Monday, February 6, 2023

Uses of Salt in the Bible

Photo of the spring believed to be where Elisha poured salt into the water.

Salt to Purify and Preserve

Sodium carbonate (a salt) has pH control properties that kill bacteria. Hebrew priests used a complex sodium carbonate called "natron" to purify.  When the people of Jericho told Elisha that the water was bad, Elisha threw the salt into the spring, saying, “This is what the Lord says: ‘I have healed this water. Never again will it cause death or make the land unproductive.’” (2 Kings 2:18-22) 

Priests used natron to embalm. It slowed the decomposition of the flesh by retarding bacterial growth. Ezekiel’s reference to the practice of rubbing a newborn baby with salt was to prevent infection (Ezek. 16:4).

Salt as a Symbol of Friendship

Salt is used in blessings and to make guests welcome. In Eastern Europe and Russia bread bowls with salt in the center are presented when special guests visit. Numbers 18:19 and 2 Chronicles 13:5 illustrate salt as a covenant of friendship. In cultures throughout the region, the eating of salt is a sign of friendship.

Salt as an Offering

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). Leviticus 2:13 reads: "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 mixed with incense (Ex. 30:35). The incense wafting toward heaven carried the prayers of the people that were offered by the priests. The perfumers who made incense for the Temple combined sweet spices with frankincense and seasoned the mixture with salt (Ps. 141:2; Luke 1:10; Rev. 5:8).

Salt Used to Curse

It is also used to curse. Sowing with salt on the sites of cities razed by conquerors was a ritual cursing intended to poison the fields and prevent a resurgence or re-inhabitation in the ancient Near East. Sowing the field with salt made it desolate as mentioned in Judges 9:45. "And all that day Abimelech fought against the city until he had captured it and killed its people. Then he demolished the city and sowed it with salt."

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus speaks of the disciples as salt and light. Matthew 5:13 refers to his disciples as "the salt of the earth." This parallels the Matthew 5:14 description of them as the "light of the world", suggesting dual effects of the Gospel: to bless, and to bring condemnation to those who reject the Gospel. Mark 9:49 refers to this: “For everyone will be salted with fire.”

Luke applies salt in the Sermon in a different way: “Salt is good, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored?” (Luke 14:34). Here salt is to give savor. However, the Matthean account is more typical of the Jewish view. In his book Reflections on the Psalms, C. S. Lewis explains the different perspectives on judgement held by Jews and Christians. He writes, “The ancient Jews, like ourselves, think of God’s judgement in terms of an earthly court of justice. The difference is that the Christians pictures the case to be tried as a criminal case with himself in the dock; the Jew pictures it as a civil case with himself as the plaintiff. The one hopes for acquittal, or rather pardon; the other hopes for resounding triumph with heavy damages. Hence he prays ‘judge my quarrel’, or ‘avenge my cause’ (Ps. 35:23). And though, as I said a minute ago, Our Lord in the parable of the Sheep and Goats painted a characteristically Christian picture, in another place He is very characteristically Jewish.” (Harper One, Reflections on the Psalms, p. 12)

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