The most common word for "oil" in the Old Testament is the Hebrew word shemen [,m,v]. It occurs 192 times, and in the large majority of those cases it refers to "olive oil, " so much so that the expression "tree(s)/wood of oil" ( 1 Kings 6:23 1 Kings 6:31-33 ; Isa 41:19 ) is a natural way to refer to "olive wood." In one place it refers to the "oil of myrrh" (i.e., an aromatic gum resin that comes from a shrub-like tree) used in the beautification process of Esther and other women in the Persian royal harem ( Esther 2:12 ). The New Testament Greek word that corresponds to Hebrew shemen [,m,v], "oil, " is elaion [e[laion]. It occurs eleven times and refers exclusively to "olive oil." The Mount of Olives was named for its numerous olive groves and the olive oil presses located at its base. Jesus spent his last evening there ("Gethsemane" = Heb. gat shemen [,m,v], lit. "press of oil" see Matt 26:36 ; Mark 14:32 ). The corresponding Aramaic word is mesah, "(anointing) oil, " (2 occurrences, Ezra 6:9 ; 7:22 ), which refers to the oil needed for the temple cult and is directly related to the Hebrew verb mashach [j;v'm], "to anoint."
The term yitshar [r'v.tIy], "fresh oil, " occurs twenty-one times, most frequently in parallel with "new wine, " referring to the fresh olive oil produce of the land, the stores of which were a sign of the Lord's blessing of prosperity ( 2 Chron 32:28 ; Jer 31:12 ; Hosea 2:8 Hosea 2:22 ; Joel 2:19 Joel 2:24 ) while the loss or lack of it was a sign of his judgment ( Deut 28:51 ; Joel 1:10 ; Hag 1:11 ). The firstfruits or tithe of "fresh oil" went to the priests and Levites. Zechariah 4:14 uses this word to refer to Joshua the high priest and Zerubbabel the governor as "the two who are anointed (lit. the sons of oil') to serve the Lord of all the earth." The image of two olive trees supplying one lampstand with oil suggests that these two men together were the means through which the Lord would bless Israel.
Olive trees took a long time to grow and mature, but they also lasted for hundreds of years. Therefore, a good oil supply was a sign of stability and prosperity (e.g., Deut 8:8 ; 33:24 ; 2 Kings 20:13 ; Psalm 92:10 ; Prov 21:20 ; Isa 39:2 ; Joel 2:19 Joel 2:24 ). The lack of oil was a sign of the curse of God and agricultural disaster (e.g., Deut 28:40 ; Joel 1:10 ). As a sign of judgment Micah predicted that the nation of Israel "will press olives" but not have the opportunity to "use the oil" (6:15).
Oil was used as a commodity of trade or personal income, for various kinds of common daily consumption (as part of the bread diet in tabernacle grain offerings, as fuel for lamps in the tabernacle, or homes, as a lubricant for one's hair and skin, sometimes with a special sense of honor, as an aromatic substance, as a medication, or in healing contexts, for royal and religious ritual procedures (see below), and in figurative expressions (e.g., for fertility and prosperity [ Deut 33:24 ; Job 29:6 ] "oil of joy" [ Psalm 45:7 ; Isa 61:3 ; Heb 1:9 ]).
Jacob anointed his memorial pillar at Bethel with oil and thus sanctified it as "the house of God" ( Gen 28:18 ; 35:14 ). The practice of anointing kings with oil is well known in Israel. In this case it appears to have the effect of consecrating them to their office. The same idea is present in the consecration of the tabernacle and especially the priesthood. Even though the Old Testament records the anointing of the priests in the days of Moses, some critical scholars have argued that, historically, priests were not anointed in Israel or generally in the ancient Near East until the postexilic period. A recent text from Emar (ca. 1300 b.c.), however, refers to the anointing of a priestess there.
