“All things bear record of me.” (Moses 6:63.) So we have been taught. But when our feet first touched the ground of Israel more than a decade ago, we still cherished the fallacy that the Master’s words were the only vehicle for his gospel message. Environment and circumstance mattered little if at all, we thought. We soon learned otherwise! During his ministry, the Teacher of teachers invoked his surroundings to verify his revelatory acts and sayings. The cosmos was his visual aid, and the setting sprang to life through his words and actions. In the very rocks, in the very fountains and mountains, in the very trees of Israel his meaning is lodged—meanings that can reach the center of the soul.
The Tree of Life
Religious literature, ancient and modern, is replete with images of a tree of life that is to be planted in a goodly land by a pure stream. 1 Some typologies regard it as the link at the very navel of the earth—the source of nourishment between parent and child—and place it at the temple mount in Jerusalem, where heaven and earth meet. 2 The fruit of this tree is most precious. In our own sacred texts, Lehi and Nephi describe the fruit as pure, sweet, and white above all. Nephi was taught that both the tree of life and the fountain of living waters that sustain it represent the love of God. This love, “which sheddeth itself abroad in the hearts of the children of men”, was, he was inspired to say, “the most desirable above all things.” But even that superlative did not satisfy the angel-narrator of the vision, who responded, “Yea, and the most joyous to the soul.” (1 Ne. 11:22–23.)
Through our own sacred history, the tree of life has symbolized Israel, the family of the faithful, and the Redeemer of Israel. (See Jacob 5–6.) Prophets have sung of the time when the branches that have been rent from that tree and dispersed to the ends of the earth would somehow be gathered. Then, by graftings and prunings the tree would be renewed and become exquisitely productive. (See 1 Ne. 10:12–14.)
There are trees native to the land of Israel. From the record we learn that each in its way touched the Master’s ministry: oak trees, fig trees, palm trees—most of all, olive trees.
The Olive Tree
One Jewish legend identifies the tree of life as the olive tree. 3
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.” Without cultivation it is a wild, unruly, easily corrupted tree. Only after long, patient cultivating, usually eight to ten years, does it begin to yield fruit. Long after that, new shoots often come forth from apparently dead roots. As one stands in the olive groves, struck by the gnarled tree trunks that are at once ugly and beautiful, it is hard to avoid the impression of travail—of ancient life and renewing life. Today some trees, still productive on the Mount of Olives, are known by scientific measure to be at least 1,800 years old. 4
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. 5 ) 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.” (Heb. 1:9.) 6
The Place and the Time
Did Jesus know all this? Surely all this—and more. Was there, then, significance in his climactic resort to the Mount of Olives? Is that mount, all of it, symbolic and sacred?
On that Mount four holinesses came together: the place, the time, the person, and the name.
First, the place. The Mount of Olives overlooked the temple—which by now had been desecrated, the temple Jesus first called, on a day of cleansing, “My Father’s house,” but later, “My house.” (See John 2:16; Matt. 21:13.) Beyond the Herodian courts of the temple was a Holy of Holies. Two olive-wood pillars stood before its entrance. Nearby stood the seven-branched Menorah, the perpetual lamp, the everlastingly burning tree. The “heaviest and the purest oil,” from vessels with the high priests’ seal, burned day and night in the Menorah. 7
For the tabernacle in the wilderness Moses had been instructed, “And thou shalt command the children of Israel, that they bring thee pure oil olive beaten for the light, to cause the lamp to burn always.” (Ex. 27:20.) Later, the rabbis interpreted this to mean that a man, like the olive, must be beaten and bruised, but all in order to glow with light. 8
We learn in the newly translated Temple Scroll (one of the Dead Sea Scrolls) that by at least 150 B.C., a segment of Jewry envisioned a future Messianic temple where the New Wine Festival was to be followed by a New Oil Festival. One-half hin (about three-fourths of a gallon) of oil from each tribe of Israel was to be brought to the temple to light the lamps. The climax was to be the eating of olives and the anointing with new oil. The purpose was to ransom (kapper) the year’s oil crop for its use by the people and on the temple altar. 9
Oil was burning in the temple Menorah during the last days of Jesus, but to the people it had lost its sacred significance or had not yet received its most sacred consecration.
