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In the Bible, salt is often used as a symbol of different things, in different contexts. The Old Covenant’s sacrifices were salted. There was also such a thing as a “covenant of salt”; apparently, salt could symbolise peace and friendship. In many languages, salt is used as a symbol of wit or wisdom, and that seems to be the case in certain bible-passages as well.
Many have read or heard such New Testament phrases as “you are the salt of the earth”, Matthew 5:13, and “if the salt has lost its flavour, how shall it be seasoned”, Luke 14:34, and so on.
Some preachers have quoted Matthew 5:13 out of its context, for the purpose of tickling their followers’ egos by causing them to think that they are “the salt of the Earth”. But, let us keep in mind that Jesus spoke those words to and regarding his disciples, people of the first century – those who were listening to him, there and then.
But what did Jesus mean when he said to those disciples, “You are the salt of the earth, but if the salt loses its flavour, how shall it be seasoned? It is then good for nothing but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot by men.” Indeed, what did he mean? This article takes a closer look at that passage, and in general the matter of salt and its symbolism in the Bible.
A note: This is regarding salt in the Bible. The “holy salt” that some churches use in their rituals, has nothing to do with the Bible. (Regarding religious rituals and the concept “worship”, see the article eaa047.htm.)
The Scriptures do not contain any mention of salt being used as a preservative. But, it was used as a taste enhancer (and as a necessary mineral), already in ancient times.
Job 6:6 Can flavorless food be eaten without salt? Or is there any taste in the white of an egg? (NKJV)
(A note: The Hebrew word melach in the first part of that verse refers to salt, but the meaning of its last part is not clear. For instance the NRSV has, “or is there any flavor in the juice of mallows?”)
Even fodder for animals can be salted.
Isaiah 30:24 and the oxen and the asses that till the ground will eat salted provender, which has been winnowed with shovel and fork. (RSV)
Salt is added to (dry) fodder, not for preservation but for the reason that even cattle needs small amounts of salt.
This is regarding Matthew 5:13 in the so-called “sermon on the mount”.
On that occasion, multitudes of people were trying to reach or see or hear Jesus, but it was his disciples that he was teaching. We read:
Matthew 5:1 And seeing the multitudes, He went up on a mountain, and when He was seated His disciples came to Him. 2 Then He opened His mouth and taught them […] (NKJV)
That passage states that when Jesus had sat own, his disciples came to him, and he began to teach them. So, it was them he called “the salt of the earth”:
Matthew 5:13 “You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt loses its flavor, how shall it be seasoned? It is then good for nothing but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot by men. (NKJV)
(Keep in mind that the word “you” in that verse refers to those disciples, people of the first century, and not us who now in the twenty-first century read about that event.)
How can salt lose its proper taste and qualities? By becoming contaminated. If salt becomes mixed for instance with dust and dirt, it cannot be used in food.
The words “thrown out and trampled underfoot”, same verse, probably refer to the fact that even contaminated salt can be used for binding water to roads, in order to keep the dust down. (In those days, roads were not asphalted.)
Again, Jesus was teaching his disciples. Let us consider even verses 10–12, together with verse 13.
Matthew 5:10 Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, For theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11 “Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake. 12 “Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you. 13 “You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt loses its flavor, how shall it be seasoned? It is then good for nothing but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot by men. (NKJV)
Jesus mentioned the Kingdom of Heaven, verse 10, and those disciples’ reward in Heaven, verse 12. After this, he mentioned salt, and worthless salt being cast out.
