ASHER SHALL DIP HIS FOOT IN OIL ...
PETROLEUM OIL OR SOMETHING ELSE?
Everybody loves a treasure hunt! As a young boy, I liked adventures. On occasions, I would play "pirate" by taking a wooden cigar box and putting several rolls of pennies (a lot of money in those days for a boy my age) and other goodies and burying them in the backyard. Then I made a treasure map with various landmarks in the area and put an "X" on the spot where the treasure was buried. I would then proceed to roll up the map and put it in a bottle and seal it with a cork. The next morning I "found" the bottle "floating" in my backyard and set off to find the treasure. I will never forget the excitement of the discovery.
Years later, while a graduate student in Israel, I worked on an excavation of the edge of the Hinnom Valley in Jerusalem. We were excavating caves from the period of the Judean Monarchy (Iron Age). On the first day we found some bronze bracelets that had corroded and turned green and some silver earrings that had turned gray. I asked the excavator, Gabriel Barkay, if it was possible to find gold. He answered in the affirmative. Since the silver and bronze were corroded, I asked Goby what gold would look like if I found it. He said, "Don't worry, you'll recognize it when you see it!" The next day, I remember carefully brushing away the dirt with a paintbrush to reveal a beautiful gold earring that was 2,600 years old and looked just like new. I still remember finding my first gold object as if it was yesterday.
Today some Christian geologists and oilmen, encouraged by some prophecy teachers, are looking for greater treasures ... oil ... black gold, with the Bible as their "treasure map"! They are so convinced that Israel will soon be awash in fabulous oil wealth that they have invested millions of dollars of their own money as well as that of well-meaning Christians. Did the Creator leave a "treasure map" for modern geologists to find a huge deposit of oil under Israel? Would Israel then "bless" all nations by providing a steady flow of reliable oil to the world that is so dependent on OPEC? Or would the hungry bear, Russia, invade Israel to take the "spoil" (drop the "sp" and you have "oil"!, cf. Ezek. 38:13)? Does the Bible make such fantastic claims and should it be used as a magical divining rod for the discovery of black gold?
Israel, like the rest of the industrialized world, is dependent on a steady flow of oil from reliable sources. After capturing the Sinai Peninsula in the Six Days War in June of 1967, Israeli petroleum explorers discovered and developed the Alma Oil Fields on the western side of the Sinai Peninsula. These fields provided Israel with a reliable source of oil. However, Israel "lost" the oil fields in the negotiations for peace with Egypt. Part of the Camp David Peace Accord, signed in Washington, DC in 1979, included the return of these oil fields to Egypt in exchange for compensation and a promise of the sale of oil to Israel. Israel not only gave up land, but also a steady supply of oil with the agreement. Today, Israel does not have a steady, reliable supply of oil.
As of this writing (2004), there has been no major source of oil discovered in Israel. There are a few wells here and there that pump out small quantities of oil, but nothing like the Persian Gulf area. Several Christian oilmen have tried to discover a marketable amount of oil, but to no avail. Some, using the Bible as their treasure map and guide, have tried to get the faithful to invest in their oil operations. A number of years ago an expose appeared in the Wall Street Journal with the headlines, "Prophets and Profits Motivate Evangelicals Hunting for Israeli Oil" (Getschow 1985:1). The article describes some of the personalities and operations, and then goes on to list several states that have prohibited the sale of "penny stock" because of the suspect nature of these groups and their operations. At one prophecy conference a book by Rev. Jim Spillman entitled The Great Treasure Hunt (1981) outsold the Bible (Getschow 1985: 16). This article will analyze the verses used by the prophecy teachers to find petroleum oil. Are they really referring to petroleum oil, or is it something else?
"... fruitful bough by a well" (Gen. 49:22)
As the patriarch Jacob laid on his deathbed in Egypt, he set out to bless his twelve sons. The account begins with Jacob calling them together to tell them what will befall them "in the last days" (Gen. 49:1). Most prophecy teachers automatically assume the phrase "the last days" are the days we are living in now. Is that the case? The phrase is used 14 times in the Old Testament. The context must determine if it is used of a day still in the future, or of subsequent years from the prediction. A clear example of a future day is Isaiah 2:2 which describes a future day when Jerusalem will be exalted (Varner 1987: 24). The "blessings of Jacob" were fulfilled in the subsequent years in the history of Israel after they entered the Land of Israel and settled it.
With regards to the blessing of Jacob, Spillman found several "cryptic" references in this passage. In verse 22, there is a "well" and in verse 25, "the Almighty ... will bless you (with) ... blessings of the deep that lies beneath." He says the key to unlocking this cryptic message is an oilrig discovering oil deep in the ground (1981: 22-24). Is this speaking about an oil well in the Hill Country of Ephraim and Manasseh?