According to Exodus 30:22-33 Moses was to mix a special "sacred anointing oil" (vv. 25, 31). This recipe was not to be used by anyone else and none of it was to be poured on any common person. It was limited to particular uses in the tabernacle (vv. 31-33). First, Moses was to use this oil to anoint the whole tabernacle, all its furniture (even the ark of the covenant), and all the vessels used therein (vv. 26-28). By this means Moses would "consecrate them so they will be most holy, and whatever touches them will be (or must be') holy" (v. 29 cf. Exod 29:37 ). The "will be" translation would mean that any person or thing that touched the altar (or other anointed parts of the tabernacle) would contract holiness therefrom as if "holiness" were contagious. A person who contracted such holiness would be liable to death (see, e.g., the warning to the Kohathites in Num 4:15 ). The "must be" translation would only suggest that it was forbidden for anything or anyone that was not "holy" to come into direct contact with the altar (etc.). The contrast between these two terms in this verse suggests the latter translation.
Second, Moses was to use this oil to anoint the priests and thereby consecrate them to minister in the consecrated tabernacle (v. 30 cf. Exod 29:7 ; 40:12-15 ; Lev 8:12 ). In this way they would become "holy" ( Leviticus 21:6 Leviticus 21:8 ) and could therefore come in direct contact with the "most holy" tabernacle, its furniture, and its vessels (see above). This created a grading effect so that the tabernacle, its furniture, and its vessels were "most holy" and could be touched only by the "holy" priests. The priests therefore became the mediators that stood between the "common" people and the immediate presence and holiness of God in the tabernacle. The people could come in contact with the priests (i.e., the "holy" men) but they could not come in contact with the "most holy" parts of the tabernacle that had been anointed with the "sacred anointing oil."
Richard E. Averbeck
Bibliography. J. A. Balchin, ISBE, 3:585-86; D. E. Fleming, The Installation of Baal's High Priestess at Emar; R. J. Forbes, Studies in Ancient Technology; R. T. France, NIDNTT, 2:710-13; H. N. Moldenke and A. L. Moldenke, Plants of the Bible; J. F. Ross, IDB, 3:592-93; H. Schlier, TDNT, 2:470-73; J. A. Thompson, IDB, 3:593-95; J. C. Trever, IDB, 3:593; R. de Vaux, Ancient Israel; M. Zohary, Plants of the Bible.
For usage information, please read the Baker Book House Copyright Statement.
Only olive oil seems to have been used among the Hebrews. It was used for many purposes: for anointing the body or the hair ( Exodus 29:7 ; 2 Sam 14:2 ; Psalms 23:5 ; 92:10 ; 104:15 ; Luke 7:46 ); in some of the offerings ( Exodus 29:40 ; Leviticus 7:12 ; Numbers 6:15 ; 15:4 ), but was excluded from the sin-offering ( Leviticus 5:11 ) and the jealousy-offering ( Numbers 5:15 ); for burning in lamps ( Exodus 25:6 ; 27:20 ; Matthew 25:3 ); for medicinal purposes ( Isaiah 1:6 ; Luke 10:34 ; James 5:14 ); and for anointing the dead ( Matthew 26:12 ; Luke 23:56 ).
Of the numerous substances, animal and vegetable, which were known to the ancients as yielding oil, the olive berry is the one of which most frequent mention is made in the Scriptures.
oil (shemen; elaion):
2. Production and Storage
(1) As a Commodity of Exchange
(2) As a Cosmetic
(3) As a Medicine
(4) As a Food
(5) As an Illuminant
(6) In Religious Rites
4. Figurative Uses
Shemen, literally, "fat," corresponds to the common Arabic senin of similar meaning, although now applied to boiled butter fat.
Another Hebrew word, zayith (zeth), "olive," occurs with shemen in several passages (Exodus 27:20; 30:24; Leviticus 24:2). The corresponding Arabic zeit, a contraction of zeitun, which is the name for the olive tree as well as the fruit, is now applied to oils in general, to distinguish them from solid fats. Zeit usually means olive oil, unless some qualifying name indicates another oil. A corresponding use was made of shemen, and the oil referred to so many times in the Bible was olive oil (except Esther 2:12). Compare this with the Greek elaion, "oil," a neuter noun from elaia, "olive," the origin of the English word "oil." yitshar, literally, "glistening," which occurs less frequently, is used possibly because of the light-giving quality of olive oil, or it may have been used to indicate fresh oil, as the clean, newly pressed oil is bright. meshach, a Chaldaic word, occurs twice:
2. Production and Storage:
Olive oil has been obtained, from the earliest times, by pressing the fruit in such a way as to filter out the oil and other liquids from the residue. The Scriptural references correspond so nearly to the methods practiced in Syria up to the present time, and the presses uncovered by excavators at such sites as Gezer substantiate so well the similarity of these methods, that a description of the oil presses and modes of expression still being employed in Syria will be equally true of those in use in early Israelite times.
