The Tree of Life Part 4: The Olive Tree

Olive Trees in the Garden of Gethsemane

Last time I talked about how the Tree of Life was symbolic of Christ and His sacrifice. I closed by mentioning that it doesn’t matter what type of tree the Tree of Life is (as we’ll see, many trees have been used to portray it), but that one of particular note was the olive tree. In our day and age, Joseph Smith hinted that he felt the tree of life was an olive tree when he called Section 88 the “olive leaf… plucked from the Tree of Paradise” (in B. H. Robert’s Comprehensive History of the Church 1:315), referring to the idea that the tree of life is in the presence of God—an idea put forth by John in stating: “To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the tree of life, which is in the midst of the paradise of God” (Rev 2:7, see also Rev 22:1-2, 14).

Truman G. Madsen shared that: “One Jewish legend identifies the tree of life as the olive tree.

“The olive tree is a perennial, not a deciduous tree. Its leaves do not seasonally fade nor fall. Through scorching heat and winter cold they are continually rejuvenated. The tree is thus evergreen, or ‘everolive.’ …

“To this day, preparing the rock-pocked, hand-plowed land and then planting, cultivating, pruning, grafting, and harvesting olive trees is an arduous process. Even after the harvest, the olives are bitter, useless to man or beast. To make them edible, one must place them in a large stone box, layer them with salt and vinegar, make more layers of olives, and add more purgatives. Slowly the bitterness is purged from them. These refined olives were a delicious staple food that graced the tables of the common people and of the rich.

“To produce olive oil, the refined olives had to be crushed in a press. The mellowed and seasoned olives were placed in strong bags and flattened on a furrowed stone. Then a huge crushing circular rock was rolled around on top, paced by a mule or an ox and a stinging whip. Another method used heavy wooden levers or screws twisting beams downward like a winch upon the stone with the same effect: pressure, pressure, pressure—until the oil flowed.

“Olive oil was used both internally and externally. It was a cooking oil, made better by heating, and was a condiment for salads and breads and meats. The pure oil had other vital uses: it was an almost universal antidote, reversing the effects of a variety of poisons. It was often used in a poultice believed to drain infection or sickness. As an ointment, olive oil—mingled with other liquids—soothed bruises and wounds and open sores. (In Jesus’ parable, oil and wine were poured by the Good Samaritan into the wounds of the robbed and beaten traveler near Jericho.) Oil and wine were poured by the temple priests on the altar of the temple. Olive oil was also the substance of light and heat in Palestine. Into olive lamps—small vessels with a hole at each end—one poured the oil. Even in a darkened room one lamp, one thin flame of light, was enough to lighten the face. A Jewish oral teaching says the drinking of olive oil is likewise light to the mind—that it enhances intellectual processes. The mash that remained after repeated crushings of oil was a household fuel, needed even in the summer Judean desert after sunset. The image of pouring oil on troubled waters, and the associated olive branch of peace—such as the offering of peace and relief to Noah after raging seas—were common in Bible lore. In other spiritual contexts oil was the token of forgiveness. And hence Paul speaks of it as ‘the oil of gladness.’…

From left to Right: Olives, an olive tree, an olive press.

“The garden on the mount [where Christ went] is called Gethsemane. Geth or gat in Hebrew means ‘press.’ Shemen means ‘oil.’ This was the Garden of the olive press. Remnants of ancient olive presses near cisterns that preserved the costly oil can still be seen in upper Galilee and in Bethany.

“As one stands in this Garden of the olive press—the setting for the Atonement—it is sobering to visualize the purgation of the olive and the intense, seemingly unending pressure which caused the precious oil to flow. Indeed, the symbolism of the place is inescapable….

“In glorifying the Father, Jesus suffered with a suffering so great that drops of blood came from his pores. (See D&C 19:18; compare Luke 22:44.) It is not a spectacle one wishes to recall—rather we recoil—but we are commanded to eat and drink each week to memorialize that hour. Under this burden of burdens, all his preparation, all his worthiness were not sufficient. An angel came, ‘strengthening him.’ (Luke 22:43.) Strengthening—not delivering. (See Matt. 26:51–54.)

“When was it enough? During the same night, he was betrayed. He was accosted, abused—purged like the olive. By thirty-nine lashes he was ripped into, pierced. The kindest reading of Pilate’s motive is the hope that scourging would suffice for those who clamored for crucifixion. It did not. The descending weight begun on the Olive Mount was weightier than the cross he was to carry. As the cross ruthlessly held him, he groaned, “I thirst!” And whether in trivial aid or mockery, someone thrust a sponge full of vinegar—one of the purgatives added to olives in the stone boxes—to his lips. ‘It is finished,’ he said. (John 19:28–30.) ‘Thy will is done.’ (JST, Matt. 27:54.)

“At the last, a spear was thrust into his side. Out of it flowed water and blood, as oil flows from the purged and pressed olive” (“The Olive Press”, Ensign December 1982).

“He was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5).

From the text, the imagery of the sufferings of the Atonement and the purification process used to create olive oil is inescapable. The Atonement produces the oil and the effects of the Atonement can be compared to the uses of olive oil.