Unfortunately sometimes the prophecy teachers, on their trips to Israel, are so caught up in the contemporary society that they overlook some of the culture that has gone on for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. An appreciation of this "time capsule" is overlooked, and an understanding that would come to the true meaning of the text.
Would you join me for a short trip to a Palestinian home in the Hill Country of Samaria (West Bank)? In 1980, I worked in Jerusalem on the restoration of the pottery from a burial cave found by Joseph Free at ancient Dothan. It was like putting a jigsaw puzzle together without even seeing the picture! At the end of our time restoring pottery, the project supervisor, Dr. Robert Cooley, took his volunteers to visit Tel Dothan as well as have lunch at one of the ancient capital of Israel, Samaria. On the way home, we stopped at a village near Samaria to visit with relatives of the taxi driver. By western standards it was a "primitive" rural setting. The afternoon was hot and we appreciated the shade of the grape vine that spread out over the porch. I noticed the vine that was near a cistern so the family could water it on a regular basis. The blessing that Jacob bestowed upon Joseph was ... WATER! The grape vine (Ps. 80) that was planted by a well of water will shoot its branches over the wall. The blessing from heaven is the rains that will come in their proper seasons when the people are obedient to the Word of God (Deut. 11:9-17). The waters will seep down into the rock and reach the water table and provide water from the deep, i.e. the well. Jacob's father Isaac had blessed him with "the dew from heaven" to provide the essentials for life, i.e. grain, oil and wine (Gen. 27:28).
The searcher has misinterpreted this so-called cryptic message.
"... to suck honey out of the rock, and oil out of the flinty rock" (Deut. 32:13)
Spillman continues his search for petroleum oil with his "treasure map" in front of him when he turns to the book of Deuteronomy, chapter 32 and the last part of verse 13: "he made him draw honey from the rock, and oil from the flinty rock." He thinks it is absurd to understand the oil as olive oil because it came from crushed olives and honey could not be bee's honey because it comes from beehives. According to him, the honey is "earth" honey, symbolic of petroleum (1981: 36,37). It is true that the word translated "draw" does have the idea of "suck" or "eating to satiety" (Cassuto 1971: 108). But to read, "pump" and find an oilrig is a bit far fetched.
Prophecy teachers would do well to read the accounts of the 19th-century explorers to the Holy Land. The visit by these men opened up a whole new realm of Biblical study. They wrote about their experiences and the Palestinian folklore and how these illustrated the Biblical passages and ways. Rev. William Thomson, an American missionary in the region from 1833 to 1879, traveled extensively and wrote a three-volume set, The Land and the Book, about his experiences.
On one of his trips he observed a phenomenon that illustrated Deuteronomy 32:13. "In the clefts of a precipice overhanging Wady el Kurn swarms of bees made their home. The people of M'alia, several years ago, let a man down the face of the rock by ropes. He was entirely protected from the assaults of the bees, and extracted a large amount of honey; but was so dismayed by their number that he could not be induced to repeat the exploit. One is reminded by this incident of the expression concerning Israel in the farewell ode of Moses, Deut. 32:13: ‘He made him to suck honey out of the rock.' And Asaph. In the eighty-first Psalm, thus sings: 'With honey out of the rock should I have satisfied thee'" (Thomson 1882: 2: 259). Unfortunately Rev. Thomson does not describe the extraction process, but it is clearly referring to honey produced by wild bees.
When I was a freshman at Delaware Valley College of Science and Agriculture in Doylestown, PA, I had an interest in beekeeping so I joined the apiary society. At one time I asked the director of the society, a renowned beekeeper himself, if the beekeepers could "suck" honey out of the rock? His response was, "I strongly suspect that the term draw or suck simply means remove or extract. If the term 'suck' is accurate, there is no reason that the honey gatherers couldn't have inserted hollow tubes into the honey combs and sucks honey into them" (Personal correspondence from Dr. Robert Berthold, August 31, 1994).
Prof. F. S. Bodenheimer, a noted Israeli biologist, has stated: "In Israel of Biblical times wild honey hunting only was known, whereas at the same time real and extensive beekeeping was carried out in Egypt and Anatolia. In our country the first documents on beekeeping are found in the Mishnah tractate Ohaloth" (1959: 402). The writings of the Mishnah are much later than the Biblical period. The director of Neot Kedumim, the Biblical Gardens near Tel Aviv, Nogah Hareuveni, states: "Honey is mentioned several times in the Bible, but never is there an implication that it is a cultivated product. Apiculture developed many centuries later ..." (1980: 12). The honey was public property and had to be gathered (Prov. 25:16; Judges 14:8,9; I Sam. 25,26). Spillman is wrong to two counts. First, the honey referred to is wild bee's honey that does come from the rocks, and not petroleum. Second, the ancient Israelite farmer did not cultivate honey in beehives during the Biblical period.
