There are some great write ups regarding the Allegory of the Olive Tree available, so I will only touch on side thoughts regarding it. Some of those great blog posts regarding it can be found in the bibliography below.
Jacob quotes Zenos’ allegory of the olive trees. This is not his own. Zenos was a prophet on the brass plates of Laban. Given the Documentary Hypothesis concepts I shared in lesson one, Zenos would likely have been a prophet in northern Israel between 800-721 BC.
The allegory correctly teaches certain concepts regarding olive trees. Olive trees can live for a very long time. Some orchards today have trees that were first planted in the days of Jesus. These trees, as they grow old, are reinvigorated by grafting branches into and out of them, as needed. New branches in an old tree will stimulate the growth of new roots, making the tree almost become young again. Given the fact that little olive tree husbandry was occurring in the Americas in the early 19th century, it is unlikely that Joseph Smith would have known such concepts regarding olive trees.
When a tree comes to the end of its usefulness, it is burned, allowing its ashes to enrich the soil for the next new planting.
So it is with each of us. We have seasons of our lives. As new events, experiences and learnings are grafted into our lives, we change. The gospel is nourishment that can stimulate us into growing new shoots and roots. At the end of our lives, each of us will be judged to determine whether we have produced good, bad, or mixed fruit.
In chapter six, Jacob explains how the allegory fits in with his people and the last days. He understood that in the end, the world would be burned. All that will remain is the good fruit. The Lord will have returned from the Gentiles back to Israel, where his covenant belongs. Where there is good fruit, it will be put away. Where the fruit is shriveled and bitter, it will be burned along with the branches and trees.
“...as many as will not harden their hearts shall be saved in the kingdom of God.
Wherefore, my beloved brethren, I beseech of you in words of soberness that ye would repent, and come with full purpose of heart, and cleave unto God as he cleaveth unto you. And while his arm of mercy is extended towards you in the light of the day, harden not your hearts” (Jacob 6:4-5).
The choice is simple. Cleave unto God, and not unto the world. Allow God to tame you, and do not run wild after the desires of the world. Bear forth fruit meet for his kingdom. Harden not your hearts.
Sherem is an interesting story. As noted in previous lessons, the Nephites are not alone. They have adopted or absorbed many native peoples in the Americas. We see this in the building of the temple,and in passages that note people other than Nephi and his brethren. Now we will see another example.
If Jacob dwelt only with his Nephite family, there would only be a few hundred. Yet, Sherem comes from somewhere else, desiring to meet Jacob! He is not a Lamanite, because he isn’t called a Lamanite. Sherem also actively teaches his version of the Law of Moses. Having fully rejected the scriptures, the Lamanites would not have anyone actively teaching the Mosaic law.
Instead, we have Sherem, a native American, whose people were conquered by the Nephites. The Nephites taught the people the law of Moses, as well as the coming of Christ. For Sherem, he could see the value of the Mosaic Law and the sacrifices involved, because they would probably have been similar to the laws and sacrifices already done by his people prior to the Nephites conquering them.
Sherem, then, would go forth as a missionary for the old ways, adjusted to accept the Mosaic Law as a means to get the Nephites to also accept his teachings. Interestingly, when one travels through the Americas, you can often find native peoples who have been partially absorbed into Christianity, but will still hang onto their old way of doing things, as well. As a missionary in Bolivia in 1979, we knew of many natives who were part Catholic/evangelist, but also maintained belief in their ancient ways. I had the opportunity to see pages from a spiritualist book, where the person could create a love potion using the holy water from the local Catholic church. We see the same thing occurring throughout the Americas, such as Voodoo in Haiti. Throughout the Andes mountains, miners worship Christ in town, but inside the mines they worship Tio (uncle or Satan), who they believe has greater power than God inside the earth. So, a mixture of Christian and pagan still occurs today, and likely would have occurred anciently.
After being struck down by God, Sherem gathers the people around him for his final confession:
“And he said: I fear lest I have committed the unpardonable sin, for I have lied unto God; for I denied the Christ, and said that I believed the scriptures; and they truly testify of him. And because I have thus lied unto God I greatly fear lest my case shall be awful; but I confess unto God” (Jacob 7:19).
This shows that Sherem does not understand the gospel. He has heard mention of certain concepts, such as the unpardonable sin, but does not realize it does not apply to him. The unpardonable sin is to totally reject all good things, become the absolute enemy of Christ, seek to get gain through murder and robbing. It is to be like Cain, who worshiped Satan, even though he had spoken with God, he chose to slay Abel. “And Cain gloried in that which he had done, saying: I am free; surely the flocks of my brother falleth into my hands” (Moses 5:33).
That Sherem preached only the Mosaic Law, without belief in Christ, does not mean he committed the unpardonable sin. In fact, his confession at the end was the beginnings of repentance. He probably would find on dying that his new confession of faith, along with repentance would rescue him from Spirit Prison and bring him into paradise, even as it did for Alma (Alma 36). His basic faith and repentance would be enough to justify him before Christ, making him guiltless through the atonement. He would yet be judged according to his being sanctified to determine his final reward.
One thing we can learn from this: are each of us living the full gospel, or do we only accept a small portion of it, satisfied with what we’ve chosen? In doing so, we will be blessed for what we take, but may risk leaving behind the most important things of all.
Joe Spencer on Lesson 12: http://feastuponthewordblog.org/2012/03/08/book-of-mormon-lesson-13-the-allegory-of-the-olive-trees-jacob-5-7-gospel-doctrine/
Jim Faulconer’s notes on Lesson 12: