The olive, called 'zayit' in Hebrew, is mentioned 35 times in the Old Testament. This is quite apart from the word 'shemen' which is Hebrew for olive oil.
 
The first reference to the zayit is found in Genesis 8 in connection with the second flight of the dove from Noah’s ark. It returned with an olive leaf in its mouth.

Israel Olive trees

Olive trees growing in the Garden of Gethsemane at the foot of the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem. PICTURE: DariaZu/iStockphoto.

The zayit or olive tree (Olea europaea) is grown right across Israel.

It takes a number of years for the olive to bear fruit when grown in the traditional manner. Olive trees don’t start bearing fruit until the fifth year and it takes a further two or three years before they fruit fully. Some trees take a long time to mature enough to give ongoing stable yields of olives; up to 80 years in some cases. This tree is known to live a long time. In Jerusalem it is claimed that some of the olive trees in the garden of Gethsemane are nearly 2,000-years-old!

"The zayit or olive tree (Olea europaea) is grown right across Israel."

Olives are gathered in late autumn. The traditional method for doing this is to firstly ‘beat’ the tree, not severely, but enough to knock the olives to the ground. Usually a cloth is placed under the tree to catch the falling olives. This would enable the olives to be gathered up easily. They would then be taken away to be pressed.

The oil that is extracted from the fruit would mainly be used for lighting and cooking. This practice is mentioned in Deuteronomy 24:20, with an emphasis on looking after the poor and the needy and not to be greedy in terms of one’s income. "When you beat the olives from your trees, do not go over the branches a second time. Leave what remains for the alien, the fatherless and the widow."

This was reaffirmed in Isaiah 17:6; 24:13 where it states that the Israelites were to leave some of their olives for the sojourner.

The zayit was used as a symbol of blessing. 

"When the LORD your God brings you into the land he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to give you--a land with large, flourishing cities you did not build, houses filled with all kinds of good things you did not provide, wells you did not dig, and vineyards and olive groves you did not plant...
     "For the LORD your God is bringing you into a good land -a land with streams and pools of water, with springs flowing in the valleys and hills; a land with wheat and barley, vines and fig trees, pomegranates, olive oil and honey..." - Deuteronomy 6:10-11; 8:7-8.



It was also used in the context of judgment: "You will plant but not harvest; you will press olives but not use the oil on yourselves, you will crush grapes but not drink the wine." (Micah 6:15).

Speaking God’s words, the prophet Amos recounts that despite losing their zayit because of a locust plague, the Israelites still did not repent: "'Many times I struck your gardens and vineyards, I struck them with blight and mildew. Locusts devoured your fig and olive trees, yet you have not returned to me,' declares the Lord." (Amos 4:9)

In a number of places, Israel is likened to a "green olive tree, fair with goodly fruit" (Jeremiah 11:16). In Hosea 14:4–7, it says:
“I will heal their waywardness
and love them freely,
for my anger has turned away from them.
I will be like the dew to Israel;
he will blossom like a lily.
Like a cedar of Lebanon
he will send down his roots;
his young shoots will grow.
His splendour will be like a zayit [olive] tree,
his fragrance like a cedar of Lebanon.
Men will dwell again in his shade.
He will flourish like the grain.
He will blossom like a vine,
and his fame will be like the wine from Lebanon."

Olive wood was used in the construction of the Temple as recorded in I Kings 6:23-38: "For the entrance of the inner sanctuary he [Solomon] made doors of zayit [olive] wood with five-sided jambs. And on the two olive wood doors he carved cherubim, palm trees and open flowers, and overlaid the cherubim and palm trees with beaten gold."

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The olive tree is also mentioned in the New Testament. Although it is not specifically stated, the upright beam for the cross was possibly the stump of an olive tree. Evidence from a crucified man revealed that his ankle had been nailed to olive wood.

In the book of Romans, Paul uses the metaphor of the olive tree to refer to the people of Israel. He then discusses the relationship the new church has to Israel by using the example of being grafted onto an existing tree.

 “If some of the branches have been broken off, and you, though a wild olive shoot, have been grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing sap from the olive root, do not boast over those branches. If you do, consider this: You do not support the root, but the root supports you. You will say then, "Branches were broken off so that I could be grafted in." Granted. But they were broken off because of unbelief, and you stand by faith. Do not be arrogant, but be afraid. For if God did not spare the natural branches, he will not spare you either. Consider therefore the kindness and sternness of God: sternness to those who fell, but kindness to you, provided that you continue in his kindness. Otherwise, you also will be cut off. And if they do not persist in unbelief, they will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again. After all, if you were cut out of an olive tree that is wild by nature, and contrary to nature were grafted into a cultivated olive tree, how much more readily will these, the natural branches, be grafted into a cultivated olive tree, how much more readily will these, the natural branches, be grafted into their own olive tree! I do not want you to be ignorant of this mystery, brothers, so that you may not be conceited: Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in.” - Romans 11:17-25

James also uses the olive tree in his teaching: "My brothers, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water." (James 3:12)

Finally in the book of Revelation, two witnesses are like olive trees that stand before the Lord: "And I will give power to my two witnesses, and they will prophesy for 1,260 days, clothed in sackcloth. These are the two olive trees and the two lampstands that stand before the Lord of the earth." (Revelation 11:3-4)

This is an edited excerpt from Alvin Johnson's iBook 'Biblical Flora', 2017. The book is available for free download on iTunes. A teacher's edition is also available for purchase.