Saturday, February 27, 2016

The Meaning of Nethermost: Connecting the Dots in South America – Part I

In a recent discussion with a friend, we were talking about Jacob discussing the prophet Zenos’ “Allegory of the tame and the wild olive-tree,” meaning Israel and the Gentiles. It was interesting and quite insightful his take on the meaning of the nethermost part of the Vineyard, and also the idea of hiding the branches. 
However, before discussing that, we need to keep in mind when reading most of the scriptural record that we are dealing with a Nephite (and any Old and New Testament period) society that was agrarian, i.e., agricultural; a rural, pastoral, country farming society—a people whose very existence depended on growing their own crops and providing their own food through the cultivating of land, planting and harvesting for their own wealth, sustenance and survival. This is absolutely necessary if we are going to fully understand the meaning of their writing from their point of view.
    While we all know this when brought to mind, what we often forget is the importance of such understanding when it comes to absolute survival. That is, without supermarkets, grocery stores, restaurants, cafeterias, refrigerators, and all the other things that modern man not only takes for granted, but never even thinks about, meant survival in the ancient era of the Nephites. A poor crop, drought, famine, crop destruction, and other natural and man-made calamities could make the different between surviving and starving in their ancient world.
Zenos saw in the olive tree, which was a major component in the culture and rituals of Ancient Israel and the economy of its inhabitants throughout history, a comparison with mighty Israel and her future and the workings of the Lord with His people as the Lord of the vineyard
Therefore, prophets, officials, and others often talked in terms of crop planting and harvesting, as did the prophet Zenos, an Israel prophet not mentioned in the Bible but quoted in the Book of Mormon in Nephi, Jacob, Alma, and by Amulek, the Disciple Nephi, and Mormon.
    His parable or allegory (a story with a hidden meaning) comparing the house of Israel to a tame olive tree and the Gentiles to a wild olive tree constitutes the longest single chapter in the Book of Mormon, as found in Chapter 5 of Jacob. His allegory refers to major events in the scattering and gathering of the house of Israel, and is couched in a story of a vineyard, its owner and the servant who takes care of it.
    On the Agrarian side, the story has to do with the land owner directing his servant to try and save an olive tree for the harvest so that he might have a good crop of fruit to store away for the winter. On the spiritual side, the story has to do with the Savior trying to save the gentiles from their ignorance of the Lord by grafting limbs and branches from wild trees to graft to tame trees in hopes of saving those who knew not of the Lord, their God.
    It is couched in the planting and harvesting of fruit trees, which every listener in that day would have fully understood, but not necessarily be appreciated today, since modern man, if a current food source is not available simply goes and shops at another. But to the Nephites, crop failure meant possible starvation of self and family, since no crop meant no food stored away for the winter months when crops did not grow and there were no harvests. They fully understood if the harvest in the fall did not meet their needs, their food stores during the winter would be less, since they were unable to “lay up” (put away) the harvest of both the fields and the trees and vines so they would have food when the fields and trees were not producing, i.e., a good harvest in the fall would allow them to eat through the winter months and survive until the Spring harvest.
    As an example, various herbs and legumes were harvested in the spring, but the most important spring crops were cereals—barley and wheat. Pentecost, which was celebrated around mid-May, was called “the Feast of Harvest” (Exodus 23:16). After Pentecost, most of the harvest was fruit—grapes, olives, dates, figs, pomegranates and numerous fruits, seeds and vegetables of lesser importance. Barley and wheat were planted in the autumn and ripened in spring. Barley matured faster and would be harvested sooner. The first fruits of grain offered during the Festival of Unleavened Bread would have been barley. “In the early stages of the Israelite settlement the most important cereal was barley…because of the necessity to settle fringe areas and barley’s tolerance of harsh conditions.”
