The Significance of Olives in the Bible
By Margaret Feinberg
My body rotates around a tree until I pluck every last olive. Two hours and 57 minutes have passed since I first tried my hand at this. I relish in how my skills are improving, but then I look to my 75-year-old companion, Mama. She has cleared two-and-a-half trees in the same span of time.[Read the Bible Gateway Blog post, A Fresh Foodie Bible Study Adventure: An Interview with Margaret Feinberg]
Leif and I have never visited Croatia before, but when Natalija (pronounced Nah-tall-yah), who is Mama’s daughter, extends an invitation to harvest olives, we travel to the island of Hvar. Underneath swooping brown bangs, Natalija’s round sapphire eyes sparkle with life. When I glimpse gray cartoon socks peeking beneath her pant hem, I know we’ll become fast friends.
More than 800 million olive trees dot the surface of planet Earth today, and almost 90 percent are located in the Mediterranean region. Several countries in the Middle East still squabble over who owns the oldest living olive tree, but then again, squabbling is considered something of a sport there.
Olives enjoy a rich, lush history. The Egyptians used olive oil along with salt in their mummifying process. The Greeks created the original Olympic flame from burning olive branches, and the heads of champions were adorned with olive wreath crowns.
For Christians in a post-Roman world, olive oil provided a holy symbol. The faithful found their identity, their mark of belonging, in the olive. Monasteries used olives for sacraments, food, and lighting, which provided a way to honor martyrs who had been burned alive in oil for their faith.
The influence of the olive extends into philosophy, science, literature, and art. Aristotle told stories about olives, and Leonardo invented a more efficient olive press. Homer, Dante, even Shakespeare wrote about olives. Van Gogh painted 18 images of olives while Renoir almost refused to paint them, noting that when light hits an olive tree it sparkles like diamonds, and the changing hues are “enough to drive you mad.”
Here on the island of Hvar, olives are a way of life. We work until mid-afternoon, when Natalija transforms the olive tarp into a picnic blanket under the tree’s shade. Mama unpacks a pouch of mandarin oranges, a cut of meat, a loaf of crusty bread, and a cylinder of black and green Oblica olives steeped in oil.
Natalija explains that while wine improves with age, oil does not. When first pressed, olive oil tastes sharp and peppery but mellows after two to three months. Store for more than a year and rancidity sets in. Some olive oils can last a few years, but they must be filtered for purity and stored in dark glass bottles that protect from light and heat. That’s why Natalija uses the blackish bottle with a tight seal for her personal stock.
Much like sommeliers, Natalija explains, olive connoisseurs compare, contrast, and argue over their favorite types. Some prefer dark Greek Kalamatas for their snappiness; others, the Italian Castelvetranos, with their Kermit-green color and buttery flesh; still others, the French Nicoise for their assertiveness. The olive varietals are also enjoyed as oils. Some prefer the peppery taste of Tuscan oil or the fruity Luccas or the sharp bitters of the Chianti region.
Perhaps it’s the hard work or perhaps it’s the pleasure of eating outdoors, but the simple meal satisfies. Food somehow always tastes better under these conditions. Fish always tastes better when you catch it, fruit when you pluck it, bread when you knead it, and salt when you grind it. The invested time and hard work make everything more delicious.
We soon return to work: Massage the olives from the branch. Collect the fruit in buckets. Empty the tarp’s contents. Carry to the car. Repeat.
Of all the elements I’ve tasted and seen in Scripture, none has proven more healing and sensual than olives and their oil. This fruit of a tree bursts with a sharp, savory zest, then transforms into a buttery coolness, much like its presence in the Bible.
The olive makes its scriptural debut when Noah, whose name means “comfort,” awakes miserable and nauseated. It’s not hard to imagine his feeling this way while imprisoned aboard a vessel full of agitated animals and their unending piles of manure. All those beasts and scaled creatures moan and groan, squeak and reek. Noah and his family work around the clock to scrape the detritus overboard, but the rocking and rolling, combined with the stink, make Noah want to hurl. Everything becomes far worse than Noah ever imagined, ever predicted. Why was I named Comfort? What a lousy namesake!
In desperation to rest his sea-weary legs, Noah sends out birds who almost forgot how to fly. A lone dove returns clenching an olive branch in its beak. Both the branch and dove become symbols of peace and spark hope in Noah’s tired bones. In that beautiful moment, God hand-delivers pax on pax, shalom on shalom, peace on peace, giving us hope that in the painful storms of life, God will heal us with his deep peace, too.
