Oil Worthy of the Bible

text and photos by Gerald Ring

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Each autumn the pungent aroma of olive oil wafts from Bethlehem’s olive press. It is a fitting place to meet this seasonal ritual which dates back thousands of years. The kind of oil used in the Bible for anointing kings and priests is produced within sight of the Church of the Nativity, where the Messiah – the Anointed One – was born.

The olive press, deserted for most of the year, becomes a bustling hive for a few weeks from late September until early November. Villagers come from around Bethlehem to have their crops pressed here. Traditionally clad Palestinian women literally surround the building. They sit on bursting sacks of olives as they await their turn at the press. Amid empty plastic and tin containers, their children scramble around to pass the time. In nearby coffeehouses men in flowing robes and headdresses discuss this year’s crop and the price it will bring.

Since biblical times, this thick, green liquid has been a precious commodity. It has always been essential to the lives of the native population. They use it for food, lighting, and medicine. It also is a symbol of wealth and nobility. After being perfumed, it was used to anoint kings and other nobles. Hezekiah kept oil in his treasure house along with his gold and silver (II Kings 20:13).

Ownership of a large grove was – and is – a sign of prosperity, and oil is synonymous with joy and gladness (Is. 61:3). Failure of the olive harvest, therefore, is considered a calamity (Hab. 3:17-18).

In biblical times, the many olive trees in the Holy Land made it “a land of olives, oil, and honey” (Deut. 8:8) – even more than it is today. Indeed, they probably covered the Mount of Olives. Gethsemane, at the foot of this hill east of Jerusalem, got its name because this was where olives were pressed. Olive trees can live for hundreds of years. Some trees in the Garden of Gethsemane are so old that they are impossible to date.

Although olive trees grow throughout the Holy Land, except in desert areas, most are found in the hill country. While ordinary farming is difficult there because of the stony ground and sloping terrain, olive trees proliferate. The hills surrounding Bethlehem and north to Jerusalem are especially rich in Palestinian and church-owned groves.

In addition to being vital to their income, the olive tree holds a special place in the hearts of Palestinians. Palestinians who live and work in the oil fields of the arid Gulf states fondly recall their villages surrounded by the gnarled, silver-green trees. Their economic and political plight may have forced them to help extract the black oil from the ground, but their heart’s desire is still the golden-green oil of their homeland. Palestinians rightly consider their oil superior and are eager to obtain it when they are overseas.

Until recently, olive oil was the only oil used by Palestinian villagers. Today, however, they use other, less costly edible oils for many purposes. Yet their distinctive dishes take their unique flavor and aroma from pure cold-pressed olive oil.

The harvest of olives in late September through October requires the labor of the whole family – and Palestinian families are usually large! Often more than a dozen people work in a grove each day.

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Tags: Holy Land Village life Farming/Agriculture