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In the Bible, salt is often used as a symbol, in one way or another. The Scriptures mention salt, in different meanings and 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. A passage in the book of Ezra indicates that it could be that salt was used as a linguistic symbol for payment or wages, already in ancient times. 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, Jesus was not talking about people of our day. He spoke those words to and regarding his disciples – those who were listening to him, there and then, in the first century.
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 Jesus mean? In short: What does salt symbolise, in the Bible? Let us take a closer look at this matter.
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 the word and concept “worship”, see the article fa04.htm.)
A side-note, written on April 5, 2013: Someone has set up a web site, calling it “salt church life”, and used an earlier version of this article there. Even others have acted in similar ways. Please understand that there is no connection between this site (the Bible Pages), and those other ones. They have just copied (stolen) things from this site, without permission.
There is no mention in the Bible 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 Job 6:6 refers to salt, but the meaning of the last part of that verse is not clear. For instance NRSV has, “or is there any flavor in the juice of mallows?”)
The above-quoted passage mentions salt as a taste enhancer, for giving food flavour. In Luke 14:34 and Mark 9:50, we find the words “salt is good”. (Please note that those verses are not lessons in health-matters. The human body needs a small amount of salt, but too much salt is harmful and can even be lethal.)
Even fodder for animals was salted, already in biblical times:
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 was added to 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”. 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)
The words “when he was seated” indicate that on this occasion, Jesus was not talking to a larger audience. (Normally, one would be standing, if one did that.) We read that when he had sat own, his disciples came to him, and he began to teach them. So, it was them Jesus called “the salt of the earth”. We read:
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 1st century, and not to us who now in the 21st century read about that event.)
What did Jesus mean, by calling those disciples “salt”? And, how could salt “lose its flavour”? Let us consider that latter question first.
How can salt lose its proper taste and qualities? By becoming contaminated. What can contaminate salt? Well, it can become mixed with dirt (earth). Dust and dirt in combination with water and air can change salt into something else. Such salt 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 personal disciples. Let us consider verses 10-12, together with verse 13 which mentions salt:
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 11, and those disciples’ reward in Heaven, verse 12. After that, he mentioned salt, and worthless salt being cast out.
Here is a similar passage:
Luke 14:34 Salt is good: but if the salt have lost his savour, wherewith shall it be seasoned? 35 It is neither fit for the land, nor yet for the dunghill; but men cast it out. He that hath ears to hear, let him hear. (KJV-1769)
“Not fit for the land” – this refers to agricultural land. “Nor yet for the dunghill” – contaminated salt cannot be thrown on a dunghill either, because dung is used on the fields as a fertiliser. (Clarification: Salt makes agricultural land barren.) But, contaminated salt can still be used for binding water to roads, to make them less dusty. Thus, contaminated salt ends up being cast out, Luke 14:35, and “trampled under underfoot by men”, Matthew 5:13.
A note regarding the above-quoted passage in Luke 14: Verse 25 in that chapter shows that on that occasion, Jesus was addressing a large group of people. However, verses 27 and 28 show that he was nevertheless talking about those who were or became his disciples. This leads us back to back to Matthew 5:13 which records how he said to his disciples that they were “the salt of the earth”. Again, what did he mean? See the next point.
We know that today, salt is in many languages used as a symbol of wisdom and knowledge. 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 (wit) 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 seems that even in the first century, salt was in some figures of speech connected to wisdom. Let us read Colossians 4:6 where it appears that the apostle Paul used “salt” in that way – perhaps, 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, when he mentioned salt – Matthew 5:13, Mark 9:50 and Luke 14:34?
Perhaps Jesus meant that he had taught his disciples valuable knowledge and wisdom – “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.
(Teachings of men – here, it is good to keep in mind that such words and concepts as “dogma”, “doctrine”, “tenet” and “creed” always refer to compilations of men’s teachings. The article gs08.htm has more on this.)
There is also another aspect to the matter of salt, in the Gospels. See the next point.
In the New Testament, the noun “salt” occurs only in Matthew 5:13, Mark 9:49-50 and Luke 14:34 and Colossians 4:5. Let us consider even that passage in the book of Mark.