The olives to yield the greatest amount of oil are allowed to ripen, although some oil is expressed from the green fruit. As the olive ripens it turns black. The fruit begins to fall from the trees in September, but the main crop is gathered after the first rains in November. The olives which have not fallen naturally or have not been blown off by the storms are beaten from the trees with long poles (compare Deuteronomy 24:20). The fruit is gathered from the ground into baskets and carried on the heads of the women, or on donkeys to the houses or oil presses. Those carried to the houses are preserved for eating. Those carried to the presses are piled in heaps until fermentation begins. This breaks down the oil cells and causes a more abundant flow of oil. The fruit thus softened may be trod out with the feet (Micah 6:15)--which is now seldom practiced--or crushed in a handmill. Such a mill was uncovered at Gezer beside an oil press. Stone mortars with wooden pestles are also used. Any of these methods crushes the fruit, leaving only the stone unbroken, and yields a purer oil (Exodus 27:20). The method now generally practiced of crushing the fruit and kernels with an edgerunner mill probably dates from Roman times. These mills are of crude construction. The stones are cut from native limestone and are turned by horses or mules. Remains of huge stones of this type are found near the old Roman presses in Mt. Lebanon and other districts.
The second step in the preparation of the oil is the expression. In districts where the olives are plentiful and there is no commercial demand for the oil, the householders crush the fruit in a mortar, mix the crushed mass with water, and after the solid portions have had time to settle, the pure sweet oil is skimmed from the surface of the water. This method gives a delicious oil, but is wasteful. This is no doubt the beaten oil referred to in connection with religious ceremonials (Exodus 27:20). Usually the crushed fruit is spread in portions on mats of reeds or goats' hair, the corners of which are folded over the mass, and the packets thus formed are piled one upon another between upright supports. These supports were formerly two stone columns or the two sections of a split stone cylinder hollowed out within to receive the mats. Large hollow tree trunks are still similarly used in Syria. A flat stone is next placed on top, and then a heavy log is placed on the pile in such a manner that one end can be fitted into a socket made in a wall or rock in close proximity to the pile. This socket becomes the fulcrum of a large lever of the second class. The lever is worked in the same manner as that used in the wine presses (see WINE PRESS). These presses are now being almost wholly superseded by hydraulic presses. The juice which runs from the press, consisting of oil, extractive matter and water, is conducted to vats or run into jars and allowed to stand until the oil separates. The oil is then drawn off from the surface, or the watery fluid and sediment is drawn away through a hole near the bottom of the jar, leaving the oil in the container. (For the construction of the ancient oil presses, see The Excavations of Gezer, by Macalister.) The oil, after standing for some time to allow further sediment to settle, is stored either in huge earthenware jars holding 100 to 200 gallons, or in underground cisterns (compare 1 Chronicles 27:28) holding a much larger quantity. Some of these cisterns in Beirut hold several tons of oil each (2 Chronicles 11:11; 32:28; Nehemiah 13:5,12; Proverbs 21:20). In the homes the oil is kept in small earthen jars of various shapes, usually having spouts by which the oil can be easily poured (1 Kings 17:12; 2 Kings 4:2). In 1 Samuel 16:13; 1 Kings 1:39, horns of oil are mentioned.
(1) As a Commodity of Exchange.
Olive oil when properly made and stored will keep sweet for years, hence, was a good form of merchandise to hold. Oil is still sometimes given in payment (1 Kings 5:11; Ezekiel 27:17; Hosea 12:1; Luke 16:6; Revelation 18:13).
(2) As a Cosmetic.
