Israel’s Seven Species: Olive Oil

December 2014

Deuteronomy is a book of expectations. In this final book of the Pentateuch, God stokes the Israelites’ expectations concerning their entrance into the long-awaited “Promised Land”, while at the same time, He explains the rules that they are expected to follow.  One of these expectations is the agricultural bounty of the land of Canaan, often summed up by the so-called seven species.  During the time of Jesus, only these seven varieties[1] were presented in the Temple at Jerusalem as offerings of the first fruits festival (Ex 34:26).

“For the Lord your God is bringing you to a good land, a land of brooks, springs, and fountains flowing forth in valleys and hills, a land of wheat, barley, grapevines, figs, and pomegranates, of olive oil and honey (Dt 8:7-8).”

The OLIVE is a stout evergreen fruit-bearing tree native to Israel and the Mediterranean region.  A most unique, resolute tree, because of its deep roots into  soil, it can live for hundreds, even, some thousands of years in spite of fire, drought, and disease.  In the Bible, the olive, and specifically its leaf, first appears in the mouth of a dove returning to Noah and bringing hope that life continues after the Flood.[2]  The olive tree’s gnarled and twisted trunk covered by silver-green leaves which shimmer in the sunlight aptly depicts its rugged and resilient existence. 

Olives are harvested in September-October when the branches are beaten or shaken to cause the fruit to fall onto blankets spread below its limbs.  The olive fruit is naturally bitter and must be cured in order to eat, but its pressed oil is its most valuable and highly-prized commodity.  In Jotham’s parable of the trees in the book of Judges, the olive is the first tree that is asked to be king of the trees, highlighting the olive’s primacy in the dendrological pecking order of the Bible.[3]  Olive oil was used throughout the ancient world as currency in trade, commerce, and taxes.[4]  Olive oil’s healthy monounsaturated fat was a key part of the daily diet during biblical times and still today in Mediterranean region.

Olive oil is intricately connected with the Messiah, or the “anointed one.”  In Hebrew, to anoint someone or something with oil is mashach (משח) from which we get the word, Messiah.  Olive oil was used to anoint those chosen by God to represent Him before the people, like kings, priests, and prophets.[5]  When Jesus read Isaiah 61:1 in Nazareth’s synagogue, “the Spirit of the Lord is on me, because He has anointed me to preach good news to the poor,” he was claiming this same divine anointing to speak God’s word.[6]  As can be seen, anointing with olive oil came to represent the presence and the power of God’s Spirit.[7]

So too, God’s Spirit is found resting on David’s descendent in Isa 11:1, portrayed as a shoot and branch springing forth from the olive stump and roots.  The Apostle Paul paradoxically depicted the nation of Israel as a cultivated olive tree which had a wild olive shoot (i.e. Gentiles) grafted into its root.[8]  Grafting olive trees has been done for millennia as a way to produce better fruit and hardier trees.  Yet, Paul’s ironic allegory would have challenged his readers’ theological assumptions.

Olive oil was also used as fuel for lamps, bringing light to dark places.[9]   In particular, only olive oil was to be used for Israel’s tabernacle and temple.[10]  The Jewish holiday of Hanukkah, also known as the Festival of Lights, has customarily focused on the miracle of the Temple’s olive oil.[11]  This olive oil miracle is a Talmudic tradition which describes how after Judah Maccabee freed the Jerusalem Temple from the Greeks, only one day’s worth of undefiled oil was found.  But instead of lasting for one day, the Temple’s menorah lamp amazingly burned for eight days until new olive oil could be obtained.[12]

[1] Mishna Bikkurim 1,3

[2] Gen 8:11

[3] Jud 9:7-15

[4] See Samaria Ostraca dated to the 8th cen BCE.  Also Lk 16:5-6.

[5] 1 Sam 16:13; 1 Kgs 1:34; Ex 29:7; Lev 8:12; 1 Kin 19:16; Ps 115:15

[6] Lk 4:16-21

[7] Zech 4; I Jn 2:27

[8] Rom 9:17-24

[9] Mt 25:3-4

[10] Ex 27:20; 35:14-15

[11] Josephus Jewish Antiquities xii. 7, § 7

[12] T. Shabbat 2; T. Shabbat 21b

Read More About Israel's Seven Species (Deut. 8:8)