Near its beginning, the Book of Mormon relates the dream of an Israelite father and visionary prophet named Lehi. About 600 BCE, Lehi and his family “tarried in the wilderness,” having fled Jerusalem for a promised land, guided by the Lord (1 Ne. 8:2). In this dream, Lehi saw a symbolic scene with multiple elements, including a tree with desirable fruit and a river running near the tree. “And,” he said, “I beheld a rod of iron, and it extended along the bank of the river, and led to the tree” (1 Ne. 8:19). Lehi observed how people made their way through darkness to the tree by grabbing the end of the rod and “holding fast” to it (1 Ne. 8:30). Later, in his own apocalyptic vision, Lehi’s son Nephi discerned the meaning of the iron rod: “I beheld 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.” Nephi learned that the fountain and the tree typified the love of God (1 Ne. 11:25).
The iron rod is iconic within Latter-day Saint culture. It is the subject of lessons and sermons and songs.1 Media and art regularly depict it as some type of handrail.2 This concept of the iron rod as a type of rail or balustrade may at first appear to be the only possible way to understand and visualize the iron rod.3 A close reading of the Book of Mormon in light of the ancient Near East yields a surprisingly distinct interpretive possibility. To Lehi and those of the ancient Near East, the rod symbolized the right to rule and was held in the hand of gods, kings, and shepherds.4 The Israelite narrative contains extensive references to the rod in this context and provides strong support for conceptualizing the rod of iron as something other than a handrail when it is first introduced in Lehi’s vision.5 In that verse (“And I beheld a rod of iron, and it extended” [1 Ne. 8:19]), the verb “extend” gives the impression that the rod, as the subject in the sentence, is what extends, like a railing or handrail. However when the rod is viewed in an ancient context6—as a discrete rod or shepherd’s tool—it suggests that there is an implied agent, the Lord, who is extending the rod of iron to shepherd those of Lehi’s dream.7 When read in this way the “extended” rod matches well with the symbolism of the rod in the ancient Near East and the biblical account of Jesus Christ as the “Good Shepherd.”8 Rethinking the rod of iron, when it is first introduced in the Book of Mormon, as a shepherd’s rod extended by Christ, significantly multiplies the symbolic potential of the image.
The Rod in an Ancient Context
In the ancient Near East, as early as 3000 BCE, rods in a variety of forms were used as a symbol of power and the authority to rule.9 In one form, the rod is held along with a ring as an attestation of the divine. This is the case for the ancient Mesopotamian sun god, Samas, who is often depicted holding the rod and ring. Of him it was written, “May Samas lengthen his staff, may he shepherd his people in justice.”10 Anciently the gods are often depicted extending the rod and ring to kings and priests.11 In a wall painting from 1770 BCE showing “The Investiture of Zimri-Lim,” the king is seen touching a rod, which is extended by the god Ishtar, with one hand while the other is raised in a gesture of reverence.12 Further, like Lehi’s vision the painting also incorporates water and plant imagery as another important element associated with the rod and ring motif.13 The rod and ring as a symbol of the divine was widely used until nearly the time of Lehi.
The scepter and staff symbol, like the rod and ring, was also a well-established symbol in the ancient Near East, but it symbolized the king’s right to rule (see Esth. 4:11; 5:2). In the Sumerian myth of Etana’s kingship, in the early third millennium BCE, the scepter, crown, and shepherd’s crook were retrieved in heaven by Etana before descending from heaven on the back of an eagle to become king and shepherd of Kish.14 The scepter was an embellished form of the rod that shepherds used, along with the staff, in caring for their sheep. The Babylonian king Hammurabi in the second millennium BCE, said of himself that “the great gods having chosen me, I am indeed the shepherd who provides well-being, whose staff is straight/just.”15 In the ancient Near East, the scepter and staff were the dominant symbols of the king’s divinely appointed authority to shepherd the people.16 The Assyrians took these ideas further and began associating the symbol of the rod with military power.17 The prophet Isaiah warned Israel saying, “O Assyrian, the rod of mine anger, and the staff in their hand is mine indignation. I will send him against an hypocritical nation” (Isa. 10:5–6). Here the rod and staff describe the function of the Assyrian nation as the Lord’s implement to return Israel to the correct path. By Lehi’s lifetime, the rod had evolved from its humble beginning as the tool of the shepherd to a culturally recognizable symbol of divinely sanctioned power.
