One Jewish legend identifies the tree of life as the olive tree, and with good reason. The olive tree is an evergreen, not a deciduous tree. Its leaves do not seasonally fade nor fall. Through scorching heat and winter cold they are continually rejuvenated. Without cultivation the olive is a wild, unruly, easily corrupted tree. Only after long, patient cultivating, usually eight to ten years, does it begin to yield fruit. Long after that, new shoots often come forth from apparently dead roots. As one stands in the olive groves and is struck by the gnarled tree trunks that are at once ugly and beautiful, it is hard to avoid the impression of travailof ancient life and renewing life. Today some trees, still productive on the Mount of Olives, are 1,800 years old and perhaps older. The olive tree appears almost "immortal."
To this day, preparing the rock-pocked land of Israel and then planting, cultivating, pruning, grafting, and harvesting olive trees is an arduous process. Even after the harvest, olives are bitter, useless to man or beast. To make them edible, one must place them in a large stone box, layer them with salt and vinegar, make more layers of olives, and add more purgatives. Slowly the bitterness is purged from them. These refined olives are a delicious staple food that graces the tables of the common people and of the rich.
To produce olive oil in ancient times, the olives had to be crushed in a press. Seasoned olives were placed in strong bags and flattened on a furrowed stone. Then a huge, crushing, circular rock was rolled around on top, moved by a mule or an ox encouraged by a stinging whip. Another method used heavy wooden levers or screws twisting beams downward like a winch upon the stone with the same effect: pressure, pressure, pressureuntil the oil flowed.
Olive oil was used both internally and externally. It was a cooking oil, made better by heating, and was a condiment for salads and breads and meats. The pure oil had other vital uses: it was an almost universal antidote, reversing the effects of a variety of poisons. It was often used in a poultice believed to drain infection or sickness. As an ointment, olive oilmingled with other liquidssoothed bruises and wounds and open sores. Oil and wine were poured by the Good Samaritan into the wounds of the robbed and beaten traveler near Jericho. Oil and wine were also poured by the temple priests on the altar of the temple.
Olive oil was also the substance of light and heat in Palestine. Into olive lampssmall vessels with a hole at each endone poured the oil. Even in a darkened room one lamp, one thin flame of light, was enough to lighten the face. A Jewish oral teaching says the drinking of olive oil is likewise light to the mindthat it enhances intellectual processes. The mash that remained after repeated crushings of oil was a household fuel, needed even in the summer in the Judean desert after sunset. The image of pouring oil on troubled waters, and the associated olive branch of peacesuch as the offering of peace and relief to Noah after raging seaswere common in Bible lore. In other spiritual contexts oil was the token of forgiveness. Hence Paul speaks of it as "the oil of gladness" (Hebrews 1:9).
(Stephen D. Ricks and John W. Welch, eds., The Allegory of the Olive Tree: The Olive, the Bible, and Jacob 5 [Salt Lake City and Provo: Deseret Book Co., Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1994], 4.)
M. Catherine Thomas on the understanding the allegory:
Joseph Smith explained the way to understand parables and allegories: "I have a key by which I understand the scriptures. I enquire, what was the question which drew out the answer?" Jacob poses two key questions in his introduction to the allegory, which provide some clues to its meaning. First, Jacob asks: "Why not speak of the atonement of Christ, and attain to a perfect knowledge of him?" (Jacob 4:12). Jacob then points to the Jews' deliberate efforts to distance God and render him incomprehensible: they sought to create a God who could not be understood (Jacob 4:14). For their self- inflicted blindness God took away "his plainness from them . . . because they desired it" (Jacob 4:14). Here Jacob asks the second key question: "My beloved, how is it possible that these [the Jews; , after having rejected the sure foundation, can ever build upon it, that it may become the head of their corner? Behold, my beloved brethren, I will unfold this mystery unto you" (Jacob 4:17-18). Among other meanings, a mystery is a spiritual truth grasped only through divine revelation. The mystery that Jacob unfolds, therefore, counters the Jews' deliberate mystification of God and reveals the true nature of Jesus Christ and his divine activity in the lives of even the most intractable of men. Jacob's two key questions alert the reader that the allegory will deal with grace, atonement, and their relationship to Israel.
