It's seventy-seven very verbose verses about trees and vineyards, Lords and servants, roots and branches, digging and pruning, grafting and burning, wild fruit and tame fruit and a whole lot of symbolism. But it's not a very good chapter. It's very repetitive, occasionally vague (wait, which tree are we talking about now?) and entirely dull.
The Basic Flaw
This chapter is the famed Allegory of the Olive tree, which originated from an otherwise unknown prophet named Zenos. Jacob reads Zenos's allegory to the Nephites to teach them about God's plan for his chosen people, including the scattering and gathering of the tribes of Israel.
But the whole point of an allegory (or a parable or an object lesson or whatever you want to call it) is simplicity. The advantage of an allegory is that you can use a familiar setting to relate a complex concept to your audience so that they can better understand. Zenos, apparently, decided that since God scattering the house of Israel because of its wickedness and then orchestrating a future gathering was such a complex idea, he'd explain this idea using a vineyard. But he didn't just explain—he overexplained.
Suddenly this simple, real-word example that the people supposedly would understand better than bare doctrine spirals out into a massive, intricate story featuring about a zillion different characters (if you count the trees). It's not so simple anymore. The allegory's symbolism and meaning are lost in the textual landslide.
God is a Bad Gardener
What I think is funny about the Allegory of the Olive tree is that, on two separate occasions during this millennia-spanning epic, the Lord of the vineyard (popularly assumed to be Jesus Christ) completely ignores his vineyard (the world) for a while. Twice, in verses 15 and 29 a "long time" goes by before the Lord goes back to see how his trees are doing.
Sounds like maybe the deists were Mormon after all. So much for the hands-on, answers-my-prayers-to-find-my-car-keys version of God. Apparently there are some huge gaps of time during which he doesn't have a member of the godhead directly supervising his work. And it should have been no surprise to the Lord of the vineyard that, after he comes back from his extended sabbatical, his vineyard has gone down the tubes. Maybe a more continuous, concerted effort would have yielded better results?
There's a potted fern on the window sill in God's celestial office. It's been dead for centuries but he hasn't noticed.
God Is Perfectly Happy to Give Up
The Lord of the vineyard, in verse 26, wants to burn the branches that have failed to bring forth good fruit. But in the next verse, the servant talks him out of it by offering to do some more work on the trees. In verse 49, after whining for a while about how his vineyard is all messed up, the Lord suggests that the two of them go chop down all the trees and burn them. But in the following verse, the servant talks him out of it.
Why is the Savior so quick to throw up his hands and admit defeat? And why is a prophet (the servant), who is supposed to be only a fallible man doing the work inspired of God, able to change his mind?
A Final Tangential Point
During my admittedly cursory research into the vast intricacies of this chapter, I happened across a piece from BYU's Maxwell Institute. I almost laughed out loud at its opening line:
In language that rivals the best literature has to offer, the allegory of the olive tree is the most beautiful prose expression of God's aspirations for the house of Israel during its history here on the earth.Dude—seriously? Jacob chapter 5 "rivals the best literature has to offer?" Come on. It's bland and repetitive. It's unimaginative, largely practical prose that explains what's happening without offering much in the way of poetic wording. It's drier than overcooked cornbread. Here are a few examples of what I think is among the best that literature has to offer.
You're afraid of making mistakes. Don't be. Mistakes can be profited by. Man, when I was young I shoved my ignorance in people's faces. They beat me with sticks. By the time I was forty my blunt instrument had been honed into a fine cutting point for me. If you hide your ignorance, no one will hit you and you'll never learn. (Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451)
I am afraid. Not of life, or death, or nothingness, but of wasting it as if I had never been. (Daniel Keyes, Flowers for Algernon)
When it occurs to a man that nature does not regard him as important, and that she feels she would not maim the universe by disposing of him, he at first wishes to throw bricks at the temple, and he hates deeply the fact that there are no bricks and no temples. (Stephen Crane, The Open Boat)And compare:
Behold, this have I planted in a good spot of ground; and I have nourished it this long time, and only a part of the tree hath brought forth tame fruit, and the other part of the tree hath brought forth wild fruit; behold, I have nourished this tree like unto the others. (Joseph Smith, I mean Jacob, I mean Zenos, Jacob 5:25)One of these things is not like the others.
Mormon loyalty to their sacred book can get a little ridiculous sometimes. Whether it's the word of God or not, nobody should be comparing its contents to the works of people who could really turn a phrase—you know, Dickens or Twain or Wilde or Steinbeck. As a novel, the Book of Mormon is crap. It's nowhere near the level of the classics. Its only value is in its religious significance—which, ironically, is zero to everyone on the planet except for a couple million practicing Mormons.