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Mount of Olives, Jerusalem

Three trees are mentioned in relation to the land in Deuteronomy 8:8-the fig, pomegranate, and olive. Of these, the olive is the most widely planted. The olive tree is native to the Mediterranean region but most of its relatives are currently found in Africa.

There are about 25 references to the olive tree and more than 160 references to the oil. Olive oil had four main uses in Bible days: as food, for illumination, as ointment, and in the manufacture of soap. It is probably safe to assume that when oil is mentioned in the Scriptures, it is always olive oil. Interestingly, we have no record in the Scriptures of olives themselves being eaten although the absence of such data does not mean they were not a food item. On the other hand, the Qu'ran records olives as a condiment.

Olive oil was a daily commodity for the children of Israel and this importance is reflected in several verses. Disobedience to God would result in a loss of the olive crop (Deuteronomy 28:40). The oil honored both God and men (Judges 9:9) and was a component of the anointing oil of the high priest (Exodus 30:24). Large supplies of oil were a sign of prosperity. The excess oil can be stored for up to six years; such stores were of national concern. For example, in the days of King David, Joash was given the important charge of oil supplies (I Chronicles 27:28).

The olive tree is one of the most familiar trees in the entire Middle East. The oil is prized by Palestinian Arabs who use it almost daily. A simple Palestinian breakfast is just bread and olive oil, often dipped first into a spicy mixture of herbs and salt.

Vast areas are planted in olives; these thrive on the steep and rocky slopes (see Deuteronomy 32:13) in carefully maintained terraces. Cultivation was probably even more widespread in Bible times.

Olives are very attractive trees as indicated in Hosea 14:6 and Psalm 128:3. In the dry season the olive tree with its green leaves contrasts with the dry, brown hills. Leaves are evergreen, dark bluegreen above and gray beneath. With a slight breeze, the trees will appear silverish and in the dry season the wind makes the hillsides glisten.

The first reference to the olive is to the leaf (Genesis 8:11). By seeing the leaf, Noah knew that he could now establish a race in the "new earth".

The olive tree does not become very tall and lives for up to one thousand years producing fruit during its long life. Trunks often become gnarled, bent and hollow inside, yet the tree continues to produce fruit. Because of the growth pattern, the wood is not suitable for building but is hard with an attractive grain so is used today for the manufacture of small souvenirs. The wood is mentioned only in I Kings 6 for the construction several articles in the temple. It would be difficult to find a piece of olive wood large enough to make a door. It has been suggested that this could be sandalwood, not native to Israel, but imported from India. Possibly the doors were made from a composite of many small pieces of olive wood fastened together.

The remarkable root system of the olive tree is the secret of its survival in its dry, rocky, habitat. To produce a good crop, however, the trees need a great deal of attention throughout the year--careful pruning, cultivating, and fertilizing.

One of the characteristics of the olive tree is the production of sprouts at its base. Today, olives are often grown on grafted stock, that is, a rapidly growing rootstock is selected and a good quality scion is put in it. But in Bible days olives were often grown directly from the sprouts. The olive farmer would select sprouts from his best trees, carefully remove them, and plant them where they would be carefully tended. Psalm 128:3 may be a reference to this practice-"your sons will be like olive shoots round your table".

About the first of May, the olive begins to flower. The flowers are only slightly scented, white, and small. They come and go scarcely without notice. Olive is from a family of plants well known for fragrance including lilac and jasmine.

In the autumn, olives begin to produce their fruit. Even today the olives are harvested as in Bible times by carefully beating the trees with sticks and then picking up the olives from the ground. When ripe, the olive is jet black and very attractive. If you enjoy olives, you would be tempted to eat one right off the tree! Looks are deceiving! The fresh olive is very bitter and unpalatable. In order to be used, the olive must be crushed to express the oil. Until recently, olives were crushed in villages between giant stones driven by draft animals. Today hydraulic presses are used.

In addition to routine use in homes, olive oil was used in the lamps in the tabernacle (Leviticus 24:2). It was also used as a facial ointment (Psalm 104:15), necessary in an arid land.

The wild olive tree is mentioned only in Nehemiah 8:15 and Romans 11:17. The actual identity of the wild olive is the subject of a great deal of debate. For example, Moldenke and Moldenke consider it be a member of the Eleagnaceae but since this is a small tree and totally unrelated to the olive, it does not seem to fit the text. The word in the references cited above is shemen, meaning grease-- an allusion to oil which could be extracted from the tree. Recently, Terra [Terra, J. 1996. Wild and cultivated olive (Olea europaea L.): a new approach to an old problem using inorganic analyses of modern wood and archaeologial charcoal. Review of Palaeobotany and Palynology 91: 393-397] showed that wild and cultivated olives can be distinguished based on a chemical analysis of elements in the charcoal. He suggests the following formal taxonomy. The cultivated olive is Olea europaea var. sativa, the wild form as O. europaea var. oleaster, and the weedy form as O. europaea var. sylvestris. This work supports the concept that olive is native to the Medterranean region since the last glaciation and that the Near East is the geographical origin of olive cultivation.

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Olive, Olives, and Oil References References

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