Mark 9:49 “For everyone will be seasoned with fire, and every sacrifice will be seasoned with salt. 50 “Salt is good, but if the salt loses its flavor, how will you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and have peace with one another.” (NKJV, highlighting added)
(Verse 49: Some bible-versions omit the words “and every sacrifice will be seasoned with salt”. They do not appear in all Greek texts, and some consider them to be a spurious addition.)
Verse 50: “Have salt in yourselves, and have peace with one another.” Does that phrase refer to two different things, or is there a connection between salt and peace? Well, there could eventually be a connection, through the concept “covenant of salt”. That expression appears in some Old Testament passages. Perhaps this had to do with some ancient custom.
It is said that in ancient times, salt was used as a symbol of friendship, among people. Some say that the Orientals have considered eating a pinch of salt together to be a token of friendship. (An open bowl of salt on a meal table is still common in some places.)
Regarding Mark 9:50, “have salt in yourselves, and have peace with one another” – again, it might be that that was connected to the concept “covenant of salt”. Now, having a covenant with someone means having a good, peaceful relationship with that person. Peace and friendship.
In Finland, when older people who know 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 say it to be “a symbolic wish that bread and salt may never be in lack in that home”, but, it could also be that that old Finnish custom comes from 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, can 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, refer to the same thing and are connected to friendship and peace.
Matthew 5:13, Mark 9:50 and Luke 14:34 with their contexts are the only passages which record Jesus talking about salt. In the rest of the New Testament, the word “salt” is mentioned only in Colossians 4:6. Those passages were considered above. (Well, there is also the fact that in NT Greek, the word “fisher” is halieus which comes from the noun halas, “salt”. Several of the apostles were fishermen, and Jesus made them “fishers of men”. But, that is not likely to have any bearing on the use of the word “salt” in the four above-mentioned passages.)
But, salt is mentioned even in the Old Testament. Job 6:6 and Isaiah 30:24 were mentioned earlier. Let us consider some of the other scriptures in question.
According to Online Etymology Dictionary, the English word “salary” comes from Latin salarium, “salary”, “stipend”, originally “soldiers’ allowance for the purchase of salt”, from the neuter of the adjective salarius, “pertaining to salt”, from sal (genitive salis), “salt”.
The saying “worth one’s salt” means that someone is worth his or her wages. Are there any scriptures that might refer to salt as connected to wages? Well, eventually this one:
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)
This verse was originally written in Aramaic. The Aramaic text contains two times the word melach which referred to salt. (Melach could serve both as a verb as well as a noun.)
The above-quoted RSV interprets the Aramaic wording as “because we eat the salt of the palace”. KJV-1769 has “because we have maintenance from the king’s palace”. The RSV’s wording may be a more literal translation, but it could be that the KJV’s paraphrased rendering of that verse rendering gives the practical meaning of the Aramaic words in question.
But: We cannot be certain of the exact meaning of that verse. There are many ways to interpret the Aramaic text. Yes, it could be that “salt” was used as a symbolic expression for payment, already in those days. On the other hand, Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament suggests, regarding the word melach in that verse, “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.” Again, we cannot know with certainty what the symbolism of salt exactly is, in the case of Ezra 4:14.
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 context with the sacrifice, just as those sacrifices themselves symbolised something. Symbol of what?
Apparently, some have speculated that the salt in those sacrifices symbolised “wisdom”, so that the sacrifice was to be performed “with a purpose”, as if “understanding” what the sacrifice pointed to. But, that is a bit forced.
Perhaps we should look in a different direction, in order to understand that particular salt’s symbolism. Because: Those sacrifices were a part of the covenant which ancient Israel had with the Lord. Salt was something that was (and was even later, and still is) used as a symbol for a covenant (a covenant regarding something, such as peace and friendship).
Here is a passage which clearly connects salt in (some of) those sacrifices 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)
In that connection, consider even this passage:
2 Chronicles 13:5 “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? (NKJV, highlighting added)
(A side-note: Regarding king David and what really happened to his lineage, and who has his “throne” today – the article fu10.htm has some notes on that subject.)
