By John W. Welch
The tree is a primary symbol in three Book of Mormon texts: Zenos's allegory of the olive tree (Jacob 5), Lehi's dream of the tree of life (1 Nephi 8), and Alma's discourse on the seed of faith (Alma 32). Interestingly, these three symbolic uses of the tree reflect a shifting emphasis from one era to the next.1
The House of Israel
Accordingly, in Zenos's allegory the tame olive tree symbolizes the house of Israel as a whole, and the well-being of the whole is paramount. Main groups of people are seen as branches of the tree, while individuals are little more than leaves or olives. When a branch decays or bears bad fruit, it is cut out to save or improve the tree. Collectively speaking, the Lord does all he can to save his beloved treepruning, dunging, grafting, and burning as he deems best for the whole.
The Love of God
Instead, Lehi took a step away from the old image. Now he depicted salvation as a tree to which individuals have to come. In Lehi's dream, instead of being small parts of a collective tree, each individual is invited to come take a place in relation to the tree and to partake of its sweet, white, desirable fruit (see 1 Nephi 8:11).
Alma lived 500 years after Lehi. Society in Alma's day was pluralistically divided into groups containing all kinds of individuals. As he dealt with Zoramites, Nephites, Ammonihahites, and Gideonites, Alma knew that salvation was heavily a matter of personal choice (see Alma 5).
These trees progressively served the particular needs of the prophets who used them. In their times, each tree illustrated an important truth about the Atonement. Behind them all, of course, stands the unifying reality that the Son of God would be raised up on yet another tree, that through him all might have eternal life, collectively, relationally, and individually.