To the Israelites, the archetype of the shepherd king of the ancient Near East was David. He was anointed to gather, rule, and defend Israel from all its enemies. The record indicates that David’s time spent in the care of his father’s sheep taught him to be fearless.18 In facing Goliath, David would only take those tools he had used in defending his father’s sheep: a staff, a sling, and a resolute belief that the Lord would be with him. David’s defeat of Goliath would be the first of many triumphs that eventually led to his coronation as king of Israel. As king and shepherd of Israel, David would work to fulfill the Lord’s covenant to gather his people and succeed in once again unifying the tribes of Israel. Isaiah prophesied of a future king, with authority in the form of a rod, who would arise from a branch of David’s royal line to rule all Israel once again. “And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots” (Isa. 11:1 and 2 Ne 21:1). Joseph Smith inquired as to the meaning of the “rod” as quoted by Nephi and found in Isaiah 11. The answer to this inquiry is recorded in the Doctrine and Covenants:
“Who is the Stem of Jesse spoken of in the 1st, 2d, 3d, 4th, and 5th verses of the 11th chapter of Isaiah?
“Verily thus saith the Lord: It is Christ.
“What is the rod spoken of in the first verse of the 11th chapter of Isaiah, that should come of the Stem of Jesse?
“Behold, thus saith the Lord: It is a servant in the hands of Christ” (D&C 113:1–4).19
Christ as the stem of Jesse holds the rod or royal scepter in his hand to rule as king over all Israel, and it is his prophets that are commissioned to speak his words. Psalm 2 is generally considered a coronation psalm for the future King and Shepherd, the Messiah, that would come from the stem of Jesse to once again unify Israel.20 Speaking of the Messiah, the psalm says, “Thou shalt break21 them with a rod of iron; thou shalt dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel” (Ps. 2:9).22 By designating the rod that Christ was to hold as one of iron,23 the record establishes that this was no common rod. A rod of iron conveys an image of a divine power that cannot be broken. Iron’s strength and, at times, cosmic origin lent it a sense of power.24 That the rod in Lehi’s vision and David’s psalm is a symbol of strength and heavenly power and authority is made clear by its being made of iron.25 This idea is conveyed in the three other cases a rod of iron is mentioned in the Bible.26 The Apostle John in the book of Revelation describes the royal scepter Christ uses to rule all the nations as a “rod of iron.”27
“And he shall rule them with a rod of iron; as the vessels of a potter shall they be broken to shivers: even as I received of my Father” (Rev. 2:27).
“And she brought forth a man child, who was to rule all nations with a rod of iron” (Rev. 12:5).28
“And he shall rule them with a rod of iron” (Rev. 19:15).29
In the context of the ancient Near East culture, to be king was to lead as the shepherd, and the rod functioned as a symbol of that leadership.30 This conception of leadership is illustrated in the events associated with Nephi’s initial use of the word “rod” in his record. When an angel stops Laman and Lemuel from beating Nephi and Sam outside the city of Jerusalem, the angel establishes Nephi’s right to rule over his brothers by declaring, “Why do ye smite your younger brother with a rod? Know ye not that the Lord hath chosen him to be a ruler over you” (1 Ne. 3:29). The rod wielded by Laman and Lemuel to beat their brothers is stilled, and the angel’s declaration of Nephi’s leadership figuratively passes the rod as such to Nephi.31 Given the background from which Nephi emerged, it is possible that the next time a rod appears within his narrative, as part of Lehi’s vision, it can likewise be understood as a symbol of kingship and the right to rule. If this is the case, then it would follow that to see a rod of iron extending, which leads those who take hold of it to the tree of life, would be to see the anticipated Messiah working as the divine Shepherd-King to gather his flock. This image also has the potential to connect future readers of Nephi’s record to John the Revelator’s vision, which describes Christ ruling with a rod of iron that has power over all other rods32 as “Lord of lords and King of kings” (Rev. 17:14).33 John speaks of Christ as the lamb of God who will shepherd his people to living water, emphasizing his mode of invitational leadership (Rev. 7:17).34 Nephi would further see that Christ embodies the ideal Shepherd-King because he was willing to condescend below all things for the eternal welfare of the flock (1 Ne. 11:31–33).35 As the Lamb, Christ successfully walked the path that leads to the tree of life, and in Lehi’s vision the rod extending can be seen as an invitation to now “follow” him.36 In this way, it is the rod of iron, with all that it implies in the ancient Near East, that can symbolize the invitation to “follow” the Shepherd-King to the fountain of living water and the tree of life.37
