Bible History Online
International Standard Bible Encyclopedia
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 (Ex 27:20; 30:24; Lev 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 Est 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: Ezr 6:9; 7:22. elaion, is the New Testament term.
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 Dt 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 (Mic 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 (Ex 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 (Ex 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 Ch 27:28) holding a much larger quantity. Some of these cisterns in Beirut hold several tons of oil each (2 Ch 11:11; 32:28; Neh 13:5,12; Prov 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 Ki 17:12; 2 Ki 4:2). In 1 Sam 16:13; 1 Ki 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 Ki 5:11; Ezek 27:17; Hos 12:1; Lk 16:6; Rev 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 (Ex 25:6; Dt 28:40; Ruth 3:3; 2 Sam 12:20; 14:2; Est 2:12; Ps 23:5; 92:10; 104:15; 141:5; Ezek 16:9; Mic 6:15; Lk 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 (Mk 6:13; Lk 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 (Lev 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 Nu 11:8; Dt 7:13; 14:23; 32:13; 1 Ki 17:12,14,16; 2 Ki 4:2,6,7; 1 Ch 12:40; 2 Ch 2:10,15; Ezr 3:7; Prov 21:17; Ezek 16:13,18; Hos 2:5,8,22; Hag 2:12; Rev 6:6.
(5) As an Illuminant.
Olive oil until recent years was universally used for lighting purposes (see LAMP). In Israel 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 Ex 25:6; 27:20; 35:8,14,28; 39:37; Mt 25:3,4,8).
(6) In Religious Rites.
Consecration of officials or sacred things (Gen 28:18; 35:14; Ex 29:7,21 ff; Lev 2:1 ff; Nu 4:9 ff; 1 Sam 10:1; 16:1,13; 2 Sam 1:21; 1 Ki 1:39; 2 Ki 9:1,3,1; Ps 89:20): This was adopted by the early Christians in their ceremonies (Jas 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. (Ex 29:2; 40:9 ff; Lev 2:2 ff; Nu 4:9 ff; Dt 18:4; 1 Ch 9:29; 2 Ch 31:5; Neh 10:37,39; 13:5,12; Ezek 16:18,19; 45; 46; Mic 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 (Mt 26:12; Mk 14:3-8; Lk 23:56; Jn 12:3-8; 19:40).
4. Figurative Uses:
Abundant oil was a figure of general prosperity (Dt 32:13; 33:24; 2 Ki 18:32; Job 29:6; Joel 2:19,24). Languishing of the oil indicated general famine (Joel 1:10; Hag 1:11). Joy is described as the oil of joy (Isa 61:3), or the oil of gladness (Ps 45:7; Heb 1:9). Ezekiel prophesies that the rivers shall run like oil, i.e. become viscous (Ezek 32:14). Words of deceit are softer than oil (Ps 55:21; Prov 5:3). Cursing becomes a habit with the wicked as readily as oil soaks into bones (Ps 109:18). Excessive use of oil indicates wastefulness (Prov 21:17), while the saving of it is a characteristic of the wise (Prov 21:20). Oil was carried into Egypt, i.e. a treaty was made with that country (Hos 12:1).
James A. Patch
Orr, James, M.A., D.D. General Editor. "Definition for 'oil'". "International Standard Bible Encyclopedia". bible-history.com - ISBE
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