Olive trees have played a crucial role in Israel’s history for over 3500 years.
Olive oil was one of the most valuable commodities in the ancient world. It was used in everything: cooking, cosmetics, lamps, and religious ceremonies. Even the leftover mash from the olives was used to feed livestock. The Bible mentions the word olive, zayit in Hebrew, 134 times. Stone olive presses dating back thousands of years have been found all over the Holy Land. Life in ancient Israel depended on olive oil, and groves of olive trees were carefully tended and prized.
Judges 9:7-15 is a parable in which the trees of Israel decided to choose one among them for their king, and they came first to the olive tree. One thing that this parable illustrates is just how highly regarded the olive tree was in ancient culture. The reason given for this elevated status is that the tree’s oil was used to anoint kings and priests.
The beautiful, multicolored, twisted wood of olive trees was used in the construction of Solomon’s temple (1 Kings 6:22-24). Because olive trees were so valuable for the fruit they produced, their wood was not used in common construction, but only for special decoration. Olive wood carvings are one of the trademark souvenirs usually brought home from the Holy Land.
The olive tree is just as important in modern Israel. Olives and olive oil are a staple of nearly every meal, and olive oil is a major export. And recently scientists discovered that olive trees hold the key to making the desert bloom.
These trees grow well in rocky and arid conditions, and their roots help hold the soil in place to prevent erosion. The branches provide a home for birds, and their leaves and fruit are food for wildlife. Planting olive trees is one of the main ways Israel has managed to reclaim a large part of the desert. It is possible that one day the Negev could be covered with green olive groves. And as the trees protect and nourish the soil, other plant life can grow.
The hardy olive tree itself is also an apt metaphor the Jewish people, who are thriving in an inhospitable part of the world.