The text of Jacob 5 introduces several new elements into the Book of Mormon, among them: a new genre (extended allegory) and a new narrative voice (Zenos). It is difficult to see how this prophecy relates to Jacob’s original audience, but it is easy to see how it relates to Latter-day readers, as it comments on, and partially revises, a passage from the Letters of Paul that has structured the relationship between Christians and Jews for more than a thousand years.
The passage I refer to comes from the 11th chapter of Romans, which I quote at some length here because it is really important:
13 For I speak to you Gentiles, inasmuch as I am the apostle of the Gentiles, I magnify mine office: 14 If by any means I may provoke to emulation them which are my flesh, and might save some of them. 15 For if the casting away of them be the reconciling of the world, what shall the receiving of them be, but life from the dead? 16 For if the firstfruit be holy, the lump is also holy: and if the root be holy, so are the branches.17 And if some of the branches be broken off, and thou, being a wild olive tree, wert grafted in among them, and with them partakest of the root and fatness of the olive tree;
18 Boast not against the branches. But if thou boast, thou bearest not the root, but the root thee. 19 Thou wilt say then, The branches were broken off, that I might be grafted in. 20 Well; because of unbelief they were broken off, and thou standest by faith. Be not highminded, but fear: 21 For if God spared not the natural branches, take heed lest he also spare not thee. 22 Behold therefore the goodness and severity of God: on them which fell, severity; but toward thee, goodness, if thou continue in his goodness: otherwise thou also shalt be cut off. 23 And they also, if they abide not still in unbelief, shall be grafted in: for God is able to graft them in again.
24 For if thou wert cut out of the olive tree which is wild by nature, and wert grafted contrary to nature into a good olive tree: how much more shall these, which be the natural branches, be grafted into their own olive tree? 25 For I would not, brethren, that ye should be ignorant of this mystery, lest ye should be wise in your own conceits; that blindness in part is happened to Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles be come in. 26 And so all Israel shall be saved: as it is written, There shall come out of Sion the Deliverer, and shall turn away ungodliness from Jacob:
Those familiar with Jacob 5 will recognize a lot of the elements in Paul’s much briefer text. Both compare the House of Israel to a decaying olive tree that can be saved only by grafting in branches from other trees. Paul address the gentiles directly and tells them that they will, as Christians grafted into the Tree of Israel, become eligible for all of the blessings promised to the Chosen People. But they shouldn’t get cocky about it because the Jews are still God’s people, and their cutoffedness is only temporary. God’s plan is for the favor granted the gentiles to spur the Jews to repentance so that “all Israel shall be saved.”
Historically, these verses are at the heart of the Christian prophesy of “the Conversion of the Jews”—or the belief that, at some point in the future, most or all of the Jews in the world will convert en masse to Christianity. This belief was especially strong among English Calvinists, who believed that this conversion would have to occur before the Second Coming of Christ. It was on the strength of this prophecy that Oliver Cromwell permitted the Jews to return to England in 1656.
When the Puritans immigrated to the New World, they brought this belief with them, and it was a major part of the rhetorical environment in which the Book of Mormon was first read. “Nothing is more certainly foretold,” thundered the famous American cleric Jonathan Edwards, “than this national conversion of the Jews in Romans 11.” And this was largely the environment into which Joseph Smith was born, and in which he published the Book of Mormon.
If we read the Allegory of the Olive Tree carefully, though, we will see that it expands Paul’s allegory in significant ways–namely, it adds the people of the Book of Mormon itself into the allegorical mix. The person presented as the original author of the allegory was the Prophet Zenos, a contemporary of Isaiah who lived before the Babylonian exile and who, therefore, saw “the House of Israel” as something more inclusive than “the Jews.” And in the process of expanding on Paul’s metaphor, the Book of Mormon reconfigures the classical Christian concept of “the Conversion of the Jews” and turns it into the more familiar and distinctive Latter-day Saint concept of “the Gathering of Israel.”
Let us pause to recall that the Book of Mormon presents the Lehites as Israelites but not as Jews. Lehi and his family claim descent from Manasseh, not Judah, and this fact becomes crucial to our understanding of the difference between Jacob 5 and Romans 11. In its very basic form (and I know I am stripping out a lot of important detail here, but this is already way too long for a blog post) the allegory of the Olive Tree presents four series of events that represent, allegorically, the four key time periods in the Book of Mormon’s narrative of sacred history.
Jacob 5: The Allegory of the Olive Tree
|Allegorical Action||Time Frame||Interpretation and Commentary|
|The Master has his servant prune the original tree heavily and then transplants branches to other places in the garden. (Jacob 5:8)||Before the Babylonian Captivity, at the time that Lehi and his family leave Jerusalem||This is an element of the story that does not occur in Romans, and it completely changes the nature of the allegory. Paul speaks of two kinds of branches, the original branches, which represent the Jews and the new branches, which represent the gentiles. Jacob’s allegory uses both of these categories exactly as Paul does, but adds a third: the transplanted original branches, which represent transplanted Israelites who are not Jews (i.e., the Book of Mormon people).|
|The Master grafts wild branches into the decaying olive tree (5:10), and, for a while, they produce good fruit (5:18).||The New Testament / Christ and Paul||This portion of the allegory is very similar to Paul’s parable in Romans 11. The decaying olive tree represents Israel, which, after the Babylonian captivity is represented primarily by the Jewish people. According to both Zenos and Paul, the gentiles, or non-Jewish Christians, are grafted onto the tree, becoming fully vested members of the House of Israel.|
|The Master notices that the original tree is once again bearing bad fruit (5:30-32), and, when he checks the transplanted branches, he finds that they too are bearing bad fruit (5:38-40).||The Restoration / Joseph Smith||Here we see a clear example of the apostasy narrative that has already been worked by Nephi. The original tree, which represents the various Christian Churches, has fallen away from God. This is a clear departure from Christian orthodoxy, though it is definitely presented as a possibility in the original Pauline text, which states, “Behold therefore the goodness and severity of God: on them which fell, severity; but toward thee, goodness, if thou continue in his goodness: otherwise thou also shalt be cut off.” (11:22) But the descendants of Lehi—which the original text of the Book of Mormon clearly presents as the American Indians—are not doing much better, as they are also in apostasy and unbelief.|
|The Master decides to restore the original branches to the original tree by working in both directions: grafting branches from the transplant back into the original tree, and grafting branches from the original tree back into the transplants. (5: 60-67)||The Last Days||The conclusion of the allegory (well, except for the very end, when everything gets burned) invokes the “restoration of all things” and unfolds the wise plan of the Master from the very beginning. The original House of Israel has been divided for millennia, but it will be literally reunited—including both the Jews and the descendants of Lehi—as part of the Restoration of the last days. The allegory thus invokes the literal gathering of Israel found in the 10th Article of Faith.|
Whatever one believes about the origins of the Book of Mormon, the Allegory of the Olive Tree in Jacob 5 is an extraordinarily complex work of literature. It is a narratologically complex text that introduces several embedded narrators (i.e. Mormon, Jacob, and Zenos) operating at different times and with different purposes to produce a single sustained allegory. It is a rhetorically complex argument that both supports and subverts an important biblical passage well-known to Joseph Smith’s contemporaries. And it is a theologically complex passage that builds and extends the apostasy-and-restoration narrative that the Book of Mormon itself presents itself as a part of.
And it is yet another example for Latter-day Saints of the richness and beauty that our most distinguishing book of scripture yields when we approach it by study, and also by faith.