The previous lesson covered Jacob 1-4, and this one the lengthy allegory of the olive tree and its interpretation in chapters 5-6. This is understandable from a how-much-material-can-I-really-cover perspective, but there’s a way in which this division obscures important things.
Let me give some background that leads in. The Bible did not originally have chapter or verse divisions, and of course, these non-existent breaks were not numbered. The Hebrew Bible, however, did have loose “thought unit” breaks, represented in the KJV with a paragraph marker, ❡.
This is why within the Bible itself, no one ever quotes another scripture by chapter or verse number; you couldn’t get more specific than using the traditional author’s name, e.g. “as Isaiah said” or the general section (Law, Prophets, Writings), e.g. Luke 24:44. Sometimes references were even more loose as to their source. Hebrews 2:5 prefaces a quote of Psalm 8:4 with a degree of vagueness at home on a junior high history test, “someone has testified somewhere that…” I dunno, like David in the psalms mebbe? Shrug. (Minus two points, says the teacher.) According to tradition, during the 13th century, Stephen Langton, archbishop of Canterbury created the modern chapter breaks during his commute. Since his commute was by horse, not the smoothest of conveyances, the chapter divisions aren’t always entirely logical. (For more on this, see here, or this book.)
When it comes to the Book of Mormon, the 1830 chapter divisions were based on breaks on the plates, sometimes long, sometimes short. However, our current chapter divisions don’t correspond to the 1830 chapters, as you can see from the chart here (also available in pdf). For the 1879 version, Orson Pratt divided it up into verses and shortened the chapters, into what we have today. Well, so what?
One of the most important factors to understanding scripture is context, of which there are several kinds. The most relevant here is what I call context-on-the-page, that is, what comes immediately before and after a given line, verse, chapter, etc. Although verse divisions and numbers make it easier to find something, it also encourages us to read that verse as if it’s a distinct and separate thought from what comes before and after, and this kind of distancing from immediate context leads to proof-texting, also known as “wresting the scriptures.” (There’s an entire issue with this, but it’s beyond the scope of my post. Basically, scriptural authors routinely ignore context in interpreting other scriptures, as Nephi does in 1 Nephi 19:23 and the Isaiah chapters.)
I used to ask my BYU and institute students, why does Jacob quote the allegory of the olive tree? What’s his point? And I got puzzled stares. As a separate chapter, it was just, you know, Jacob’s turn to talk, and this is what he wanted to talk about, right? It’s Jacob’s General Conference talk?
As you can see from the chart I linked to earlier, and this scan of the 1830 Book of Mormon at the Joseph Smith papers (or the new Study Edition!), Jacob 4-5 were originally one chapter. If, however, you are doing your reading based on chapters, you’ll read Jacob 5 on a different day, a different Sunday, than the day you read Jacob 4, because those chapters have been split up.
Again, so what?
The end of Jacob 4 mentions “the Jews” several times, which has a fuzzy referent in the Book of Mormon. (Is it modern Jews? Is it Judeans? Is it “those at Jerusalem” as Nephi says?) In any case, Jacob says that the Jews will reject Jesus, “the stone upon which they might build.” Then he asks an important question in v. 17
And now, my beloved, how is it possible that these, after having rejected the sure foundation, can ever build upon it, that it may become the head of their corner?
Having set up the question, Jacob says, “Well, I’ll tell you.”
Behold, my beloved brethren, I will unfold this mystery unto you.
And then… CHAPTER BREAK!
Chapter 5 is a lengthy response to the question Jacob sets up at the end of chapter 4. Chapter 5 is thus not an independent, General Conference talk. But if you completely separate chapter 4 from 5 (as our lessons do), you’ll be missing important context framing that long long chapter, explaining why he tells it.
And this is why it’s important to pay attention to context-on-the-page.
Joseph Smith knew this. When it came to interpreting scripture, he suggested looking to context.
“I have a key by which I understand the scriptures. I enquire, what was the question which drew out the answer, or caused Jesus to utter the parable?… To ascertain its meaning, we must dig up the root and ascertain what it was that drew the saying out of Jesus.” –TPJS, p.276
As for the content of chapter 5, that’s fairly well known, and I don’t have a lot to say about it. The Olive Tree allegory has generated a lot of discussion, including a series of essays here. BYU Studies has some useful charts here, here, and here.
Note also, that Jacob 5 constitutes one obvious example of different genres in scripture. Parable is one obvious one, and here (though the term isn’t used in the Book of Mormon itself), we call this the allegory of the Olive tree. Aspects of the allegory generally have a one-to-one correspondence to peoples and historical changes.
The ancient world had a variety of genres, just as the modern world does. However, in translation, in another culture with a different worldview, we can’t always recognize those genres anymore, as Elder Widtsoe hinted at.
As in all good books every literary device is used in the Bible [and other scripture] that will drive the lesson home. It contains history, poetry and allegory [and other genres too]. These are not always distinguishable, now that the centuries have passed away since the original writing.- Widtsoe, In Search of Truth, 1930 (my emphasis.) You can download the entire book here or read a good excerpt at Keepapitchinin, a good Mormon history blog.
Jacob 6:6– “Yea, today, if ye will hear his voice, harden not your hearts; for why will ye die?” This kind of rhetoric is found in Deuteronomy, emphasizing the blessings and cursings of the covenant.
28:15-19 See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the LORD… then you shall live…and the LORD your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess.
17 But if your heart turns away… 18 I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess.19 I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live,
Similar rhetoric is found in the prophets who echo the Deuteronomistic covenant language, such as Jeremiah 21:8, 27:13, but especially Ezekiel, writing in Babylon after the destruction of Israel (and thus not on the Brass Plates). Note that shūv, translated as “turn back” could also be translated as “repent.”
Eze 33:11- Say to them, As I live, says the Lord GOD, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways; for why will you die, O house of Israel?
Eze 18:31- Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed against me, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! Why will you die, O house of Israel? 32 For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, says the Lord GOD. Turn, then, and live.
Jacob 7- Here we meet the first of the unholy trinity in the Book of Mormon: Sherem, Nehor (Alma 1), and Korihor (Alma 30). Sherem undercuts the most basic part of the gospel, that of a redeeming messiah. However, Jacob, because of his personal experiences (7:5), “could not be shaken.” Compare Paul’s experience in 1Co 2:5, and 1Co 2:14, and my post here.
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