Here is a similar passage:
Luke 14:34 “Salt is good; [a] but if the salt has lost its flavor, how shall it be seasoned? 35 “It is neither fit for the land nor for the dunghill, but men throw it out. He who has ears to hear, let him hear!” (NKJV, note sign added)
Verse 35, “not fit for the land” – this refers to farmland. (Clarification: Salt makes agricultural land barren.) “Nor for the dunghill” – salt cannot be thrown on a dunghill either, because dung is used on the fields as a fertiliser. But again, contaminated salt can still be used for binding water to roads, to make them less dusty. In that way, it ends up being thrown out, Luke 14:35, and “trampled underfoot by men”, Matthew 5:13.
a “Salt is good”, Luke 14:34 and Mark 9:50 – obviously, that is symbolic language and not a diet-recommendation. The human body needs a small amount of salt, but too much salt is harmful and can even be lethal.
We know that today, salt is in many languages used as a symbol of wisdom and understanding. There are such expressions as “taking things with a pinch of salt” or “a grain of salt”, which means that one must not believe all and everything but must instead use wisdom and discernment and through that come to wise assessments and conclusions.
(A side-note: The phrase “a grain of salt” is not found in the Bible.)
It appears that even in the first century, salt was in some figures of speech connected to wisdom. In Colossians 4:6, it appears that the apostle Paul used the expression “seasoned with salt” in that way – concerning wisdom to guide one’s choice of words.
Colossians 4:5 Walk in wisdom toward those who are outside, redeeming the time. 6 Let your speech always be with grace, seasoned with salt, that you may know how you ought to answer each one. (NKJV)
Those were words of the apostle Paul. But again, what did Jesus mean by his mention of salt – Matthew 5:13, Mark 9:50 and Luke 14:34?
It could be that he meant that he had given to his disciples valuable knowledge (wisdom and understanding) – “salt”. And perhaps also, that if the teachings which he had given them, became contaminated by the world around them – became mixed with the teachings of men – then that “salt” lost its value and became worthless.
(Here, it is good to keep in mind that “dogmas”, “doctrines”, “tenets” and “creeds” are compiled by men and consist of teachings of men. The article esa087.htm has more on this.)
In the New Testament, the noun “salt” (Greek halas) occurs only in Matthew 5:13, Mark 9:50, Luke 14:34 and Colossians 4:5. [b] Let us consider the verse in the book of Mark.
Mark 9:50 Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.” (NRSV, highlighting added)
“Have salt in yourselves, and be a peace with one another.” Does that phrase refer to two different things, or is there a connection between salt and peace? Well, there might eventually be a connection, through the concept “covenant of salt”. That expression appears in some Old Testament passages. It might be that had to do with some ancient custom.
It is said that in old times, salt was used as a symbol of friendship. Some say that the Orientals have considered eating a pinch of salt together to be a token of friendship.
In some countries (Finland, apparently even Russia), when people who remember old customs, go on their first visit to a new neighbour, they sometimes take with them salt and bread, as gifts. What is the symbolism? Some have suggested that that custom could refer to a “symbolic wish that bread and salt may never be in lack in that home” – but, it may actually be that that old practice reflects the ancient custom of eating common bread and common salt, in order to formally show and declare peace and friendship. In short: The act of bringing salt and bread as a gift, might symbolise a proposal or offer of lasting friendship.
So, it could eventually be that both parts of the phrase “have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another” (Mark 9:50, NRSV) refer to the same thing and are connected to friendship and peace. – See also note [b], below.
Salt is mentioned even in the Old Testament. Job 6:6 and Isaiah 30:24 were mentioned earlier. Some of the other passages in question are considered under the following headings.
b Some bible-versions have the noun “salt” even in the last part of Mark 9:49 – “and every sacrifice will be seasoned with salt”. All Greek texts do not support those words. Some writers have suggested that they might be a spurious addition.
In the first part of that verse, the Greek text contains the verb halizô, “to salt” – “for everyone will be salted with fire”. It is not clear what those words exactly mean, other than that they appear to refer back to the verse 48 which contains the expression “their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched”, eventually a quote from the last verse in the book of Isaiah.
Ezra 4:14 Now because we eat the salt of the palace and it is not fitting for us to witness the king’s dishonor, therefore we send and inform the king (RSV)
Some might think that those words refer to salt in the meaning “salary”, payment. (The English noun “salary” comes from the Latin salarium, from the adjective salarius, “pertaining to salt”, from sal, “salt”.)
