Editor’s Note: Tammy Uzelac Hall is the host of LDS Living’s Sunday on Monday, a new weekly podcast focused on Come, Follow Me that dives into the hidden treasures of the gospel. Here are questions readers might have in their studies of the Book of Mormon this week, accompanied by Hall's insights that add new meaning to the beloved verses.
Okay, be honest, are you like me and guilty of skipping over this chapter? Does reading about trees, pruning, digging, and grafting have you overwhelmed or maybe a little bored? Well, I have some good news. All you need is a historical review, some definitions, an explanation of symbols, and a dose of the Spirit to fully appreciate what is being taught.
The Allegory of the Olive Tree is a story that has hidden meaning and, when understood, reveals a beautiful narrative of how much the Savior loves us. It shows how hard He has worked and is working for us to return home to live with Him and our Heavenly Parents. The purpose of the allegory as taught by Jacob is to encourage us to be “reconciled unto [the Lord] through the atonement of Christ” (Jacob 4:11), to make sure we know that God will remember his covenant people (Jacob 6:4), and to warn us that we will be utterly destroyed unless we “continue in the way which is narrow” (Jacob 6:11).
The allegory was written by the prophet Zenos, a Hebrew prophet of Israel in Old Testament times whose prophecies of Christ’s mission are found only in the Book of Mormon. His writings appeared on the brass plates, but he is not mentioned in the Old Testament. He lived after the prophet Abraham and before the prophet Isaiah (see Helaman 8:19–20) and he prophesied and testified of Jesus Christ (see 1 Nephi 19:10–12; Helaman 8:19).
The Allegory of the Olive Tree was adored by Latter-day Saint pioneer W.W. Phelps. He said, “One of the plainest parables, and sublimest prophecies, that we know of, is found in the book of Jacob in the Book of Mormon. It is as simple as the accents of a child, and as sublime as the language of an angel.”1 After studying Jacob 5, I can honestly say that I agree with W.W. Phelps and that I no longer dread or skip the Allegory of the Olive tree.
1. Why an Olive Tree?
The olive tree is a powerful symbol in scripture. Here are some interesting thoughts about the olive tree:
- • Some ancient sources cite the tree of life as an olive tree.2
- • An olive tree is the first tree mentioned in the Bible after the earth had been flooded (Genesis 8:11).
- • Olive trees were extremely valuable in ancient Israel. According to ChurchofJesusChrist.org, Olive oil was used for “temple and tabernacle rites, for anointings, for burning in lamps, and for food.”
- • Olive trees required much care and labor to help them produce good fruit.
- • If an olive tree was hewn down, that stump could still grow shoots and start new life again. As Hugh Nibley taught, “The olive is indeed the most plastic of trees, surpassing even the willow in its power to survive the most drastic whacking and burning or flood. After a city had been destroyed, the one thing that would survive would be the olive trees. They could start life again as long as the olive was there.” 3
2. What do the symbols in the allegory mean?
In 1870 Orson Pratt versified and footnoted the Book of Mormon and it is recorded that he cited Jacob 5 more than any other Latter-day Saint speaker or writer. It is believed that he was afforded an unusually in-depth appreciation of the volume's contents. Maybe after studying the definitions and symbols of the allegory we may come to love it as much as Orson Pratt.4 Mark and label the words below in your scriptures. Then go back through and read the story while studying the meanings of the words. 5
House of Israel (verse 3): All covenant makers and keepers
Vineyard (verse 3): The world
Decay (verse 3): Apostasy
Master of the Vineyard (verse 4): Jesus Christ
Prune, Dig, Nourish (verses 4–5): The Lord’s efforts to help the house of Israel receive the blessings of salvation
Servant (verse 7): The Lord’s prophets
Branches: Groups of people that are grafted in during the four periods in the allegory.
Wild Olive Tree (verse 7): Gentiles who have not yet made covenants
Grafting and planting: The scattering and gathering of the Lord’s covenant people. The grafting of wild branches into the tame olive tree represents the conversion of those who become part of the Lord’s covenant people.
Burning branches (verse 7): God’s judgments on the wicked
Graft (verse 8): To insert a branch from one tree into a different tree. This could be compared to the process of spiritual rebirth when one is joined to the covenant.
Roots (verse 8): Individuals with whom the Lord covenanted anciently, such as Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (see Jacob 6:4). Roots may also represent the covenants the Lord makes with those who follow Him.
Fruit (verse 8): The works of the people. Natural, or tame, fruit represents righteous works. Wild fruit represents unrighteous works.
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1 The Evening and the Morning Star (the Star) September 1832, 26.
2 John W. Welch, Stephen D. Ricks Allegory of the Olive Tree: The Olive, the Bible, and Jacob 5, Olive Culture in the Second Temple Era and Early Rabbinic Period, Deseret Book 1994, p. 464
3 Hugh Nibley, Teachings of the Book of Mormon vol.1, Deseret Book, 1993, p.398
4 John W. Welch, Stephen D. Ricks, Grant Underwood, Allegory of the Olive Tree: The Olive, the Bible, and Jacob 5, Jacob 5 in the Nineteenth Century, Deseret Book 1994, p. 50
5 See also 2017 Book of Mormon Seminary Teacher Manual, Lesson 46: Jacob 5:1-51.