Sunday, March 4, 2018

The word זית (zayit) means olive and is a complicated symbol

The Hebrew word for olive tree is זית (zayit; Deuteronomy 8:8, 2 Kings 18:32, Amos 4:9), or the fruit of it; olives (Micah 6:15) and olive-oil (שמן זית, shemen zayit; Exodus 27:20, Leviticus 24:2).

A person who occupied any of the few highest earthly ranks — the king, high priest and a prophet had no earthly superiors — was called an anointed (see the name Messiah), and anointing was done with olive oil (Judges 9:9). A failure of the olive harvest was a disaster because that would mean that Israel's social structure couldn't be maintained (Deuteronomy 28:40).

And it also caused the olive tree to be one of the most symbolical entities in the Bible. What is symbolizes, however, is commonly not very well understood, but it's by no means an accident that Jesus' passion began with His arrest on Mount Olivet.

That the symbolism of the olive is really quite complicated is demonstrated in the story of Noah, where after the flood a released dove returns to the Ark with in her mouth a עלה-זית טרף, ('ayle-zayit tarap; Genesis 8:11), which literally means: the violently torn leafage of an olive (tree), but which translations of the Bible usually generously interpret as a freshly picked olive leaf.

This image has further been developed into a dove carrying a whole olive branch, which then became interpreted as a symbol of peace. But this evolution is faithful only to that odd human persistence to warp whatever is out there into whatever we want. In short: Noah's dove has not a thing to do with offering peace to anyone.

The word יונה (yona; see the name Jonah), meaning dove, is closely similar to יון (yawen) meaning mire or being without foothold, and even ינה (yana), meaning to vex, oppress or wrong someone. The earth had been flooded for 150 days (Genesis 8:3). The Ark wrecked on Ararat in the seventh month, and in the tenth month the tops of the mountains became visible (Genesis 8:5). Forty-seven days later, the dove came back with our 'ayle-zayit tarap in her beak. And whatever that was, it certainly was not a freshly picked leaf from a cheerfully blooming olive tree.

Whatever remained of the drowned olive trees was at that time still below a vast amount of water. It took three whole months for the water to recede the height of the draught of the Ark (three months between running aground and seeing the ground). Forty-seven days after that there were only high mountain summits above water. What the dove had managed to harvest was a hardy helping of whatever little plants or mosses had sprouted on the mountain tops.

Ergo: the word by which the Hebrews knew the olive also meant something more basic, namely a freshling, or firstling, or even herald of a lot more to come. And that's not all that odd, as we shall see.

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