Friday, May 20, 2005

Extending the olive branch

I bought a small olive tree today from a Ballard neighbor who sells them on Craig's List.

Since our yard is small, the plan is to put the tree in a large terracotta pot and keep it pruned to a flame shape rather than letting it spread. This meant removing one shoot that was coming up alongside the main trunk.

I snipped the shoot and found myself in the unusual position of being able to literally extend an olive branch. I went inside and extended it to Zorg.

"Did we have a fight?" he asked.

I asked Zorg, who has a background in religious studies, where the expression "to extend an olive branch" comes from.

Zorg explains:

The ideas of offering an olive branch as a sign of peace, and the dove as a symbol of peace, come from the story of Noah. The story begins in Genesis 6 and tells how God looked down on the world of man and found it corrupt and wicked, but "Noah found favor in the eyes of God." So God decided to wipe the earth clean of corruption and begin anew with Noah and his family.

God told Noah about his plan and gave him the instructions for a boat (or ark) that would hold 2 of each animal on earth. He said, "I will send rain on the earth for forty days and forty nights, and I will wipe from the face of the earth every living creature I have made." Noah was 600 years old when he built the ark.
Another interesting biblical factoid is that before the flood, men lived long lives. Noah was still middle aged by those standards. Ultimately, he lived 950 years. (The oldest man of course, was Methusaleh who clocked 969 years. Look at Genesis 5 to see how long the patriarchs lived. ) After the flood, the span of a man's life was whittled down to "three score and ten years" (70 years), according to Psalm 90:10. The psalmist laments of folks living four score and ten years that "yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away." In other words, it ain't no fun to get old.

In Genesis 8:6-12 the story goes, "After 40 days Noah opened the window he had made in the ark and sent out a raven, and it kept flying back and forth until the water had dried up from the earth. Then he sent out a dove to see if the water had receded from the surface of the ground. But the dove could find no place to set its feet because there was water over all the surface of the earth; so it returned to Noah in the ark. He reached out his hand and took the dove and brought it back to himself in the ark. He waited seven more days and again sent out the dove from the ark. When the dove returned to him in the evening, there in its beak was a freshly plucked olive leaf! Then Noah knew that the water had receded from the earth. He waited seven more days and sent the dove out again, but this time it did not return to him."

The interpretation I heard was that the dove did not return because it had found sufficient land and foliage to sustain itself. Thus, Noah knew that the flood waters were receding.

In Genesis 9:7, after Noah and his family have come out of the ark and released the animals, God repeats the first commandment he gave to Adam and Eve, "be fruitful and multiply." He then promised that he wouldn't destroy the Earth again, and in Genesis 9:12 he set the rainbow as a sign of the covenant.

Genesis 9:18 tells us, "The sons of Noah who came out of the ark were Shem, Ham and Japheth. (Ham was the father of Canaan.) These were the three sons of Noah, and from them came the people who were scattered over the earth." If you're feeling sorry for their wives over having to do all that work, at least they only had to do 1/3 of what Eve had to do!

In Greek mythology predating the Bible, the olive branch symbolized wisdom and peace, and is often associated with the goddess Athena, who gave an olive tree to the city that was to become Athens. Historically, Greek ambassadors offered an olive branch of peace to indicate their intentions.

The olive branch appears in flags and symbols in many Westerns and Near Eastern countries and organizations, including:

  • the United Nations symbol, with the world flanked by a wreath of crossed olive branches;
  • the Great Seal of the USA, where the eagle carries in its right talon an olive branch with 13 leaves to represent peace between the original member States (this also appears on the flag of the Virgin Islands);
  • the flag of the league of Arab States, which has an upturned crescent encircled by a gold chain and olive wreath;
  • the flag of Cyprus, which has crossed olive branches beneath a map of the island to represent peace between the Greek and Turkish populations; and
  • the flag of Eritrea, which includes a golden olive wreath and stem, originally inspired by the flag of the United Nations
The olive branch also appears on the US Presidential Seal, where the eagle clutches the branch in one talon and a group of arrows in the other talon. I found it heartening to read that in 1945 President Harry Truman had the seal redesigned so that the eagle no longer faced the arrows but now faces the olive branch.

1 comment:

  1. Greek mythology predates the Bible? I think not. It certainly predates the Christian Bible aka the "New" Testament. But it does not predate much of the Tenach, or any of the origin stories in Genesis. The Noah story is widely agreed to have derived from the much older, commonly dated to 2000 BCE (or so.)

    By contrast, the Greek poet Homer is dated to around 700 BCE. Much of what we think of as Greek mythology today dates to about 1200 BCE.