Elijah and Olive Oil

Olive Press Ancient IsraelPeople have asked me how I went about researching a historical novel. Here’s one example.

Developing Elijah was a major challenge, both in my first and second novels. He appears in the Bible quite suddenly, a full-blown champion of justice, complete with miracles. All we know about his past is that he was from a town called Tishbe, in the province of Gilead. Moses, by contrast, has a childhood and plenty of motivation for his actions. You can understand why he loses his temper and kills an Egyptian, why he flees the country, and why he eventually takes up the cause of his people.

In Jewish (and Christian and Muslim) tradition, Elijah can do no wrong. He orders his followers to kill the priests and priestesses of a rival religion, but all’s well, because the one true God wants it that way. My pagan friends, who subscribe to some variant of that rival religion, see Elijah as a villain. I don’t believe in angels, devils, or miracles, so I had to create a complex, believable human being.

He needed a childhood. The province of Gilead was known for production of herbal medicines (the fabled balm of Gilead). In studying maps of the area, I found that it is also olive-growing country and gave his family a large olive orchard. But it’s not enough for a writer to say that her character makes a living from olives; she has to show him doing the work. The best source was History and Technology of Olive Oil in the Holy Land. Of course the technology changed over time, so I had to decide what types of equipment and what methods of processing oil were most likely to prevail in the area during the 9th Century BCE. Then I could show Elijah rising in the damp morning, climbing on a primitive ladder, picking fruit or shaking it off the branches, and so on.

He also needed a motive for challenging the existing power structure. Part of the answer was in the Bible: he must have been a child during the civil war in Israel (885-881 BCE). Half the people sided with General Omri, who prevailed and became king. My Elijah’s father Ben-Hanan dies fighting on the losing side. As we all know, winners take the spoils. Now the scene is set:

Elijah is still mourning the death of his father. He and his mother and young aunt are preparing summer oil, an expensive product.

Elijah squatted beside the mortar stone on the edge of the grove, tending the fire under the pot. Mama and Aunt Eglah stood on the mortar itself – a limestone shelf pocked with cup-shaped depressions – and pounded fruit. Fragrant green droplets glistened in the sun. It was the end of Etanim and would have been a lovely summer afternoon, except that Elijah had a hole in his heart and the pestles slammed into it like a gravedigger’s spade.

Tsaduk the carpenter, who fought on the other side, comes through the trees. He proposes marriage to Eglah, and offers the rest of the family a home with him.

“We already have a home,” Eglah said frostily.

“Yes, for now. But Ben-hanan had no brothers who could claim it, and your nephew isn’t old enough to take on a man’s responsibilities, so Omri agreed to give me this land.”

Elijah felt as though he’d been kicked in the chest. Mama was pale as dry grass. “You mean, you asked him for it?”

“My dear Milcah, I just thought I’d be the best person to look after you. I’m trying to make it as easy as possible, but sooner or later I’ll have to take possess-”

“It’s mine! You can’t have my inheritance!” Elijah threw himself at Tsaduk, who simply grabbed the boy and hurled him into the dirt. He jumped up and was knocked down again.

“I don’t want to hurt you,” Tsaduk said, retreating. “And I don’t want to be unfair. You’ve tended the trees all year, so you can keep three-fourths of the harvest. I’d say that’s pretty damn generous. But after that” – he looked at Eglah – “you’d better think about my offer.”


One Response to Elijah and Olive Oil

  1. Hmm is anyone else having problems with the images on this blog loading?

    I’m trying to determine if its a problem on my end or if it’s the blog.
    Any responses would be greatly appreciated.

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