From earliest times oil was used as a cosmetic, especially for oiling the limbs and head. Oil used in this way was usually scented (see OINTMENT). Oil is still used in this manner by the Arabs, principally to keep the skin and scalp soft when traveling in dry desert regions where there is no opportunity to bathe. Sesame oil has replaced olive oil to some extent for this purpose. Homer, Pliny and other early writers mention its use for external application. Pliny claimed it was used to protect the body against the cold. Many Biblical references indicate the use of oil as a cosmetic (Exodus 25:6; Deuteronomy 28:40; Ruth 3:3; 2 Samuel 12:20; 14:2; Esther 2:12; Psalms 23:5; 92:10; 104:15; 141:5; Ezekiel 16:9; Micah 6:15; Luke 7:46).
(3) As a Medicine.
From early Egyptian literature down to late Arabic medical works, oil is mentioned as a valuable remedy. Many queer prescriptions contain olive oil as one of their ingredients. The good Samaritan used oil mingled with wine to dress the wounds of the man who fell among robbers (Mark 6:13; Luke 10:34.)
(4) As a Food.
Olive oil replaces butter to a large extent in the diet of the people of the Mediterranean countries. In Bible lands food is fried in it, it is added to stews, and is poured over boiled vegetables, such as beans, peas and lentils, and over salads, sour milk, cheese and other foods as a dressing. A cake is prepared from ordinary bread dough which is smeared with oil and sprinkled with herbs before baking (Leviticus 2:4). At times of fasting oriental Christians use only vegetable oils, usually olive oil, for cooking. For Biblical references to the use of oil as food see Numbers 11:8; Deuteronomy 7:13; 14:23; 32:13; 1 Kings 17:12,14,16; 2 Kings 4:2,6,7; 1 Chronicles 12:40; 2 Chronicles 2:10,15; Ezra 3:7; Proverbs 21:17; Ezekiel 16:13,18; Hosea 2:5,8,22; Haggai 2:12; Revelation 6:6.
(5) As an Illuminant.
Olive oil until recent years was universally used for lighting purposes (see LAMP). In Palestine are many homes where a most primitive form of lamp similar to those employed by the Israelites is still in use. The prejudice in favor of the exclusive use of olive oil for lighting holy places is disappearing. Formerly any other illuminant was forbidden (compare Exodus 25:6; 27:20; 35:8,14,28; 39:37; Matthew 25:3,4,8).
(6) In Religious Rites.
This was adopted by the early Christians in their ceremonies (James 5:14), and is still used in the consecration of crowned rulers and church dignitaries.
Offerings, votive and otherwise:
The custom of making offerings of oil to holy places still survives in oriental religions. One may see burning before the shrines along a Syrian roadside or in the churches, small lamps whose supply of oil is kept renewed by pious adherents. In Israelite times oil was used in the meal offering, in the consecration offerings, offerings of purification from leprosy, etc. (Exodus 29:2; 40:9; Leviticus 2:2; Numbers 4:9; Deuteronomy 18:4; 1 Chronicles 9:29; 2 Chronicles 31:5; Nehemiah 10:37,39; 13:5,12; Ezekiel 16:18,19; 45; 46; Micah 6:7).
In connection with the burial of the dead:
Egyptian papyri mention this use. In the Old Testament no direct mention is made of the custom. Jesus referred to it in connection with His own burial (Matthew 26:12; Mark 14:3-8; Luke 23:56; John 12:3-8; 19:40).
4. Figurative Uses:
Abundant oil was a figure of general prosperity (Deuteronomy 32:13; 33:24; 2 Kings 18:32; Job 29:6; Joel 2:19,24). Languishing of the oil indicated general famine (Joel 1:10; Haggai 1:11). Joy is described as the oil of joy (Isaiah 61:3), or the oil of gladness (Psalms 45:7; Hebrews 1:9). Ezekiel prophesies that the rivers shall run like oil, i.e. become viscous (Ezekiel 32:14). Words of deceit are softer than oil (Psalms 55:21; Proverbs 5:3). Cursing becomes a habit with the wicked as readily as oil soaks into bones (Psalms 109:18). Excessive use of oil indicates wastefulness (Proverbs 21:17), while the saving of it is a characteristic of the wise (Proverbs 21:20). Oil was carried into Egypt, i.e. a treaty was made with that country (Hosea 12:1).
James A. Patch
These files are public domain.