Most uses of the word oil in the Bible have ceremonial rather than food connections. Oils were harvested from animals fats, minerals, and vegetables. Oil also had medicinal purposes (Ps 23:5; Luke 10:34) and was used to fuel lamps Matt 25:1-13). In a bartering economy, oil was a commodity of value. In 2 Kings 4:1-7 Elijah helps a widow and her two sons by telling them to gather as many containers as possible and pour her meager supply of oil into the jars. The oil didn’t run out until every available jar had been filled. Elisha then told her to see the oil and live on the proceeds.
In Jesus’ day olive oil was made using an olive press. A large trough was created in a massive stone, and a stone wheel was hewn to match the trough. Olives were dumped into the trough and the wheel was pushed or pulled around the groove to crush the olives. The Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus spent hours in prayer was not only on the Mount of Olives, but the name Gethsemane means “oil press,” a description that fits the pressure and anguish Jesus experienced in the garden as he prepared for the final journey to the cross.
ANOINTING WITH OIL
Anointing with oil symbolizes the idea of being set apart and blessed for a task. Oil was often used in the dedication of priests and special leaders. When Samuel was commanded to go to Bethlehem to anoint a replacement for King Saul, God said, “Fill a flask with olive oil and go. I’m sending you to Jesse in Bethlehem because I’ve selected one of his sons to be king” (1 Sam 16:1). Then, when David finally showed up, “Samuel took the flask of olive oil and anointed David in the presence of his brothers. The LORD’S Spirit came over David and stayed with him from that day on (1 Sam 16:13). Much earlier, God had give Moses specific instructions about the recipe for anointing oil.
The Lord said to Moses, “Take the finest spices: 12 1/2 pounds of powdered myrrh; half as much, that is, 6 1/4 pounds of fragrant cinnamon; 6 1/4 pounds of fragrant cane; 12 1/2 pounds of cassia-all weighed using the standard weight of the holy place-and 4 quarts of olive oil. Have a perfume make these into a holy oil, a fragrant mixture, used only for anointing. This will be the holy oil used for anointing.” (Exod 30:22-25)
This oil was to be used for anointing holy places and holy people and was to be preserved for those purposes alone (Exod 30:26-33). When Jesus was anointed with oil, it was in the sense of being set apart and prepared for death and burial (John 12:3-8). Oil was used to anoint people for healing James urges us, “If you are sick, call for the church leaders. Have them pray for you and anoint you with oil in the name of the Lord” (5:14). This is also the type of anointing mentioned in Psalm 23:5, Isaiah 1:6, Mark 6:13, and Luke 10:34. If being anointed with oil symbolizes God’s mark of blessing on someone, it makes sense that it would also symbolize his healing.
Because it was so widely useful, oil became symbolic of several significant ideals. An abundance of oil was mentioned in descriptions of wealth as a mark of God’s blessing (Job 29:6; Joel 2:24). When the exiles returned to Israel, they were promised oil among with grain and new wine (e.g., Joel 2:19). The joy of the Lord was frequently compared to being anointed with oil: “You have loved what is right and hated what is wrong. That is why God, your God, has anointed you, rather than your companions, with the oil of joy” (Ps. 45:7; see also Ps 23:5; 92:10; Heb 1:9).
When David wrote a psalm of worship and meditated on the delight of gathering with others before God, he said, “See how good and pleasant it is when brothers and sisters live together in harmony! It is like fine, scented oil on the head, running down the beard-down Aaron’s beard-running over the collar of his robes” (Ps 133:1-2). Unity and fellowship are like anointing oil in someone’s life. And the similarity between the Hebrew words for oil and name yields a nice wordplay in Ecclesiastes 7:1a, where personal integrity is highly prized: “A good name is better than expensive perfume.” perfume here refers to aromatic oil.
Occasionally oil is used as a negative symbol. The words of an enemy are “more soothing than oil, but they are like swords ready to attack” (Ps 55:21). The kiss of an adulteress is “smoother than oil” (Prov 5:3). These images are common in our vocabulary today when we speak of “slick-talking salesman.” The underlying significance in these of oil is that they point to the way evil corrupt good.