Superficially the allegory is the story of a man and his olive tree and the man's efforts to restore the deteriorating tree to its former pristine condition. At a deeper level, the allegory treats God's response to Israel's spiritual death, represented by its geographically scattered condition. Separation of the people of Israel from each other indicates that the atonement is not working in their lives; otherwise, they would live in Zion together. The allegory describes God's efforts to gather these disparate parts of Israel into at-one-ment with him. Fifteen times we read that he wishes to preserve the harvestable fruit and lay it up, as he says, "to mine own self."
In Latter-day Saint usage, atonement, or at-one-ment, refers not only to the act of redemption Jesus wrought in Gethsemane and on the cross, but also to the Lord's ongoing labors to bring his children back into oneness with him. After all, it is his work, as well as his glory, to bring to pass the eternal life of man (Moses 1:39). The word atonement first appears in William Tyndale's 1526 English version of the Bible. fn He used the word at- one-ment to translate the Greek word for reconciliation (katalage) (Romans 5:11). The Savior's yearnings for this state of oneness with his children appear not only in this allegory but also in such places as the great intercessory prayer in John 17 and the luminous prayer sequences in 3 Nephi 19. In understanding Jacob's allegory, it is helpful to understand the strength of the divine desire behind the process of at-one- ment.
(Stephen D. Ricks and John W. Welch, eds., The Allegory of the Olive Tree: The Olive, the Bible, and Jacob 5 [Salt Lake City and Provo: Deseret Book Co., Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1994], 11.)
Noel B. Reynolds on Jacob applying the allegory to the individual:
When Jacob presents the allegory itself in Jacob 4-6, what begins as an explanation of the present record (Jacob 4:1) turns quickly into a testimony of the coming of Christ and a warning to Jacob's people to be humble and receptive to this truth. Jacob encountered a great deal of opposition from some who thought the law of Moses was all they needed (Jacob 4:5; 7:6-7). It appears that part of his problem was that the writings of the Jews are not as plain in this regard as the revelations he, Nephi, and Lehi had received (Jacob 4:14), so he undertakes to explain scripturally how the Jews who do not accept the revelations about Christ will stumble and fall. He refers to Isaiah's statements that the Lord would be a stone of stumbling to both houses of Israel, as they would fail to see him as their only sure foundation (Isaiah 8:14; 28:16). Following the pattern we have seen earlier, Jacob looks to Zenos for the explanation of things stated too cryptically or mysteriously in Isaiah (Jacob 4:18). The teachings of Zenos come naturally to mind as Jacob speaks of "the perfect knowledge of [Christ]" as the means by which one can benefit from the Atonement and also speaks of the expectation that the Jews "will reject the stone upon which they might build" (Jacob 4:12, 15), and as he urges the people to come to Christ that they might qualify to "be presented as the first-fruits of Christ unto God" (Jacob 4:11). That Jacob is drawing on Zenos at this point is dramatically emphasized by his insertion into his own brief record of Zenos's entire olive allegory (Jacob 5).
In chapter 4, Jacob teaches that people should "seek not to counsel the Lord, but to take counsel from his hand" (Jacob 4:10). The doctrine appears to be the same as the Lord's injunction to his servant in the olive allegory when he says, "Counsel me not; I knew that it was a poor spot of ground; wherefore, I said unto thee, I have nourished it this long time, and thou beholdest that it hath brought forth much fruit" (Jacob 5:22).
After reading the full allegory to his brethren, Jacob turns immediately to an extended interpretation in the form of a prophecy of his own (Jacob 6:1). Unlike the more historically oriented interpretations of Lehi and Nephi, Jacob moves directly to the implications for individuals. Jacob notes first how blessed those will be who labor diligently in the vineyard and how cursed are those who will be cast out. The world is the vineyard, and it "will be burned with fire." For Jacob, the mercy of God is evidenced in the way he remembers the house of Israel, both roots and branches, all who "will not harden their hearts shall be saved in the kingdom of God" (Jacob 6:3-4). The allegory is a parable of salvation for individuals as well as for peoples. Thus, Jacob calls individuals to repent and come to God: "Hear his voice," and "harden not your hearts" (Jacob 6:5-6). Using the language of the allegory, Jacob identifies the nourishment given to the tree as "the good word of God" and reminds his hearers that if they bring forth evil fruit, they will "be hewn down and cast into the fire." To reject that nourishment is to "reject the words of the prophets . . . concerning Christ." It is to "deny the good word of Christ, and the power of God, and the gift of the Holy Ghost." The burning awaiting those who do this is "that lake of fire and brimstone," which is "endless torment" (Jacob 6:7- 10).
