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.
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
Baker Book House Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan USA.
All rights reserved. Used by permission.
For usage information, please read the Baker Book House Copyright Statement.
[N] indicates this entry was also found in Nave's Topical Bible
[T] indicates this entry was also found in Torrey's Topical Textbook
[E] indicates this entry was also found in Easton's Bible Dictionary
[S] indicates this entry was also found in Smith's Bible Dictionary
Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Oil'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".