Lehi’s Dream and Shepherding
Lehi’s dream is essentially a pastoral dream. It engenders images of open fields with paths, trees, and flowing water. Further, its message is one of drawing people away from a flawed urban landscape to a more idyllic landscape. The dream was deeply personal to Lehi because it first dealt with drawing his immediate family to safety. However, more broadly, it dealt with the necessity to safely gather all the inhabitants of the world to the place most desirable for their eternal well-being.38 In this way, it fits well within the broader context of the Israelites as a people in need of a shepherd to gather them. If we recognize the vision as a pastoral dream, it invites the reader to view the Lord as the Shepherd, similar to Psalm 23.39
“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me” (Ps. 23:1–4).
Like the shepherd of David’s psalm, it is only when Lehi realized his complete dependence on the Lord and pleaded “that [the Lord] would have mercy on [him], according to the multitude of his tender mercies” (1 Ne. 8:8) that he is delivered from the darkness that engulfed him. Lehi’s desire to follow the Good Shepherd over anyone else would, 40 for him, be but the first step in obtaining the fruit of the tree.41 It was in crying out for the Lord’s mercy in prayer that Lehi finally obtained the tree.42 Likewise, tender mercies are manifest in the shepherd’s ability to hear and carefully provide for every want of his flock. Like David, Lehi experienced the comfort of having the Lord as a personal shepherd, guiding his way.43 As such, their narratives share many of the same elements:
The valley of the shadow of death
Dark and dreary waste
Restoreth my soul
Filled my soul
Large and spacious field
Leadeth me beside the still waters
Extend along the bank of the river
Leadeth me in paths of righteousness
Obtain the path which led unto the tree
Thy rod and staff44
Rod of iron
Lehi’s dream taps into a rich tradition that utilizes the symbols of a pastoral life and milieu that derive from the Israelites’ identity as a shepherding people.45 To the Israelites, the shepherd and shepherding are symbols of the Lord and his covenant to gather his people; the rod is his tool for doing that work.46 Fittingly, the anticipated Messiah would first be proclaimed by the shepherds that were tending their flocks in the field. The lambs they cared for were a similitude of the “Lord Jesus, that great shepherd of the sheep” (Heb. 13:20). Jesus the Messiah would proclaim, “I am the good shepherd, and know my sheep, and am known of mine” (John 10:14) and “the good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep” (John 10:11). Christ is the Good Shepherd, and “he gathereth his children from the four quarters of the earth; and he numbereth his sheep, and they know him; and there shall be one fold and one shepherd; and he shall feed his sheep,47 and in him they shall find pasture” (1 Ne. 22:25).48
The prophet Ezekiel prophesied of a day when the Lord, in his role as shepherd, would gather his people and inspect and number the sheep49 by passing them under his rod.50 “And I will cause you to pass under the rod, and I will bring you into the bond of the covenant” (Ezek. 20:37).51 With the aid of a rod or staff, the Lord is able to guide the sheep into the bond of the covenant. A modern shepherd, Phillip Keller, speaks of using a staff to guide his sheep in this way:
Being stubborn creatures, sheep often get into the most ridiculous and preposterous dilemmas. I have seen my own sheep, greedy for one more mouthful of green grass, climb down steep cliffs where they slipped and fell into the sea. Only my long shepherd’s staff could lift them out of the water and back onto solid ground again. . . . I have seen a shepherd use his staff to guide his sheep gently into a new path or through some gate along dangerous, difficult routes. He does not use it actually to beat the beast. Rather, the tip of the long slender stick is laid gently against the animal’s side and the pressure applied guides the sheep in the way the owner wants it to go. Thus the sheep is reassured of its proper path.52
For millennia the rod and staff have been critical for both protecting the flock from danger and caring for their needs. Though the rod and staff were distinct tools in the hands of the shepherd, the scriptural narratives connect the two in word and symbolism.53 Both are fashioned from the branch of a tree, and the Hebrew words for both (matteh and shebet) are also interchangeable with the word for branch.54 Perhaps because of this linguistic connection, there is a resonance with the way the shepherd uses the rod and how these words can describe the different branches or tribes, which are to be grafted back to a mother tree.55 “Thy brethren also of the tribe [matteh] of Levi, the tribe [shebet] of thy father, bring thou with thee, that they may be joined unto thee” (Num. 18:2).
