It would be hard to overestimate the importance--or the popularity--of the olive tree in ancient Israel. Ideally adapted to thrive in Israel’s dry, rocky hills, the olive is a beautiful and beloved evergreen that can live and bear its highly prized fruit for many centuries.
In ancient times, the olive was grown chiefly for its oil. Among the seven main crops that blessed the Land is “olives for oil” (Deuteronomy 8:8). Olive oil was vital for eating and for healing. But beyond its practical uses, olive oil came to represent Divine blessing and favor. Kings and priests were anointed with a special, pure olive oil. The word “messiah” derives from the Hebrew mashiakh, the anointed one—anointed with olive oil.
“Light Unto the World”
A prime use of olive oil was for lighting, fueling the clay lamps that were the “light bulb” of ancient Israel. Pure olive oil also fed the flames of the menorah, the seven-branched candelabrum that illuminated the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. It was the menorah that was chosen in 1948 as the symbol of the reborn State of Israel. Framing the menorah in the emblem of the State are two olive branches—the source of the oil for the seven lamps. This very image—the seven-branched menorah with an olive branch on either side—appears in Zechariah chapter 4. Along with the prophet’s vision come seven Hebrew words—perhaps seven words in seven flames—meaning: “Not by might and not by power, but by My spirit.” It is this hope for strength of spirit that is embodied in the new-old picture that is Israel’s emblem.
The light of the olive oil was thus seen as more than physical light. According to tradition, the dove that brought Noah an olive leaf as a sign that the flood was receding brought “light unto the world.”
And the tree itself produces its own special light. When a breeze turns up the silvery underside of the leaves, a wave of shimmering light seems to leap from tree to tree.
Continuity and Hope
Surrounding the trunk of the olive tree are shoots that grow from its roots. These shoots are the “babies” of the olive tree. Full of vitality, the shoots can be taken with a bit of their root, saved for even a year, and replanted to produce a new tree. Psalm 128 says, “Your children are like olive shoots around your table.” Our next generation surrounds our table like the “children” of the olive tree around its trunk. The last verse of the Psalm says, “May you see children of your children, and peace in Israel”--our dearest prayers and hopes, as embodied in the olive tree.
Even if the parent trunk is dead, the roots can keep producing new shoots. The olive tree and its “babies” is thus a powerful image of new life after destruction. In our lives and in our history, as in nature, destruction is never final. As we see in the beloved olive tree, there is always hope for revival and renewal.
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