Olive oil’s use in cooking was a staple of their diet at the time. In this sense, it is a part of the bread of life. Next, it has properties as an antidote and was believed by the Jews to have other healing properties. It was said of Christ that “he will take upon him the pains and the sicknesses of his people” (Alma 7:11), that during his ministry “Jesus went about all Galilee… healing all manner of sickness and all manner of disease among the people” (Matthew 4:23), and that “with his stripes we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5). He taught that: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me… he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised” (Luke 4:18). He was and is a healer, and His healing is both physical and emotional. It is also spiritual: to the Nephites He gave this touching plea: “will ye not now return unto me, and repent of your sins, and be converted, that I may heal you?” (3 Nephi 9:13) and God promised to Malachi that “unto you that fear my name shall the Sun of righteousness arise with healing in his wings” (Malachi 4:2). The process of repentance is a process of healing through Christ. He is the antidote to the effects of sin—both inflicted on us by our own sins and the sins of others. It is interesting to note that in John’s revelation there was “the tree of life… and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations” (Rev 22:2).

The uses of olive oil involve not only healing, but soothing as an ointment. Another balm used for healing was produced from the resin of a bush which grew so plentifully in a place called Gilead was referred to as the “balm of Gilead.” Jeremiah cried out in his mourning for Judah: “Is there no balm in Gilead; is there no physician there?” (Jeremiah 8:22). Christ has been referred to as the balm of Gilead because of His healing and soothing abilities and He is always there. Alma taught that: “he will take upon him their infirmities, that his bowls may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know how according to the flesh how to succor [aid] his people according to their infirmities” (Alma 7:12).

Olive oil was the ointment used in the parable of the Good Samaritan, when he “bound up his wounds, pouring in oil and wine, and set him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him” (Luke 10:34). Early Christian tradition ascribe this parable to be an allegory of the plan of salvation—departure from the City of God, traveling to the lowest point of the world and being attacked by Satan and his hosts along the way, but ultimately being taken care of by a savior. The Good Samaritan represents Christ, “the wounds are disobedience” or sin, and “most of the early Christian writers saw [the oil as] a symbol of Christ’s words of consolation” (John W. Welch, “The Good Samaritan, Forgotten Symbols,” Ensign February 2007, p. 45). Christ is a consoler and a comforter for us all. The promise he made to His disciples of old: “I will not leave you comfortless: I will come to you” (John 14:18) still stands for us today.

A Mediterranean oil lamp.

Now, Truman G. Madsen talked about olive oil and its use for light. I must point out that Christ is “the light, and the life, and the truth of the world” (Ether 4:12; see also Mosiah 16:9, Alma 38:9). Elsewhere it is stated that He “shall be thine everlasting light” (Isaiah  60:19), a “light unto them forever, that hear [His] words” (2 Nephi 10:14), and that the light of Christ proceeds from Him which “enlighteneth your eyes, which is the same light that quickeneth your understandings” (D&C 88:11).

What is this light? How does it work in our lives? Light is energy. It makes vision possible. When we’re in light we see clearly that which lies around us and know where we must go.  All things are ultimately dependent on light for survival. One may look at trees, plants, and other photosynthetic organisms and see their dependence on light to exist. They grow towards the light, sometimes straining themselves or growing in abnormal shapes to get optimal light because of its absolute necessity. Our spirits likewise need spiritual light. Ultimately Christ is the source of both physical and spiritual light.

I have long found it to be very symbolic that during the time Christ was in the spirit world after His death and before His resurrection the Nephites had no light. Instead they had “thick darkness upon all the face of the land, insomuch that the inhabitants thereof who had not fallen could feel the vapor of darkness… and there was not any light seen, neither fire, nor glimmer, neither the sun, nor the moon, nor the stars, for so great were the mists of darkness which were upon the face of the land” (3 Nephi 8:20, 22). When Christ spoke during the darkness, He introduced Himself as “the light and life of the world” (3 Nephi 9:18). Then, after His resurrection and when He appeared to them in person, once more He introduced Himself by stating that: “I am Jesus Christ…. And behold, I am the light and life of the world” (3 Nephi 11:10-11). It was as if He were emphasizing that when He was gone, there was no light because He is the light for all.

Another incident in Christ mortal ministry is deeply symbolic along these same lines. In John’s gospel, we read that when “the Jews’ feast of the tabernacles” (John 7:2) was occurring, Jesus “came again unto the temple, and all the people came unto him; and he sat down, and taught them…. Then spake Jesus again unto them, saying, I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life” ( John 8:2, 12). The feast of the tabernacles was the most joyous and exciting of all Jewish feasts, celebrating the Jewish sojourn in the wilderness and the ingathering of fruits. One of the ceremonial touches that this feast was known for was the illumination of the temple courts by four great golden candelabras (candlesticks). It was probably during this brilliant display that Christ made His proclamation, which accented His declaration. Now, there is further interesting symbolism of this situation that will be more apparent after next week’s article on ancient and modern temple’s physical symbols of the Tree of Life. Join me next week to find out more.

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