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The first mention of the concept of anointing is found in Genesis 31:13, refering back to the action Jacob took in 28:18:

I am the God of Bethel, where you anointed a pillar and made a vow to me... -Gen 31:13

So early in the morning Jacob took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on the top of it. -Genesis 28:18

Since this is the first example of the act of anointing, it seems that it might be somewhat foundational to the concept that takes greater significance in the book of Exodus and from which we derive the term Messiah. What's interesting is this action is initiated by Jacob himself instead of being mandated by God.

So why does Jacob choose anointing as a method of consecrating the pillar at Bethel (Gen 28:18, Gen 31:12)? How is pouring oil on the pillar he wishes to consecrate for God the logical and meaningful choice for him?

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Although the practice of anointing is not explicitly mentioned in the Bible prior to Jacob, the use of oil as a symbol of divine favor and anointing is also found in other ancient Near Eastern cultures up to his time1 and so we might surmise that the practice was at least understood if not practiced by his ancestors. There are also suppositions that the pleasing aroma that God smelled when Noah made a sacrifice (Genesis 8:20-22) came from his having anointed his offering with oil beforehand,2 and that part of Melchizidek's blessing of Abram (Genesis 14:18-20) was anointing him with oil.3


A further significance of the place Bethel is its association with the Temple in Jerusalem.4 In the Christian tradition this was then extrapolated to associate the place and the event of Genesis 28:18 with the Church. John Chrysostom, for example, wrote:

For that which the patriarch anointed was not a man, but a pillar and a stone, and that which he poured upon it was not blood, but oil; yet nevertheless, it became the image of a temple, and the figure of a church, so that wherever we build a church, we must anoint the pillars with oil,5 as Jacob did this stone (Homily XVII on Genesis).

Similarly Augustine:

But the stone anointed with oil by Jacob is believed to have prefigured the sacrament of the Church, by which the members of Christ are anointed with the oil of gladness, and made fruitful, and established in stability (City of God, Book XVI, Chapter 26).


1. For example, in Mesopotamia, the use of oil in religious and cultural practices dates back to the Sumerian civilization (around 4000-2000 BCE). The Sumerians used oil in religious rituals and ceremonies, and they believed that oil had purifying properties and could act as a conduit for divine energy. In one Sumerian myth, the goddess Inanna anoints herself with oil before entering the underworld, symbolizing her transformation and rebirth. In ancient Egypt, oil was used for various purposes, including as a perfume, for medicinal purposes, and as an offering to the gods. The ancient Egyptians believed that certain oils had healing properties and could be used to treat a variety of ailments. They also used oil in religious rituals and ceremonies, and they believed that oil could help connect them with the gods. One of the most famous examples of the use of oil in ancient Egypt is the story of the anointing of Pharaoh, which is depicted in several wall reliefs in Egyptian temples. In this ceremony, the Pharaoh is anointed with oil by the god Horus, as a symbol of his divine right to rule and his connection to the gods.
2. See, e.g., Hirsh Chumash (Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, 19th-century German rabbi and scholar)
3. e.g. Rabbi Yehudah Halevi, The Kuzari, Part I, Chapter 20
4. e.g. Sukkah 55a, Shekalim 6:1
5. He is referring here to the custom that existed at least as early as the 4th century of consecrating a new church building by anointing the walls with oil. This tradition exists to this day in the Eastern Orthodox Church. During the Service of Consecration of a Church, the bishop (episkopos) anoints the walls while praying, "O Lord our God, who in ancient times didst command Moses, Thy servant, to anoint with oil both the tabernacle of testimony and all the sacred vessels which were therein [cf. Exodus 40:9-11], and likewise didst command the priests of the Old Testament to anoint with oil those who were to be high priests and kings of Thy people [e.g. Exodus 29:7-9]: do Thou now also, O Master, by the power of this oil, which is rich in mercy, bless and hallow this house, and all those who shall enter herein and partake of Thy divine Mysteries" (Book of Needs).

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It is rather simple - Jacob followed the common custom of the time to consecrate something - he anointed the stone pillar. Note what Benson says about Gen 28:18 -

he therefore “poured oil on the top of this stone,” which probably was the ceremony then used in dedicating their altars, as an earnest of his building an altar when he should have conveniencies for it, as afterward he did, in gratitude to God,

This was further motivated by the dream the previous night because Jacob believed it was a sacred place and called it "Bethel" = the house of God. Note the comments of Matthew Poole -

and poured it upon the top of the stone, as a token of his consecration thereof to this use to be a memorial of God’s favour to him. Oil was used in sacrifices, and in the consecration of persons and places, Exodus 30:25,26 40:9.

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The pillar anticipates the altar, and the patriarchal custom anticipates the custom commanded in Exodus 40:10

You shall also anoint the altar of burnt offering and all its utensils and consecrate the altar, so that the altar shall be most holy.

As to why he would choose to do this there are several possibilities:

  • Jacob followed the custom of contemporary worship, both Hebrew and Gentile.

  • Jacob intuited that God wanted him to anoint the pillar and/or God commanded him to do so but it is not recorded.

  • According to source critics, this verse comes from a later author, namely the Priestly Souce, which related the putative ancient or divine origins of later priestly customs. In this view, the 'chicken' of Jacob's pillar-anointing came from the 'egg' of Temple practice.

This is one of those questions with a multiple-choice answer.

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