FAIR Study Aids/Gospel Doctrine/Book of Mormon/Lesson Thirteen

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A FairMormon Analysis of:
Book of Mormon: Gospel Doctrine Teacher’s Manual

Lesson 13: The Allegory of the Olive Trees

Lesson #13- Sunday School Manual: “The Allegory of the Olive Trees”

1. Jacob quotes Zenos’s allegory of the olive trees. (Jacob 5 :)

Helpful Insights

  • A Basic Outline of the Allegory: While Zenos's allegory is applicable to all of us and can be applied to any period in history, Jacob clearly meant to use it as a sweeping history of the gathering and scattering of Israel. The following is a basic outline of the allegory based on that interpretation (Outline from Hoskisson, "The Allegory of the Olive Tree in Jacob," 76-86):
    • First Period: The Founding and Aging of the House of Israel, Jacob 5:3
    • Second Period: The Scattering of the House of Israel, Jacob 5:4–14
    • Third Period: The Day of the Former-day Saints, Jacob 5:15–28
    • Fourth Period: The Great Apostasy, Jacob 5:29–49
    • Fifth Period: The Gathering of Israel, Jacob 5:50–74
    • Sixth Period: The Millennium, Jacob 5:75–76
    • Seventh Period: The End of the World, Jacob 5:77

Remember that this is not the only possible interpretation, but just one way of breaking down the allegory which may yield useful insights.

  • Jacob 5 and the Atonement: Another way of interpreting the allegory is to see it as Jacob's answer to the questions "Why not speak of the atonement of Christ, and attain to a perfect knowledge of him?" (Jacob 4:12) and "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?" (Jacob 4:17), which Jacob promises to "unfold this mystery" (Jacob 4:18). Interpreted in this light, "Jacob's two key questions alert the reader that the allegory will deal with grace, atonement, and their relationship to Israel. The allegory is thus focused on "the Lord's ongoing labors to bring his children back into oneness with him" through Christ. The tree, the fruit, and it's (olives) oil could then be seen as symbols of Christ and his attributes.
  • Christ as the Servant: While the most common interpretation of the symbols is to see Christ as the "Lord of the vineyard" and the servant as collectively representing the prophets, another possibility is to see the "Lord of the vineyard" as the Father and the servant as Christ.
  • Additional Use of Zenos: While Jacob's lengthy quotation of Zenos is by far the most concentrated reference to the teachings of Zenos, his father and brother (Lehi and Nephi) before him, and many prophets after him (all the way down to Mormon and Moroni) also drew on the teachings of Zenos. Reviewing how these other prophets used Zenos's teachings may shed some light on Jacob 5 and his use of Zenos's allegory.
  • Jacob 5 in Early Church Teachings: The interpretations of early Church leaders from the nineteenth century, such as Orson Pratt, may also be insightful.
    • Grant Underwood, "Jacob 5 in the Nineteenth Century," in The Allegory of the Olive Tree: The Olive, the Bible, and Jacob 5, Stephen D. Ricks and John W. Welch (Provo, UT: FARMS, 1994), 50-69
  • Keywords and Phrases: Sometimes we can learn new insights by focusing on key words and phrases. In Jacob 5, Zenos uses repetition of such key words and phrases to highlight certain themes. John W. Welch provides a convenient resource identifying many of these.

Potential Criticisms

  • Jacob 5 and Romans 11:16-24: Because there are many similarities between these two passages, some argue that Joseph Smith wrote Jacob 5 by expanding on Paul's teaching to the Roman's. While the two texts do bear strong similarities, this does not mean that Joseph simply copied from Romans. Since Paul himself was an urban Jew who would not have understood the intricacies of olive culture, he probably drew his knowledge from a source which is now lost to us. Zenos or another text based on Zenos could have been that source. The standard for determining order of transmission suggests that longer, more complex texts are earlier in the transmission process, and this case Jacob 5 is clearly the longer and more complex text. Further, careful comparisons reveal that while the two texts probably spring from the same sources, key differences suggest they are independent of each other.

Faith Affirmations

  • Zenos and Cenez/Zenez: According to a text dating back to the time of Christ, a leader named either Cenez/Kenez or Zenec/Zenez succeeded Joshua as the first judge of Israel. The teachings of Cenez/Zenez in his farwell address and the teachings of Zenos in the allegory of the olive tree have some remarkable similarities. The similarity in teaching and name lead Hugh Nibley to equate Cenez/Zenez with the Zenos featured in the Book of Mormon, but others feel that such a connection is unlikely. Regardless, the similarities show that the teachings found in Jacob 5 fit the ancient Near-Eastern world.
  • Olive Tree Symbolism in Ancient Israel: This allegory from an ancient Israelite prophet effectively captures the symbolism of the olive tree in ancient Israelite religion, as well as other ancient religious views from the Near-East and Mediterranean.
  • Olive Culture in the Ancient Near East: In many ways, Jacob 5 accurately reflects Mediterranean practices in cultivating olives and olive trees in pre-modern times. It also accurately reflects the important role the olive tree played in the broader ancient Near Eastern context.
  • Olive Trees in Vineyards: Olive trees seem out of place in a "vineyard," but the use of the word for "vineyard" in reference to an orchard is consistent with the ancient usage.

2. Jacob exhorts his listeners to repent and follow Christ. (Jacob 6 :)

Helpful Insights

  • Pleading Bar or Pleasing Bar?: Textual scholar Royal Skousen has suggested that Jacob 6:13 should have been transcribed as the "pleading bar of God" rather than the "pleasing bar of God," while John S. Welch defends the reading of "pleasing" rather than "pleading." While no doctrine is substantially altered by either reading, each one offers different potential insights.