As commanded, Nephi looks, and what does he see? Interesting that the first thing he sees is cities, including Jerusalem and then Nazareth. What are the other cities? Why does he see cities? This is all in the context of Nephi being guided to come to understand the meaning of the tree. Ultimately Nephi determines it to represent the love of God, which sheddeth itself abroad in the hearts of all God’s children. I wonder, then, if the purpose of seeing the cities was merely to orient Nephi toward the greater context of the meaning of what he sees—this isn’t a vision whose significance is merely for Lehi’s family, nor even for the Jews only (though apparently the only two cities Nephi recognizes are Jewish). Instead, Nephi’s shown the population centers of the earth—this is a vision encompassing humankind.
There’s no indication that Nephi notices this or any other meaning to the cities he sees. When the (new) angel asks him what he sees, he responds only that he sees a virgin, one whose appearance in the vision mirrors the fruit of the tree. And yet it is her fruit that is the focus, rather than herself. But still, she is the one who is white and beautiful—the two traits Nephi earlier noticed concerning the fruit. Trees bear fruit and fruits bear trees.
Verse 17 is one of the great verses in all of scripture, one that my heart has loved since I first discovered it in the MTC. One I lean upon. Nevertheless, I can’t help but notice Nephi’s uttering it here in a kind of bumbling ignorance. I can hardly fault Nephi on this (who wouldn’t bumble when suddenly confronted by an angel and then interrogated?). In my slower, not-real-life, not-bedazzled reading, however, I can notice that the angel’s asking about God’s condescension—and awkwardly, the first thing Nephi thinks of is the fact that God loves us. Really? Love as a form of condescension? Isn’t that contradictory? Isn’t love exactly the sort of thing with which one cannot condescend? If one’s love is condescending, then one doesn’t really love. But this strikes me as exactly the sort of mistake that we humans have generally made with respect to God, and I don’t see anyone outside of Joseph Smith and some of those working out his ideas who don’t make this same mistake—including Nephi and other prophets in the scriptures. Of course Moses’s reaction to seeing God is to marvel at humankind’s nothingness. Of course Allah hu Akhbar. And we generally interpret God’s greatness and the distance between God and ourselves to imply a strange, isomorphic relationship, where anything we gain from God is a condescension, a mercy, a grace. And I suppose in a sense it always is that. Yet we’re blind to the fact that it is also reciprotory. It is that love and grace offered that makes God great, it is the content or substance of God’s greatness. God’s work and glory is indeed us—because we are, in ourselves, a glorious medium and end. God’s love is precisely not a condescension.
Finally, here, we get the only reference I’ve yet found to our Heavenly Mother in the Book of Mormon. And it comes not from a Nephite—all of whom appear to have been entirely ignorant of or at least ignored Her. Instead it comes from the angel. The virgin is the Mother of the Son of God—after the manner of the flesh. Here is she who stands in the earthly, fleshy role of Her who fills this role in the heavens.
Perhaps Peterson and others are right that Nephi immediately grasps the allusion to Ashterah or the Mother of the Son of God in the Mesopotamian pantheons; that for Nephi, it literally went without saying. I hope that for us today, we can and do say, since it’s clear it does not go without saying for us.