An Allegory of the House of Israel Commentary by V. Garth Norman (1987: 285-293 from The Messiah in Ancient America by Bruce Warren & Thomas Stuart Ferguson)
“And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.” (Isaiah 11:1).
Lehi taught that the Gentiles and the house of Israel “should be compared like unto an olive-tree, whose branches should be broken off and should be scattered upon all the face of the earth . . .And after the house of Israel should be scattered they should be gathered together again; or, in fine, after the Gentiles had received the fullness of the gospel, the natural branches of the olive-tree, or the remnants of the House of Israel, should be grafted in, or come to the knowledge of the true Messiah, their Lord and their Redeemer.” (1 Nephi 10:12, 14)
One of the most intriguing Mesoamerican correspondences to Biblical and Book of Mormon metaphors is a connection between human history and trees. Different stages of human existence are associated with a sacred tree. The Yucatec Maya believe that roots of a giant ceiba tree reach into the underworld paradise beneath the earth, from which the spirits of the dead can ascend on a path up the tree through its branches into the highest heaven. The highland Maya Indians of Chiapas believe their ancestors came through the roots of the sacred yaxche tree of life or abundance (Thompson 1950:71-72) [Tzotzil-Maya tree above by Lowe, Lee, Martinez 1982]
The Mixtecas Indians of Northern Oaxaca Mexico express their origin in the codices in pictographs showing a man emerging from a split tree trunk in symbolic birth. According to Fray Antonio de los Reyes, who recorded a Mixtec tradition at Apoala in 1593, the birth of their original ancestral king occurred through being looped off a tree as a branch (Furst 1977: 184-185).
The most graphic depiction of human descent symbolized in a tree is a Postclass generation tree of the Xiu family of Mani, Yucatan, in which a tree sprouts from the loins of the Maya king (Morley 1946: Plate 22). Names of his descendants are recorded on branches and fruits of the tree.
In different contexts the broken Tamoanchan tree-trunk represents three major stages of history: the ancestral tree (land of birth or origin), the earthly paradise tree (goal of migratory traditions), and the heavenly paradise tree (destination of resurrected spirits). The Cakchiquel (Maya tribe in highland Guatemala manuscript of Totonicapan – Recinos 1953: 45) tells of sacred places called Tulan that correspond to the three Tomoanchans of other traditions as the chosen homeland in Mesoamerica, the western place of birth and origin, and heaven. “From the west we came to Tulan, from across the sea; and it was at Tulan where we arrived.” References to all three mythical and ancient legendary Tomoanchan/Tulans may be found on the Izapa Stela 5 tree-trunk dating to 400 B.C. (Southern Mexico).
In the Totonicapan manuscript thirteen chiefs of twelve tribes (one didn’t marry) of the Quiche nations are repeatedly referred to as the “trunk and root” of the tribal families (Recinos 1953: 169, 170, 172). this correlates perfectly with the human aspects in the Izapa Stela 5 trees with its twelve roots (above). In the Popol Vuh, sacred book of the Ki’che Maya, Balam-Quitze is referred to as “the root” (xe), meaningfirst or original priest leader of the Cavec tribe. Also, in the Popol Vuh, roots connected to a common “trunk” constitute a “single family,” and different tribes of the Ki’che family “trunk” are referred to as “branches” (Recinos 1950: 171, 227, 228, 229, n. 5. Names of trees are commonly used as proper names of Maya chiefs, tribes, and cities (Norman 1976:207).
These are just a few of the many references to human symbolism in trees that could be cited from Mesoamerica. They have been selected to illustrate possible connections to the unique and very important Book of Mormon account of the Allegory of the Olive Tree in Jacob 5. A detailed discussion of the Mesoamerican historical meaning of the tree-trunk on Izapa Stela 5 can be found in Norman 1976 (pp. 109-214) [and Norman 2013 pp. 154-202], compares in many details to Jacob’s allegory.
Following is a brief overview of the Allegory of the Olive-Tree, with some historical parallels as a foundation for beginning comparative studies.
Establishment and Nourishment Period: A tame olive tree was nourished in a vineyard. It grew, waxed old and began to decay. It was then nourished and preserved for a time.Young and tender branches grew, but the main top of the tree began to perish (Jacob 5:3-6).
Grafting Preservation Period: The Lord plucked off the withered branches and burned them. He also took the young and tender branches and grafted them in other parts of the vineyard. The servant grafted in wild branches in their places, and digged about, pruned, and nourished the tree (Jacob 5: 7-14).
