Oil at the Coronation?

Rabbi Paul Plotkin
5 min readMay 8, 2023

What took place behind the screen?

If you watched the coronation of King Charles the third you may have wondered why with everything in the open for the world to see, there was one moment that he was secluded behind screens. There in private the Archbishop of Canterbury anointed him with holy oil.

Well wonder no more.

He didn’t go for an oil change. He went for the most sacred moment of the service when he and God would be in a holy communion.

This service begs several questions. Why was it done, what does it signify and why in 2023 is the coronating of the head of a modern country steeped in theological ritual?

To the ears of anyone steeped in the Jewish bible these questions are easy to understand. The ceremony is quite familiar. The pouring of oil called anointing, is how things and people were made holy. The first Jewish king, Saul, was anointed by the prophet Samuel at the behest of God. ( Samuel 1, chapter 9)

Samuel says to Saul, “… ‘you stop here a moment and I will make known to you the word of God’. Samuel took a flask of oil and poured some on Saul’s head and kissed him, and said, ‘The Lord herewith anoints you ruler over his own people”’.

Lest you think this was a one and done, God will become angry with Saul for not following His instructions and instructs Samuel to anoint another that He has chosen to be king. You may be familiar with the second person , it was David.

( Samuel 1, chapter 16) “And the Lord said, ‘Rise and anoint him , for this is the one’. Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the presence of his brothers; and the spirit of the Lord gripped David from that day on…”

The act of anointing by the prophet or the priest not only made the person king it gave the king the authority of God. Hence the divine right of kings. Ultimately the Messiah will be the anointed descendent of David and the Hebrew word for Messiah. Mashiach, comes from the same root as poured or anointed. Jesus is said to be the anointed descendent of David and so he is the Messiah. The king of kings.

This made a lot of sense in a world in which everyone believed that God was imminent and present and acted directly in history. In pagan days the victor of a battle won because his god was stronger than the god of his opponent. But what happens later in Europe when conflicting nations share the same god?

Each anointed king has God on his side how can he lose? When the French and the English were both Catholics and went to war, which of the anointed can win?

I am sure they resolved it by saying that the loser had strayed from God’s way and therefore was punished by God’s other anointed. It was easier after there were Protestants to explain why one nation won over the other.

Moslems had a similar sense of divine superiority that partly explains why the Jews of the Middle Ages lived better under Moslems than under Christians. To Christians Jews were Christ killers and to Moslems we were cousins, and treated well as long as we were subservient to them. Allah and Hashem were the same but through Mohamed they learned that they were to be superior. It was Allah’s wish. When Moslems started to decline in the world and even to this day, they can only explain their decline as some evil force, a kind of Satanism that has taken hold and deprived them of their promised superiority.

In short God and religion became chauvinistic, nationalistic, and theologically contradictory. You can’t both be God’s anointed and simultaneously at war with each other. At least not until you bring in a heavy dose of cognitive dissonance.

Is there any question why in our time atheism is on a dramatic rise, at least in the modern progressive west?

Most believers have a sense that God is still immanent in our world. He is omnipresent waiting for us to call out to him in crises of health or natural disasters. When a Russian missile is flying into Kiev the citizens are praying to their Greek Orthodox based God to protect them from their Greek Orthodox enemy who is praying that their missile’s trajectory is true and will kill the most civilians on the other end.

Every day in our out of control country there seems to be at least one mass casualty event and some survivor is always saying, “ All we could do was hide and pray” or Thank God we were spared while tragically the others near us in class were shot down”.

If we thank God for our being spared then who was responsible for those who did not make it? When little kids are shot in school and by all definitions, they are too young to be guilty of anything, how does God let those innocents die?

These are not easy questions to explain and though I could attempt to, it is beyond the constraints of this blog.

There is at least one approach to offer and I do so in part to honor the life of a great Rabbi that we lost last week, Rabbi Harold Kushner. He was most famous for his book When Bad Things Happen to Good People. He believed in a God that was not imminent, who was not directly involved in the day-to-day happenings of people. His was not the Santa Claus version of God. The version that says, “ God I was good so I want the following from you”.

When asked where God was in the earthquake in Northridge California, he said that God wasn’t to be found in the quake but in the support and response and generosity to the survivors.

God didn’t make the earthquake, nature did, but the people’s response to helping others was Godlike. That is where God was at the tragedy. Without God in the world many of those helpers would have responded differently but because they were raised with God and the concept that they should lead their lives the way God would want them to, people were saved.

Which brings me back to the beginning of this blog. In 2023 with an ever-increasing difficulty in believing in a pagan and later monotheistic god, isn’t it time to stop with the anointing of a flesh and blood person and pretending that it is God’s will to make him the anointed one, and instead ask that he aspire to be God like to his people. Then we can say, “God saver the king!” and really mean it.

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Rabbi Paul Plotkin

I am a retired Conservative Rabbi. I was a pulpit Rabbi for 40 years. I supervise a chain of kosher Delis called Ben's .