Jacob 5 — LeGrand Baker — Zenos’s allegory

Jacob 5 — LeGrand Baker — Zenos’s allegory

An allegory, like language itself, is very useful when one wishes to convey an idea to someone else. It, like language, is equally useful when one wishes to hide ones meaning, or to hide it from all but an inner circle who will understand. Zenos’ allegory of the tame and wild olive trees succeeds very well in doing the latter. It is apparent that his allegory is not so obscure that it hides his meaning from everyone, otherwise Jacob would not have taken such pains to include it here. But while its meaning may be perfectly transparent if viewed from the perspective of its author, it is only a muddle to anyone who views it from something like an egocentric angle.

Let me illustrate. In Michael White’s fine biography, Isaac Newton : the Last Sorcerer (Reading, Mass. : Addison-Wesley, c1997.) White pays a great deal of attention to Newton’s religious as well as his scientific discoveries. He reports that Newton’s careful analysis of the Bible convinced him that the idea that God was three in one was a deliberate falsehood, and that the Bible taught that Christ and his Father were separate persons. He also reports that Newton’s careful study of the Book of Revelation convinced him that the Catholic Church was the evil monster spoken of in Revelation and that the end of the world would come before 1700 with the final destruction of Catholic power. Newton’s conclusions about God were correct because they were based on correct premisses, but his calculations about the end of the world were not because he saw it from where he stood in time, and underestimated his own place in world history. Newton was the pivot point between the unexplainable world of magic and the explainable world of math, physics, and science. But he did not understand how important he was, or how big the future world was going to be, so he could not judge where he stood in relation to the grand scheme of things.

In his analysis of Revelation, somehow it did not occur to Newton that the world is much, much bigger than the reaches of the Catholic Church or even of Christianity. Newton lived at a time when Europe knew almost nothing about the eastern civilizations, so it is easy to understand that he closed his eyes to the importance of people in other parts of the world. Like anyone else who assumes John’s Revelation is talking about the Catholic Church, if one tries to read the prophecy as a preview of the history of the European world, then, for that reader, the Catholic Church might fit as the evil monster of Revelation. But if one tries to read Revelation as a global, rather than a European preview of the future, then the Catholic Church is just too little to fit the pattern. But Newton, like the rest of us, tried to fit Revelation within the limits of his own experience and thought patterns. Even though he failed to take into account the peoples of other continents, his interpretation seemed to work for him. But, as it turned out, his calculations about the end of the world were different from the ideas intended by John the Revelator.

I tend to think of Zenos’ allegory of the tame and wild olive trees in the same way. It works well, if the tame and wild branches of the tree are the Nephites and the Lamanites. But I wonder why Zenos chose to focus his allegory on that single branch of the house of Joseph. The entire history of Israel is the story of apostasies and restorations. Could he not have been talking about the Ephraimites in northern Europe, or some other group somewhere else?

Or was he talking about the whole of Israel, rather than just one group? Are we looking too small? And who is Israel? Is it just the descendants of Jacob in this world? It is apparent that “Israel” is a covenant name assigned to people in the pre-mortal world, so could all of Israel in the allegory be intended to represent the people of more worlds than this one? Could that tree represent the portion of that “Israel” who came to this earth, as opposed to the people on other worlds? Is the allegory a cosmological story, rather than a localized one?

It stretches my imagination to ask the questions, and I certainly cannot pretend to know the answers. Except I suspect we will get it wrong if we insist on interpreting Zenos’s picture from the place in space and time where we are standing, rather than first seek to discover the place where he was standing.

Dan Belnap once told me one of the best ways to understand this chapter is to look at it as the relationship between the lord of the vineyard and the servant. First he tells the servant what to do, then asks him what should be done, then gives him authority over other servants.

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