As a rod or staff, the iron rod not only helps to guide an individual toward the tree of life but simultaneously draws upon the image of the scattered branches of Israel themselves returning home, gathered and grafted into their mother tree.56 Thus, in Lehi’s vision, when he wanted his family to join him at the tree, the appearance of the iron rod extending before him carries additional nuance and meaning when it is understood not as a handrail but rather as the guiding rod or staff of the shepherd.57
The extension of the iron rod, in Lehi’s vision, has its parallel in the scriptures with the word “stretched.”58 Throughout the scriptures stretch and extend are used to symbolize the support the Lord provided in gathering Israel.59 This gathering can involve action taken to correct Israel and at other times to comfort and protect.60 Lehi’s contemporary Jeremiah speaks of the Lord stretching out his arm to bring the Israelites out of Egypt: “And [thou] hast brought forth thy people Israel out of the land of Egypt with signs, and with wonders, and with a strong hand, and with a stretched out arm” (Jer. 32:21).
Jeremiah draws on the symbolism of the power and authority of the rod in Moses’s outstretched hand as he protected the children of Israel during their exodus from Egypt. In contrast to showing divine mercy, the Lord can also stretch out his rod in a show of divine justice.61 When the Lord speaks of stretching out his hand in justice, it is usually in the context of administering punishment.62 “Therefore, is the anger of the Lord kindled against his people, and he hath stretched forth his hand against them, and hath smitten them; and the hills did tremble, and their carcasses were torn in the midst of the streets. For all this his anger is not turned away, but his hand is stretched out still” (2 Ne. 15:25; see also 2 Ne. 19:12; 20:4).63
Alternatively, in the scriptures when the Lord “extends” something, it never implies a punishment. On the contrary, “extending” always expresses the Lord’s mercy, such as the Lord’s arm being extended, or the extension of a promise or an offering of peace.64 It is noteworthy that many uses of the word “extend” throughout the Book of Mormon are connected to symbols found in Lehi’s dream: the tree of life, holding tight, the shepherd, and filled with joy.65
“When I see many of my brethren truly penitent, and coming to the Lord their God, then is my soul filled with joy; then do I remember what the Lord has done for me, yea, even that he hath heard my prayer; yea, then do I remember his merciful arm which he extended towards me” (Alma 29:10).
“Cleave unto God as he cleaveth unto you. And while his arm of mercy is extended towards you” (Jacob 6:5).
“Yea, I say unto you, that in the latter times the promises of the Lord have been extended to our brethren, the Lamanites. . . . And this is according to the prophecy, that they shall again be brought to the true knowledge, which is the knowledge of their Redeemer, and their great and true shepherd, and be numbered among his sheep” (Hel. 15:12–13).
