Salt in the Bible
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The role of salt in the Bible is relevant to understanding Hebrew society during the Old Testament and New Testament periods. Salt is a necessity of life and was a mineral that was used since ancient times in many cultures as a seasoning, a preservative, a disinfectant, a component of ceremonial offerings, and as a unit of exchange. The Bible contains numerous references to salt. In various contexts, it is used metaphorically to signify permanence, loyalty, durability, fidelity, usefulness, value, and purification.
Salt in the Old Testament
The Hebrew people harvested salt by pouring sea water into pits and letting the water evaporate until only salt was left. They used the mineral for seasoning and as a preservative. In addition, salt was used to disinfect wounds.
Salt also had a significant place in Hebrew worship. Salt was included in the Levitical offerings, since salt was emblematic of permanence or loyalty. In Leviticus 2:13, God commanded that "And every offering of your grain offering you shall season with salt; you shall not allow the salt of the covenant of your God to be lacking from your grain offering. With all your offerings you shall offer salt." Salt was cast on the burnt offering (Ezekiel 43:24) and was part of the incense (Exodus 30:35). Part of the temple offering included salt (Ezra 6:9).
Salt was also used to ratify covenants. In Numbers 18:19, God promises to provide, through the offerings of His people, for His priests forever: "All the heave offerings of the holy things, which the children of Israel offer to the LORD, I have given to you and your sons and daughters with you as an ordinance forever; it is a covenant of salt forever before the LORD with you and your descendants with you." Salt cannot be burned or destroyed. Perhaps because of salt’s durability, God used it as a metaphor to indicate that as salt keeps its flavor, so the Lord’s covenant with the priesthood was durable. More likely, however, is that the "covenant of salt" (or, in some versions, "inviolable covenant") refers to a practice that rendered contracts irrevocable during the time period in which the Bible was written. In biblical times, men carried pouches of salt on their belts. When a pact, promise, or contract was made, the men from each of the participating parties would intermingle the salt from their own pouches with the salt from the pouches of the other party. This reminded the men that they could not retrieve their own salt from the other pouch, symbolizing the fact that they could not go back on their word.
Another reference to the use of salt to ratify a covenant occurs at 2 Chronicles 13:5. At the beginning of this chapter, Abijah, King of Judah and rightful heir to David’s throne, is at war with King Jeroboam, who has taken control of Israel. Before Jeroboam’s destruction, Abijah speaks of the Davidic Covenant: "Hear me, Jeroboam and all Israel: Should you not know that the LORD God of Israel gave the dominion over Israel to David forever, to him and his sons, by a covenant of salt?" Here, salt refers to God’s irrevocable pledge and intended loyalty in fulfilling the Davidic covenant and God’s desire for the loyalty of David’s lineage to Him if the people are to enjoy the blessings of the covenant. The preservative quality of salt represents the fidelity or loyalty intended in keeping the covenant.
Newborn babies (because of what the Lord commanded) were rubbed with salt to promote good health. A reference to this practice is in Ezekiel 16:4: "As for your nativity, on the day you were born your navel cord was not cut, nor were you washed in water to cleanse you; you were not rubbed with salt nor wrapped in swaddling cloths."
In the book of Genesis, chapter 19 the wife of Lot was turned into a pillar of salt when she disobeyed the command of God and looked back at the city of Sodom whilst fleeing from its destruction. Some Christians see this to mean literal salt whilst some think it refers to rock salt.
Salt in the New Testament
The Salt and Light metaphors in the Sermon on the Mount include a direct reference to salt: "You are the salt of the earth. But if salt loses its taste, with what can it be seasoned? It is no longer good for anything but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot." (Matthew 5:13). This verse is paralleled in Luke 14:34-35: "Salt is good, but if salt itself loses its taste, with what can its flavor be restored? It is fit neither for the soil nor for the manure pile; it is thrown out. Whoever has ears to hear ought to hear." Similarly, in Mark 9:49-50, Jesus says that "Everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good, but if salt becomes insipid, with what will you restore its flavor? Keep salt in yourselves and you will have peace with one another."
It is unclear whether Jesus is referring to the use of salt as a seasoning, as a preservative, for sacramental purposes, or some combination of these uses.
Perhaps Jesus is simply saying that everybody has inherent value. Keep God’s gift of inherent worth inside yourself (cherish God's gift) and you will have peace with one another.
The salt that has "lost its taste" or "become insipid" may refer to a type of salt common in the Dead Sea area that is contaminated with gypsum and other minerals. It has a flat taste and is ineffective as a preservative. Such mineral salts were useful for little more than keeping footpaths free of vegetation. That may be why Jesus said that it is good for nothing but to be "trampled underfoot."
Jesus calls his disciples (and, perhaps, the crowds listening to the Sermon on the Mount), "the salt of the earth." He may be exhorting them to usefulness, or to fidelity, or referring to their role in purifying the world.
In Roman times, salt was an important item of trade and was even used as money. Roman soldiers received part of their pay in salt. "Salt of the Earth" may, in this context, refer to the listeners' value.
The reference to his followers being "salted with fire" in Mark 9:49 may refer, in part, to the purifying effect of salt in Jewish liturgical use.
In Colossians 4:6, Paul exhorts, "Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you know how you should respond to each one."