20 October 2010

'A Land of Olive Oil'


When I am writing scenes of life in ancient Israel, I am always trying to transport myself back in time, to be able to picture the details of the scene as though I was there. Historical research and even reenactment have become a vital part of my work on The Eternal Throne Chronicles. When imagining the textures, tastes, sights and smells of life in ancient Palestine, one cannot escape olive oil.

Golden olive oil flowed like blood through the life and economy of ancient Israel. It was an inseparable part of everyday activities. In Psalm 128 the psalmist says of blessed families: "Your wife will be like a fruitful vine within your house; your sons will be like olive shoots around your table." The Promised Land was sometimes called 'a land of olive oil' (Deuteronomy 8:8). A Hebrew idiom complimented a good man by calling him "pure olive oil."
An olive tree planted more than fifteen centuries ago
Few people would consider the olive tree beautiful: Its bark is tortuously gnarled; its leaves spiky and dull green. Like most trees, it is at its most beautiful in the spring when white blossoms cover it and then carpet the ground beneath like falling snow (Job 15:33).

Domesticated olive trees were often grown by cutting down a wild tree and grafting a cultivated shoot onto the stump. Fifteen years later the tree would begin to produce harvestable fruit. This may seem like a long time from our fast-paced perspective, but olive trees were frequently planted next to the ancestral family home. That property would stay in the family for hundreds of years--and the tree would continue to produce all of that time. There are ancient olive trees outside Jerusalem that were being harvested before the days of Christ.

The fruit is ready by late September or early October. Women and children would spread cloth around the trunk and use poles to beat the branches, knocking the olives free. The Torah required that any olives that refused to fall be left on the tree; orphans, widows, and other landless poor could come after and glean them for themselves. This harvesting technique was not gentle--new shoots were likely destroyed by the beating. This resulted in a good crop often being followed the next year by a poor crop.

Olives were eaten raw (olives and barley bread may have been a standard breakfast) or preserved by immersion in salt water. The far majority, though, were used for oil. A number of early Iron Age olive presses have been uncovered in excavations--some small enough to put in one's lap, some so large they were undoubtedly turned by pairs of mules or oxen. Larger presses used a rolling stone wheel to crush the olives. Smaller presses operated much like cider presses today, utilizing a lever and a lid to squeeze a basket of olives so that the oil ran out between the gaps in the basket weave.

Olive oil was used for cooking, as a condiment, as fuel for lamps, as a medicine, to make soap, lotion, hair products and for ceremonial purposes. Religious objects, prophets, priests, and kings were anointed with oil. Warriors oiled the leather surfaces of their shields to keep the leather supple and make it slicker so that an enemy's blows would slide easily off. Sandals, belts, and other leather objects would be similarly treated.

In Iron Age Palestine the smell of olive oil must have been everywhere. In the hot, dry climate a person might rub their face, arms, and legs with olive oil twice a day or more. Every household object would pick up this oil from the skin of those who handled it. Wooden handles of tools and implements absorbed it; it rubbed off on clothing and bedding. The scarcity of water meant that people did not bathe as frequently as they do today; an alternative was to rub the hair with oil to keep it healthy and presentable looking.

Olive oil thus became a symbol of wealth, health, and times of plenty. To the people of ancient Israel these were all inseparably connected to God's blessing. It is not surprising, then, that in the Scriptures olive oil is frequently used as a religious symbol and continued to be so right into the early days of Christianity.

For more information about life in Bible times, check out my novels Prophet of Israel and Judge of Israel, available from www.timothywilkinson.net.

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