Jesus went onto the mount overlooking the temple “as he was wont.” (Luke 22:39.) In the last days of his life, he lodged there, “abode” there. (Luke 21:37.) On that hill (perhaps half way up) was a vineyard of olive trees. Precisely that same word, vineyard, is used in the parable or allegory of the tame and wild olive tree in the book of Jacob. The trees in that allegorical vineyard would have been hewn down and cast into the fire were it not for the pleading of the servant. (See Jacob 5:50.) The Lord of the vineyard would be grieved to lose even one tree.
The garden on the mount is called Gethsemane. Geth or gat in Hebrew means “press.” Shemen means “oil.” 10 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.
Another holiness, a holiness of time. It was the hour, the week of Pesach, Passover—that long-honored sacred celebration of Israel’s divine deliverance from Egypt. After the destruction of the temple in A.D. 72 the ritual was modified. But at the time of Jesus this was the appointed day when they brought the lamb, the unspotted lamb, down that very mount, the Mount of Olives, to the altar. It was roasted and the blood of the lamb was sprinkled on the altar. 11
The Person and the Name
The person was holy. This was Yeshua Ha Masshiach, Jesus the Messiah. As Isaiah foresaw, he was the stem of Jesse, from the stump or root of the house of David. (Isa. 11:1–5; D&C 113.) To Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, he had been “the Holy One of Israel.” In the flesh he sat at Jacob’s Well, and to a despised woman of Samaria announced for the first time, “I … am he. I am he from whom shall flow living water.” (See John 4:4–42.)
The name was holy. The root word for Messiah in the book of Daniel means “anointed one,” with connotations of coronation and ordination. 12 This was the night when in the hardest of hard ways, he would become the anointing one. The word Messias, as used by John, has another Hebrew root: Yitshar, meaning to glow with light as one glistens when one is anointed. 13 To merit that name, to take it upon him, to seal it everlastingly upon himself—to become the Light of the worlds—Jesus was required to tread the press. In eventual triumph the Messiah was to say, “I have trodden the … press” (in this case the winepress, not the olive press, but the two merge in allegory as in life) “and none were with me.” “The Lamb of God hath … trodden the wine-press alone, even the wine-press of the fierceness of the wrath of Almighty God.” 14 It is one thing to take off one’s sandals and trample the grapes in the stone vat. It is another to be trodden upon, trampled, crushed until the very tissues of the heart cry out for relief and release and until “mercy hath compassion on mercy and claimeth her own” (D&C 88:40), “that he may know, according to the flesh, how to succor his people.” (Alma 7:12.)
“Mine Hour Is Come”
Having glimpsed the holy place, the holy time, the holy person, and the holy name, we may glimpse what must have gone through him and what he must have gone through. “Mine hour,” he had said often, “has not yet come.” (John 2:4.) But now it had come.
We have witnessed the fervor of pious Jews as they stand—they do not kneel—at the place that is but a remnant of the wall below the ancient temple mount. Rhythmically they throw their whole bodies into their prayers. In response to occasional ridicule they say, “We are avoiding distraction. We want to concentrate.” As Jesus prayed that night, the motion was internal. And it was destruction, not distraction—destruction of abundant life in the Father’s family—that he threw himself against. Somehow he purged the ultimate bitterness, as bitter as gall, the consequences of death-dealing iniquity of all sons and daughters of God—not just of this earth, but of other earths also. Therefore, the atonement of Christ is, as the Prophet Joseph Smith testified, intergalactic. 15
“How?” we ask. But a child can understand. (Did he not commend little children to us, promising that the mightiest, the greatest in his kingdom would be as they?) Unashamedly little children, without full understanding, wince and weep with others, and they dance in the contagion of joy. Pain—at worst the pain of abandonment—hurts, even the intimation of it. In those of us who are far away, even 2,000 years and 10,000 miles away, it hurts enough to unstiffen the neck and melt the heart and bring contrition to the spirit; it hurts enough to make us sick. Or, if we are moved enough to receive Him, it hurts enough to make us well. He who never took a backward step from the will of the Father, he who was supersensitive, could and did feel. For us. With us. The pressure worked upon him; as the olive press worked upon the olive. Somewhere on the road between north and south he cried out anticipating, “Now is my soul troubled; and what shall I say? Father, save me from this hour.” How long was the interim between that prayerful sentence and the next? “But for this cause came I unto this hour. Father, glorify thy name.” And a voice from heaven came: “I have both glorified it, and will glorify it again.” (John 12:27–28.)