Additionally in the Book of Mormon the word “extend” is frequently used in relation to repentance, an act that implies a turning away from sin.66 In this case, what the Lord extends provides support or protection from the dangers of sin, as symbolized by the filthy water, and comfort and reassurance along the path to the tree of life.67
“Behold, he sendeth an invitation unto all men, for the arms of mercy are extended towards them, and he saith: Repent, and I will receive you. Yea, he saith: Come unto me and ye shall partake of the fruit of the tree of life” (Alma 5:33–34).68
Before Lehi sees the rod extend, he is occupied with the desire to gather his family at the tree of life. Seeing his two sons Laman and Lemuel, who had placed themselves near the river of filthy water,69 Lehi called out to them to turn and come away from the water, to repent, and join him at the tree. Sadly, he says, “they would not come unto me and partake of the fruit” (1 Ne. 8:18).70 In that moment, Lehi experienced the painful reality of a son or daughter realizing their agency and refusing to answer the call of a pleading parent. It is at that heartbreaking moment when Lehi may have perceived not just a rod of iron that could lead his family to the tree but actually the Good Shepherd extending a rod of iron to guide and protect his wayward sons. This then changes the image from one of heartless metal to one of personal warmth as Lehi once again puts his trust in the tender mercies of the only one with power to rescue us all: Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd.71
The Rod and the Word of God
In Lehi’s dream, those who were safely gathered to the tree were those “holding fast” to the rod of iron (1 Ne. 8:30).72 This act could be associated with “hearken[ing] unto the voice of the good shepherd” (Hel. 7:18). Nephi records that he saw the rod of iron, which his “father had seen” (1 Ne. 11:25), only after beholding the ministry of the Son of God. He goes on to say that the rod of iron “was the word of God”73 and that it led “to the fountain of living waters, or to the tree of life” (1 Ne. 11:25). The narrative of the shepherd, the rod, and its relation to the word of God, finds its fullest expression in the life of Moses.74 Nephi draws on the Exodus tradition when framing his family’s journey out of Jerusalem and the Lord’s shepherding them to the promised land.75 Moses’s story of the Exodus works as a master narrative of how God works to rescue his people and shepherd them to a promised land.76 Therefore, a better understanding of the rod in Moses’s exodus narrative adds important context for the rod as Lehi and Nephi saw it in vision and its connection to the word of God.77 In Moses’s theophany, the rod played a prominent role in his transition from a shepherd in the service of his father-in-law78 to a shepherd in the service of Jehovah, gathering Israel.79
“And calling upon the name of God, he beheld his glory again, for it was upon him; and he heard a voice, saying: Blessed art thou, Moses, for I, the Almighty, have chosen thee, and thou shalt be made stronger than many waters; for they shall obey thy command as if thou wert God. And lo, I am with thee, even unto the end of thy days; for thou shalt deliver my people from bondage, even Israel my chosen” (Moses 1:25–26).
And Moses answered and said, But, behold, they will not believe me, nor hearken unto my voice: for they will say, The Lord hath not appeared unto thee. And the Lord said unto him, What is that in thine hand? And he said, A rod. And he said, Cast it on the ground. And he cast it on the ground, and it became a serpent; and Moses fled from before it. And the Lord said unto Moses, Put forth thine hand, and take it by the tail. And he put forth his hand, and caught80 it, and it became a rod in his hand: That they may believe that the Lord God of their fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, hath appeared unto thee. (Ex. 4:1–5)
The Lord endowed Moses with power in the form of a rod and charged him, with his brother Aaron, to gather the children of Israel and bring them out of bondage. Consistent with the rod as both a symbol of divine justice and mercy, the Lord would command Moses to stretch out or extend his rod in aiding the Israelite’s journey to the promised land. “And the Lord spake unto Moses, Say unto Aaron, Stretch forth thine hand with thy rod over the streams, over the rivers, and over the ponds, and cause frogs to come up upon the land of Egypt” (Ex. 8:5).
In another instance, the Lord asked Moses to have Aaron stretch out the rod to bring forth lice to afflict the Egyptians. However, in this case, as in Nephi’s account of the rod, the text does not explicitly identify a hand or arm stretching out while holding the rod. Instead, the arm or hand holding the rod is implicit in the action of stretching itself. “And the Lord said unto Moses, Say unto Aaron, Stretch out thy rod, and smite the dust of the land, that it may become lice throughout all the land of Egypt” (Ex. 8:16).
