Return to About Mormons home

Allegory of Zenos

The Allegory of Zenos (Jacob 5) is a lengthy, prophetic declaration made by Zenos, a Hebrew prophet, about the destiny of the house of Israel. Evidently copied directly from the plates of brass into the Book of Mormon record by Jacob, it was intended (1) to reinforce Jacob's own teachings both about Jesus Christ ("We knew of Christ, and we had a hope of his glory many hundred years before his coming"—Jacob 4:4) and about the house of Israel's anticipated unresponsiveness toward the coming Redeemer ("I perceive…they will reject the stone upon which they might build and have safe foundation"—Jacob 4:15), and (2) to instruct his people about the promised future regathering of Israel, to which Jacob's people belonged.

Framed in the tradition of parables, the allegory "likens" the house of Israel to an olive tree whose owner struggles to keep it from dying. The comparison figuratively illustrates God's bond with his chosen people and with the Gentiles, and underscores the lesson that through patience and compassion God will save and preserve the compliant and obedient.

The narrative contains seventy-six verses, divisible into five parts, all tied together by an overarching theme of good winning over bad, of life triumphing over death. In the first part, an alarmed owner, recognizing threatening signs of death (age and decay) in a beloved tree of superior quality, immediately tries to nurse it back to health (verses 4-5). Even though new growth appears, his ministering does not fully heal the tree; and so, with a servant's help, he removes and destroys waning parts and in their place grafts limbs from a "wild" tree. At the same time, he detaches the old tree's "young and tender" new growth for planting in secluded areas of his property. Though disappointed, he resolves to save his beloved tree (verses 6-14).

Second, following a lengthy interval of conscientious care, the owner's labor is rewarded with a generous harvest of choice fruit, not only from the newly grafted limbs on his old tree but also from the new growth that he planted around the property. These latter trees, however, have produced unequally: the two trees with least natural advantages have the highest, positive yield; while the most advantaged tree's production is only half good, compelling removal of its unprofitable parts. Even so, the owner continues an all-out effort on every tree, even this last one (verses 15-28).

In the third part, a long time passes. The owner and the servant return again to measure and evaluate the fruit, only to learn the worst: the old tree, though healthy, has produced a completely worthless crop; and it is the same for the other trees. Distressed, the owner orders all the trees destroyed. His assistant pleads for him to forbear a little longer. In the fourth segment, the "grieved" owner, accompanied by the servant and other workers, carefully tries again in one last effort. Together they reverse the previous implantation (the "young and tender" plants are returned to the old tree) and splice other old tree limbs into the previously selected trees, appropriately pruning, cultivating, and nurturing each tree as required (verses 29-73). This particular operation of mixing and blending, mingling and merging all the trees together, meets with success in replicating the superior quality crop of "natural fruit" everywhere on his property. Elated, he promises his helpers a share ("joy") in the harvest for as long as it lasts. But he also pledges destruction of all the trees if and when their capacity for a positive yield wanes again (verses 73-77).

In the subsequent chapter Jacob renders a brief interpretation (6:1-4). Conscious that his people, the Nephites, branched from the house of Israel, he is particularly anxious to redirect their increasingly errant behavior, and therefore reads into the allegory a sober caution of repentance for these impenitent New World Israelites: "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; …but as many as will not harden their hearts shall be saved in the kingdom of God" (6:4).

Modern interpretations of the allegory have emphasized its universality. Accordingly, readers have explored its application to the house of Israel and the stretch of covenant time, that is, beginning with God's pact with Abraham and finishing with the Millennium and the ending of the earth; its doctrinal connection to the ages of spiritual apostasy, the latter-day Restoration, Church membership, present global proselytizing, the return of the Jews, and the final judgment. Other studies have begun to explore its literary and textual correspondences with ancient documents (Hymns from Qumran) and with the Old (Genesis, Isaiah, Jeremiah) and New Testaments (Romans 11:16-24); and even its association with the known laws of botany. Some scholars have declared it one of the most demanding and engaging of all scriptural allegories, if not the most important one.

(See Basic Beliefs home page; Scriptural Writings home page; The Book of Mormon home page)


Bibliography

Hess, Wilford M. "Botanical Comparisons in the Allegory of the Olive Tree." In The Book of Mormon: Jacob Through Words of Mormon, To Learn with Joy, ed. M. Nyman and C. Tate, pp. 87-102. Provo, Utah, 1990.

McConkie, Joseph Fielding, and Robert L. Millet. Doctrinal Commentary on the Book of Mormon, Vol. 2, pp. 46-77. Salt Lake City, 1988.

Nibley, Hugh. Since Cumorah, pp. 283-85. In CWHN 7.

Nyman, Monte S. An Ensign to All People, pp. 21-36. Salt Lake City, 1987.

Encyclopedia of Mormonism, Vol. 1, Allegory of Zenos

Copyright 1992 by Macmillan Publishing Company

All About Mormons