The Glory of the Olive Tree, Revisited


Oh, God said to Abraham, “Kill me a son.”

Abe says, “Man, you must be puttin’ me on.”

God say, “No.”  Abe say, “What?”

God say, “You can do what you want, Abe, but

the next time you see me comin’, you’d better run.”

“Well,” Abe says, “where you want this killin’ done?”

God says, “Out on Highway 61.”

    Bob Dylan, “Highway 61 Revisited”


Dylan’s lyrical whimsy notwithstanding, the place where God actually commanded Abraham to sacrifice his only son Isaac was Mt. Moriah in Jerusalem, where the Temple of Solomon would later be built.  As the story is told in Genesis Chapter 22, Abraham was not compelled to carry out the sacrifice of Isaac, but was allowed to substitute a ram which had become caught in a nearby thicket by its horns.  According to the Jewish Midrashim, this event, known as the Akedah, occurred on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, because it foreshadows the final Redemption, when the sins of Abraham’s progeny will be absolved in the glorious Parousia of the Messiah.

By way of further elaboration on the tale of the Akedah, the Midrashim tell of a revelation granted to Abraham at this time.  He saw that the Temple to be erected on the spot of Isaac’s offering would be destroyed.  As the ram substituted for Isaac had extricated itself from one thicket only to be caught in another, so Abraham’s children would be delivered from bondage to one empire, only to be ensnared again by another.  Thus, he had a vision of the successive subjugations of his descendents by Babylonia, Persia, Greece and Rome.  Ironically, their final liberation from Rome at the end of Time will be signaled by the blowing of the same ram’s horn that had become tangled in the thicket on Mt. Moriah during the Akedah.

If we follow the thread of this theme further into the Talmud, we read of an encounter between the Holy One and the spirit of Abraham just before the destruction of Solomon’s Temple.  The Holy One is surprised to find Abraham standing in the desolate Temple, and inquires, “What hath My beloved to do in My house?”  Abraham replies, “I have come concerning the fate of my children.”  The Holy One answers, “Thy children sinned and have gone into exile.”  After vainly pleading with the Lord for his progeny, Abraham puts his hands to his face and weeps bitterly, crying out, “Alas, perhaps there is no hope for them.”  But then he heard a Heavenly Voice say, “The Lord called thy name a leafy olive tree, fair with goodly fruit; as the olive tree produces its best only in the very end, so Israel will flourish at he end of Time.”

We must note that the olive is not the only tree which is used to represent Israel in the Scriptures.  In various passages, they are compared to a fig-tree, a grapevine, a palm tree, a cedar.  But the olive tree is the particular symbol that applies to the role of Israel in the end-Time scenario, in the Apocalypse.  And the olive tree symbolism focuses even more precisely on the pivotal role of Jerusalem and the Temple Mount in the apocalyptic scheme.  All of the Old Testament passages which speak of the “green olive tree” associate it with the Temple, aka the “house of God”.  In Psalm 52:8, David writes:  “I am like a green olive tree in the house of God.”  Jeremiah 11:15-16, the source of the Talmudic story of Abraham weeping in the Temple, contains the lines, “What hath my beloved to do in mine house? … The Lord called thy name a green olive tree, fair and of goodly fruit …”  Similarly, Zechariah 4:1-14 introduces the metaphor of the “two olives trees” in the context of the rebuilding of the Temple under the direction of Zerubbabel after the Babylonian captivity.

Zechariah’s vision, in turn, leads us to the book of Revelation, Chapter 11, which describes the immediate prelude to the appearance of Antichrist.  Here the prophecy of the olive trees becomes even more specific with respect to the role of the Temple in the end-Time events.  In John’s vision, the Temple Mount falls under the control of the Gentiles for a period of 42 months, during which time the two “olive tree” Witnesses prophesy against them.

All of this is quite consistent with the way the Jewish Oral Tradition has always interpreted the metaphor of the olive tree.  The traditional teaching speaks of how the olive tree takes many years to bear fruit, which yields its oil — the “glory” of the olive tree — only after much pounding.  So, the Midrash teaches, Israel’s reconciliation with God is reserved for the end of Time and is to come only after Abraham’s children endure great suffering.  Certainly, they have suffered immensely already, but their final tribulation, foreseen in John’ Revelation, is yet to come.  Ironically, the Gentiles who will occupy the Temple Mount will unwittingly “beat the olive tree” and release its precious oil, which is the spiritual Light of the New Jerusalem.  These Gentiles will doubtless be Christian literalists, who believe that the return of “their” Messiah requires the physical construction of a new Temple on Mt. Moriah.

With this background, we can now begin to entertain some conjectures as to the full import of St. Malachy’s motto “De Gloria Olivae as applied to Benedict XVI.  As I discuss in my book, each of Malachy’s epigrams has two layers of meaning, one rather apparent and somewhat superficial, the other somewhat arcane and much more profound.  In the case of Benedict XVI, the obvious layer of meaning appears in the papal name itself, since the Benedictines are also known as “Olivetans”.  But, based on our discussion thus far, it would appear that the deeper core of significance in this motto must relate somehow to a struggle for control of the Temple Mount which will unfold during Benedict’s reign.

Though I say this struggle “will unfold”, it’s probably more accurate to say it “will continue to unfold”.  This is because the efforts by the Vatican to acquire jurisdiction over the holy sites in the Old City of Jerusalem have been ongoing for over a decade now.  During the negotiations of the Oslo Accords, there was rumored to have been an unwritten “side agreement” between the Vatican and the Israeli government to put East Jerusalem under United Nations supervision with the sacred sites administered by Rome.  There have also been rumors of deal-making between the Vatican and the Palestinians in which the Church would support Palestinian claims to the Old City in return for papal control over the holy sites.  Therefore, it’s understandable that, during the consultation this past February this between US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Vatican Secretary of State Angelo Cardinal Sodano regarding the Middle East peace process, Cardinal Sodano’s primary interest was in the future status of Jerusalem.

If the Vatican does indeed succeed during Benedict’s tenure in negotiating for itself some form of jurisdiction over the Temple Mount, might that not pave the way toward the construction of an “interfaith temple” there — the very abomination foretold by the prophet Daniel?  Before we dismiss this possibility too lightly, we would do well to recall that Cardinal Ratzinger, as well as his new Grand Inquisitor Archbishop Levada, have taken a keen interest in expanding the Church’s presence in the Holy Land.  As Ratzinger wrote in his book Salt of the Earth, “the Star points to Jerusalem”.  In his truly “parochial” theology, as expressed in God and the World, the redemption of Israel can only come at the moment when it “will say yes to Christ”.

For two thousand years misguided Christians have been trying to force this “yes” into the mouths of Jews.  But the final effort, which seems destined to come under the pontificate of Benedict XVI, will succeed only in pressing the sublime oil of divine illumination — the radiant Glory of the Olive Tree — from the beleaguered children of Abraham.  Then will Zion again become a brilliant beacon of Light, a veritable pillar of Fire leading mankind into the Promised Land of Eternal Life.