This book, we believe, is the most comprehensive collection of materials ever published about the olive in the world of the Bible and Book of Mormon. It is the result of more than ten years of research. In the early 1980s, the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies published a call for research on the olive tree and its religious significance in the ancient world. Over the next several years, volunteers began collecting materials, donations were received, interested scholars organized themselves into working groups, findings were shared, and drafts of articles were circulated and critiqued. On March 17, 1992, a full-day conference was convened at Brigham Young University, where the main portions of the papers in this volume were presented to a large audience.
As a result of this research, the allegory of the olive tree, written by Zenos and quoted by Jacob to his people in Jacob 5 in the Book of Mormon, strikes us anew as one of the most magnificent allegories in all the sacred literature of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Besides its exceptional length and exquisite detail, Zenos’s extended allegory communicates important meaning, deep emotion, rich wisdom, and divine feeling. No other allegorical text encompasses greater historical scope and typological vitality. It deserves an honored place alongside the best biblical parables or symbolic literature.
The articles in this book offer answers to many questions about the olive in religious symbolism:
• Why was the olive such a powerful and pervasive image among the people of the Bible?
• What is the significance of olive oil in sacred anointings, of the symbolism of the Mount of Olives, and of the Garden of Gethsemane (literally, “place of the olive press”)?
• What does Zenos’s allegory mean?
• Who is represented in the allegory?
• What does the allegory tell us about the relationship between God and his people?
• What has the image of the olive tree meant to prophets of the Old Testament, the New Testament, the Book of Mormon, as well as in modern times?
• What significance did the olive have in the religions of Greece, Rome, and in the literature of the ancient Near East?
• What importance did the olive have in the life of people in ancient Palestine, as a source of light, food, and ointment?
• How were good olives grown?
• What is involved in the long-term grafting, pruning, fertilizing, and cultivating of a fully productive olive grove?
• How accurately and significantly are horticultural or botanical details reflected in Zenos’s allegory?
• When the allegory depicts unusual or anomalous circumstances, does it do so for particular dramatic effects?
• What can we learn from a detailed study of the words of Zenos, his vocabulary, and his rhetoric?
• Who was Zenos?
• When did he live?
• Was he the one that Nephi, with great esteem, calls “the prophet” (1 Nephi 19:11)?
• Are there any other texts from ancient Israel that shed light on this important prophet whose writings are preserved in the Book of Mormon?
• What do the roots represent?
• What is the bitterness of the fruit?
• What problems are signaled by loftiness, ripening, and beginning to decay?
• What are the implications of growing old and being rejuvenated by young and tender shoots?
• What is entailed by the rigors of pruning and burning that are necessary steps in the process of producing quality fruit by which its tree is known?
Although we cannot be certain of answers to each of these questions (and in some cases competing answers are advanced in various chapters of this book), available information about these and many other topics clearly establishes Zenos’s allegory of the olive tree as standing prominently among those very plain and precious parts restored by the Book of Mormon.
The authors in these chapters approach their subjects from a variety of perspectives, including historical, botanical, symbolical, linguistical, religious, and theological. Lengthy bibliographies listing books and articles about the olive in terms of archeobotany, history, and biblical usage are contained in these articles. The resulting research offers factual information and reasoned interpretations that will be interesting and useful to anyone seeking a better understanding of the biblical imagery of the olive tree and of the vineyard, an important motif frequently employed in scripture.
Each time Jesus spoke in parables in teaching the people of Palestine, it was as though he hung a mirror on the walls of those little villages that reflected the life and surroundings of that world. In addition, as people down through the ages have looked into those mirrors, they have seen themselves, their worlds, and their concerns, amplified and clarified by that literary lens. The allegory of the olive tree in Jacob 5 works the same way. Its minute details reflect a settled Israelite background and a prophet who is deeply interested in cultivating a righteous posterity in the promised land and who is excited and fascinated by the almost miraculous regenerative powers and remarkable productivity of the amazing olive tree. For the people of that land, the olive had become a burgeoning symbol of life, fruitfulness, blessing, righteousness, abundance, love, prosperity, health, and eternal life. No contemporary symbol that we can think of conveys to the modern mind the same power that the symbolism of the olive conveyed to the ancient mind.
The allegory speaks mainly of one much-loved tree. But there are others—an entire orchard of trees—each of which is valued by the Lord. In the allegory he toils personally alongside his hardworking crew of devoted servants as they cut and prune and transplant and nourish the precious trees. The allegory can be understood locally, perhaps in the context of a northern Israelite prophet who is deeply disturbed by the wickedness and apostasy that he sees in his beloved Israel in its early monarchical period or slightly later. Or it may be understood cosmically, embracing the entire sweep of human history, or at least large portions of it. The allegory proves to be, at the same time, both precisely detailed and broadly pliable. Obviously, each individual and each group, in virtually any circumstance or period of time, can find in this graphic image meanings that are especially attractive to them in their daily lives and deepest thoughts. This allegory typologically represents many forms of God’s love and care, as well as many states of righteousness and apostasy, whether collective or individual.
While Zenos’s allegory was addressed expressly to the house of Israel (Jacob 5:1) and thus focuses on the central tree that symbolizes Israel, the vineyard in this story represents the entire world (Jacob 6:3). There are many trees in that vineyard. Only through their interdependence and mutual support do the trees of the orchard become fruitful and pleasing to the Lord. The central tree is preserved only by receiving grafts from other trees, and vice versa.
Because of the olive tree’s distinctive characteristics, it has long been a universal symbol of life, hope, and peace. It lives long. It does not give up. It can readily be transplanted. With a little encouragement it survives in stony soil. It is evergreen, a beautiful sight offering shade and rest. Its fruit produces soothing oil. The olive branch brought back by the dove of peace showed Noah that life could again exist on earth (Genesis 8:11). Ironically, the olive belongs primarily to the eastern Mediterranean, a land today that thirsts for peace. We hope that the papers presented in this collection will enrich our understanding of this symbol of peace and well-being; that they will be of benefit to our often tense and fragmented world, giving ultimate hope for a world of peace and millennial harmony among all lands and peoples, even though the soil may sometimes be dry and the prospects bleak.
Particular thanks are given to Melvin Thorne and Shirley Ricks for their editorial and production assistance; to Gaye Strathearn, James Whitaker, Lisa Dickman, and Kathleen Reynolds for citation checking; to Art Pollard for work on the index of passages; to Douglas Waddoups for his drawings, and Michael Lyon for work on illustrations; to Wilford Hess, Daniel Fairbanks, and Melvin Thorne for photographs; to Brigham Young University for making its facilities available; and to the many workers and contributors at the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies who have made this longtime project a reality.
John W. WelchStephen D. Ricks Provo, Utah, September 1992