Olive oil plays a significant role in the Bible and in the lives of the biblical characters. The Hebrew word for oil (shemen שמן), which refers to olive oil, is used roughly 150 times in the Old Testament; this shows its value and importance.
In Bible times, there was a specific method for making olive oil. Olive oil was a part of everyday life and essential for monumental events, putting it on high-demand. The practice of pickling came into practice later as a way to eat olives, which are naturally bitter.
Let’s take a closer look into how olive oil was made in Bible times and what it was used for.
Making Olive Oil
Olive trees grow throughout the entire land of Israel, excluding the desert. They are common in the hill country of Judea, the northern plains of Galilee, and the land in between known as Samaria. Because of this, there are ancient olive presses found all throughout the biblical sites in these areas; a few examples are Jerusalem, Hazor, and Capernaum.
A typical olive oil process included an olive grinder and an olive press. The grinder consists of a large circular stone with a hole for a wooden rod (see photo below). This piece would be set on a round stone track and turned by a man or animal pushing or pulling it round and round. The meat of the olives and their seeds would be crushed between the stones, creating a paste-like substance. In Judges 16:21, Samson was a “grinder” in prison after the Philistines gouged out his eyes. It is possible that he was responsible for pushing the circular stone around to grind the olives.
Next, the olive paste was placed in round, flat, woven baskets and placed under a press. The press usually consisted of a long wooden rod with stone weights tied to it (see photo below). The baskets of paste were placed on top of each other underneath the wooden rod and the stone weights would put pressed on them and squeeze out the oil. The oil was collected in a shaft below, ready for use.
Uses of Olive Oil
Olive oil was used for a wide variety of daily functions in Bible times. It was the oil that kept the lamps burning when it was dark, and was an ingredient in cooking and baking. The oil was also used for medicinal purposes because of its antibacterial qualities, and as a body moisturizer.
One of the most significant uses of olive oil in the Bible was to anoint kings, priests, and prophets. The anointer would pour olive oil on the head of the one he was anointing as a sign that that person was chosen for the work of God. An example in Scripture is 1 Samuel 16, where Samuel anoints young David.
Today, as you know, the primary use of olive oil is culinary. There is a wide variety of foods in Israel that are made with olive oil or gain their rich flavor from olive oil. Don’t miss the wonderful experience of dipping freshly baked pita bread in smooth olive oil while visiting Israel.