In the evening the dove came back to him,
and there in its bill was a plucked-off olive leaf!
We recognize Noah’s dove with its olive leaf as symbol of peace. News media routinely sort politicians into hawks and doves; identifying the warlike and the irenic.
The olive leaf in this verse -- which we usually call an olive branch -- represents the foundation of civilized life in the ancient world. The Mediterranean cook began every meal with olive oil; she could hardly imagine eating without it. When the jug of oil went empty, the people went hungry. The oil was used for food in cookery, for medicinal massage, and for religious rituals. Priests, prophets and kings were anointed with olive oil. This was their chrism, which made them God's chosen, which is variously translated as messiah, Christ, or elect. The oily earthiness represents the soil from which we’re taken.
The olive tree is incredibly sturdy; an orchard can be fruitful after hundreds of years of careful husbandry. but an orchard was more than wealth; it belonged to a family that tended it for many generations. Every time the farmer pruned his trees he reenacted the work of his ancestors. His life, livelihood and identity were invested in the soil, air and trees of the family orchard.
But the olive tree – even a thousand year old tree -- is vulnerable to anyone with an ax. By destroying olive orchards, an army exterminates its enemy and prevents them from ever recovering. Even a defeated army, before retreating, can accomplish that in a matter of hours.
The “gospel” appears in the “plucked-off olive leaf.” Despite the catastrophic flood, the olive trees survived. God's wrath against sinful humanity has not completely destroyed the vitality, resourcefulness and blessings of the past.
Like the leather skins given to Adam and Eve and the tattoo that protected Cain from assault, the olive leaf is an assurance of God’s continuing affection after the disaster. This token is a long way from the friendship granted to Abraham, the intimacy with Moses, and the shield of protection around King David; and it pales beside the presence of Jesus who is “the way, the truth and the life!” but the olive leaf is an assurance of God’s abiding favor given to all Earth's inhabitants, the descendants of Noah.