A distinction was made by the ancient Hebrews between anointing with oil in private use, as in making one's toilet (cukh), and anointing as a religious rite (mashach).
1. Ordinary Use:
(1) As regards its secular or ordinary use, the native olive oil, alone or mixed with perfumes, was commonly used for toilet purposes, the very poor naturally reserving it for special occasions only (Ruth 3:3). The fierce protracted heat and biting lime dust of Palestine made the oil very soothing to the skin, and it was applied freely to exposed parts of the body, especially to the face (Psalms 104:15).
(2) The practice was in vogue before David's time, and traces of it may be found throughout the Old Testament (see Deuteronomy 28:40; Ruth 3:3; 2 Samuel 12:20; 14:2; 2 Chron 28:15; Ezekiel 16:9; Micah 6:15; Daniel 10:3) and in the New Testament (Matthew 6:17, etc.). Indeed it seems to have been a part of the daily toilet throughout the East.
(3) To abstain from it was one token of mourning (2 Samuel 14:2; compare Matthew 6:17), and to resume it a sign that the mourning was ended (2 Samuel 12:20; 14:2; Daniel 10:3; Judith 10:3). It often accompanied the bath (Ruth 3:3; 2 Samuel 12:20; Ezekiel 16:9; Susanna 17), and was a customary part of the preparation for a feast (Ecclesiastes 9:8; Psalms 23:5). One way of showing honor to a guest was to anoint his head with oil (Psalms 23:5; Luke 7:46); a rarer and more striking way was to anoint his feet (Luke 7:38). In James 5:14, we have an instance of anointing with oil for medicinal purposes, for which see OIL.
2. Religious Use:
Anointing as a religious rite was practiced throughout the ancient East in application both to persons and to things.
(1) It was observed in Canaan long before the Hebrew conquest, and, accordingly, Weinel (Stade's Zeutschrift, XVIII, 50) holds that, as the use of oil for general purposes in Israel was an agricultural custom borrowed from the Canaanites, so the anointing with sacred oil was an outgrowth from its regular use for toilet purposes. It seems more in accordance with the known facts of the case and the terms used in description to accept the view set forth by Robertson Smith (Religion of the Semites, 2nd ed., 233, 383; compare Wellhausen, Reste des arabischen Heidenthums, 2nd ed., 125) and to believe that the cukh or use of oil for toilet purposes, was of agricultural and secular origin, and that the use of oil for sacred purposes, mashach, was in origin nomadic and sacrificial. Robertson Smith finds the origin of the sacred anointing in the very ancient custom of smearing the sacred fat on the altar (matstsebhah), and claims, rightly it would seem, that from the first there was a distinct and consistent usage, distinguishing the two terms as above.
(2) The primary meaning of mashach in Hebrew, which is borne out by the Arabic, seems to have been "to daub" or "smear." It is used of painting a ceiling in Jeremiah 22:14, of anointing a shield in Isaiah 21:5, and is, accordingly, consistently applied to sacred furniture, like the altar, in Exodus 29:36 and Daniel 9:24, and to the sacred pillar in
"where thou anointedst a pillar."
(3) The most significant uses of mashach, however, are found in its application, not to sacred things, but to certain sacred persons. The oldest and most sacred of these, it would seem, was the anointing of the king, by pouring oil upon his head at his coronation, a ceremony regarded as sacred from the earliest times, and observed religiously not in Israel only, but in Egypt and elsewhere (see Judges 9:8,15; 1 Samuel 9:16; 10:1; 2 Samuel 19:10; 1 Kings 1:39,45;
2 Kings 9:3,6; 11:12). Indeed such anointing appears to have been reserved exclusively for the king in the earliest times, which accounts for the fact that "the Lord's anointed" became a synonym for "king" (see
1 Samuel 12:3,5; 26:11; 2 Samuel 1:14; Psalms 20:6). It is thought by some that the practice originated in Egypt, and it is known to have been observed as a rite in Canaan at a very early day. Tell el-Amarna Letters 37 records the anointing of a king.
(4) Among the Hebrews it was believed not only that it effected a transference to the anointed one of something of the holiness and virtue of the deity in whose name and by whose representative the rite was performed, but also that it imparted a special endowment of the spirit of Yahweh (compare 1 Samuel 16:13; Isaiah 61:1). Hence the profound reverence for the king as a sacred personage, "the anointed" (Hebrew, meshiach YHWH), which passed over into our language through the Greek Christos, and appears as "Christ".
(5) In what is known today as the Priestly Code, the high priest is spoken of as "anointed" (Exodus 29:7; Leviticus 4:3; 8:12), and, in passages regarded by some as later additions to the Priestly Code, other priests also are thus spoken of (Exodus 30:30; 40:13-15). Elijah was told to anoint Elisha as a prophet (1 Kings 19:16), but seems never to have done so. 1 Kings 19:16 gives us the only recorded instance of such a thing as the anointing of a prophet.
Isaiah 61:1 is purely metaphorical (compare Dillmann on Leviticus 8:12-14 with ICC on Numbers 3:3; see also Nowack, Lehrbuch der hebraischen Archaologie, II, 124).
Jewish Encyclopedia, article "Anointing"; BJ, IV, ix, 10, DB, article "Anointing," etc.
George B. Eager