the olive tree

What is the Romans 11 Olive Tree?

But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, being a wild olive, were grafted in among them and became partaker with them of the rich root of the olive tree, do not be arrogant toward the branches; but if you are arrogant, remember that it is not you who supports the root, but the root supports you. You will say then, “Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.” Quite right, they were broken off for their unbelief, but you stand by your faith. Do not be conceited, but fear; for if God did not spare the natural branches, He will not spare you, either. Behold then the kindness and severity of God; to those who fell, severity, but to you, God’s kindness, if you continue in His kindness; otherwise you also will be cut off. And they also, if they do not continue in their unbelief, will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again. For if you were cut off from what is by nature a wild olive tree, and were grafted contrary to nature into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these who are the natural branches be grafted into their own olive tree?

Romans 11:17-24 (NASB)

I’m writing this “morning meditation” just to preserve something I know I’ll forget if I don’t document it (as I get older, I find that my memory is becoming somewhat “leaky”).

I want to talk about trees.

Actually, I want to talk about one specific tree, an olive tree, the one Paul mentioned in the above-quoted portion of his Holy epistle to the Romans.

What in the world does that tree represent? Some of the common responses are “Israel,” “Judaism” or the “Jewish people,” or maybe “Jesus,” although that last suggestion doesn’t exactly make sense from the Jewish point of view given that the tree has existed for as long as the Jews have existed if they are natural branches.

ancient_olive_treeI discovered (or maybe rediscovered, given the “leakiness” of my memory) a plausible answer, one that is in fact more plausible than any I’ve suggested above.

The first element to understand is that this tree represents all those who share faith in HaShem, who trust Him. Verse 20 is the key that shows the definition of this tree, because unbelief is the mechanism that breaks a branch off of the tree, and faith is the mechanism by which one remains on the tree. At one time, the only branches on that tree were the natural native ones, which is to say Jews. The cultivation of that tree represents the principles of the Torah covenant that inculcated faith into the entire culture of the Jewish people – thus Jews were a people who had been acculturated to the notion of faith or trust. Being broken off of the tree refers to a loss of faith or a rejection of it. Being grafted onto the tree represents acquiring faith (or regaining it if it had been lost or rejected). Wild branches represent non-Jews from cultures that were not acculturated to faith in HaShem. They were not naturally accustomed to it, but they could learn faith by means of the teachings of Rav Yeshua and thus be “grafted” onto the tree of faith to which they were not native, “contrary to nature” (meaning by means of deliberate intervention by a gardener). The sap of the tree must then represent the nourishment of Torah knowledge, perspective, and insight that Jews have cultivated for many centuries to elaborate the meaning of a life of faith. The root of the tree is thus the source of this nourishment, the Torah.

-a comment of Proclaim Liberty from
June 15, 2015 at 4:06 a.m on my blog post What am I, Chopped Liver?

That’s only part of PL’s rather lengthy missive, but it does serve to illustrate that, from his perspective, the Romans 11 tree isn’t Judaism, the Jewish people, or even Israel. The olive tree is a metaphor for faith and trust.

I provided a link above that points directly to PL’s comment so you can read the content in full (or re-read it given the current context). Frankly, I’ve puzzled over the nature of this tree for more hours than I care to think about without coming to a conclusion. I ended up setting the matter aside, figuring the answer would land in my lap eventually.

I think it finally has.

Of course, given the mention of the Torah being the nourishment the tree provides both to the natural (Jewish) and grafted in (Gentile) branches, what’s to prevent someone from concluding that both types of branches are equally obligated to the mitzvot?

PL responses to this in part:

Now, this analogy doesn’t quite answer the questions about Torah observance for non-Jews, though Acts 15 offers a starting point to differentiate between two discipleship types, and perhaps it also explains Rav Shaul’s reference to two different versions of gospel: one addressed to the circumcised, and the other to the uncircumcised (viz:Gal.2:7), neither of which is to be dismissed as merely so much “chopped liver”. [:)] It may be suggested, however, that an acculturation to faith certainly does occur as wild branches reside on the tree and absorb Torah nutrients, and receive treatment from the Gardener (e.g., pruning) comparable to that given the native branches. Moreover, by faith does it become possible to set aside insecurities, so as to enable facing the discomfort of working to distinguish between applications of Torah which apply to everyone (including wild branches) and those which apply only to someone else (i.e., only to the native ones). We can also consider what might be the implications for this analogy in the present era when so many wild branches come from cultures that have been already at least partially accustomed to the notion of faith in G-d, even if that faith has been contaminated with views that are contrary to Torah or Jews or Judaism or related notions.