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. Simeon, bowed down with age, as he had held the infant Jesus in the temple, had prophesied that wound, that last wound, that proof of the full measure of his giving. To Mary he had said, “A spear shall pierce through him to the wounding of thine own soul also; that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.” (JST, Luke 2:35.)
“The thoughts of many hearts.”
Today as we stand amidst the olive groves, the heart hears the promise of modern revelation that the parable of the wise and foolish virgins is yet to be fulfilled:
“Wherefore, be faithful, praying always, having your lamps trimmed [that means filled to the brim] and burning [alight and afire], and oil with you [reserves equal to days of affliction and of glory], that you may be ready at the coming of the Bridegroom.” (D&C 33:17.)
And as we stand before the ancient olive press, the heart is invaded with a “never again”: “Never again in indifference will I speak or hear the words, ‘I anoint you with this oil which has been consecrated.’”
Truman G. Madsen, professor of philosophy and director of Judeo-Christian Studies at Brigham Young University, teaches Sunday School in his Provo, Utah, ward.
See E. A. Butterworth, The Tree at the Navel of the Earth (Berlin: DeGruyter and Company, 1970).
See Louis Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews, 7 vols. (Philadelphia: Philadelphia Jewish Publication Society of America, 1947), 1:93; 2:119. In other apocryphal Jewish and Christian writings the tree of life is identified with the olive tree. See Apocalypse of Moses 9, 12. In Second Enoch 25, a life-giving oil is described and “the appearance of that oil was more than a great light, and its anointing was excellent too.” (See Legends of the Jews, Volume 5; notes to Volumes 1 and 2, p. 113.)
See Encyclopedia Americana, 1979 ed., 30 vols., s.v. “olive,” 20:713–15.
See Luke 10:25–37. See also the apocryphal work Gospel of Phillip: “The Savior gave nothing to the wounded man except wine and oil. It is nothing other than the ointment. And he healed the wounds. For love covereth a multitude of sins.” (Robert M. Wilson, The Gospel of Phillip, New York: Harper and Row, 1962. Compare Hugh Nibley, The Message of the Joseph Smith Papyri, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1975, p. 286.) Joseph Smith said of Nauvoo, “If there is a place on earth where men should cultivate the spirit and pour in the oil and wine in the bosoms of the afflicted, it is in this place.” Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, sel. Joseph Fielding Smith, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1938, p. 294.
The Greek root of this word is el-ah-yah, meaning an olive tree or fruit.
See L. Yardin, The Tree of Light (New York: Cornell University Press, 1971), p. 43.
See Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim, 2 vols. (New York: Schocken Books, 1947–48), 2:117. Compare Hosea 14:6.
See Jacob Milgrom, “The Temple Scroll,” Biblical Archaeologist, Sept. 1978, p. 108.
See Brown, Driver, and Briggs, A Hebrew and English Lexicon, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979, s.v. “Gat” and “Shemen.”
See Alfred Edersheim, The Temple (London: The Religious Tract Society, 1909), p. 16.
See Brown, Driver, and Briggs, p. 602.
See James Strong, Hebrew and Chaldee Dictionary, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1976, p. 51, #3323.
See Isa. 63:3; JST, Rev. 19:15; D&C 76:107; D&C 88:106; D&C 133:50. In Joseph Smith’s translation of Rev. 19:15, the “of” is changed to “in.” The “of” renderings make it appear that Jesus was the object of the fierce wrath of God. The “in” revision suggests that as the Son of God he brought his own fierce wrath to bear against sin and sinfulness.
Joseph Smith teaches of other earths “whose inhabitants too from the first to the last are saved by the very same Savior of ours.” Times and Seasons, Feb. 1, 1843, pp. 82–85.