[Heb., zaʹyith; Gr., e·laiʹa].
The olive tree was unquestionably one of the most valuable plants in Bible times, of equal importance with the vine and the fig tree. (Jg 9:8-13; 2Ki 5:26; Hab 3:17; Jas 3:12) It appears early in the Bible record; following the Flood it was an olive leaf brought back by a dove that indicated to Noah the recession of the waters.—Ge 8:11.
The olive tree (Olea europaea) thrives on mountain slopes of Galilee and Samaria and up in the central highlands, as well as throughout the entire Mediterranean area. (De 28:40; Jg 15:5) It flourishes in rocky, chalky soil, too dry for many other plants, and it can endure frequent droughts. At the time of the Exodus from Egypt, the Israelites were promised that the land into which they would come was one of “oil olives and honey,” with “vineyards and olive trees that [they] did not plant.” (De 6:11; 8:8; Jos 24:13) Since the olive is a slow-growing tree and may take ten years or more to begin bearing good harvests, the fact that these trees were already growing was a decided advantage for the Israelites. The tree is exceptionally long-lived, producing fruit for hundreds of years, and it is suggested that some of the olive trees in Palestine date back more than 1,000 years.
The olive trees present a refreshing view throughout Palestine, often growing on rocky hillside terraces or carpeting the valley floors. The tree may exceed 6 m (20 ft) in height. The gnarled trunk with its ash-colored bark has a profuse branch system bearing a thick foliage of slender grayish-green leaves. Though not generally thought of by many as being such, the tree is an evergreen. It generally flowers about May and is covered with thousands of pale-yellow blossoms. The ease with which these flowers are blown off is mentioned in the Bible. (Job 15:33) The fruit, or olive berry, is green when immature but ripens into a deep purplish to black color. Harvesting is done in the autumn (October-November), and the ancient method of beating the tree with rods is still frequently employed. (De 24:20; Isa 24:13) In Bible times gleaners gathered the remaining fruit. (Isa 17:6) By nature the tree is an alternately bearing one, that is, its good harvest is followed by a slack one the following year. The fresh fruit contains a bitter substance that is removed by soaking the olives in brine, and the olives are then eaten raw or pickled. Their chief value, however, is in their oil, which composes as much as 30 percent or more (by weight) of the fresh fruit. One good tree can yield from 38 to 57 L (10 to 15 gal) in a year. The wood of the tree is very hard and must be seasoned for years to be of value for woodworking.
The olive tree not only lives for centuries but, if cut down, will send up as many as six new shoots from its roots to develop into new trunks, and aged trees also will often perpetuate themselves in this way. New trees are frequently planted by using slips cut from a grown tree. Thus the psalmist’s illustration is very apt when likening the blessed man’s sons to “slips of olive trees all around your table.”—Ps 128:3.
Grafting. Wild olive trees growing on hillsides were often subjected to grafting with cuttings from the cultivated productive trees so that they would produce good fruit. It would seem unusual, even unnatural, to graft a wild branch onto a cultivated tree; yet, that is what some farmers did in the first century. Paul referred to this unusual procedure in his illustration at Romans 11:17-24, in which he likened the Gentile Christians who became part of the ‘seed of Abraham’ to branches of a wild olive tree grafted into a cultivated tree to replace the unproductive branches that were broken off and that represented the rejected natural Jewish members removed from the symbolic tree for their lack of faith. (Ga 3:28, 29) This act, “contrary to nature,” emphasizes God’s undeserved kindness toward such Gentile believers, stresses the benefits resulting to them as branches of “a wild olive” in receiving of the “fatness” of the garden olive’s roots, and thus removes any basis for boasting on the part of these Gentile Christians.—Compare Mt 3:10; Joh 15:1-10; see GRAFTING.
Groves and Presses. Conditions permitting, nearly every village in Palestine had its olive grove. Its failure, as when damaged by its principal enemy, the caterpillar, constituted a grave disaster for the people. (Am 4:9) King David had valued olive groves in the Shephelah region. (1Ch 27:28) The mountain ridge to the E of Jerusalem about “a sabbath day’s journey” distant was noted for its olives in King David’s day and, by Zechariah’s time, was already called “the mountain of the olive trees.” (2Sa 15:30; Zec 14:4; Lu 19:29; 22:39; Ac 1:12) The large number of ancient stone olive presses found throughout Palestine testifies to the extensive cultivation of the tree. The “gardens” of that time were frequently in the nature of an orchard and often contained an olive press. Thus the garden named Gethsemane, to which Jesus retired after his last supper with his disciples, draws its name from an Aramaic term gath shema·nehʹ meaning “an oil press.” Olives were also trodden by foot at times.—Mic 6:15.
Figurative Use. The olive tree is used figuratively in the Bible as a symbol of fruitfulness, beauty, and dignity. (Ps 52:8; Jer 11:16; Ho 14:6) Its branches were among those used in the Festival of Booths. (Ne 8:15; Le 23:40) At Zechariah 4:3, 11-14 and Revelation 11:3, 4, olive trees are used as symbols of God’s anointed ones and witnesses.