Oil was an indispensable commodity in the Ancient Near East for food, medicine, fuel, and ritual. Oil was considered a blessing given by God (Deuteronomy 11:14), and the olive tree was a characteristic of the land which God gave to Israel (Deuteronomy 8:8).
In biblical times, domestic oil was prepared from olives. Sometimes oil was combined with perfumes and used as a cosmetic (Esther 2:12). The extraction of oil from olives is abundantly confirmed by archaeological findings of stone presses found at several sites in Palestine. This oil, called “beaten oil,” was lighter and considered the best oil. After the beaten oil was extracted, another grade of oil was produced by heating the pulp and pressing it again.
Domestic oil was stored in small cruses, pots, or jars (1 Kings 17:12; 2 Kings 4:2); oil used in religious ceremonies was also kept in horns (1 Samuel 16:13).
Oil was used in a variety of ways in biblical times; but, most often, oil was used in the preparation of food, taking the place of animal fat. Oil was used with meal in the preparation of cakes (Numbers 11:8; 1 Kings 17:12-16) and with honey (Ezekiel 16:13), flour (Leviticus 2:1,Leviticus 2:4), and wine (Revelation 6:6).
Oil was used as fuel for lamps, both in homes (Matthew 25:3) and in the tabernacle (Exodus 25:6).
Oil was extensively used in religious ceremonies. The morning and evening sacrifices required, in addition to the lambs, a tenth of a measure of fine flour and a fourth of a hin of beaten oil. Other cereal offerings also required oil.
Oil was used during the offering of purification from leprosy. In the New Testament, oil was used to anoint a body in preparation for burial (Matthew 26:12; Mark 14:8).
Several persons in the Old Testament were anointed with oil: kings (1 Samuel 10:1; 1 Samuel 16:13), priests (Leviticus 8:30), and possibly prophets (1 Kings 19:16; Isaiah 61:1). Some objects were also anointed in dedication to God: the tabernacle and all its furniture (Exodus 40:9-11), the shields of soldiers (2 Samuel 1:21; Isaiah 21:5), altars (Leviticus 8:10-11), and pillars (Genesis 35:14).
NOTE: This article on “Oil,” was originally published in the Holman Bible Dictionary (Nashville: Holman Bible Publishers, 1991), page 1043.
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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