In order to determine what the oil is in verse 13, one must take a careful look at the context in which it appears. Note all of verses 13 and 14. "... he might eat the produce of the field; ... honey ... oil ... curds ... milk ... lambs ... rams ... goats ... wheat ... wine." It is obvious from the context that the oil has to be olive oil because it is something that one eats. One does not eat, or drink, petroleum oil!
The flinty rock refers to the kind of soil that the olive trees grow in. Rev. Thomson again observed, "The substratum of this plain [near Beirut] is chalky marl, abounding in flint, and the sand is merely an intruder blown in from this desert on our left. The olive is found, also, in places where there is no rocky basis; but it is in soil such as this that the trees flourishes best, both in crevices of this flinty marl, and draws from thence its stores of the rock beneath. I am told the tree languishes, and its berries are small and sapless" (1882: 3: 34). An alternative view set forth by Dr. David Eitam, an Israeli archaeologist whose expertise is olive presses, suggests this might allude to the rock-cut olive presses (1979: 154). The landmark on the "treasure map" has been misread. The oil is olive oil, not petroleum oil.
"Asher shall dip his foot in oil" (Deut. 33:24)
Before Moses died, he blessed the children of Israel. Of Asher he said, "Asher is most blessed of sons; let him be favored by his brothers, and let him dip his foot in oil. Your sandals shall be iron and bronze; as your days, so shall you strength be" (Deut. 33:24,25).
This was the verse that set Andy Sorelle, a Texas oilman and co-owner of Energy Exploration, Inc., on a new search for oil in Israel. In 1979 a college friend of Sorelle sent him a map of the territories of the twelve tribes of Israel. As he recounts the event, "There's a passage in Deuteronomy 33.24 where Moses, talking about the blessings of the twelve tribes, said Asher would dip his foot in oil. Well, on the map, the leg of Asher started in Lebanon; the heel of the foot was drawn at Haifa, and the toe at Caesarea. I suddenly realized that the only area we had not surveyed in Israel was that between Caesarea and Haifa" (Gafen 1981). On February 12, 1981, Sorelle began his first well in Israel on the Israeli naval base at Atlit. At 5,200 feet there was a small amount of oil evident but they continued to a deeper level. On December 1, 1981 they stopped their operation at 17,296 feet because the oilrig they were using could not go any deeper. It took almost a year to get a bigger rig in place; by the beginning of 1983 they commenced operations again. Due to problems, they had to stop again at 21,428 feet (Gaverluk and Lindsted 1984: 11,24). I'm sure Mr. Sorelle is very sincere in his belief that there is a large amount of marketable oil in the area, but is there a Biblical basis for his belief? Should Christians be investing in this, or other oil operations based on this verse of the Bible? Two issues need to be addressed. First, what is the oil that is being referred to? Second, are the oil rigs in the tribal territory of Asher?
It is clear from the context that the oil in this passage is olive oil. The Hebrew word "shemen" is used 190 times in Scripture for "generally olive oil whether pure or prepared for various uses as perfume or ointment" (Austel 1980: 2: 937), and is never used for petroleum oil. Interestingly, the early rabbinic writings understand it to mean olive oil as well. In the tractate Menahoth on regulations concerning the meal offering in the Temple, the rabbis taught, "And let him dip his foot in oil: this refers to the territory of Asher which flowed with oil like a fountain" (Menahoth 85b). The context is talking about olive oil.
The second issue is the location of the oil wells. Sorelle placed his well near the ancient Crusader fortress of Atlit. Others placed them on Mount Carmel. Are these oil wells in Asher's territory? A careful study of the tribal-city list of Asher (Josh. 19:24-31) suggests otherwise. While it is true, a couple of Bible atlases place Asher's territory down in the Sharon Plain, south of the Carmel range, most place the tribal territory north of Mount Carmel (Carta Bible Atlas  maps 71 and 72; Zondervan NIV Atlas of the Bible  pages 99 and 102; The Moody Atlas of Bible Lands  map 49). A very careful analysis of the tribal list by Zvi Gal, the district archaeologist for Galilee, in whose jurisdiction "Asher" falls, has demonstrated that the southern border of Asher's territory was the Kishon River just north of Mount Carmel (1992: 101-104; 1985: 115-127). Another careful and detail study of the tribal territory of Asher was done by Dr. Zecharia Kallai, a professor of Historical Geography of Eretz-Israel at Hebrew University (1986: 204-224, 427-433). Where Sorelle and others have put their oil wells have been in Manasseh's tribal-territory, not in Asher's!