At the end of Zenos's allegory the bad fruit is "cast away into its own place" (Jacob 5:77). Jacob emphasizes the magnitude of this penalty upon wicked individuals by saying, "How cursed are they who shall be cast out into their own place" (Jacob 6:3). He then clarifies that because "justice cannot be denied," these offenders "must go away into that lake of fire and brimstone, whose flames are unquenchable, and whose smoke ascendeth up forever and ever, which lake of fire and brimstone is endless torment" (Jacob 6:10). This notion is paralleled in the revelation of John (Revelation 19:20; 20:14-15, 20) and in the writings of Nephi, who saw the same revelation (1 Nephi 14:24-27) and used the same phrase when he said of the wicked that "they must go into the place prepared for them, even a lake of fire and brimstone, which is endless torment" (2 Nephi 28:23). Thus it may well be that Nephi was the source of this language for Book of Mormon peoples (1 Nephi 14:24-28; cf. Jacob 3:11, Mosiah 2:37-39; Alma 12:17; 14:14). Alternatively, Zenos might also have been a source.
(Stephen D. Ricks and John W. Welch, eds., The Allegory of the Olive Tree: The Olive, the Bible, and Jacob 5 [Salt Lake City and Provo: Deseret Book Co., Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1994], 41.)
Paul Y. Hoskisson on applying the allegory:
God is not a partial God (Moroni 8:18); he cares for all parts of his vineyard equally (Jacob 5:28). We may not be able to understand from our finite perspective in what way the seeming inequities of this world can be reconciled with God's statement that he "maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust" (Matthew 5:45). But our omniscient God has assured us that "all are alike unto God" (2 Nephi 26:33). This impartiality of God is illustrated in the allegory when the Lord of the vineyard declares that he has not slackened his hand, but has "nourished" the world, "digged about it, and pruned it . . . almost all the day long" (Jacob 5:47). There is no part of the vineyard that his hand has not touched. fn Indeed, no part of the earth and no inhabitants of the earth can ever justifiably make the claim that God has treated them unjustly. If they have not produced good fruit they cannot blame it on the lack of care God gave to their part of the vineyard.
The allegory also makes it clear that the varying qualities of the different parts of the world have no bearing (or, perhaps, an inverse relationship) on whether good gospel fruit is produced. From earthly experience it might seem that given equal care, as was pointed out in the preceding paragraph, fruitfulness might depend on the fecundity of the soil. The allegory mentions specifically that two parts of the vineyard where young and tender olive branches were planted were the worst spots in all the vineyard and that another was the best spot. And yet when the Lord of the vineyard came to look at the trees, the two planted in the worst spots had produced only good fruit, while the one planted in the best spot had produced both good and bad fruit. In other words, with the equal treatment given by God to all parts of the world, it is not the spot of ground on the earth to which people are attached that makes the difference. All people everywhere on the earth are capable of producing good works and, therefore, of becoming desirable fruit.
The allegory comments on the purification process the earth and the house of Israel will undergo before the Second Coming and explains how the gathering of Israel consists of pruning out the branches bearing bad fruit and grafting the tame olive branches back into the tame trees (note the plural, trees, in verses 55-58, 63-66, 74). This process will proceed in these latter days in a set order designed to ensure the survival of the trees until they eventually all bear fruit pleasing to the Lord. First, those peoples who produce the worst, the "most bitter fruit," will be removed from the tree of the house of Israel, and other natural members of the house of Israel will be brought in. At about the same time the slow process will begin of feeding and caring for, "nourishing," the members to help them produce good works. While these natural members of the house of Israel begin to produce good works, the pruning out of the worst members will begin, but this process will also move slowly, "according to the strength of the good and the size thereof," that is, according to the ability of the house of Israel to bear the pruning. This pruning will continue, as mentioned above, until the Millennium, when the process will be complete and there will be no evil anywhere on the earth, because the "fruit" will be "good" and the "vineyard" will be "no more corrupt" (verse 75).
