Friday, March 1, 2013

Comparing the First Two Visions of Lehi

Wherefore it came to pass that my father, Lehi, as he went forth prayed unto the Lord, yea, even with all his heart, in behalf of his people.
 And it came to pass as he prayed unto the Lord, there came a pillar of fire and dwelt upon a rock before him; and he saw and heard much; and because of the things which he saw and heard he did quake and tremble exceedingly.
 And it came to pass that he returned to his own house at Jerusalem; and he cast himself upon his bed, being overcome with the Spirit and the things which he had seen.
 And being thus overcome with the Spirit, he was carried away in a vision, even that he saw the heavens open, and he thought he saw God sitting upon his throne, surrounded with numberless concourses of angels in the attitude of singing and praising their God.
 And it came to pass that he saw One descending out of the midst of heaven, and he beheld that his luster was above that of the sun at noon-day.
 10 And he also saw twelve others following him, and their brightness did exceed that of the stars in the firmament.
 11 And they came down and went forth upon the face of the earth; and the first came and stood before my father, and gave unto him a book, and bade him that he should read.
 12 And it came to pass that as he read, he was filled with the Spirit of the Lord.
 13 And he read, saying: Wo, wo, unto Jerusalem, for I have seen thine abominations! Yea, and many things did my father read concerning Jerusalem—that it should be destroyed, and the inhabitants thereof; many should perish by the sword, and many should be carried away captive into Babylon.
 14 And it came to pass that when my father had read and seen many great and marvelous things, he did exclaim many things unto the Lord; such as: Great and marvelous are thy works, O Lord God Almighty! Thy throne is high in the heavens, and thy power, and goodness, and mercy are over all the inhabitants of the earth; and, because thou art merciful, thou wilt not suffer those who come unto thee that they shall perish!
 15 And after this manner was the language of my father in the praising of his God; for his soul did rejoice, and his whole heart was filled, because of the things which he had seen, yea, which the Lord had shown unto him.  (1 Nephi 1:5-15)

I was reading about the first two visions of Lehi in 1 Nephi 1, and it struck me that there is something odd about the first one in comparison with the second one.

First, we are told about the pillar of fire that dwelt on the rock before him (v6), but we are given no sense of any kind of message.  We are told Lehi saw much and heard much, but nothing is actually communicated to us.  If there had been, Nephi would probably have given at least a synopsis of it, as he does with the second vision in verses 8-13.

The second thing that strikes me as I read about these two visions is that there were two.  It seems like Lehi can’t get away from them.  (Sorry if that sounds irreverent..)  Why two?  And then why is one a pillar of fire and undefined things and then the other is a vision of heaven, God, numberless concourses of angels, one descending out of heaven, twelve very bright others following, and a book full of prophesies to read?  They are very different in character.

And another thing—Lehi’s reaction is different between the two.  During the first vision, Lehi quakes and trembles exceedingly (v6).  It scares Lehi to death and we don’t even know why.  The second one makes Lehi rejoice exceedingly, even as he is reading in the heavenly book that Jerusalem and all the inhabitants thereof will be destroyed.

So is there an explanation for this?  I think there is, and it may be an uncomfortable one.  I suspect that the first “vision” was a natural phenomenon.  (I hope you will hear me out on this..)  Jerusalem is a very geologically active site, known to have earthquakes. (See this Seismic Hazard Map of the Middle East) There is such a thing as Earthquake Lights, “unusual luminous aerial phenomenon that reportedly appears in the sky at or near areas of tectonic stress, seismic activity, or volcanic eruptions.”  (Wikipedia, “earthquake light”)  Lehi may have seen something called a fire column.  Fire columns and other luminous displays were seen around the occurrance of an earthquake in Italy in April 2009 and have been observed elsewhere. 

Fire columns were observed during or around the time of the main shock in Bagno, Bazzano and Pile. Their colours ranged from orange to red, and in one case, the vertical column was associated with electrical discharges. Giuseppina Giuliani, from Vallesindola of Bagno, during the main shock, saw several high flames coming out of the ground near Bazzano. They were orange and came higher than Gran Sasso and completely blocked its view. A similar light was seen crossing the Aterno valley, from an opposite side, at the time of the November 1461 earthquake” (Galli as paraphrased by Fidani).