The context of Moses' blessing to Asher is that there will be an abundance of olive oil in his territory. Has that been the case? Another 19th-century explorer who visited the area of Asher, Canon Tristram, a missionary and a naturalist, recorded his impressions as he traveled over Rosh ha-Niqrah, or the "Ladder of Tyre" (on the northern border of Israel today), and viewed the Plain of Acco for the first time. He described it as "... a green cultivated plain many miles in extent, stubbed with olive groves, with their grey-blue hue spangling the carpet, and each grove half concealing a village" (Wilson 1980: 70).
Two Presbyterian ministers from Scotland took a journey to the Holy Land in 1839. On one trip they recorded their impressions of an area two hours from Tyre: "... the summits, were sprinkled over with groves of olives, showing how fertile and how suitable for the cultivation of the olive this range must have been in former days. This was more remarkable, because we were now in the tribe of Asher; and the prophetic blessing pronounced upon Asher, was, 'Let him dip his foot in oil'" (Bonar and McCheyne 1973: 265). How discerning these two students of the Scripture were!
Only a few excavations have been conducted in the Israeli part of the tribal territory of Asher. The part in Southern Lebanon has not been touched at all, except the ancient city of Tyre. With a limited amount of excavations, archaeology could not shed light on the culture and agriculture of the day ... until recently.
Zvi Gal excavated a small fortress on a ridge on the slopes of Western Lower Galilee. This site, called Hurvat Rosh Zayit (Khirbet Ras el Zeitum in Arabic), is translated "the ruins of the head of the olives." A discerning reader will notice that the name of the site has something to do with olives. It also lies less than a mile north of the Arab village of Kabul, which preserves the name for the site of Biblical Cabul (Josh. 19:27). When he excavated the site he discovered a small fortress, 80 feet by 80 feet with a wall preserved to the height of 10 feet, dating to the time of King Solomon. The mostly Phoenician pottery from the excavation dated from the late 10th to mid-9th century BC. This led the excavator to suggest that this was one of the twenty cities that Solomon gave to Hiram, king of Tyre. After examining the sites, Hiram did not like them and called the place "Cabul-land" (I Kings 9:10-14; Gal 1993a: 39). The most significant discovery for our study is three large olive presses. Gal states, "These settlers based their economy largely on the production of olive oil. A large complex of oil presses is now being excavated on the west side of the site. Within a well-built structure, we have found at least three presses, and another press outside the structure has been excavated and reconstructed. These presses, together with the many rock cut installations found on the surface around the area, make this the largest known oil-press complex in Galilee" (1993a: 84; 1993b: 128-140). This complex dated to the 8th century BC and has Israelite features. It was destroyed by Tiglath-Pileser III in 733/32 BC (Gal 1990:91).
I believe with further excavations in the region, more olive oil installations will be uncovered, thus confirming the truth of Moses' blessing on Asher.
The last part of Moses' blessing says, "Your sandals shall be iron and bronze." Spillman suggests that this is referring to oil derricks that are made of iron and brass to prevent sparks from igniting a fire on the rigs as iron on iron would (1981: 49). Sorelle said this verse did not make sense until recent times because he believes that "this area will be such a developed oil field that from a helicopter it will look like he is wearing shoes of iron and brass" (Webber n.d.: 21). There is a better understanding for this passage.
To produce olive oil, there are three stages that must be gone through in order to get olive oil. First, the olives are crushed. Then, the olive pulp is pressed to express the liquid that is oil and watery lees, or impurities. Finally, the oil floats to the top and is separated from the impurities (Frankel 1994: 26). This process could, until recently, still be observed in some settings in one simple installation. The farmer would crush the olives with a stone, or treading them while wearing some kind of shoes (cf. Micah 6:15). The crushed olives were pressed with a stone and the liquids collected in a vat and the oil skimmed off after separating from the watery lees (Gal 1993b: 133). A better explanation for the "sandals of iron and brass" would be that these are the shoes used by the farmer to crush the olives. This was the method used by the ancient Israelite farmer before the large stone olive crushers came into use during the Iron Age in Israel (Gal 1993b: 135).
It is interesting that Micah 6:15 mentions the "treading of olives." One cannot tread, or crush, olives with bear feet. Quite possibly the shoes were of iron and/or brass. However, Oded Boronski says this phrase can "not be taken literally since this method is ineffective and the stones might cause harm to the feet of the treader." The phrase should be "a poetic expression for oil pressing" (1987:119).
