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OIL (Heb. shemen, Gr. elaion). In the Bible almost always olive oil, perhaps the only exception being Esth.2.12, where it is oil of myrrh. The olives were sometimes beaten (Lev.24.2), sometimes trodden (Mic.6.15), but generally crushed in a mill designed for that purpose. The upper stone, instead of rubbing against the lower as in a flour mill, rolled on it and so pressed out the oil. The wheel usually was turned by ox-power or donkey-power, the animal being blindfolded. Olive oil was not only a prime article of food, bread being dipped in it, but it was also used for cooking, for anointing, and for lighting. Oil was one of the principal ingredients in making soap (Jer.2.22).

OIL. Fat or oil used for many purposes in the ancient Near E; a necessity of life in Biblical times.


History of usage.

The origin of the use of oil for illumination, food, unguents, medicines, and sacred purposes is lost in antiquity. The ancient Egyptians made use of at least twelve different vegetable oils, including olive, castor, balanos, and almond. They were skilled in the manufacture of ointments and perfumes which required oil bases. Oil was used from early times in Greece. The ancients used some animal fats but depended mainly on olive oil. The olive was cultivated as early as 2500 b.c. in Crete. The modern species of olive prob. is descended from the wild Oleaster or Olea. Spain and Africa prob. received the olive from Phoen. traders and settlers. From the Eastern Mediterranean, cultivation of the olive and its use in cooking spread westward, reaching Rome about 580 b.c. It eventually was common in all coastal regions of the Mediterranean, spreading into N Europe. Moses called Pal. a “land of olive trees” (Deut 8:8).


The first stage was the picking of olives in the fall (Sept-Nov), usually by hand, in order not to spoil the olives. A good tree yielded ten to fifteen gallons of oil annually. After picking, the oil was separated from the pulp and from a bitter watery liquid which the ancients called “amurca.” It was essential to avoid crushing the kernel. This was achieved by first partly crushing the olive, removing the kernel and the liquid and then pressing out the oil. All this usually was done quite soon after picking, though the olives were sometimes stored for a time on the floor of the press-house. They were sometimes trod by foot (Mic 6:15) or by pounding with a pestle, the latter yielding the finer “beaten...oil” (cf. Exod 27:20). They were sometimes crushed with a heavy stone in a shallow cavity hewn in stone. The Romans prob. were responsible for the invention of the “trapetum,” a device which could crush the olives without crushing the kernels. It consisted of a pair of stones turning around a solid column in the middle of a basin and could be adjusted to a given distance from the walls of the basin, thus crushing the olives just right without spoiling the oil. To extract the last drop of oil the remaining pulp was soaked in hot water and then subjected to a second pressing in a beam or screw press that also was commonly used in the production of wine. This second pressing could be carried out by stages, increasing the pressure each time. Each additional pressing produced more oil but of lower quality. Usually three grades of olive oil were extracted. The unguents and cosmetics required oil of a high purity. The extracted oil was allowed to stand in a rock-hewn vat or in a jar while the impurities settled. Large commercial presses were found at Debir and Beth-shemesh in Judah, dating from the 10th to 6th cent. b.c.



Though not mentioned often in the Bible, oil was an essential food in ancient times. Olive oil was the main source of fat used in cooking (1 Kings 17:12-16; 2 Kings 4:2). It was mixed with meal from which bread was made (1 Kings 17:12). The taste of manna was compared to that of cakes baked with oil (Num 11:8). Cakes made of fine flour mingled with oil, or with oil poured on them comprised part of the meal offering (Lev 2:1, 4-7). Though these cakes were for ritual purposes, the use of oil in them prob. indicates that it was used similarly in the home. A common food of the Greeks was “maza,” a kind of porridge, which contained flour, honey, and oil. Beans, beer, wine, and oil supplemented the bread diet of the Rom. soldiers. Olives eaten with coarse brown bread are still the main food of many of the poor in Biblical lands today.


Lamps were an essential part of a well-equipped house (2 Kings 4:10). They have been found in great numbers in all excavated cities from the Middle Bronze Age on. They were simple shallow clay bowls with pinched lips to hold the wick fast as it extended over the edge. Oil was poured in the bowl to serve as fuel (Exod 25:6; cf. Matt 25:3-8 which warned that the wise person carried with him an adequate supply of oil for his lamp). Pure beaten oil was used for the continual light in the Tabernacle (Exod 27:20). Olive-fed lamps were lighted on high places to mark the beginning of the new moon. The lamp continued in its development until in the Hellenistic-Roman-Byzantine period the shallow clay bowl had become enclosed, with only a small hole on top for pouring in oil and an extension on the side with a separate hole for the wick.


The ancient Egyptians had “holy oils” which combined medical and magical qualities; medicine and religion were intimately associated in ancient times. The same close relationship between magic and medicine existed in Mesopotamia. Oil was a common remedy for wounds (Isa 1:6; Mark 6:13). Sometimes wine was added to the oil and then poured on the wound (Luke 10:34). Herod was placed in a bath of warm oil in an attempt to cure his disease (Jos, War. I. xxxiii. 5). The elders were instructed to anoint the sick with oil (James 5:14).