Finally, after the Lord smote Pharaoh and the Egyptians seven more times, the Israelites were set free. Moses, the shepherd of Israel, with his rod gathered the Lord’s flock and brought them to the banks of the Red Sea. Pursued by the armies of Pharaoh, Moses once again raised the rod to demonstrate God’s power and delivered the children of Israel from the advancing armies.81
“And the Lord said unto Moses, . . . lift thou up thy rod, and stretch out thine hand over the sea, and divide it: and the children of Israel shall go on dry ground through the midst of the sea. . . . And Moses stretched out his hand over the sea; and the Lord caused the sea to go back” (Ex. 14:15–21).
The Israelites had been gathered and freed from an adversary that had held them captive for over four hundred years. After traveling for three days in the wilderness, they complained82 because the water was bitter.83 The Lord instructed Moses to take the branch of a tree and cast it into the water to make it sweet. This act was to prove to the Israelites that the Lord would provide for them if they would “diligently hearken to the voice of the Lord” (Ex. 15:26). Later Moses would use the rod to provide life-sustaining water for the children of Israel as they journeyed in the wilderness.84
“And the Lord said unto Moses, Go on before the people, and take with thee of the elders of Israel; and thy rod, wherewith thou smotest the river, take in thine hand, and go. Behold, I will stand before thee there upon the rock in Horeb; and thou shalt smite the rock, and there shall come water out of it, that the people may drink. And Moses did so in the sight of the elders of Israel” (Ex. 17:5–6).85
The water, which came out of the rock, moved with the Israelites for nearly forty years as they wandered in the wilderness. When it finally ran dry, the Israelites murmured rather than “diligently hearken[ing] to the voice of the Lord” for their support (Ex. 15:26). Up until this point, Moses’s rod had been a symbol of support to the Israelites. Like a shepherd’s rod, Moses’s rod had gathered the Israelites, protected them from their enemies, and led them to pure water (Ps. 77:20). Now that the Israelites needed the Lord’s support again, he would make it clear to them that he was the power behind the symbol of the rod. This time, instead of commanding Moses to strike a rock with his rod to bring forth water, the Lord said to Moses, “Take the rod, and gather thou the assembly together, thou, and Aaron thy brother, and speak ye unto the rock before their eyes; and it shall give forth his water, and thou shalt bring forth to them water out of the rock” (Num. 20:8).
The rod was a symbol of the power of the Lord’s word, and by speaking to the rock to bring forth water, that lesson was made clear to all Israel. With the rod in hand, Moses gathered together the Israelites, but frustrated by their rebellion, Moses struck the rock twice to bring forth water. In doing this, Moses disobeyed the commandant of the Lord to “speak” to the rock. Because of this, Moses and Aaron were not permitted to enter the promised land. As a servant in the hands of the Lord, Moses had failed to “smite the earth with the rod of his mouth” (Isa. 11:4, see also 2 Ne. 21:4).86 In doing so, Moses’s own words, “Hear now, ye rebels” (Num. 20:10), would condemn him (see Jacob 1:7–8). Moses’s actions had failed to teach the Israelites what should have been painfully clear: that the power and authority of the “rod” of God is the same as the “word” of God.87 Significantly, the first reference in the Bible relating leadership to shepherding came when Moses asked God to make Joshua the leader of the people after his own death, so “that the congregation of the Lord be not as sheep which have no shepherd” (Num. 27:17).
The Exodus context for the rod broadens the conceptual space of the rod itself: in Moses’s hands, the rod is an active power effecting change in the world via the liberation, protection, and guidance of Israel.88 Ultimately, the Exodus narrative associates the rod with the word of God in its power and efficacy. Given Nephi’s own clear understanding of his family’s journey in terms of the Exodus narrative, it is reasonable to posit a sympathetic resonance between the rod of Moses and the rod of iron in his and his father’s visions.89 This is reflected in the Lord’s words to Nephi, “I will also be your light in the wilderness; and I will prepare the way before you, . . . ye shall be led towards the promised land; and ye shall know that it is by me that ye are led” (1 Ne. 17:13). Moses with his rod tried to take Israel to the mountain of the Lord to experience his glory (see Ex. 19:3–11). Likewise, in Lehi’s vision it is possible to see Christ extending a rod, or his word, to help light the way on the ascent back to the tree of life.90 As such, Lehi’s visions play out as a reversal of the story of Adam and Eve.91 Adam and Eve move from the tree of life to the lone and dreary wilderness. In contrast, Lehi’s vision shows that Christ, with his word or his rod, can shepherd us back to the tree of life. Significantly, in this reversal we are no longer a lone man at the tree of life but gather as families as Lehi experienced. If we see the rod of iron in Lehi’s dream in this way, Christ with his iron rod does what no other rod in antiquity did. By offering all that will lay hold of the rod the opportunity to ascend “to the fountain of living waters, or to the tree of life,” Christ makes possible to all what was once only reserved for gods and kings (1 Ne. 11:25). The extending of a rod of iron can be seen as a symbolic gesture by Christ that invites all who are willing to trust his unbreakable word to join him in becoming kings and queens in godly sociality.