However, Rafael Frankel, an expert on the olive oil industry in antiquity, has observed, "Despite the fact that olives were usually crushed by rolling stones over them on flat surfaces, a special Greek word ... exists for the shoes which were worn while treading olives. It appears that olives were trodden in much the same way as grapes, except that the latter were trodden barefoot" (1994: 78).
The blessing of Moses to Asher should be understood in light of its ancient Near Eastern context. Asher was literally blessed with an abundance of olive oil and he would crush the olives with special shoes made of iron and/or brass in order to allow the oil to run out. To imagine an oilrig in this passage and to get Christians to invest in "penny stock" is not a good interpretation of this passage.
Jacob's Blessing of Asher (Gen. 49:20)
When Jacob blessed Asher he said, "Bread from Asher shall be rich, and he shall yield royal dainties" (Gen. 49:20). The Hebrew root for the word "rich" is "shemen" which is translated "oil or fatness". Again, the hint is of olive oil. But Jacob goes on to say this food shall be for the royal tables. Has this ever happened? Do people eat or drink petroleum oil at their tables?
Very little history was recorded in the Scriptures regarding the tribe of Asher. We do know that each tribe provided food for the royal court one month a year during the reign of King Solomon (I Kings 4:7,16). I'm sure the people in the palace looked forward to the rich food from Asher. It must have been exquisite. Of course, olive oil is very healthy for a person as well.
Another case where food from Asher landed on the royal tables was Hiran, king of Tyre. In exchange for cedars and cypress wood from the Lebanon Mountains, Solomon promised him food for his household (I Kings 5:9). This food included 20,000 kors of wheat and 20 kors of pressed oil each year (I Kings 5:11; II Chron. 2:10,15). The closest tribal to Tyre with this kind of food was Asher.
Just as Moses' blessing on Asher was literally fulfilled, so Jacob's blessing. The abundant food did end up on the table of royalty.
It has been demonstrated that the search for petroleum oil with the Bible as a treasure map or a magical divining rod is unwise and fruitless. The serious student of the Scriptures is to properly exegete the passage, i.e. take out from the passage that which is in the text, rather than reading into the text that which is not there, which is what these oilmen and prophecy teachers are doing. The prophecy teachers should heed the words of James, "My brethren, let not many of you become teachers, knowing we shall receive a stricter judgment" (3:1). Bible teachers are responsible for properly interpreting the Scriptures and will be held accountable by the Lord for their teachings.
The Holy Spirit has several tools at His disposal to help the Bible student properly interpret the Biblical text. We have noted at least four in this paper. First, there are good linguistic tools available that will help the student understand the proper meaning of the words. Invest in a good lexicon or Bible dictionary. Second, there are the 19th century explorers who visited the Holy Land and wrote of their experiences. One should visit the local library and check out these books, they are fascinating reading. Third, one can glean insights into the Scriptures by visiting the contemporary Palestinian culture that still reflects the ancient ways of doing things. This gets harder and harder to find as the Palestinians improve their lot financially. And finally, there have been many archaeological discoveries that have added much light to the Biblical text and the material culture of the days of the Bible.
The blessings of Jacob and Moses to Asher are referring to olive oil, not petroleum oil. When I was a field trip instructor at the Institute of Holy land Studies in Jerusalem, I always enjoyed the Sharon Plain field trip because we would end up at Mukrakah on Mount Carmel. This was the place where Elijah had the encounter with Ahab and the prophets of Baal (I Kings 18). As we journeyed the winding roads on Mount Carmel to Mukrakah we passed an abandoned oilrig. I would chuckle to myself because the rig was situated in a huge olive grove, probably owned by the local Druze. If only the oilmen had taken the time to look around them, they would have seen one of the essential blessings for daily life in ancient Israel, olive oil, not petroleum oil.
On one field trip I pointed to the oilrig and expounded the Scriptures of Asher's blessing and hammered the point that it was olive oil and the rig was in Manasseh's territory. Later, while having lunch at Mukrakah, a student sheepishly came up to me and confessed that he had lost a lot of money investing in those "penny stocks". He said, "I wish I knew then what you just related to us from the Scriptures. I would not have lost my money." I encouraged him to continue searching the Scriptures just like the Bereans (Acts 17:11).
Should Christians invest in oil exploration and operations in Israel? If the exploration is based on sound geological data, by all means. But if it were based on the imagination of some prophecy teacher who is not properly interpreting the Scriptures in their historical-grammatical, geographical and material context, it would be very unwise. The Christian should be discerning and invest his or her money elsewhere. After all, we are stewards of the money that the Lord has entrusted to us.
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