James and the ApostlesActs 15:21 hints at the responsibility for non-Jews to learn Torah, even after it had just been clarified that their legal obligations to specific performance were very limited. Why then to learn? I would suggest that making the distinctions I described in the above paragraph requires a depth of Torah understanding, because even common principles of Torah might result in different praxis for Jews and for non-Jews to obey. For example, I recently was looking closely at the text of Is.56 (vs.2&6) to consider the characteristics of how the “foreigner”, who is being commended by HaShem for clinging to His covenant, actually approaches the Shabbat. He is described only as keeping from profaning it; whereas Jews are elsewhere commanded to actually sanctify it and guard it. This suggests some sort of difference in the specific behaviors associated with it. I’m still grappling with what that may mean, and how gentile obedience and compliance to this may thus differ from what I know as my Jewish responsibilities and praxis. But it does show that what constitutes obedience for one may be disobedience if another tries to do the same rather than what is appropriate to his or her categorical situation.

I know this is really long by Internet standards, but there is a lot of good information to absorb here. I think (my opinion) that PL is describing how complex and nuanced the Gentile’s “grafted-in-ness” is. There’s no easy black-and-white answer as to who we are and what we’re supposed to be doing as non-Jewish disciples, except that it’s not identical to what observant Jews are supposed to be doing.

We have clues, hints, and starting points, but I think it’s up to us to struggle with how we’re going to build our lives on the foundation of the Bible, and particularly how the Apostolic Scriptures present the lives of non-Jews in Messiah.

I just didn’t want to lose track of the very concept of the Romans 11 tree as a metaphor for Faith and Trust. Lack of faith may get a natural branch knocked off the tree temporarily, but it doesn’t turn a Jew into a non-Jew. Nothing can do that. Being grafted into the tree does not turn a Gentile into a Jew. We’ll always be Gentiles. It also doesn’t turn us into Israelites. Only Jews are Israel.

But being grafted in means we’ve come to faith in Hashem, the God of Israel, and we are nourished by the principles of Torah as applied to the Goyim.

faithI’m not writing this to present an answer or declare some amazing Biblical insight (particularly because the insight isn’t even mine). I’m just putting this here as another piece of the puzzle of our lives in God that may help to fill in the picture.

Oh, one more thing:

For I do not want you, brethren, to be uninformed of this mystery—so that you will not be wise in your own estimation—that a partial hardening has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in; and so all Israel will be saved; just as it is written,

“The Deliverer will come from Zion,
He will remove ungodliness from Jacob.”
“This is My covenant with them,
When I take away their sins.”

From the standpoint of the gospel they are enemies for your sake, but from the standpoint of God’s choice they are beloved for the sake of the fathers; for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.

Romans 11:25-29

Immediately after writing “if you were cut off from what is by nature a wild olive tree, and were grafted contrary to nature into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these who are the natural branches be grafted into their own olive tree?”, Paul goes into how Israel’s “hardening” is only partial, that is, temporary, and will only last until “the fullness of the Gentiles has come in.” Then “The Deliverer will come from Zion” and “remove ungodliness from Jacob” so that “all of Israel will be saved.”

This is clearly New Covenant language and, as I’ve said many times before, I believe God will truly redeem all of Israel just as He promised. Paul was telling the Gentiles not to let being “grafted in” go to their (our) heads. The olive tree of faith has belonged to the Jews from the beginning. Any of the natural branches knocked off temporarily for the sake of the Gentiles, for our sake, will all be rejoined to the tree by Messiah. Even in being knocked off, temporarily losing the “faith connection,” it was done for the sake of the nations, so we owe a debt of gratitude, even to those Jews who currently reject the notion that Yeshua could possibly be the Messiah. That’s the majority of Jews across the past twenty centuries. Without their temporary absence from the root (and who is to say how absent they are since they cleave with great faith to Hashem), there would be no room for us.

Any Christian or non-Jew who calls themselves a “Messianic Gentile” or “Messianic whatever” who also disdains non-believing (let alone believing) Jews is guilty of ingratitude, not only to Israel but to God who arranged it all. Remember, the “promises are irrevocable.”

Let that sink in.

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20 thoughts on “What is the Romans 11 Olive Tree?”

  1. I believe in the Midrash you can find a place that says that Ruth and Naamah were grafted into Abraham.

  2. Correction: Talmud, Yevamoth 63a.

    ‘R. Eleazar further stated: What is meant by the text, And in thee shall the families of the earth be blessed? The Holy One, blessed be He, said to Abraham, ‘I have two goodly shoots to engraft on you: Ruth the Moabitess and Naamah the Ammonitess’. All the families of the earth, even the other families who live on the earth are blessed only for Israel’s sake. All the nations of the earth, even the ships that go from Gaul to Spain are blessed only for Israel’s sake.’