Other luminous phenomena observed incident to earthquakes may include flashes, electrical discharges, thin strips of light, fire balls, fire beams, luminous funnels, flames, small flames, sparks, luminous vapors, luminous clouds, diffused lights, and streamers.  How these effects are produced is not well-understood yet.  (There tend to be government conspiracy theories and UFO labels associated with this kind of thing on the internet...)

So, I hypothesize that as Lehi was praying for his people, some sort of geologically-triggered light effect began, but that it acted in an erratic way, which Lehi may have perceived as threatening and caused him to quake and tremble.  It would seem doubly alarming as it seemed connected to his act of prayer.  Its strange behavior would suggest spiritual terrors and meanings to him, even as he tried to understand it.  It might seem to him as if a messenger from God had come yet refused to talk and acted crazy and dangerous.

Would God want Lehi to be left with this kind of impression of diety?  I don’t think so.  God would want Lehi to see and know the difference in experience between some natural though awe-inspiring light display and a real vision from God.  Hence the second vision, a real apocalyptic vision with God on his throne, the divine counsel, angelic beings coming down and acting in an orderly way, and giving him a book, delivering an extended prophetic message he could understand about the future of his people whom he had been praying about.  The second vision is a very different kind from the first, much as the sun is different from a single lit light bulb.  The second vision seems to have been a great relief to Lehi, as he exclaims, “..and because thou art merciful, thou wilt not suffer those who come unto thee that they shall perish.”  I suspect Lehi really thought he was going to die because of the first vision he had.  He thought he was condemned.

I  bet the thing that makes us think the pillar of fire of the first vison is divine is the language of Joseph Smith’s first vision account about a “pillar of light exactly over my head.”  We are so used to the image of the Father and Son appearing in Joseph's pillar of light that we simply assume that Lehi’s “pillar of fire” had a person in it.   Yet if there was a person in it, Lehi would have mentioned it and Nephi would mention it in the record.  He certainly told us about all the people in the second vision, so he would have mentioned people in the first vision too, if they were present.

Now, reading the story this way can shake us up a little bit.  We may prefer to think of it as two divine visions instead of just one that was prefaced by a natural phenomenon.  However you choose to think of the first vision, much more can be learned from the second one than from the first.  The second is the more precious of the two and is absolutely divine.

When I consider what I learn from this, I learn that man is apt to mistake manifestations (especially glowing things) for the divine.  Even if no intelligence is gained, man will construct a message to fill the blank.  Yet God cares for His children and will send a way to correct their mistaken notions and answer their prayers.  Note that it is the second vision that answers Lehi’s original prayer on behalf of his people.

Comparing these two visions of Lehi’s also reminds me how important the principle of edification is.  Spiritual manifestations must edify for them to be from God.   Again, gaining this perspective about Lehi’s view of a pillar of fire helps me to appreciate his apocalyptic vision that much more and see it as a demonstration of the great mercy of God. 


C. Fidani, “The earthquake lights (EQL) of the 6 April 2009 Aquila earthquake,
in Central Italy,  p5, full article available for download at 

Also see’s article on Earthquake lights,


Ramona Gordy said...

What an intriguing hypothesis.I am going to study those chapters again.This verse came to my mind:

2 Corinthians 11:13-15

13 For such are false apostles, deceitful workers, transforming themselves into apostles of Christ.

14 And no wonder! For Satan himself transforms himself into an angel of light.

15 Therefore it is no great thing if his ministers also transform themselves into ministers of righteousness, whose end will be according to their works.

I love your reference to Joseph Smiths "pillar of light", but before the pillar of light, Joseph had a "struggle" with an unseen and somewhat "malevolent" being. I wonder if the information in Lehi's first vision could compare to that?
Before receiving the 2nd vision, Lehi may have been "buffeted" by Satan, who can "appear" as an angel of light.
Hmmmm... good stuff to ponder Michaela

Michaela Stephens said...

That did cross my mind too..