Thus, the Spring harvest was larger and more important in terms of dietary calories, making the spring grain harvest of barley and wheat “the main food staple of the ancient Israelite.” E.P. Sanders offers a more detailed estimate: “Grain constituted over fifty percent of the average person’s total caloric intake, followed by legumes (lentils), olive oil, and fruit, especially dried figs” (Judaism: Practice and Belief, 63 BCE-66 CE, 1992, page 129).
    Since fruit has a higher moisture content than grain does, the fruit harvests may have been larger in bulk and weight. Most of the dietary importance of the fruit harvest came after "Tabernacles," when olive oil was produced.
    The autumn festivals came after the summer harvest, a less-important harvest. But the fall festivals were associated with greater rejoicing (Deuteronomy 16:23-25). Why the theme of rejoicing? The conclusion of a wine harvest is an appropriate time for festivities.
“Sukkot,” the Feast of the Tabernacles was the seventh and final feast given to Israel and observed in the fall during which many Jewish families constructed a sukkah, a small hastily built hut in which meals were eaten throughout the festival
    But another reason may be that Tabernacles celebrated both the spring harvest and the summer harvest. Note the mention of both grain and grapes in verse 13: “Celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles for seven days after you have gathered the produce of your threshing floor and your winepress.”
    Egypt’s irrigated vegetable gardens could be compared with Canaan’s hilly terrain and seasonal rains, implying that vegetables were less common in Canaan (Deuteronomy 11:10-11), causing vegetable to be among the least esteemed foods of the time (Proverbs 15:17). In fact, the Bible has few references to gardens, cultivated vegetables and wild plants. “The small number of references to vegetables and the low regard in which vegetables were held suggest very strongly that vegetables…did not constitute an important part of the Iron Age diet in Eretz-Israel.” So, looking at the major crops after Pentecost, we find grapes were the first major crop to ripen: “In a good year, when the [grain] yield was great, threshing and grape picking overlapped.” That would be in June, technically in spring, since summer did not officially start until the solstice, June 22.
    The importance of grapes and olives is illustrated by the fact that the Essenes had wine and oil first fruits festivals similar to the biblical first fruits offering for grain. These festivals also indicate the relative timing of these crops. The new wine festival came 50 days or seven weeks after Pentecost. Until new wine was offered, no one could drink any of the new juice. Fourteen weeks after Pentecost, shortly before the Feast of Trumpets, was the new olive oil festival. No one could use new olives until some oil had been offered.
    The grape harvest was usually completed before Tabernacles, but most of the olive harvest came after the autumn festivals. Thus, in ancient Israel in Zenos' time, the primary harvest season extended from April to November. This harvest period might be subdivided into three seasons and three major crops: the spring grain harvest, the summer grape harvest and the autumn olive harvest. These harvests have a general correspondence with the festivals. Some grain might be harvested after Pentecost, threshing and grape-picking might overlap, and the olive harvest came both before and after the Festival of Tabernacles.
“The amount and distribution of rainfall together with soil conditions limit the area in Eretz-Israel where wheat is cultivated to the coastal valleys, the Valley of Jezreel, the Upper Jordan Valley, and the Beth-shan Valley, where the Israelites did not conquer at first (Judges 1:19). In the northern Negev, wheat does well only in rainy years, which are not frequent” and ripens later than barley and, according to the Gezer Manual, was harvested during the sixth agricultural season, yrh qsr wkl (end of April to end of May).”
    Where the climate is warmer, as in the Shephelah and the Jordan Valley, crops mature earlier than in regions where the climate is cool, as in the Judean hill-country and the Galilee.” In Galilee, for example, part of the grain harvest would be completed after Pentecost, especially in years in which Pentecost came as early as mid-May. Even though all the crop might not be harvested by Pentecost, Pentecost celebrated the entire grain harvest, including the small amount of grain to be harvested shortly after the festival.
    Thus we can see the importance of harvesting to Israel during the time frame being discussed, i.e., Zenos' allegory and even that of the Nephites when Jacob reiterated it.
(See the next post, “The Meaning of Nethermost: Connecting the Dots in South America – Part II, to see how the Jews saw harvesting and, therefore, the importance of Zenos’ allegory and the hidden meaning of the allegory in regard to the Nephites)

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