The Olive Branch in the Bible

Long before the ancient Greeks used the olive branch as a symbol of peace and victory, the Bible recorded that the dove brought an olive branch to the ark as a message that the Great Flood had ended. Here’s what happened:

Following the Great Flood, Noah dispatched birds from the ark to see if the water had receded. First he sent a raven, but it found no place to rest and came back to the ark. Then he sent a dove, but the bird returned as well. Then, on the 301st day of the Great Flood, Noah sent the dove yet again. The dove stayed away all day, and then “the dove came in to him in the evening, and, lo, in her mouth was an olive leaf plucked off; and Noah knew that the waters were abated from off the earth.”1

Why an olive?

Olives Are Hardy

Some explain that olive trees are very hardy and therefore able to withstand extreme conditions. Although the foliage was unable to survive the flood, the olive tree itself did. Thus, the dove bringing back the olive branch indicated that the flood waters had receded enough for leaves to start growing again.2

Now, the Bible is very sparing in its words. The verse could have sufficed with informing us that the dove returned with leaves, without specifying the species. What is the deeper significance of the olive branch, and why do we need to know that the dove held it in her mouth?

Bitter Is Better

Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (the foremost biblical commentator, known as Rashi, 1040-1105) quotes the following teaching of the Talmud:3 “The dove said, ‘Better, let my food be as bitter as an olive from the hands of G‑d and not as sweet as honey from the hands of flesh and blood.’”4

As the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, explains, the olive branch teaches us that rather than placing our trust in the promises of peace from man, we should place our trust in G‑d. Even if in the moment, it may seem a bit “bitter,” ultimately, it is this promise and covenant that will prevail.

Thus, the true symbolism of the olive branch differs greatly from the conventional idea that it symbolizes a “peaceful new world.”5 (In fact, although the olive branch as a symbol of peace seems to originate from the Bible, it was historically never used by the Jews as such.)

This lesson was particularly pertinent after the Great Flood, an era when people set out to rebuild civilization based on mutual cooperation, but ultimately rebelled against G‑d by building the Tower of Babel and were dispersed throughout the lands. So too in our day, when we work together to promote peace, we must not do so on account of our trust in mankind over G‑d.

Placing our trust in G‑d, rather than man, will usher in the era of true peace with the coming of Moshiach—may it be speedily in our days!