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An Allegory of the Olive Tree Potpourri – Some Notes on Jacob 5

A Video Supplement for
Come, Follow Me Book of Mormon Lesson 12:
The Lord Labors with Us (Jacob 5-7)




Today, I am going to discuss the Allegory of the Olive Tree as presented in Jacob 5. I am going to discuss several features that are interesting and perhaps underappreciated.

To begin with, the allegory reveals an author with a deep knowledge of olive cultivation. All of the processes of nurture described including grafting, digging, dunging, planting branches and so forth are things you can try in your olive garden at home (that wasn’t product placement, just to be clear). You can grow olives from cuttings [Gardner, Second Witness, pg. 523], so take a branch, stick it in the ground appropriately and it will develop roots and with some luck keep growing. Speaking of another ancient (and also modern) practice, what did the Lord of the vineyard say when he saw that all of his trees had become corrupted? Among other things, “dung them.” But more seriously, dung is fertilizer, probably the worlds oldest, to be used with judgement and skill, and together with digging about, is representative of the care of the Lord of the vineyard for his vineyard. As such it represents all the variety of ways in which the Lord cares for Israel including requiring us to love and serve one another. So the next time you are ministering to one another and someone asks you what you are doing and you are feeling allegorical you could perhaps answer, “dunging the tree.”

There is however one aspect of cultivation that differs from what we expect from olive trees biologically. As Daniel C. Peterson notes, in reviewing the FARMS volume about the Allegory of the Olive Tree, “A wild olive branch, even if grafted into a tame olive tree, will still produce wild fruit. It will survive, but it won’t produce tame fruit simply because it’s grafted into a tame olive tree. So, is this an error on the part of the Book of Mormon? No, not really. One of the articles–an article that I was involved with–in this book on Jacob 5 uncovered evidence that in the ancient Mediterranean world, they were aware of the possibility that miraculously, a wild olive branch grafted into a tame olive tree could produce tame fruit. It doesn’t happen naturally, but it can happen miraculously. And the prophetic figures of the ancient Mediterranean, specifically Greek thinkers and so on, saw this as a sign from God. It was a miraculous intervention from God, something that contravened the normal laws of olive cultivation and production.

Well, what does it stand for in that account of the Book of Mormon? It stands for the conversion of Gentiles into people of the house of Israel. It’s a miraculous transformation, exactly what the Book of Mormon would have it to be. And this is a remarkable thing. It’s a very long, a seventy-seven-verse long, description of olive culture. This is certainly enough rope for Joseph Smith to have hanged himself if he were making it up, but he didn’t. He got it right, and on the one detail which seems to be wrong it again has precedent in the ancient Near Eastern world and in the ancient Eastern Mediterranean. It’s a remarkable thing, and I challenge critics of the Book of Mormon to come up with any counterexplanation of this idea that it was produced by someone who actually came from the area where olives were produced. And that is precisely the area Zenos and Lehi came from originally–the eastern Mediterranean in general.”

Another question that sometimes comes up is why are the olive trees in a vineyard, shouldn’t only vines be in the vineyard? Tvedtnes, cited in Gardner [Gardner, Second Witness, Volume 2, pg. 526], says, “One of the questions about the olive tree is what it might be doing in a “vineyard.” John Tvedtnes argues that “vineyard” not only was used in association with grapevines but also for the entire planted area, which might also include trees. For instance, he comments: “The Encyclopedia Migra’it notes that ‘The Egyptian k3mu could be used for both a vineyard of vines and a plantation of mixed fruit trees. . .”

Perhaps less anciently, but still relevantly a recent story in the San Francisco Gate [] notes in its opening lines that, “Olive trees have been planted in and around vineyards for thousands of years. The vineyards and olive groves of the Eastern Mediterranean region appear in some of the great religions’ oldest holy books. The secret to the companion planting of grapes and olives lies in where they grow, when they ripen and how their fruits are used.” So apparently they are quite the match, and people have thought so for a long time.

Another question that sometimes comes up is whether the Jacob 5 is dependent on various Romans 11:16-24. Paul there basically quotes the key theological points of the allegory in a way that sounds like he is familiar with it. The question that comes up is then whether Jacob 5 is dependent on Romans or on a likely common ancient source. When determining dependency a good test is which account is richer. Jacob 5 provides details including regarding olive husbandry in the ancient world that were outside of what Romans includes and outside of anything that one could expect to learn from New York common knowledge given that olive trees didn’t grow anywhere in the region.

One of the most interesting verses that I didn’t appreciate until reading it via the Gardner commentary is verse 54 “And, behold, the roots of the natural branches of the tree which I planted whithersoever I would are yet alive; wherefore, that I may preserve them also for mine own purpose, I will take of the branches of this tree, and I will graft them in unto them. Yea, I will graft in unto them the branches of their mother tree, that I may preserve the roots also unto mine own self, that when they shall be sufficiently strong perhaps they may bring forth good fruit unto me, and I may yet have glory in the fruit of my vineyard.” So what did I find so interesting about this? Well, did you hear how they mentioned the Book of Mormon? Yeah, I didn’t either until recently while reading Gardner [pgs. 544-555]. Symbolically, the branches represent the peoples involved in the allegory—various Israelite groups and the Gentiles—this is clear enough, but what do the roots represent? These include such things as covenants and records, and the branches which are planted, such as the Nephites have indeed written about the covenants of the Lord and their testimony of his works with regards to them and so the Allegory of the Olive Tree subtly states in symbolism the same mighty truth that 2 Nephi 29:8 reveals, “Know ye not that the testimony of two nations is a witness unto you that I am God, that I remember one nation like unto another? Wherefore, I speak the same words unto one nation like unto another. And when the two nations shall run together the testimony of the two nations shall run together also.” The gathering of these witnesses is part of the what will gather Israel in the last days, because it is part of what will convince them of the truth. The branches can only be gathered and grafted in to the extent that the roots are able to sustain that growth, so our engagement with and understanding of the scriptures is likewise essential to this final process of regrafting if the root and the top are to be kept equal.

Finally, again in the context of the process of regrafting, Jacob 5:57 makes a singular point that we would do well to notice: The Lord opts not to destroy the branches that have become corrupted. These fundamentally represent apostate Christendom. In both the allegory and the human situation it represents, it is essential that these branches stay intact with only the worst being plucked off—and that by the Lord—until the gathered grafts fully grow because if they are all destroyed at once, the Christian culture in which so many have been able to come to the fullness of the Gospel will be lost and that process of gathering will be dangerously set back. The branches that are most bitter are destroyed of the Lord, not us. I hasten to add that the Lord who understands the process of gathering better than any of us has specifically commanded us to (Doctrine and Covenants 18:20), “Contend against no church save it be the church of the devil.” Even so we ought to busy ourselves proclaiming the truth rather than proclaiming the errors of others, being grateful for their role in preserving an environment in which the truth can prosper, and the purposes of God in the gathering and preservation of his covenant people can come to full fruition.

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