The special oil by which Aaron the high priest and his sons were anointed, was salted. We read:
Exodus 30:34 And the Lord said to Moses: Take sweet spices, stacte and onycha and galbanum, and pure frankincense with these sweet spices; there shall be equal amounts of each. 35 You shall make of these an incense, a compound according to the art of the perfumer, salted, pure, and holy. (NKJV, highlighting added)
That special, salted anointing oil is mentioned also in Psalms 133 which talks about unity.
Psalms 133 Behold, how good and how pleasant it is For brethren to dwell together in unity! It is like the precious oil upon the head, Running down on the beard, The beard of Aaron, Running down on the edge of his garments. It is like the dew of Hermon, Descending upon the mountains of Zion; For there the Lord commanded the blessing—Life forevermore. (NKJV)
That passage talks about brothers dwelling in unity. (That psalm’s connection with salt? Well, only that it refers to the special salted anointing oil which is mentioned in Exodus 30:34-35.)
A side-note: Seeing that the Old Covenant did not provide everlasting life to anyone, one can wonder, what did the two last words in Psalms 133 really mean? Well, they may have been prophetic, pointing to the saints who came to form a spiritual “dwelling of God”, in peace and unity. (“Saints”: Those who received the Holy Spirit in the first century.)
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)
Was there any symbolism in the custom with salt that this verse eventually refers to? That is not clear. Perhaps, perhaps not. 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 potentially 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.
In classical and late Latin, words beginning with sal- were connected to such things as “salt” (sal), “sea” (sal), “wit” (sal), and also “health” and “soundness” (salus, salvus) and via that “greeting” (saluto, salutatio, wishing salus to someone). But, whether those old Latin words and idioms and related ones have any bearing on what salt was used as a symbol of in the Old and New Testaments, is hard to say. The Bible was not written in Latin but in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek.
See also the “recommended reading” section, below.
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Recommended reading at the Bible Pages, on related as well as other issues:
A clarifying explanation of the short names for the bible-versions quoted or mentioned at this site, such as that NKJV stands for New King James Version, YLT for Young’s Literal Translation, HCSB for Holman Christian Standard Bible, NRSV for the New Revised Standard Version, and so on. → fs09.htm
What does the word “righteous” really mean? What does the Bible say about righteousness? → gg08.htm
Worshipping God. What does the Bible say about worship, in connection with the New Covenant? → fa04.htm
What does the English language word and concept “doctrine” literally mean? Likewise, the terms “dogma”, “creed” and “tenet”, what do they signify? → gs08.htm
How to study the Bible in a deeper way. Some notes and guidelines on study methods. → gs01.htm
Bible software, computer bibles – facts and recommendations. → gs02.htm
Check your bible knowledge. A self-test with 15 questions (with answers and commentary). → gs04.htm
Does the New Covenant have “food rules” of the kind the Old Covenant had? Should believers observe some dietary rules, or eat “kosher food”? → gf01.htm
The line of David the king of Israel – is it still ruling somewhere on Earth, with a mortal ruler on the throne? → fu10.htm
John 15, “I am the vine, you are the branches”. The parable of the vinedresser, the vine, the branches and the fruit. How the apostles were to produce a spiritual harvest for God. → ga11.htm
The origin and meaning of the word “church”. → gg06.htm
The meaning of the words Christ, Christian, Messiah and Messias. Also: Did the saints call themselves “Christians” – christianos or christianoi? → gg07.htm
Matthew 16:19, the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven, and “bind” and “loose”. What did the word “keys” depict or symbolise, and what kind of binding and loosing was Jesus talking about? → gh07.htm
What is the Kingdom of God? Where is it located? Does it exist already, or is it only going to be established in the future? Or, is it merely something “in the hearts of men”? → go01.htm
Free bible-based word-search puzzles in printable PDF-format. → fp01.htm
Table of contents – a list of the articles at this site, with short subject descriptions. → flist.htm
An alphabetical keyword index of the contents of this site. → kind.htm
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