So, is “salt” used as a symbol for payment, in the case of Ezra 4:14? Perhaps, or perhaps not. Clarification:
That verse was originally written in Aramaic. In the Aramaic text, the word for “eat (salt)” is the verb melach. Here is a comment regarding that verse, in ‘Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament’:
(melah) eat salt. This denominative verb is used only in Ezra 4:14. It probably reflects the common Near Eastern idiom ‘to be under obligation to.’ If a host gives a guest salt, the guest is under the protection of his hospitality which is considered a binding obligation.
Many or perhaps most of the Old Covenant’s sacrifices were to be salted. Obviously, salt was not needed there for physical reasons. It must have served as a symbol of something, in connection with the sacrifice, just as those sacrifices as a whole symbolised something.
Apparently, some have speculated that the salt in those sacrifices may have symbolised “wisdom”, so that the sacrifice was to be performed “with a purpose”, as if “understanding” what the sacrifice pointed to. But, that interpretation is quite forced. Perhaps we should look in a different direction, in regard to that particular salt’s symbolism. Because: Those sacrifices were a part of a covenant which the ancient Israelites had with the Lord. (Again, salt has been used as a symbol for a covenant. Such as, a covenant regarding peace and friendship.) Here is a passage which clearly connects the salt which some of those sacrifices had, with a covenant that had been made:
Leviticus 2:13 ‘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. (NKJV, highlighting added)
Many have read Ezekiel 16:4 in this or some similar translation:
Ezekiel 16:1 Again the word of the Lord came to me, saying, 2 “Son of man, cause Jerusalem to know her abominations, 3 “and say, ‘Thus says the Lord God to Jerusalem: “Your birth and your nativity are from the land of Canaan; your father was an Amorite and your mother a Hittite. 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. (NKJV)
Does the mention of salt in the last part of verse 4 refer to some old custom, and if so, was there eventually some symbolism, connected to that custom? Perhaps, perhaps not. That is not clear. It is an open question what the original Hebrew wording of Ezekiel 16:4 really was, and what the translation should be. But, if there actually was some custom where something was done with salt in connection with new-born children, we do not know any details. Some translations have “salted”, some “sprinkled with salt” and some few “rubbed with salt” (a dubious wording). Was there a ritual of some kind, such as sprinkling a few grains of salt on a child, or does the Hebrew text of Ezekiel 16:4 mean something else? We do not know.
What we do know, is that even very small amounts of salt can be dangerous for small babies, especially if they get the salt into their mouth but eventually even otherwise such as through skin exposure. Their kidneys and other organs are not yet ready to take care of salt, more than what is found in their mother’s milk. In other words: Rubbing new-born babies with salt might be dangerous and potentially lethal.
Concerning our day: Regarding how to take care of new-born children, one should consult experts, instead of looking at uncertain translations of an ancient hard-to-decipher Hebrew text in a short passage which is not about child-care but about the sins of the people of Jerusalem.
See also the “recommended reading” section, below.
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Recommended reading here at the Bible Pages, on related as well as other matters
An explanation of the short names for the bible-translations that are quoted or mentioned at this site. → esa095.htm
What does the word “righteous” really mean? What does the Bible say about righteousness? → ega086.htm
Worshipping God. What does the Bible say about worship, in connection with the New Covenant? → eaa047.htm
What does the word “doctrine” really mean? Likewise, what is the meaning of the terms “dogma”, “creed” and “tenet”? → esa087.htm
John 15, “I am the vine, you are the branches”. The parable of the vinedresser, the vine, the branches and the fruit. → eaa116.htm
What does the word “saint” mean and refer to, in the Bible? → ega036.htm
Does the New Covenant have “food rules” of the kind the Old Covenant had? → eha016.htm
The origin and meaning of the word “church”. → ega068.htm
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