All specific references to a rod in the Book of Mormon end after the first two books of Nephi. However, when the rod of iron in the opening chapters of the Book of Mormon is seen as a tool actively utilized by Christ to guide the children of Israel along the covenant path, allusions to that extension of the rod of iron can be seen throughout the text.92 This active extension is significantly illustrated in the book’s central event: the visit of the resurrected Christ to the descendants of Lehi.93 In this visit, Christ describes his atoning sacrifice in terms of extension: “Yea, verily I say unto you, if ye will come unto me ye shall have eternal life. Behold, mine arm of mercy is extended towards you, and whosoever will come, him will I receive; and blessed are those who come unto me. Behold, I am Jesus Christ the Son of God” (3 Ne. 9:14–15; see also 1 Ne. 8:24, 30; 11:25; 15:23–24).
Some time after hearing his voice, the people worked their way to the temple where Christ appeared to them.94 Significantly, when Christ appeared to them there, he first “stretched forth his hand” (3 Ne. 11:9) in a gesture that resonates with the extension of the shepherd’s rod. The result of this act allowed the people to witness “for themselves” and then “they did fall down at the feet of Jesus, and did worship him” (3 Ne. 11:16–17), just as those who reached the tree of life after “continually holding fast” (1 Ne. 8:30) to the iron rod in Lehi’s dream.95 In each case, reading the text in terms of active extension produces a pattern of individual witness accompanied by the witness’s own embodied act of devotion and worship. Additionally, each event underscores the theme of gathering family members to provide them with their own opportunity to participate. Lehi wished for his family to eat the fruit from the tree of life (see 1 Ne. 8:12), and later the people who gathered at Bountiful saw their little ones “encircled about” (3 Ne. 17:24) with the blessings of heaven. This act of divine blessing and acceptance experienced at the resurrected Christ’s appearance to Lehi’s descendants is, at its heart, the very thing Lehi desired his “family should partake” of (1 Ne. 8:12) after he tasted the fruit of the tree of life.
When the rod of iron is conceptualized in this way, the sweetness of the fruit one obtains after reaching the tree of life grows out of an appreciation for our guide and Shepherd-King, Christ.96 He personally extends the end of his rod to guide each of us as we make our ascent to the tree of life. The rod can still provide security and support, but as a mobile tool in the hand of a loving guide, it does so without the assumptions of fixity created in the handrail reading.97 If the rod is no longer secured as a rail along one specific location, then the way to the tree will be unique for each of us. Furthermore, once we obtain the path, by way of the rod and the help of the Savior, our experience and progress along the covenant path will likewise be unique to each of us. This then changes the nature of the path. Instead of a handrail along a well-worn, singular path, the rod is capable of guiding us on numerous crisscrossing, overlapping, but distinctly individual paths.98 While the destination and the direction remain the same, because of the covenants we make, following the path under the guidance of Christ and his rod becomes both a commitment to keep moving, even when one feels lost or uncertain, and a commitment to respond to the guidance and direction received during the journey as we “hear” the voice of the Lord. Additionally, in this interpretive framework, the rod itself is never beyond our reach because Christ is never distant.99 Further, we are never alone in the darkness when we take hold of the rod and trust in the grace of Christ. In contrast to an inanimate railing, Christ, with his rod of iron, extends an active, ongoing invitation to come follow him as the central figure in both Lehi’s and Nephi’s visions. As we take hold of the rod of iron, we can walk side by side with Christ as Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, and Israel did.100