This grafting and pruning process is evident today in the Restoration. Successful grafting consists of "coming to a knowledge of the true Messiah" (1 Nephi 10:14), Christ, through the word of God. The most obvious mechanism today to graft into the scriptural heritage is through conversion to the gospel of Jesus Christ as revealed through the process of the Restoration. In 1820, when the Prophet Joseph went into the grove to pray (perhaps it was not coincidence that the Restoration began in a grove of trees), the entire world was devoid of the kind of fruit the Lord desired. When Joseph came out of the woods that spring day, the first convert had been made. From that beginning in nineteenth- century frontier America, peoples and cultures have been exposed to the healing influence of the gospel of Jesus Christ through the renewed scriptural heritage of the house of Israel. The realization of this healing process can be seen in the Restoration. As soon as the people who accept the gospel are able to receive them, God reveals correct principles, doctrines, and eternal ordinances. In this way the scriptural heritage of the house of Israel, the roots, "may take strength" (Jacob 5:59) and bless the peoples and cultures nourished by them. And as the natural branches of the house of Israel in these latter days grow from the nourishment and care of God, he prepares "the way for them that they may grow" even more (Jacob 5:64).
While this grafting of the natural branches of the house of Israel onto the tame trees continues and these grafts take to the gospel of Jesus Christ provided by the scriptural heritage of the house of Israel, the pruning also proceeds. Those people who refuse to accept the restored principles, doctrines, and ordinances of the gospel are creating the conditions that will sooner or later lead to their separation from the house of Israel. Some of these people simply stop producing good works or fail to keep up with the rest of the tree. Other people produce evil works and are cut off sooner.
This process can affect a whole people. For instance, the Lord warned the people of this dispensation that they are under condemnation for taking lightly the scriptural heritage of the Restoration, "the new covenant, even the Book of Mormon and the former commandments" (D&C 84:54-58). This warning was repeated again by President Benson in 1986. And the process can affect individuals. Consider for instance the prominent early Latter-day Saint who "had been called to preach the gospel but had been known to say that he 'would rather die than go forth to preach the Gospel to the Gentiles.' " As a result he "was attacked with the cholera . . . and died." fn If we fail as a people or as individuals to take strength from our latter-day scriptural roots, particularly the Book of Mormon and the living prophets, we will eventually find ourselves pruned out of the house of Israel and cast "into the fire" (5:58).
The allegory makes it clear that the grafting and pruning process, the gathering of Israel and the trying of the nations of the earth, will continue simultaneously until the Millennium. This means that as the Saints accept and assimilate additional nourishment from their scriptural sources, the Lord will require a higher level of performance. Thus the allegory foresees in the grafting and pruning process a reversal of what President Benson has called the Samuel principle. According to this principle, "within certain bounds [God] grants unto men according to their desires." fn The principle received its name from the story in 1 Samuel 8 where the people of Israel demand, contrary to the wishes of God and his prophet Samuel, that God give them a king. God granted them their desire to their own eventual sorrow.
The reverse of the Samuel principle during the Restoration can be illustrated by the Word of Wisdom. As the Saints assimilated and lived the Word of Wisdom, God saw fit to require a more strict application of it, until today it is often used as a measure of a member's commitment to the kingdom. Other examples of additional nourishment must include the material in sections 137 and 138 of the Doctrine and Covenants. These revelations were just as true when they were received as when they were accepted by the Church as scripture in 1976 and, therefore, as binding on the membership. Perhaps, as the allegory in principle suggests, the members were capable in 1976 of submitting themselves to the additional instruction available in these visions. Both the initial gift of the Word of Wisdom in 1833 and its subsequent development in the Church and the addition of sections 137 and 138 to the canon are modern examples of how our scriptural heritage, our roots, "may take [additional] strength because of their goodness" (Jacob 5:59). In the future, as we are faithful in assimilating the nourishment from the roots, we can look forward to an even greater scriptural heritage, for God "will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God" (Articles of Faith 9).
