Ancient Agrarian Culture

August 1, 2011

by: Rebecca J. Brimmer, International President and CEO

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For instance, the culture of the Israelite people was predominantly agrarian in nature. They used threshing floors, winnowing tools, watchtowers, and olive presses on an everyday basis. They were shepherds, vinedressers, watchmen, and farmers. Most of us have never herded sheep, harvested a crop, or pressed olives. Let’s look at one example—the olive tree.

“But I am like a green olive tree in the house of God; I trust in the mercy of God forever and ever”(Ps. 52:8). What does it mean, “I am like an olive tree?” First, we need to think about the characteristics of olive trees and their importance in biblical times. The olive was a staple of the Israeli diet. It produced oil for religious rites (anointing oil), food, light, cooking, soap, and medicine. It was a major export item. Solomon exported 380,000 liters (100,385 gallons) of olive oil to the king of Tyre (I Kings 5:11).

Olive trees are evergreen. An olive tree will live and produce fruit no matter what the circumstances—hot, cold, wet, dry, rocky or sandy soil. It is very difficult to kill an olive tree; even if you cut it down to its roots, it will send forth new shoots. After the flood when Noah sent the dove out to determine if dry land had appeared, the dove returned with an olive leaf in its mouth. Even a flood could not kill an olive tree!

In biblical times, four pressings were made of the olives. Each pressing produced a different quality of oil used for distinct purposes. Heavy stones were used to extract the oil. The purest oil from the first pressing (one stone) was reserved for Temple worship. The oil produced in the second pressing (two stones) was used for cooking and eating. The oil produced from the third stone was used for lamp oil, and the fourth pressing was used to produce soap and medicine.

So how should we be like an olive tree? The psalmist was not picturing an olive tree planted in the Temple courtyard; rather he was thinking of the characteristics of the tree. We should be faithful (evergreen) and always bear fruit (Gal. 5:22). Our lives should be a pure offering to the Lord (like the first pressed oil). We should recognize that just as the fruit of the olive is released through pressure or crushing, that God may also allow crushing or pressure to produce the character traits He desires. “My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience. But let patience have its perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing”(James 1:2–4).

Understanding word pictures, like this one, can enrich our spiritual lives. We can search out their insights by studying life in Bible times. I encourage you to get a good Bible encyclopedia or dictionary. Look up terms you aren’t familiar with. Ask yourself, “What does it do?” not just “What is it?” Apply the characteristics to the passage to draw out its meaning. I believe you will experience great spiritual benefits as you study God’s Word taking into account the customs and culture of biblical times.

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