Production and Righteousness Period: After a long time, the master and his servant went into the vineyard and beheld that the wild branches “had sprung forth and began to bear (good) fruit.” They went where the natural branches were hid. The first and second branches had brought forth much (good) fruit. Another branch had brought forth fruit also. Of the last tree, planted in a good spot of ground, only part brought forth good fruit, while the other part produced wild fruit. The Lord and his servant nourished all the fruit of the vineyard (Jacob 5: 15-28).
Corruption and Scattering Period: As the time of the end drew near, the Lord and his servant went in the vineyard again. All the fruit had become corrupt, “And the wild fruit of the last had overcome that part of the tree which brought forth good fruit, even that the branch had withered away and died” (Jacob 5: 29-40.)
Re-grafting, Restoration and Pruning Period: The Lord and his servant went to work in the corrupted vineyard. “They took from the natural tree [Gentiles] which had become wild and grafted in unto the natural trees which also had become wild. And they also took of the natural trees which had become wild and grafted into the mother tree (Israel).” Other servants (though few in number) are called and instructed: “let us go to and labor with our might this last time to prune my vineyard.” (End to follow the last pruning.) They are instructed to pluck off the most bitter wild branches and graft in the branches, beginning at the last, “that they may be first, and that the first may be last.” “They labored with all diligence. . .even until the bad had been cast away out of the vineyard (Kingdom of God) . . . and the trees had become again the natural fruit; and they became like unto one body; and the fruits were equal.” (Jacob 5:41-74).
Harvesting and Destruction Period: The servants are called up. The vineyard has been nourished and pruned for the last time and the bad has been cast away. The Lord says, “For behold, for a long time will I lay up the fruit of my vineyard unto mine own self against the season, which speedily cometh. . . . And when the time cometh that evil fruit shall again come into my vineyard, then will I cause the good and the bad to be gathered; and the good will I preserve unto myself, and the bad will I cast away into its own place. And then cometh the season and the end; and my vineyard will I cause to be burned with fire. (Jacob 5: 75-77).
HISTORICAL PARALLELS TO THE ALLEGORY OF THE OLIVE TREE of the House of Israel
[The Era of Noah in which the Jaredites (ca. 2500-2300 B.C. ) came to the American continent precedes the House of Israel Olive Tree Allegory.]
Establishment and Nourishment Period: Abraham (born about 1980 B.C.), Issac, and Jacob were the covenant fathers of the House of Israel (Abr. 2:10-11; Gen. 12:1-5; 13:14-17; 17:5-7, 15-19; 28: 12-15; 1 Ne. 17:40). The Lord named Jacob, Israel. The house of Israel took root and grew through Jacob’s twelve sons. During their 450 years in Egypt they became greater in number and strength than the Egyptians (Ex. 1:9; Acts 13: 20). They began to decay under Egyptian bondage because they could not worship the Lord properly. So the Lord appointed Moses (born just about 1300 B. C.) to deliver them (Ex. 3:7-10). Israel was pruned, digged about, and nourished through the ministry of Moses and succeeding prophets, but it never emerged as a righteous nation. Young and tender branches (righteous individuals) emerged, but the nation as a whole never did.
Grafting Preservation Period: During the later half of the Mosaic dispensation, the “young and tender branches” of righteousness which had grown in Israel were separated in order to preserve them and develop righteous fruit (people). The ten tribes were taken captive into Assyria in 721 B.C. and shorty afterward escaped into the north countries. They became a righteous branch (3 Ne. 15:20) and are to return in these latter days (Gen. 18:11-12; D&C 110:11). Prior to the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 B.C., Lehi and his colony were separated to preserve a righteous branch and produce good fruit (Jacob 2;25; 1 Ne. 2:1-2). Mulek also led a group from Jerusalem at the time of this destruction; they were led to America, as was Lehi, and eventually joined with the Nephites (Omni 15, 16). At the time of Lehi’s departure, most of the children of Israel had already been “led away.” Nephi said, “they are scattered to and fro upon the isles of the sea. . . . We know that they have been led away” (1 Ne. 22:4).
Finally the wild branches (Gentiles) are grafted in after the natural branches still on the mother tree have become corrupted. After the Jews rejected the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Apostles left them and went among the Gentiles (Acts 18:4-6). (See also Amos 9:8-9).
Production and Righteousness Period: During a short period of about a decade after Christ (the apostolic ministry), the Gospel “sprang forth” among the Gentiles and “began to bear fruit. The Epistles of the Apostles give an account of this period. The branches of Israel which had been led away before Lehi’s time (first two branches cited) had brought forth much fruit. The third and fourth branches might refer to the Mulekites and Nephites. The fourth branch compares with the Nephites and Lamanites in that “only a part of the branch brought forth tame fruit” (Jacob 5: 20-25).
