It would be difficult to over-state the agricultural significance of the olive tree
in the lands bordering the Mediterranean. In Judges 9:8, Jotham relates a legend
in which the trees decide to elect a king. The olive tree is given first refusal
of the sylvan crown. However, the haughty olive replies:
"Should I leave my fatness, wherewith by me they
honour God and man, and go to wave to and fro over
Aware of its high status among men, declines the arboreal monarchy.
An olive branch delivered by a dove to Noah in the Ark (Genesis 8: 11) was the first
sign of the earth re-born after the flood. It is also one of the most powerful symbols
in Christianity, signifying Christ's death and Resurrection.
The Holy Spirit descending as a dove at the Baptism of Jesus is mentioned in all four
Gospels, and while there is no reference to an olive branch in these accounts, most
artistic interpretations of the event show the divine dove carrying on in its beak.
Olive (and grape) cultivation was already well-established in the land of Canaan by
the time of the Hebrew patriarchs (Deuteronomy 6: 10-11). Anointing of men or objects
with olive oil was instituted by God as a symbol of consecration and sanctification
(Exodus 30: 22-33; 29: 29). Anointing of priests is still practiced in the Roman Catholic
and Orthodox Churches.
The kings of Israel were anointed with olive oil (1 Samuel 10:1, 16: 13; 2 Samuel
5: 3), as were the prophets (1 Kings 19: 16; 1 Chronicles 16: 22; Psalm 105: 15.
"The Christ" means "the anointed one." and the Messiah is foretold as such in Psalm
"Therefore God, thy God, hath anointed thee
With the oil of gladness above thy fellows."
in Isaiah 61: 1:
"The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me; because the
Lord hath anointed me to preach good tidings unto
the meek; he hath sent me to bind up the broken-
hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the
opening of the prison to them that are bound."
and in Daniel 9: 24:
"Seventy weeks are determined upon thy people and
upon thy holy city, to finish the transgression, and to
make an end to sin, and to make reconciliation for
iniquity, and to bring an everlasting righteousness,
and to seal up the vision and prophecy, and to anoint
the most Holy."
Jesus quoted the above passage from Isaiah in the synagogue at Nazareth when He publicly
announced His ministry (Luke 4: 18), and He is referred to as anointed in Acts 4:
27, 10: 38, and in Hebrews 1: 9.
We are told to anoint the sick "with oil in the name of the Lord" in conjunction with
prayer for healing (James 5: 14). The Sacrament of Unction in the Orthodox/Catholic
Churches is an application of this instruction.
Around the 4th Century, the Sacrament of Unction in Roman Catholicism was shifted
in focus from healing to "Extreme Unction" or a prayer for the dying. More recently,
the Vatican has moved to restore Unction to its former emphasis on healing, and anointing is once again used mainly as an aid and comfort to the sick, with Extreme Unction
taking second precedence.
St. Paul characterized the Church as a cultivated olive tree, and Gentile Christians
as branches of a wild tree that have been grafted on to replace the natural branches--the
Jews--which had been broken off because of their faithlessness. (Romans 11: 16-24)
As well as producing oil, olives were (and are) eaten fresh, pickled, or preserved.
Olive oil was THE cooking oil in Bible times. Only barbarians cooked their food in
butter. Olive oil was also burned in lamps (Matthew 25:34) and used to dress wounds
(Luke 10: 33-34).
The best oil was produced from olives by beating or stomping them (Micah 6: 15; Exodus
27: 20). Lamp oil and other low grades were rendered by crushing the whole olive,
including the pits, with huge stone rollers. One such operation was located on the
Mount of Olives in Jerusalem. Gethsemane means "Garden of the Olive Press"--appropriate
to the pressing agony Jesus experienced there the night before He was crucified.