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Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible


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OIL . With one exception ( Esther 2:12 ‘oil of myrrh’) all the Scripture references to oil are to ‘ olive oil ,’ as it is expressly termed in Exodus 27:20 , Leviticus 24:2 etc., according to the more correct rendering of RV [Note: Revised Version.] . Considering how very numerous these references are some two hundred in all it is surprising that there should be so few that throw light on the methods adopted in the preparation of this indispensable product of the olive tree.

1 . Preparation of oil . By combining these meagre references with the fuller data of the Mishna, as illustrated by the actual remains of oil-presses, either still above ground or recently recovered from the soil of Palestine, it is possible to follow with some minuteness the principal methods adopted. The olives were either shaken from the tree or beaten down by striking the branches with a light pole, as illustrated on Greek vases (illust. in Vigouroux, Dict. de la Bible , art. ‘Huile’). The latter method supplies Isaiah with a pathetic figure of Israel ( Isaiah 17:6 RVm [Note: Revised Version margin.] ).

The finest quality of oil was got by selecting the best berries before they were fully ripe. These were pounded in a mortar, after which the pulp was poured into a basket of rushes or wickerwork. From this, as a strainer, the liquid was allowed to run off into a receiving vessel. After the oil had floated and been purified, it formed ‘ beaten oil ,’ such as had to be provided for the lighting of the Tabernacle ( Exodus 27:20 , Leviticus 24:2; cf. 1 Kings 5:11 RVm [Note: Revised Version margin.] ).

In the preparation of the oil required for ordinary domestic use, however, the methods adopted closely resembled those for the making of wine . Indeed, it is evident that the same apparatus served for the making both of wine and of oil (see Wine for the names of the parts, and note the phrase, Joel 2:24 , ‘the fats [vats] shall overflow with wine and oil’). From evidence, literary and archæological, it is clear that there were various kinds of oil-presses in use in different periods. A very common, if not quite the simplest, type consisted of a shallow trough hewn in the native rock, from which, as in the similar, if not identical, wine-press, a conducting channel carried the expressed liquid to a slightly lower trough or oil-vat. In early times it appears as if a preliminary pressing was made with the feet alone ( Micah 6:15 ).

In the absence of a suitable rock-surface, as would naturally be the case within a city of any antiquity, a solid block of limestone circular, four-sided, and eight-sided (Megiddo) are the shapes recovered by recent explorers was hollowed to the depth of a few inches, a rim being left all round save at one corner. Such presses were found at Taanach (illust. Sellin, Tell Ta‘annek , 61, reproduced in Benzinger’s Heb. Arch . 2 [1907] 144), and elsewhere. In these the olives were crushed by means of a large round stone. The liquid was either allowed to collect in a large cup-hollow in the surface of the trough, from which it was baled out by hand ( PEFSt [Note: Quarterly Statement of the same.] , 1903, p. 112), or it was run off into a vessel placed at the corner above mentioned (see Sellin’s illust., and op. cit . 60 f., 93). At a later period, as we learn from the Mishna, a stone in the shape of the modern millstone was used. Through the centre a pole was inserted, by which it was made to revolve on its narrow side round the circular trough a method still in use in Syria.

From the oil-mill, as this apparatus may be termed, the product of which naturally, after purification, produced the finer sort of oil, the pulp was transferred to the oil-press properly so called. Here it was placed in baskets piled one above the other. Pressure was then applied for the extraction of a second quality of oil, by means of a heavy wooden beam worked as a lever by ropes and heavy weights, or by a windlass. Details of the fittings of these ‘press-houses,’ as they are named in the Mishna, and of another type of press formed of two upright monoliths with a third laid across, the whole resembling the Gr. letter II, have been collected by the present writer in the art. ‘Oil’ in EBi [Note: Encyclopædia Biblica.] iii. 3467, and may now be controlled by the account of the elaborate underground ‘press-house’ described and illustrated by Bliss and Macalister in Excavations in Palestine , p. 208 f. and plate 92 (cf. ib . 196 f. and Index).

The expressed liquid, both from the oil-mill and from the oil-press, was collected either in a rock-cut vat or in separate jars. In these it was allowed to settle, when the oil rose to the top, leaving a bitter, watery liquid, the amurca of the Romans, and other refuse behind. Oil in this fresh state is distinguished in OT from the refined and purified product; the former is yitshâr , so frequently named along with ‘new wine’ or must ( tîrôsh , see Wine, § 1 ) and corn as one of the chief products of Canaan; the latter is always shemen , but the distinction is not observed in our versions. The fresh oil or yitshâr was refined in the same manner as wine, by being poured from vessel to vessel, and was afterwards stored in jars and in skins. A smaller quantity for immediate use was kept in a small earthenware pot the vial of 1 Samuel 10:1 and of 2 Kings 9:1 RV [Note: Revised Version.] (AV [Note: Authorized Version.] ‘box’) or in a horn ( 1 Samuel 16:1; 1 Samuel 16:13 , 1 Kings 1:39 ).

2 . Uses of oil . Foremost among what may be called the secular uses of oil may be placed its daily employment as a cosmetic, already dealt with under Anointing (see also Ointment). This was the oil that made the face to shine ( Psalms 104:15 ). As in all Eastern lands, oil was largely used in the preparation of food; familiarity with this use of it is presupposed in the comparison of the taste of the strange manna to that of the familiar ‘cakes baked with oil’ ( Numbers 11:8 RVm [Note: Revised Version margin.]; see, further, Meals, § 1 . end). Oil was also indispensable for the lighting of the house after nightfall. In addition to the universal olive oil, the Mishna ( Shabbath , ii. I f.) names a variety of other oils then in use, among them oil of sesame, fish oil, castor oil, and naphtha. That used in the Temple ( 1 Chronicles 9:29 ) was no doubt of the finest quality, like the ‘beaten oil’ for the Tabernacle above described. The medicinal properties of oil were early recognized ( Isaiah 1:5 RV [Note: Revised Version.] ); the Good Samaritan mixed his with wine ( Luke 10:34 ), producing an antiseptic mentioned also in post-Biblical Jewish writings.

Oil has a prominent place in the ritual of the Priests’ Code, particularly in the preparation of the ‘meal-offering’ ( Leviticus 2:1; Leviticus 2:4 etc.). It also appears in connexion with the leprosy-offering ( Leviticus 14:10 ff.) and in other connexions, but is absent from the sin-offering ( Leviticus 5:1 ff.) and the jealousy-offering ( Numbers 5:11 ff.). For the special case of the ‘holy anointing oil’ ( Exodus 30:23-25 ), see Ointment.

As might have been expected from the extensive cultivation of the olive by the Hebrews, oil not only formed an important article of inland commerce , but was exported in large quantities both to the West, by way of Tyre ( Ezekiel 27:17 ), and to Egypt ( Hosea 12:1 ).

This abundance of oil furnished the Hebrew poets with a figure for material prosperity in general, as in Deuteronomy 33:24 ‘He shall dip his foot in oil.’ From its being in daily use to anoint the heads of one’s guests at a festive meal ( Psalms 23:5 etc.), oil became by association a symbol of joy and gladness ( Psalms 45:7 = Hebrews 1:9 , Isaiah 61:3 ).

A. R. S. Kennedy.

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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Oil'. Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible. 1909.

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