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The Parable of Zenos

The Book of Jacob (Jacob 5) contains a long parable, supposedly given by the prophet Zenos, concerning the past and future of the dispersed Israelites. Mormon scholars have made much of this passage, even to the extent of claiming that it displays horticultural knowledge that would have been unavailable to Smith. This is ironic, because there are few passages in the Book of Mormon that display a greater reliance on Biblical sources, both Old and New Testament.

There are two major Biblical passages that provided structural material for this parable, and a number of shorter passages that supplied secondary ideas. The primary passages are Isaiah's parable of the vineyard, contained in Isaiah 5:1-7[1] and Paul's discussion of the relationship of Israel to the Gentiles (Romans 11:16-24[2]), in which he used the metaphor of an olive tree.

That these two passages provided the framework upon which Joseph Smith built his parable is evident from several sources. Firstly, both passages were quoted by Smith earlier in the Book of Mormon narrative. Isaiah's song of the vineyard is found in II Nephi 15; Paul was alluded to in I Nephi 10:12-14 and other passages.

Secondly, several ideas presented in Zenos' parable can be found in these two passages. The theme of a well-tended vineyard, which failed to produce good fruit, is also a major theme of Isaiah's passage. Likewise, the contrast between wild and tame (or natural) fruit is found in Isaiah. From Paul's discourse, Joseph Smith obtained the idea of wild and natural branches, as well as one of his other major themes, that of cross-grafting branches between trees. We even find a few verbatim quotes from Isaiah, specifcally the landowner's lament 'What could I have done more for my vineyard?' (Jacob 5:41). This is echoed in Isaiah's parable 'What could have been done more to my vineyard, that I have not done in it?' (Isaiah 5:4)

The most telling piece of evidence, however, is that fact that the two passages are built on slightly different metaphors. Isaiah use a vineyard to represent Israel (Isaiah 5:7), while Paul used an olive tree. In the light of this, it is significant that the prophet Zenos appears to display some confusion about his metaphor. The parable of the vineyard begins with Israel as an olive tree located in a vineyard (Jacob 5:3). However, halfway through the narrative, the metaphor suddenly switches to the vineyard itself, significantly, just at the point that the Book of Mormon quotes Isaiah (Jacob 5:41). From this point on, the author repeatedly refers to 'the trees of the vineyard', apparently forgetting that the parable started out with olive trees as the primary metaphor, not grapevines.

There are at least three shorter passages that provided structural material for Zenos' parable. The concept of the Lord of the Vineyard and his servant, for example, is found in one of Jesus' parables, recorded in Luke 13:6-9[3]. From this passage, we find the source of Smith's repeated reference to the useless branches 'cumbering' the ground and the trees (Jacob 5:9,30,44,49,66). It is from this passage, too, that Smith obtained the references to 'digging and dunging' (Jacob 5:47,64,76). We also here find the servant counselling his master against the wholesale destruction of the vineyard, a scene which is repeated in Zenos' parable (Jacob 5:26,27 and Jacob 5:49,50).

The concept of unfruitful branches being hewn down and burnt (Jacob 5:42,46,47,49,66) is found in Matthew 3:10[4] and John 15:6[5]. Matthew 3:10 was quoted verbatim in Alma 5:52 (which was dictated before the book of Jacob, according to some theories). Verse 8 of Matthew 3, ('Bring forth therefore fruits meet for repentance') is quoted several times in the Book of Mormon (Alma 12:15;13:13;34:30).

As an interesting aside, it should be noted that Ethan Smith referred to several of these source passages in the View of the Hebrews. On page 62, we find a reference to Israel being "grafted in again". On page 254, the author quotes Luke "why cumbereth it the ground?". Ethan Smith also quoted and expounded on large portions of Isaiah, specifically with regard to Israel's restoration. He quoted Isaiah 5:26 on page 235, and Isaiah 5:13 on page 236. He also referred to the ripening of the vineyard as a sign of the end-times on page 243.

Thus we see that rather than representing an actual ancient parable, Zenos' story of the Vineyard is actually a conflation of several sources, some of which would not even be written for several hundred years.

[1] Isaiah 5:1-7

5:1 Now will I sing to my wellbeloved a song of my beloved touching his vineyard. My wellbeloved hath a vineyard in a very fruitful hill:
5:2 And he fenced it, and gathered out the stones thereof, and planted it with the choicest vine, and built a tower in the midst of it, and also made a winepress therein: and he looked that it should bring forth grapes, and it brought forth wild grapes.
5:3 And now, O inhabitants of Jerusalem, and men of Judah, judge, I pray you, betwixt me and my vineyard.
5:4 What could have been done more to my vineyard, that I have not done in it? wherefore, when I looked that it should bring forth grapes, brought it forth wild grapes?
5:5 And now go to; I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard: I will take away the hedge thereof, and it shall be eaten up; and break down the wall thereof, and it shall be trodden down:
5:6 And I will lay it waste: it shall not be pruned, nor digged; but there shall come up briers and thorns: I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it.
5:7 For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah his pleasant plant: and he looked for judgment, but behold oppression; for righteousness, but behold a cry.

[2] Romans 11:16-24

11:16 For if the firstfruit be holy, the lump is also holy: and if the root be holy, so are the branches.
11:17 And if some of the branches be broken off, and thou, being a wild olive tree, wert graffed in among them, and with them partakest of the root and fatness of the olive tree;
11:18 Boast not against the branches. But if thou boast, thou bearest not the root, but the root thee.
11:19 Thou wilt say then, The branches were broken off, that I might be graffed in.
11:20 Well; because of unbelief they were broken off, and thou standest by faith. Be not highminded, but fear:
11:21 For if God spared not the natural branches, take heed lest he also spare not thee.
11:22 Behold therefore the goodness and severity of God: on them which fell, severity; but toward thee, goodness, if thou continue in his goodness: otherwise thou also shalt be cut off.
11:23 And they also, if they abide not still in unbelief, shall be graffed in: for God is able to graff them in again.
11:24 For if thou wert cut out of the olive tree which is wild by nature, and wert graffed contrary to nature into a good olive tree: how much more shall these, which be the natural branches, be graffed into their own olive tree?

[3] Luke 13:6-9

13:6 He spake also this parable; A certain man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came and sought fruit thereon, and found none.
13:7 Then said he unto the dresser of his vineyard, Behold, these three years I come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and find none: cut it down; why cumbereth it the ground?
13:8 And he answering said unto him, Lord, let it alone this year also, till I shall dig about it, and dung it:
13:9 And if it bear fruit, well: and if not, then after that thou shalt cut it down.

[4] Matthew 3:10

3:10 And now also the axe is laid unto the root of the trees: therefore every tree which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire.

[5] John 15:6

15:6 If a man abide not in me, he is cast forth as a branch, and is withered; and men gather them, and cast them into the fire, and they are burned.

Contents Copyright 1997 Curt van den Heuvel

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