Oil in general has many different uses, from common cooking and food preparation, treating ailments, aromatics and infusions, anointing and purifying, fuel for lights, etc. Oil is mentioned many times throughout Scripture, often specifically as olive oil, as that was commonly used throughout the Middle East. Olive trees grow very well in that area of the world, perhaps better than most other plants that yield useful oils in large quantities, so the pressing of olives into oil became a common trade very quickly.
Olive oil is very versatile partly because of its mild flavor; many other oils have stronger flavors or other chemical properties that make them less suitable for some uses. Somehow the oil has a milder flavor than the fruit itself – many people who do not care for the strong taste of olives may happily use olive oil in their food and salad dressings. If necessary, one could live on cakes of nothing but flour and olive oil for quite some time, as Elijah and the widow woman and her son did in 1 Kings 17.
The general word in Scripture for oil is shemen (H8081), with 193 occurrences in 176 verses. It is often specifically olive oil, as that was commonly used throughout the Middle East. However, the sacred anointing oil of the temple was a complex infused version with a specific recipe described in Exodus 30:23-25.
Like other pure liquids, such as water or honey, pure oil is excellent for cleansing or purifying. Genesis 28:18 is the first use of “oil” (shemen) in Scripture, and the first description of anointing something: “And Jacob rose up early in the morning, and took the stone that he had put for his pillows, and set it up for a pillar, and poured oil upon the top of it.” Jacob consecrated the stone he used for God by anointing it with oil.
Anointing people came later, such as in Exodus 30:30 where Moses is told to anoint Aaron and his sons as part of the priestly consecration process: “And thou shalt anoint Aaron and his sons, and consecrate them, that [they] may minister unto me in the priest’s office.” Exodus 29:7 gives us a definition of how it is done: “Then shalt thou take the anointing oil, and pour [it] upon his head, and anoint him.” The word for “pour” here is the same word used back in Genesis when Jacob poured the oil on the stone, so anointing is simply pouring oil on top of something for the purposes of consecrating, honoring, or purifying it.
The numerical value of the Hebrew word shemen (oil) is 390. This splits into 10×39. One interesting thing is that the number ten corresponds to the letter yod, which has as its primary theme that of the hand, which is used to perform anointing, and its grammatical theme that of possessive. And the number 39 is the value of the phrase that translates “The Lord is one” from Deuteronomy 6:4 (6+4 = 10): “YHVH echad“. That verse is the beginning of the passage that is also called the Shema, after the first word of the verse (shama’), which translates to “Hear”.
Furthermore, the first two letters (shin + mem) of both shemen and shama’ spell shem: this is both the name of one of Noah’s sons, the one that was the progenitor of Abraham and all of the Israelites, and the general word for “name” in Scripture, including God’s Name. In fact, Ha’Shem is a common Jewish way of referring to God – but it literally just means “the Name”. Also note that the original Hebrew version of Moses (Mosheh) is spelled with the same letters as Ha’Shem but in a different order. Therefore, the letters of both Ha’Shem and Mosheh have the same sum: 345, and the same ordinal sum: 39.
What does all this mean, then? It means that purifying by anointing with oil is a physical representation of putting the name of God on the recipient. The value of shemen as 10×39 thematically corresponds to “my name“. When an elder anoints those who are ill, he is to pray over them in the name of the Lord, as in James 5:14: “Is any sick among you? let him call for the elders of the church; and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord…” When Moses anointed Aaron and his sons with oil, he was sharing his authority and responsibility to act before God on behalf of the people for law-giving and sacrifices.
These days most people trust in modern medicine more than in the power of God to heal, so that anointing, if it is done at all, is treated as a purely ceremonial and spiritual act. Certainly there is much to be said for the prayer of healing from a righteous man. However, oil can also have a physical benefit to the body, particularly if it is infused with herbs or essential oils from plants that correspond to the ailment, and so in some cases this anointing may have been a dual blessing to the recipient. More on this idea at another time.