Hosea, vociferous in their denunciations of Baal, seem not to have denounced Asherah. The Elijah-Elisha school of Yahwist reformers do not appear to have opposed her. Although 400 prophets of Asherah ate with Jezebel along with the 450 prophets of Baal, Elijah’s famous contest with the priests of Baal, while dramatically fatal to them, left the votaries of Asherah unmentioned and, evidently, untouched. “What happened to Asherah and her prophets?” asks David Noel Freedman. “Nothing.” In subsequent years the ruthless campaign against Baal inspired by Elijah and Elisha and led by Israel’s Jehu left the asherah of Samaria standing. Baal was wholly eliminated, while the veneration of the goddess actually outlived the northern kingdom.

Belief in Asherah seems, in fact, to have been a conservative position in ancient Israel; criticism of it was innovative.14

Additional backing comes from several inscriptions dating close to Lehi’s day. One of them, from Kuntillet Ajrud, “seems to refer to ‘Yahweh of Samaria and his Asherah.’ On the other side of the vessel is a drawing of a tree of life.”15 A tomb inscription from Khirbet al-Qom similarly “appears to mention ‘Yahweh and his asherah’.”16 Although the matter isn’t fully settled, such inscriptions and interpretations are accepted by a number of prominent scholars,17 suggesting that at least some Israelites saw Asherah as holding an intimate relationship with Yahweh.  

The Tree of Life, Asherah, and Wisdom Literature

It should be remembered that Lehi’s vision of the Tree of Life was intended for his family, and he used it as a means to instruct his wayward sons (1 Nephi 8:36–38). In this regard, it fits comfortably into the genre of Wisdom Literature found in several biblical texts (Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, etc.) as well as in extrabiblical sources. Additional features of Wisdom Literature include (1) the need to resist temptation, (2) an emphasis on opposing consequences for righteousness and wickedness, (3) the need to follow the correct way or path, and (4) and a noticeable lack of historical Jewish content and themes (Exodus motifs, patriarchal promises, Sinai covenant, etc.).18 Again, these features are all present in the Tree of Life vision.

One aspect of the Wisdom tradition is especially relevant: the personification of Wisdom itself as a female.19 Concerning this theme, as found in Proverbs 1–9, Peterson remarks that “here and elsewhere in ancient Hebrew and Jewish literature, Wisdom appears as the wife of God, which can hardly fail to remind us of ancient Asherah.”20 

Interestingly, use of the Hebrew terms associated with ashar (the same root underlying asherah) is found in several notable contexts in Proverbs. For instance, “Happy [esher] is the man that findeth wisdom … Her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace. She is a tree of life to them that lay hold upon her: and happy [ashar] is every one that retaineth her” (Proverbs 3:13, 17–18).21 

Correlations between these passages and Lehi and Nephi’s vision include explicit mention of the “tree of life” (cf. 1 Nephi 11:25), the mention of “ways” or “paths” (cf. 1 Nephi 8:28–31), the need to “lay hold” (1 Nephi 8:30), and, of course, the Tree’s ability to make one “happy” (cf. 1 Nephi 8:10). What is more subtle, however, is the personification of Wisdom as a female (e.g., “Her ways are ways of pleasantness”), and especially the wordplay on “happy” (ashar) that connects Wisdom with Asherah, the nurturing female tree-deity venerated in ancient Israel.22 

Additional correlations between Nephi’s vision and the ancient Lady Wisdom tradition have been identified by Samuel Zinner, who isn’t a Latter-day Saint.23 Zinner sees Nephi’s vision as highlighting the “continuity between the tree of life, Lady Jerusalem, Lady Nazareth, and the Virgin Mary. These are all ultimately specializations or refractions of Asherah, a dim reflection of the earlier indigenous Mother Earth.”24

Margret Barker, another respected scholar outside the Latter-day Saint tradition, has also been fascinated by the Tree of Life vision recorded in 1 Nephi:

The tree of life made one happy, according to the Book of Proverbs (Proverbs 3:18), but for detailed descriptions of the tree we have to rely on noncanonical texts. Enoch described it as perfumed, with fruit like grapes (1 Enoch 32:5), and a text discovered in Egypt in 1945 described the tree as beautiful, fiery, and with fruit like white grapes. I do not know of any other source that describes the fruit as white grapes. Imagine my surprise when I read the account of Lehi’s vision of the tree whose white fruit made one happy, and the interpretation that the Virgin in Nazaraeth was the mother of the Son of God after the manner of the flesh (1 Nephi 11:14–23). This is the Heavenly Mother, represented by the tree of life, and then Mary and her Son on earth. This revelation to Joseph Smith was the ancient Wisdom symbolism, intact, and almost certainly as it was known in 600 BCE.25 


Peterson writes, “It should be apparent by now why Nephi, an Israelite living at the end of the seventh century and during the early sixth century before Christ, would have recognized an answer to his question about a marvelous tree in the otherwise unexplained image of a virginal mother and her divine child.”26

Nephi's Vision, by Judith A. Mehr. 

Even if many Israelites at the time and throughout their history had engaged in inappropriate worship of Asherah, it doesn’t mean that everything about the figure and her symbolic connotations was inherently heretical. As Peterson has argued, in some manner or another, it appears that Asherah played a positive role in divinely sanctioned Israelite religion before the Deuteronomistic reforms, much like the brazen serpent which Moses fashioned and raised up in the wilderness.

Nephi’s vision and the evidence for Asherah veneration can even be seen as mutually supportive. The clear archaeological evidence for the prominence of this deified and tree-related female, the various lines of evidence suggesting her orthodox veneration both before and during Lehi’s day, the intersection between this deity and the orthodox Lady Wisdom motif, and the rather obvious connection between Asherah and Nephi’s dream all provide a fascinating convergence of data. Even for non-Latter-day Saint scholars like Zinner and Barker, the correlation seems too pronounced to be dismissed.

Peterson concludes,

The inclusion in 1 Nephi of two authentically preexilic religious symbols (Asherah and Wisdom) that could scarcely have been derived by the New York farmboy Joseph Smith from the Bible strongly suggests that the Book of Mormon is, indeed, an ancient historical record in the Semitic tradition.27

Samuel Zinner, “‘Zion’ and ‘Jerusalem’ as Lady Wisdom in Moses 7 and Nephi’s Tree of Life Vision,” Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 12 (2014): 281–323.

John S. Thompson, “The Lady at the Horizon: Egyptian Tree Goddess Iconography and Sacred Trees in Israelite Scripture and Temple Theology,” in Ancient Temple Worship: Proceedings of The Expound Symposium, 14 May 2011, ed. Matthew B. Brown, Jeffrey M. Bradshaw, Stephen D. Ricks, and John S. Thompson (Orem, UT: Interpreter Foundation and Eborn Books, 2014), 217–241.

Daniel C. Peterson, “A Divine Mother in the Book of Mormon?” in Mormonism and the Temple: Examining an Ancient Religious Tradition, ed. Gary N. Anderson (Logan, UT: Academy for Temple Studies/USU Religious Studies, 2013), 109–124.

Margaret Barker, “Joseph Smith and Preexilic Israelite Religion,” in The Worlds of Joseph Smith, ed. John W. Welch (Provo, UT: Brigham Young University Press, 2005), 69–82.

Daniel C. Peterson, “Nephi and His Asherah,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 9, no. 2 (2000): 16–25.

1 Nephi 81 Nephi 111 Nephi 15:21–36

1 Nephi 8

1 Nephi 11

1 Nephi 15:21–36

Nephi and Asherah

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