As the branches of the house of Israel become able to bear the strong doctrines, principles, and ordinances of the gospel of Jesus Christ, and as the roots take additional strength, the trees of the house of Israel will continue to be nourished, strengthened, and purified until they have become "like unto one body," and bear nothing but good fruit and the whole earth is "no more corrupt" (Jacob 5:74-75). This process of preparing the house of Israel for the Millennium finds expression in another beautiful and meaning-laden metaphor of the scriptures, the metaphor of the bride and the bridegroom. (For instance, see Matthew 25:1-13.) In the words of Isaiah, "As the bridegroom rejoiceth over the bride, so shall thy God rejoice over thee" (Isaiah 62:5).
The allegory leaves no doubt that God attempted everything in his power to prevent the Apostasy. When God came to inspect the world after the Apostasy had taken place and "all creeds [of the Apostasy had become] an abomination in [God's] sight" (Joseph Smith-History 1:19), God asked the servant in the allegory, "What could I have done more for my vineyard" to have prevented the Apostasy (Jacob 5:41)? The answer to this rhetorical question was that there was nothing he could have done more. He did not slacken his hand in creating the right environment and the necessary conditions for the gospel to flourish and produce fruit (Jacob 5:47). As explained in Jacob 5:28, "The Lord of the vineyard and the servant of the Lord of the vineyard did nourish all the fruit of the vineyard." But, as Jacob 5:46 explains, "Notwithstanding all the care which we [for example, the Lord and his servant] have taken of my vineyard, the trees thereof have become corrupted, that they bring forth no good fruit." In short, it was not lack of effort on God's part that allowed the Apostasy to occur.
What then caused the Apostasy? The Lord of the vineyard himself asked that question at the end of Jacob 5:47, "Who is it that has corrupted my vineyard," that is, who has caused the Apostasy? In Jacob 5:48 the servant answered his Lord, "Is it not the loftiness of thy vineyard," pride, that caused the Apostasy? The servant further noted, in explaining the process of the Apostasy, "Have not the branches overcome the roots thereof, behold they grew faster than the strength of the roots, taking strength unto themselves." The Israelite and Gentile branches on the tame olive trees, through pride and haughtiness, took strength unto themselves. That is, rather than relying on their scriptural heritage for strength and nourishment, they relied on their own strength and abilities, thus nullifying the influence of the scriptural heritage from which they could have received direction and guidance. And by acting on their own in their pride they deemed themselves strong and grew in directions that were not appropriate, ending in apostasy.
Clearly, the Apostasy was not caused by a set of haphazard physical circumstances that God might have prevented. Prideful self-will brought about the Great Apostasy and brings about any other apostasy. Apostasy is an act of choosing self over direction and nourishment from the appropriate and righteous channels God has instituted. And because it is an act of agency, God does not prevent it.
The cause of the Apostasy as explained in the allegory should serve as a warning to those called to serve in the vineyard in these latter days. We as individuals can bring about our own apostasy through our own prideful self- will, and there is little if anything God can do to prevent it. If we abandon the nourishment of the scriptural heritage of our daythe Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, the Pearl of Great Price, the Bible, and the constant direction of the living prophetsand rely on our own strength, wisdom, and understanding, we also will soon fall victim to an apostasy that will spiritually destroy us. The antidote then and now against apostasy, against prideful self-will, was explained by King Benjamin: "Men drink damnation to their own souls except they humble themselves and become . . . as a child, submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him, even as a child doth submit to his father" (Mosiah 3:18-19).
While we should be concerned about our own possible individual apostasy, the next section (Jacob 5:50-73, the gathering of the house of Israel) explains that we need not worry about the Church falling into apostasy in these latter days. When the Lord of the vineyard came to look at the earth near the end of the Apostasy, he found that none of the various trees of the house of Israel, with or without Gentiles grafted in, were bearing good fruit. Jacob 5:31-32 describes this condition of apostasy, "The Lord of the vineyard did taste of the fruit, every sort according to its number. And the Lord of the vineyard said: Behold, this long time have we nourished this tree, and I have laid up unto myself against the season much fruit. But behold, this time it hath brought forth much fruit, and there is none of it which is good. And behold, there are all kinds of bad fruit; and it profiteth me nothing." (What an apt description of the Apostasy.) This was the condition of the world in 1820.