  3. @Steve P. — Same agricultural model, different analogy. In this case, the mechanism of blessing appears to be the acceptance of converts. But the portion you’ve quoted doesn’t explain how these two examples correspond with the more general statement about all the nations, and merely asserts that Israel is in some sense the reason for the general blessing. It seems to me that more context is required to make any sense of this passage. A later portion of the passage also centers on Israel as a reason why punishments enter the world. Since the greater context is about marriage, and the ways in which a wife may be a blessing or a punishment depending on the man’s worthiness, one would have to correlate the reference to two righteous women converts with the notion that they were examples of mutual blessing whereby they blessed Israel and were in turn blessed by Israel. Any attempt to extrapolate the notion of mutual blessing from this passage requires more stretching than this passage alone would seem to allow, but one would be justified to seek further examples.

  4. OBTW, Steve P. — In case you missed it, because I rather quickly glossed over it, my point was that this passage really doesn’t shed any light on Rav Shaul’s use of a grafting analogy in Rom.11.

  5. I agree with the tree being faith. In another thread, I think I said the new covenant goes to gentiles only through Israel and then followed up with an understanding about the tree. I realize (after the fact) that might look like I was saying Israel is the tree. [It can be said to be the commonwealth of Israel, which would be “those of faith” said another way, but people often get confused by that kind of talk and don’t differentiate it from Israel specifically.] I was referring to the fact that Torah speaks to Israel, was given to Israel.

    So we know the fulfillment of promises/prophecies doesn’t happen for gentiles without Jews. Even knowing anything about them comes from Jews. I happen to believe the “all” Israel statement is about all Israel at a particular time in the future, all then, yes all, as a matter of factual fulfillment. I don’t, for instance, think Judas will be getting in on this. Nor do I think Jews who don’t believe in Jesus are the same as Jews who reject/ed him then. Also, Jews who rejected Jesus were rejecting more that him as an individual; he said so.

  6. Interestingly enough, I got an email from Mark Nanos this morning with something of a rebuttal. He attached some of his writing about Romans 11 which, when I get the bandwidth, I’ll read through. I suspect I’m going to be writing a “part 2” to this blog post contrasting Nanos’ thoughts on the Olive Tree with PL’s.

  7. @James: as I’ve said many times before, I believe God will truly redeem all of Israel just as He promised. Paul was telling the Gentiles not to let being “grafted in” go to their (our) heads. The olive tree of faith has belonged to the Jews from the beginning. Any of the natural branches knocked off temporarily for the sake of the Gentiles, for our sake, will all be rejoined to the tree by Messiah. Even in being knocked off, temporarily losing the “faith connection,” it was done for the sake of the nations, so we owe a debt of gratitude, even to those Jews who currently reject the notion that Yeshua could possibly be the Messiah. That’s the majority of Jews across the past twenty centuries. Without their temporary absence from the root (and who is to say how absent they are since they cleave with great faith to Hashem), there would be no room… [I (Marleen) used for emphasis .]

    PL (Proclaim Liberty) has, if I was reading clearly, said it would be mistaken to think anyone, anyone, other than Yeshua could be part of the root (at least until the messianic age I’d add, delusional enough to think anyone lived the Torah as well and completely as he).

    I think what gentiles have is some TIME — not so much space like there wasn’t room (even though I do perceive Judas as being taken out and a different person, an apostle, going and preaching to gentiles).

    This really makes sense to me; even the branch, anchored in the root, a branch that leads to other branches who are not Jews is himself Jewish and had work to do that he was dedicated to while time allowed.

  8. Argh. I didn’t mean to italicize and bold the remainder of the last post.

    Here is what I meant to show up in print/display (what I typed in): “[I (Marleen) used for for emphasis.]” Then there wasn’t supposed to be bolding of the words “for emphasis” per se, but only of “sake” (earlier in the post). James had emphasized by italicizing, and I didn’t want the emphasis lost due to the fact I used italics to show I was quoting the entire excerpt of his paragraph.

    Now let’s see if what I’m trying to say this time around comes through the way I want this time.

  9. Nope.

    Here is what I meant to show up in print/display (what I typed in):

    “[I (Marleen) used

    for

    for emphasis.]”

    Then there wasn’t supposed to be bolding of the words “for emphasis” per se, but only of “sake” (earlier in the post). James had emphasized by italicizing, and I didn’t want the emphasis lost due to the fact I used italics to show I was quoting the entire excerpt of his paragraph.

  10. PL (Proclaim Liberty) has, if I was reading clearly, said it would be mistaken to think anyone, anyone, other than Yeshua could be part of the root (at least until the messianic age I’d add, delusional enough to think anyone lived the Torah as well and completely as he).

    I think what gentiles have is some TIME — not so much space like there wasn’t room (even though I do perceive Judas as being taken out and a different person, an apostle, going and preaching to gentiles).