Oil was used widely in the ancient Near E to anoint the body (see Ointment). Its use was essential in the burning eastern sun to avoid desiccation of the skin, being omitted only in time of mourning (2 Sam 14:2). The body usually was anointed after bathing (Ruth 3:3; 2 Sam 12:20; Ps 104:15) and oil was also poured on the hair (Eccl 9:8). Olive oil still is made into fine soap by the addition of soda.



Guests were anointed when they arrived for a banquet (Ps 23:5; Amos 6:6) as a sign of honor. To fail to anoint the guest was a mark of disrespect, as Jesus called to the attention of his host, Simon the Pharisee (Luke 7:46). The anointing oil used was usually a perfumed ointment (see Ointment).

Commercial value.

Figurative usage.


R. J. Forbes, Studies in Ancient Technology, III (1955), 101-104; M. S. and J. L. Miller, Encyclopedia of Bible Life (1955), 211, 212; G. E. Wright, Biblical Archaeology (1957), 180; M. Noth, The Old Testament World (1966), 98, 163, 164.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

(shemen; elaion):

1. Terms

2. Production and Storage

3. Uses

(1) As a Commodity of Exchange

(2) As a Cosmetic

(3) As a Medicine

(4) As a Food

(5) As an Illuminant

(6) In Religious Rites

(a) Consecration

(b) Offerings

(c) Burials

4. Figurative Uses

Shemen, literally, "fat," corresponds to the common Arabic senin of similar meaning, although now applied to boiled butter fat.

1. Terms:

Another Hebrew word, zayith (zeth), "olive," occurs with shemen in several passages (Ex 27:20; 30:24; Le 24:2). The corresponding Arabic zeit, a contraction of zeitun, which is the name for the olive tree as well as the fruit, is now applied to oils in general, to distinguish them from solid fats. Zeit usually means olive oil, unless some qualifying name indicates another oil. A corresponding use was made of shemen, and the oil referred to so many times in the Bible was olive oil (except Es 2:12). Compare this with the Greek elaion, "oil," a neuter noun from elaia, "olive," the origin of the English word "oil." yitshar, literally, "glistening," which occurs less frequently, is used possibly because of the light-giving quality of olive oil, or it may have been used to indicate fresh oil, as the clean, newly pressed oil is bright. meshach, a Chaldaic word, occurs twice: Ezr 6:9; 7:22. elaion, is the New Testament term.

2. Production and Storage:

Olive oil has been obtained, from the earliest times, by pressing the fruit in such a way as to filter out the oil and other liquids from the residue. The Scriptural references correspond so nearly to the methods practiced in Syria up to the present time, and the presses uncovered by excavators at such sites as Gezer substantiate so well the similarity of these methods, that a description of the oil presses and modes of expression still being employed in Syria will be equally true of those in use in early Israelite times.

The olives to yield the greatest amount of oil are allowed to ripen, although some oil is expressed from the green fruit. As the olive ripens it turns black. The fruit begins to fall from the trees in September, but the main crop is gathered after the first rains in November. The olives which have not fallen naturally or have not been blown off by the storms are beaten from the trees with long poles (compare De 24:20). The fruit is gathered from the ground into baskets and carried on the heads of the women, or on donkeys to the houses or oil presses. Those carried to the houses are preserved for eating. Those carried to the presses are piled in heaps until fermentation begins. This breaks down the oil cells and causes a more abundant flow of oil. The fruit thus softened may be trod out with the feet (Mic 6:15)--which is now seldom practiced--or crushed in a handmill. Such a mill was uncovered at Gezer beside an oil press. Stone mortars with wooden pestles are also used. Any of these methods crushes the fruit, leaving only the stone unbroken, and yields a purer oil (Ex 27:20). The method now generally practiced of crushing the fruit and kernels with an edgerunner mill probably dates from Roman times. These mills are of crude construction. The stones are cut from native limestone and are turned by horses or mules. Remains of huge stones of this type are found near the old Roman presses in Mt. Lebanon and other districts.

3. Uses:

(1) As a Commodity of Exchange.

Olive oil when properly made and stored will keep sweet for years, hence, was a good form of merchandise to hold. Oil is still sometimes given in payment (1Ki 5:11; Eze 27:17; Ho 12:1; Lu 16:6; Re 18:13).

(2) As a Cosmetic.

(3) As a Medicine.

From early Egyptian literature down to late Arabic medical works, oil is mentioned as a valuable remedy. Many queer prescriptions contain olive oil as one of their ingredients. The good Samaritan used oil mingled with wine to dress the wounds of the man who fell among robbers (Mr 6:13; Lu 10:34.)

(4) As a Food.

(5) As an Illuminant.

(6) In Religious Rites.

(a) Consecration:

(b) Offerings:

(c) Burials:

In connection with the burial of the dead: Egyptian papyri mention this use. In the Old Testament no direct mention is made of the custom. Jesus referred to it in connection with His own burial (Mt 26:12; Mr 14:3-8; Lu 23:56; Joh 12:3-8; 19:40).

4. Figurative Uses:

James A. Patch