Allegories and Parables
An allegory is defined as "The representation of abstract ideas or principles by characters, figures, or events in narrative, dramatic, or pictorial form." The term allegory is never mentioned in the Book of Mormon. However, the nature of the story told by Zenos is clearly an allegory, as it is designed to teach the abstract idea of the history and destiny of Israel. While it is not incorrect to refer to Zenos' story as a parable or "a simple story illustrating a moral or religious lesson," an allegory may be more accurate.
Elements of Zenos' Allegory
The following are suggested symbols and their meanings contained in Jacob 5. Attempting to correlate every item of an allegory (or parable) precisely with some outside reality is unproductive. However, certain major elements should be defined if the allegory itself is to be understood. The following items seem important in Zenos’s allegory:
|1. The vineyard||1. The world|
|2. Master of the vineyard||2. Jesus Christ|
|3. The servant(s)||3. The Lord’s prophets and others who are "called to the work"|
|4. Tame olive tree||4. The House of Israel, the Lord’s covenant people|
|5. Wild olive tree||5. Gentiles, or non-Israel (later in the parable, wild branches are apostate Israel)|
|6. Branches||6. Groups of people taken from ancient Israel|
|7. The roots of the tame olive tree||7. The gospel covenant and promises made by God that constantly give life and sustenance to the tree|
|8. Fruit of the tree||8. The lives or works of men|
|9. Digging, pruning, fertilizing||9. The Lord’s work with his children, which seeks to persuade them to be obedient and produce good fruit|
|10. Transplanting the branches||10. Scattering of groups throughout the world, or restoring them to their original position|
|11. Grafting||11. The process of spiritual rebirth wherein one is joined to the covenant|
|12. Decaying branches||12. Wickedness and apostasy|
|13. Casting the branches into the fire||13. The judgment of God|
Synopsis of the Allegory
A reading of the actual text of Jacob 5 is invaluable, and the synopsis that follows is a poor substitute for the inspired scripture that it is based on. However, a short summary of the story may be instructive in understanding the story.
The First Visit
The master of the vineyard goes into the vineyard to find that his olive tree is decaying. He attempts to help the tree by pruning and fertilizing the tree, which creates some young healthy branches, but fails to fix the tree entirely, creating a worry that the tree will die.
The master of the vineyard creates a plan to salvage the tree by grafting in branches from wild olive trees in other parts of the vineyard. He instructs his servants to cut out the decayed branches and burn them in the fire, and to graft in branches from the wild olive trees in their place. He also cuts the young healthy branches and grafts them into wild olive trees in other parts of the vineyard.
The first visit is thought to represent the state of ancient Israel before the time of Christ. Israel was in a state of apostasy which ended up resulting in Israel being scattered by the Assyrians and the Babylonians. Those portions of Israel that are lost or scattered are represented by the young branches that the Lord hides in other parts of the vineyard.
The Second Visit
After a long time passes away the Lord of the vineyard tells his servants that they are going to labor in the vineyard. When they get to the vineyard they find that the original tree has been very productive. They then go to the other parts of the vineyard where the master had placed the young shoots from the original tree.
The master had placed the branches in three separate places, some in bad ground, some in worse ground, and some in good ground. The two sets of branches in the bad ground have also been productive, similar to their parent tree. The branches that were placed in the good ground, however, have only been partially productive. The Lord and the servant take steps to help the vineyard continue to be productive, and then they leave.
The second visit is thought to represent the time of Christ when the gentiles were grafted in and became part of God's covenant people. At this time there was wide spread righteousness among God's covenant people. The branches that are grafted into the good ground are thought to be the Nephites and Lamanites since they eventually turned into a divided civilization, some righteous and some wicked, where the wicked eventually overcame the righteous.
The Third Visit
Again a long time passes away and the Lord tells the servant that they are going to work in the vineyard once again. However, this time the Lord of the vineyard is worried that there is not much time left before the season would be over and the tree would not be able to grow any more.
They arrive at the vineyard to find that the original tree had lots of fruit, but that none of it was good. After inspecting the trees where the young branches had been placed they find the same scenario; lots of fruit but none of it good. They also find that the branches from the original tree that are were grafted into the good ground, that had previously been partially productive, had been overcome by the wild branches and died.
The Lord of the vineyard then laments that he had done everything he can to help his tree, but now he is worried that he will have to cut the tree down and burn it. He also laments the loss of the branches that were moved to the good ground, especially since he had to clear the good ground in order to make room for them.
The third visit is thought to represent the time of apostasy, where none of God's covenant people were righteous. Also, the branches that were placed in the good ground, or the Nephites, have been destroyed by the other branches. This state of apostasy leads to the restoration.
The Fourth Visit
The Lord of the vineyard never actually leaves the vineyard, but rather starts by a return to the original tree. He initially decides to cut down all the trees in the vineyard, but he is convinced by his servant to give them a little more time.
The Lord instructs the servant to call other servants, and to graft the branches that he had taken form the original tree back into the original tree. Then the servants are supposed to do everything they can to help the trees grow. As the servants find that trees are producing good fruit they are to cut off the branches that are not being productive, thus slowly eliminating the bad branches without killing the tree as a whole.
The Lord's plan is effective. Slowly, the entire vineyard is changed and is productive with good fruit. Eventually all the bad branches are removed and burned, and the good branches are all that are left in the vineyard. The allegory ends with the Lord telling the servants that if the time comes that bad branches are found again in the vineyard, he will end up burning the entire vineyard.
This visit is thought to represent the last days where God restores his covenant people. The branches that were scatter are returned to their original tree, representing the gathering of Israel. It is interesting to note that the restoration is gradual, at least symbolically, and leads to a time where the wicked have been removed from the earth. This would be in line with the understanding of the millennium. When Satan is loosed at the end of the millennium the earth will be burned with fire.
Graphical Representation of The Allegory of the Olive Tree
The following table represents the key activities that occurred in the vineyard.
Before Christ's Ministry
During and Just After Christ's Ministry
Time of Apostasy
|Poor Ground 5:21-22 (Scattered Israel)|
|Brought Forth Much Fruit
|Only Corrupt Fruit
|Poorest Ground 5:23-24 (Scattered Israel)|
|Brought Forth Much Fruit
|Only Corrupt Fruit
|Good Ground 5:25-26 (Nephites & Lamanites)|
|Some Good Fruit, Some Bad
|Only Corrupt Fruit
- Other than the head note in the editions after 1981
- Adapted from the [Book of Mormon Student Manual]
- This table is adapted from the Book of Mormon (Religion 121-122) Student Manual, Second edition (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Days Saints), 285.