Olives and olive trees have a long and storied history in the Mediterranean region. One of the seven species of produce associated with the land of Israel (Deut. 8:8)--like pomegranates--olive oil, in particular, was a key part of the local economy and played a large role in religious rituals. “The wise store up choice food and olive oil, but fools gulp theirs down” (Proverbs 21:20).
Olive trees are particularly well suited for the semi-arid Mediterranean climate and rocky soil of Israel’s north and central sections. Whether grown singly or in huge groves, olives were pressed for oil using carved circular stones and wooden beams, known in ancient Hebrew as a beit ha-bad. Olive oil was an important commodity that was used every day for food preparation, for light, for healing and for worship.
Modern science has shown that olive oil has antimicrobial and antifungal properties, but it was applied as a medicinal ointment thousands of years earlier! In the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10), oil and wine are used to treat the wounds of a man beaten by robbers. The sick are invited to be anointed with olive oil in James 5, and Jesus’s disciples anoint and heal the ill with oil in Mark 6.
Kings and priests were anointed with olive oil as a symbol of divine favor. It was ritually pressed and purified for use in the Holy Temple. The Bible is filled with references to the lamps of the Temple being lit with oil (e.g., Exodus 27:20), and it was part of sacrificial offerings in the Temple as well (e.g., Leviticus 7:12).
Olive oil, an everyday material, was elevated to a starring role in miraculous occurrences. In the story of Hannukah (recounted in 1 Maccabees 2), a small band of Jews triumph over the ruling Greeks. They win back the defiled Holy Temple and purify it. Jewish tradition maintains that a single cruse of pure olive oil burned for eight days, allowing enough time to press and purify more oil for holy purposes. In 2 Kings 4, the prophet Elisha helps a poor widow to pay her debts with a single jar of olive oil; in his presence, the oil continues to flow until it has filled every vessel of the widow and her neighbors, giving her enough to sell and support her family.
The health benefits of olives and olive oil continue to be part of our contemporary lives. As imperfect human beings, we continue to strive to achieve the multiple blessings laid out for us in Psalm 128, including being exemplary for “your children, [who] will be like olive shoots around your table.”