    This really makes sense to me; even the branch, anchored in the root, a branch that leads to other branches who are not Jews is himself Jewish and had work to do that he was dedicated to while time allowed.

  11. So, that (1:40 PM repeat partial post) is me speaking, not me continuing to quote James. Apologies, too many apologies, for the appearance of misleading presentation (computer ignorance).

  12. What I actually asserted, Marleen, was that the root of the Jewish faith-community olive tree analogy was the Torah that provides the knowledge and insight which functions as nutritious sap.

    But if one were to stretch the analogy to view Rav Yeshua as the root (which I do believe is a bit forced and entirely unnecessary), then yes, I would limit this to him alone and not include any subsidiary branches as if he were also the trunk of the tree itself. Making him into the tree to which branches are grafted would ruin the analogy, because then it could not encompass the Jewish people prior to his era, and it raises all sorts of problems about identifying already-existing cultivated branches, and branches being broken off and potentially re-grafted.

    These and other problems are among the reasons that contributed to my realization that the logic of the analogy required the tree to represent the community of faith that was founded upon Torah.

  13. Okay. I was thinking of the nourishment to and through the root and into the tree as being Torah (but maybe that nourishment should be the Spirit). Still I can see, either way, that it might be better to associate Paul as not a branch directly connected to the root but rather a large branch farther out with still many other branches growing from it.

    Then again, his branch could be directly adjacent [while the timing seems off, or it would be “out” of time]. It was always God’s plan to have a (the) messiah who embodied the Torah principles, yes?

  14. @Marleen — Somehow I don’t think any benefit would result from attempting to map who may appear where on the tree, or how close to the main trunk or the root. It strikes me as invoking the same potential for rivalry as those cited in 1Cor.1:12 who contended over their relationship or closeness with Rav Shaul or with Apollos or with Kefa, or with the Messiah himself — or the lady in Mt.20:21 who wanted for her sons the prestige of sitting next to Rav Yeshua in his kingdom. I’m fairly sure that Rav Shaul did not intend his readers to scrutinize his analogy looking for such fine details, nor to lose sight of his primary point about faith and gratitude merely to have any place at all on the tree without any boasting by wild branches over native ones. [;^)]

  15. Well that’s an interesting take or turnaround from out of the blue. First of all, Paul isn’t a wild branch [:^)] — and second, we were already involved in speculation about the root and so on. Paul didn’t identify the root (as a person, concept, Torah or anything else). He didn’t name the tree either. And my take in the second paragraph of my last post (which was just another speculation, like the one in the first paragraph of my last post which was obviously not the same such that I had no driving attachment to either) would have any Jewish person truly connected to Torah in a faithful trusting way in the trunk (and coming into contact with the Spirit through it via the root of Torah).

    Like I said in a previous post, Jesus said those who rejected him were rejecting more than him as an individual (and “rejection” of him isn’t the same thing as not believing in him yet, either for not knowing about him at all or not being able to gather enough information or have time to fully evaluate it as to the claim). The only people who might be grafted on who were Jews would be those who had actually rejected him (actively involved in plotting against him or shouting out against him when stirred up to choose him for death — which, unlike most people Jew or gentile believing in Jesus for a couple millennia, I do not connect to all or most Jews at the time of his death).

    Probably also any actively plotting against the Jewish people or people of Israel or denigrating the Torah or HaShem ever in all history. But this potential of grafting back on I don’t think could include Judas (nor the likes of the Herod who sought the King out in his infancy to kill him). And grafting back on would not be needed for most Jews, even in the time of Paul or the time of Yeshua, as they had not been involved. I’m sorry these concepts are uncomfortable, but someone else wrote Romans; we are only reading it and trying to understand. Granted, that would be a big tree with such a thick trunk. Maybe that’s not a practical picture, and maybe I’m wrong that it’s a possibility.

  16. PL said:

    Somehow I don’t think any benefit would result from attempting to map who may appear where on the tree, or how close to the main trunk or the root.

    I agree. It’s tempting to overanalyze a metaphor, but I think attempting to position specific branches on the olive tree is going overboard. This is just Paul using metaphorical language to communicate a complex theological concept in terms his non-Jewish audience might understand.

    As Fraud is supposed to have said, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.”

  17. I do, bottom line, think it’s metaphor. But then why [did you] make a statement about most Jews being broken off and not in the root? I disagree with you that most are broken off — whether root, branch, trunk, all of the above, a & b, a & c, b & c.

    I tried also to clarify that PL hadn’t said they were broken off from the root either, but apparently he’s having none of that and I’ve probably got him all wrong anyway. Not to mention it’s time to drop the subject I didn’t bring up if I tie in the Spirit and…

    Oh, bother.
    — Winnie the Pooh

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