The oil lamp presented here by Biblical Reproductions is an example of one of the most common household items of the Biblical world. Every household had lamps. The oil came from the fruit of the olive tree, of course, and olive is the most famous tree of Israel. It grows everywhere and can live for a thousand years. Telling the people of Israel about the land they were about to enter, Moses said (Deuteronomy 8:8) that Israel was a land of wheat and barley, of vines, figs and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey.
The olive itself cannot be eaten directly from the tree. It must be processed for many weeks in brine and vinegar. So there is, in fact, no evidence that anyone ever ate the fruit. Rather, the olive was renown as a source of oil. And the oil which was pressed from the olive became a prized commodity in the ancient Mediterranean world. It was used as a cosmetic and a medicine to anoint the body. The use of olive oil was commanded for the Tent of Meeting (Exodus, 27:20):
20 Command the Israelites to bring you clear oil of pressed olives for the light so that the lamps may be kept burning,and olive oil was used to crown the king (I Kings 1:39):
The priest Zadok took a horn of oil from the Tent and anointed Solomon.
The word “Messiah” means, literally, “anointed with oil.”
Mostly, the lamp served the simple function of providing light indoors and at night. Oil lamps were, therefore, a basic implement in the life of the ancient world; the word “lamp”, in one form or another, appears nearly fifty times in the Hebrew Old Testament. The parable of the Wise Virgins and the Foolish Virgins in Matthew 25 emphasizes the importance of the oil for the lamps of the household.
In the earlier periods of the Bible, and even in the centuries prior to that, oil lamps were made on a potter’s wheel and hand-formed to hold the wick in contact with the oil, yet exposed to the air so it would burn at the end. At later periods, craftsmen made molds to produce pottery oil lamps inexpensively and in great numbers. In time, what was a common craft became an art form and many oil lamps were made not simply of clay, but of metal and stone. Some were exquisitely decorated by expert craftsmen.
A beautiful reproduction of the oil lamp used in ancient Israel is available at www.biblicalreproductions.com, which is licensed by the Israel Antiquities Authority.
Author: Walter Zanger