Rather than raze the unprofitable, apostate earth, God decided to try one more time to establish the gospel on the earth to see if the trees of the vineyard would produce good fruit. He began by having the branches from the mother tree "grafted into the natural trees" and branches from the natural trees "grafted into their mother tree" (Jacob 5:55 and 56). He instructed the servant to "dig about them, and prune them, and dung them once more, for the last time" (Jacob 5:64). From the beginning of the gathering of the house of Israel until the Millennium, from the Restoration until the Second Coming, there is an unbroken effort by the main servant and "other servants" (Jacob 5:70) to "labor in the vineyard" with all their might for "the last time" (Jacob 5:71). The servant and his co-workers "did obey the commandments of the Lord of the vineyard in all things" (Jacob 5:72).
The leaders of the Restoration, from the Prophet Joseph Smith through contemporary General Authorities, have been called to work in the world now for the last time (see D&C 24:19; 39:17; 43:28; and 95:4). And they shall continue to work, carrying out "the commandments of the Lord . . . in all things" (Jacob 5:72). They will not labor after the precepts of the world, but will follow the instructions of the Lord tenaciously. And they will continue laboring "with all diligence, according to the commandments of the Lord" (Jacob 5:74) until they have succeeded in "casting" out of the world all of the bad elements (Jacob 5:74) and the world is "no more corrupt" (Jacob 5:75). The work of the Restoration, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the kingdom of God on earth, will continue to grow and spread until it has left no room on the earth for evil. Indeed, Daniel the prophet "foresaw and foretold the establishment of the kingdom of God in the latter days, never again to be destroyed nor given to other people" (D&C 138:44). We need have no fear in this dispensation that the Church, the kingdom of God, might be lost again to apostasy. Individuals may apostatize, perhaps even some of the leaders, but as the allegory makes clear, the vineyard will grow, becoming more pure, until good fruit fills the earth.
I cannot complete this discussion of the allegory of the olive tree without returning to the beginning, the reason Jacob gave the allegory: How can we be reconciled to God through Jesus Christ? If I were writing in good Hebrew style I would expect the reader at this point to know, from the allegory itself and the above discussion, how reconciliation takes place. But I am not, and I would be untrue to my own heritage if I did not to the best of my ability clearly explain how we can be reconciled to God through Jesus Christ. As the allegory suggests, the process is deceptively simple fn and easy: Remain attached long enough to our roots, the scriptural heritage revealed by the God of Israel, that the healing influence of divine direction, of a "knowledge of the true Messiah," our Lord and Redeemer (1 Nephi 10:14), can change us from a twig bearing bitter fruit to a natural twig bearing good fruit. It does not matter whether our scriptural heritage is planted in a good spot on the earth or a bad one, we can bear fruit under the loving and wise care of the Lord of the vineyard. As Limhi, a man who himself had groped for reconciliation and found it, said, "If [we] will turn to the Lord with full purpose of heart, and put [our] trust in him, and serve him with all diligence of mind, if [we] do this, he will, according to his own will and pleasure" (Mosiah 7:33), succor us, nourish us, and save us from destruction. Only our pride or self-will can prevent us from producing good fruit, thereby precipitating our own pruning from the tree. In language more related to the allegory than a first glance might suggest, Jacob stated the formula both simply and eloquently: "How merciful is our God unto us, for he remembereth the house of Israel, both roots and branches; and he stretches forth his hands unto them all the day long; and they are a stiffnecked and a gainsaying people; but as many as will not harden their hearts shall be saved in the kingdom of God. Wherefore, my beloved brethren, I beseech of you in words of soberness that ye would repent, and come with full purpose of heart, and cleave unto God as he cleaveth unto you" (Jacob 6:4-5).
(Stephen D. Ricks and John W. Welch, eds., The Allegory of the Olive Tree: The Olive, the Bible, and Jacob 5 [Salt Lake City and Provo: Deseret Book Co., Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1994], 87.)