Olives continue to make surprising appearances throughout the Bible. After his people escape Egyptian slavery, God folds the flavor of olive oil into the manna. This provides the Israelites a taste of comfort, of the familiar, as they spiral through the desert. The flavor assuages the pain of where they’ve been and alerts their taste buds to the healing ahead. The land they’re promised will abound in wheat and barley, vines and figs, pomegranates and olive groves.
While massaging the drupes from the branches, I’m reminded of the myriad ways God reveals his healing presence to the Israelites through olives. Israel is named “a green olive tree, beautiful in fruit and form;” and the righteous are compared to strong olive trees. Even their children are likened to shoots from the trees’ roots. To this day, the Hebrew idiom for a good man is “pure olive oil.”
With each cleared branch, my fingers dew with oil. I remember that in Scripture olive oil illuminates the tabernacle and Solomon’s temple. The ever-lit oil in the temple reminds the Israelites of Moses’s encounter with the burning bush and their hard-won journey from slavery to freedom. Oil drips from the chins of priests and kings, those set apart to serve and bring healing to the land. Israel’s first king, Saul, glows with oil during his coronation. David, too, anointed by Samuel, glimmers with liquid gold. The shepherd-king makes the store and care of olives a national concern. Baal-Hanan manages olive trees; Joash, the storage and supply of oil.
The priests catch whiffs of olive scent as oil drips into the grain and wave offerings. The cherubim, who overshadow the ark of the covenant in the holy of holies, have been carved from olivewood and overlaid with gold. And in the temple, the carpenters have fashioned four-faced, winged cherubs made from olivewood into the doors.
Isaiah prophesies the greatest display of God’s healing will come from a shoot on Jesse’s stump. The prophet’s descriptions of the shoots resemble the way an olive tree grows. This is no ordinary olive sprig, because the Spirit of God will rest on this one in abundance.
The name of that shoot?
Just before sunset, a passing storm whips the wind and spews its first droplets.
“Yaa, yaa!” Mama shouts, urging us toward the vehicles.
We scurry like mice, grabbing the last fistfuls of olives, then our tools and wood trimmings. I attempt to carry one of the buckets of olives to the car, but my arms feel too tired, my shoulders too sore. Leif scoops up the weight with ease. I grab a few pieces of wood instead. Unlike the firewood from pine trees on the island, which burns fast, olivewood burns slow.
“We waste nothing,” Natalija says. “Never the wood. This will keep us warm this winter.”
Once back at Natalija’s, my head hits the pillow with a skull thud. I collapse into bed exhausted and achy, well aware that I’ve been whupped by a 75-year-old woman named Mama.
Adapted from Taste and See: Discovering God Among Butchers, Bakers, and Fresh Food Makers by Margaret Feinberg. Click here to learn more about this title.
God is a foodie who wants to transform your supper into sacrament.
One of America’s most beloved teachers and writers, Margaret Feinberg, goes on a remarkable journey to unearth God’s perspective on food.
She writes that since the opening of creation, God, the Master Chef, seeds the world with pomegranates and passionfruit, beans and greens and tangerines. When the Israelites wander in the desert for forty years, God, the Pastry Chef, delivers the sweet bread of heaven. After arriving in the Promised Land, God reveals himself as Barbecue Master, delighting in meat sacrifices. Like his Foodie Father, Jesus throws the disciples an unforgettable two-course farewell supper to be repeated until his return.
This groundbreaking book provides a culinary exploration of Scripture. You’ll descend 400 feet below ground into the frosty white caverns of a salt mine, fish on the Sea of Galilee, bake fresh matzo at Yale University, ferry to a remote island in Croatia to harvest olives, spend time with a Texas butcher known as “the meat apostle,” and wander a California farm with one of the world’s premier fig farmers.
With each visit, Margaret asks, “How do you read these Scriptures, not as theologians, but in light of what you do every day?” Their answers will forever change the way you read the Bible — and approach every meal.
Taste and See is a delicious read that includes dozens of recipes for those who, like Margaret, believe some of life’s richest moments are spent savoring a meal with those you love.
Perhaps God’s foodie focus is meant to do more than satisfy our bellies. It’s meant to heal our souls, as we learn to taste and see the goodness of God together. After all, food is God’s love made edible.
See you around the table!
Margaret Feinberg, one of America’s most beloved Bible teachers, speaks at churches and leading conferences including Catalyst, Thrive, and Women of Joy. Her books, including Wonderstruck, Fight Back With Joy, and Scouting the Divine and their corresponding Bible studies, have sold more than one million copies and received critical acclaim and national media coverage from CNN, Associated Press, USA Today, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, and more. She was named one of fifty women most shaping culture and the church today by Christianity Today. Margaret savors life with Leif, a pastor in Park City, Utah, and their superpup, Hershey.
September 21, 2019
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