Evidence #59 | September 19, 2020

Lehi and Zenos

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Scripture Central

Abstract

Lehi’s teachings and prophecies show a subtle yet consistent awareness of Zenos’s allegory of the olive tree.
Old Olive Tree Art Print by Impressionist Art.

When Nephi summarized his father’s prophecies in 1 Nephi 10, he included Lehi’s teaching that 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” (v. 12). Lehi also understood that Israel’s future gathering was related to the same olive tree imagery. He taught that after being scattered, “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” (v. 14).

Readers familiar with Jacob 5 will probably recognize that Lehi’s teachings relate to Zenos’s allegory of the olive tree, which was eventually recorded onto the small plates by Lehi’s son, Jacob.1 What may not be so immediately obvious is that Lehi’s comments provide an interpretation and application of Zenos’s allegory. According to Noel B. Reynolds,

Lehi connects the breaking off of the branches to dwindling in unbelief and interprets the scattering of the branches in Zenos’s allegory to mean, in part, that “we should be led with one accord into the land of promise, unto the fulfilling of the word of the Lord, that we should be scattered upon all the face of the earth” (v. 13). He interprets the grafting of the natural branches back into the olive tree as regaining knowledge of Christ.2

Readers should also be aware that Lehi’s teachings about the olive tree follow soon after his dream of the Tree of Life. This close proximity may be significant because, as John A. Tvedtnes has argued, it provides “evidence that Lehi’s vision of the tree of life is related to the parable of Zenos.”3 Supporting this claim is the fact that Nephi’s brothers seemed to link the two trees together as related symbols when they asked about their father’s teachings.4

Further possible evidence of Lehi’s familiarity with Zenos’s allegory comes from his final blessings upon his posterity. Declaring the word of the Lord, Lehi prophesied, “Inasmuch as ye shall keep my commandments ye shall prosper in the land; but inasmuch as ye will not keep my commandments ye shall be cut off from my presence” (2 Nephi 1:20). Reynolds saw this as a reflection of the “alternate cycles of productive growth and pruning of the Zenos allegory.”5

Olive Trees by John Singer Sargent.

Lehi’s blessing and curse was specifically related to his people’s promised land, which he described as being “choice above all other lands” (2 Nephi 1:5). This phrase correlates with the “spot of ground” in Jacob 5:43, which the Lord of the vineyard described as being “choice unto me above all other parts of the land of my vineyard.”

In Jacob 5:40, readers learn that the wild fruit of this choice ground would eventually “overcome that part of the tree which brought forth good fruit, even that the branch had withered away and died.” Lehi seems to have understood that this was a prophecy about his own posterity, specifically about how the seed of the Lamanites would eventually overcome the seed of the once-righteous Nephites.

In agreement with Zenos’s allegory on this point, Lehi blessed the posterity of Laman and Lemuel so that even if they were cursed, they would “not utterly be destroyed” (2 Nephi 4:9) and that instead their curse would be taken from them and “answered upon the heads of [their] parents” (v. 6). Lehi’s prophecy can help readers understand why the wild branches (Lamanites) were allowed to overcome the good branches (Nephites) in Zenos’s allegory. It was because the Nephites had knowingly sinned against light and truth while the Lamanites were less spiritually accountable because of the wicked traditions of their forefathers.6

Conclusion

Although it is never directly stated, Lehi’s teachings and prophecies show a consistent awareness of Zenos’s allegory of the olive tree. This is historically understandable, considering that Zenos’ allegory seems to have been known to Old Testament prophets as well.7 It also helps explain why other Book of Mormon prophets—such as Nephi, Jacob, Alma, and Mormon—all valued Zenos’s teachings.8 In doing so, they were likely following the example of Lehi, their founding patriarch. Overall, Lehi’s apparent awareness of and dependency on Zenos’s allegory helps demonstrate the Book of Mormon’s often subtle intertextual complexity.

Book of Mormon Central, “Was Lehi Familiar with Zenos’s Allegory of the Olive Tree? (1 Nephi 10:12),” KnoWhy 466 (September 11, 2018).

John W. Welch and J. Gregory Welch, Charting the Book of Mormon: Visual Aids for Personal Study and Teaching (Provo, UT: FARMS, 1999), chart 95.

Noel B. Reynolds, “Nephite Uses and Interpretations of Zenos,” in The Allegory of the Olive Tree: The Olive, The Bible, and Jacob 5, ed. Stephen D. Ricks and John W. Welch (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1994), 21–49.

John A. Tvedtnes, “Borrowings from the Parables of Zenos,” in The Allegory of the Olive Tree: The Olive, The Bible, and Jacob 5, ed. Stephen D. Ricks and John W. Welch (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1994), 373–426.

1 Nephi 10:2–4, 12–141 Nephi 15:7–222 Nephi 1:5–12, 19–202 Nephi 3:5

1 Nephi 10:2–4, 12–14

1 Nephi 15:7–22

2 Nephi 1:5–12, 19–20

2 Nephi 3:5

Complexity
Intertextuality (Internal)
Lehi and Zenos
Book of Mormon

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