In most cases the oil that the Bible mentions is olive oil. Olive trees were grown extensively in Palestine, and Israel exported oil to other countries (1 Kings 5:11; Ezek 27:17; Hosea 12:1). Other fruits and plants were also a source of oil. Workers obtained the oil by crushing the fruit, flowers or leaves. This was sometimes done through grinding the substance, using either a thick stick in a bowl or a stone roller in a hollowed out rock. Sometimes the oil was trodden out in a press, other times squeezed out from a sack by twisting it with sticks (Exod 27:20; Deut 33:24; Micah 6:15).

People used oils in the preparation of food (Exod 29:2; Lev 2:4; 1 Kings 17:12-14), as fuels for lamps (Exod 27:20; Zech 4:2-3,12; Matt 25:3-4), as medicines and ointments (Isa 1:6; Luke 10:34), as cosmetics (2 Sam 14:2; Esther 2:12; Ps 104:15; Song of Songs 1:12; 5:5) and for rubbing on the body to bring soothing and refreshment (Ruth 3:3; 2 Sam 12:20; Amos 6:6; Luke 7:37-38; John 12:3). The use of oil in anointing the sick may have had some medicinal purpose, but its chief significance may have been symbolic, demonstrating faith (Mark 6:13; James 5:14). The custom of anointing a person’s head with oil was an ancient way of showing the person honour (Mark 14:3). This was particularly so when a host welcomed a special guest (Ps 23:5). On festive occasions anointing contributed to the joy and merriment of the occasion. As a result oil, like wine, became a symbol of rejoicing (Ps 45:7; 104:15; Isa 61:3; Joel 1:10).

Besides being widely used in Israel’s everyday life, oil was frequently used in its religious rituals. It was part of some sacrifices (Exod 29:2,40; Lev 8:26; Num 6:15; 7:19), was offered as both firstfruits and tithes (Exod 22:29; Deut 12:17), was used as fuel for the tabernacle lamp (Exod 27:20) and was put on people in certain ceremonies (Lev 14:10-18). Oil was used to anoint priests, kings and at times prophets, to symbolize their setting apart for God’s service and their appointment to office (Exod 28:41; 1 Sam 10:1; Ps 89:20-21; 1 Kings 1:39; 19:16; Zech 4:11-14). It was used also to anoint things that were set apart for sacred use, such as the tabernacle and its equipment (Exod 40:9-11). The oil used to anoint the priests and the tabernacle was prepared according to a special formula, which was not to be used for any other purpose (Exod 30:23-33; cf. Ps 133:2). (See also ANOINTING; SPICES.)

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