During the visit of the Lord and his servant, it is seen that the four trees mentioned, which contain the natural branches, are good and have produced “much fruit, ” with the exception of the last tree, which was part good and part bad. At this time, the natural tree upon which the wild branches had been grafted had not produced a lot of good fruit like the other trees but had only “sprung forth and begun to bear fruit” (Jacob 5:17). Therefore, we may logically place this inspection time during the early part of the development of the Church of Jesus Christ among the Gentiles.
The wording of the allegory in other parts suggests literal interpretation rather than figurative. This visit is the first time that the Lord personally assists the servant in nourishing it (Jacob 5:28). Before this time the Lord instructs his servant (prophet) to do the work of pruning, digging, and nourishing in striving to establish the Kingdom (Jacob 5: 10-12), while the Lord only works directly in destroying the sicked branches and placing the young and tender branches in other parts of his vineyard (Jacob 5: 9, 13). Before this time, the trees and branches are nourished (people collectively — branch, ward, church), but at this point the Lord personally nourished the fruit (contact with the individual people). The fruits are the people (Jacob 5:74). In view of these points it is significant to note that as the God of Israel, Christ never came personally among the House of Israel until after his resurrection (Matt. 28). He dwelt among the people of Enoch (Moses 7:16, 69), but the dispensations of Abraham and Moses never progressed to the point where they were able to be gifted with Christ’s personal presence. It wasn’t until after Christ’s earthly mission was completed that he again came among men as the glorified god to bless and instruct them. While preaching to the Jews, Jesus said: “And other sheep I have, whihc are not of this fold: them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice; and there shall be one fold, and one shepherd” (John 10: 16). The Book of Mormon gives an account of Christ establishing His Church among these other people. He repeats the above passage and tells them that they were the other sheep (3 Ne. 15: 13-24). From the time of Lehi’s exodus, the Nephites knew these circumstances. While in the Near Eastern wilderness Nephi taught his brothers “that the house of Israel was compared unto an olive tree, by the spirit of the Lord which was in our fathers; and behold are we not broken off from the house of Israel, and are we not a branch of the house of Israel?” (1 Ne. 15:12). Christ at this same visit said that the Father has separated the other tribes from them (the Jews); and it is because of the Jews’ iniquity that they know not of them (3 Ne. 16: 1-3).
At the time when the Lord visited the righteous Nephites in America, there were also many unrighteous Lamanites in the land. In the allegory, the Lord saw the partly bad tree, and spoke of destroying the branches that produced bad fruit, but the servant prevailed upon the Lord to “prune it and dig about it, and nourish it a little longer, that perhaps it may bring forth good fruit” (Jacob 5: 27). It is significant that after Christ established his Church among the Nephites in A. D. 30, it was only a period of approximately two years until all the Nephites and Lamanites were converted to the Church of Christ (4 Ne. 1-2).
Corruption and Scattering Period: Following a period of righteousness throughout the tribes of Israel, a time came when all of the branches became corrupt. The Lord made another visit to the vineyard, observing the wild branches first (), and saw that they had become corrupt (Jacob 5:30). After the Apostles of Christ established His church among the Gentiles, a “great and abominable church” took away from the gospel “many parts which are plain and most precious; and also many covenants, . . . that they [its priests] might pervert the right ways of the Lord” (1 Ne. 13:26-27). Historically this took place between A.D. 90 and 100. The Book of Revelation evidently refers to this period (Rev. 6:9-12). The Lord then went into other parts of his vineyard and observed total corruption throughout. By A.D. 300 the descendants of Lehi on the American continent had become extremely wicked (4 Ne. 1:45), and by A.D. 385, the Lamanites had completely destroyed the Nephites (Morm. 6:5, 15; Rev. 12:17; 1 Ne. 11:35; 15:16-18). The prophecies of Isaiah refer to this period of total corruption before the restoration (2 Ne. 20: 16-21).
Re-grafting, Restoration and Pruning Period: The book of Mormon is most clear on this particular period. There are well over a hundred references to the latter-day restoration of the gospel. Because this is in our time and we are familiar with it, we will not take the space to outline these events. The allusions of the allegory are quite clear.
Harvesting and Destruction Period: The Book of Mormon is not very explicit on this millennial period, except for the Savior’s teachings (3 Ne. 24-25). This is likely because these events are being with held from our knowledge until a yet future day, and because John the Revelator was appointed to record this period (1 Ne. 14:20-27). First Nephi 22: 16-26 describes this period briefly.
Grafting “Branches” back into the House of Israel “Tree” must include adding our names and the names of our ancestors to http://familysearch.org – FAMILY TREE – thus connecting our lines to the Family Tree of the House of Israel as we become “Saviors on Mount Zion” for our ancestors.