A year ago I toured the Roman ruins beneath the city of Barcelona, with its 4,000 square metres of tumbledown stone walls delineating homes and businesses—the laundry, the winery, the garum factory. Ancient Romans loved their garum, a sauce made by fermenting fish guts in brine. Salt itself was a crucial trade item to the Romans, and early soldiers were given a ration known as salarium argentum, the Latin basis of the English word “salary.”
But of course the history and literature of salt goes back further than two millennia. In Bible lands, salt was connected with hospitality; the ancient practice of offering salt and bread to a guest was emblematic of a promise of loyalty and protection, and to “eat the salt of the palace” meant one was in the service of the king (Ezra 4:14). Salt was one of the first international commodities, with trade routes connecting Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and Europe. The Bible early on records military maneuvers and political boundaries in reference to the Salt Sea (known to us as the Dead Sea; Gen. 14:3; Num. 34:3; Deut. 3:17). Edible salt was likely mined from the Mediterranean Sea.
The first memorable Bible story concerns Lot’s wife who, fleeing the sulphur-and-fire rainstorm of judgment from Heaven on Sodom and Gomorrah, gazed back longingly upon her home and became a “pillar of salt” as a monument to her unwillingness in following God (Gen. 19:24-26; Luke 17:28-30; Luke 17:32-33). Soon salt was associated symbolically with preservation, purification, and seasoning.
Preservation: Salt was used in Tabernacle worship; it was added to incense to produce white smoke and enhance fragrance, and added to grain offerings to signify the holy durability of the covenantal relationship between God and His people (Exod. 30:35; Lev. 2:13; Num. 18:19; 2 Chron. 13:5; Ezra 6:9; Ezek. 43:24). The Israelites ate salted locusts preserved in bottles—wings, feet, and intestines removed (Lev. 11:22; Matt. 3:4).
Purification or separation: God sometimes “cleansed” idolatrous nations by sowing them in salt so that farmland was left unproductive (Deut. 29:23; Judg. 9:45; Ps. 107:34; Zeph. 2:9). But in Jericho, where the well had turned sour and brackish water was killing crops, the prophet Elisha likened the ecological disaster to the spiritual pollution of Baal worship; he threw salt into the bad well to make it sweet, a miracle teaching that the Lord—not the god of fertility—could permanently heal their barrenness (2 Kings 2:19-22). The one whose heart turns away from God will wither like a malnourished plant:
He is like a shrub in the desert, and shall not see any good come. He shall dwell in the parched places of the wilderness, in an uninhabited salt land (Jer. 17:6 ESV).
On the contrary, God provides for those who worship Him with pure hearts. Ezekiel compared Jerusalem to a cast-off newborn, an unwanted child whom no one pitied enough to wash and rub with salt and wrap in blankets until God noticed her kicking in her blood and rescued her for Himself (Ezek. 16:4-7). In this same Jerusalem during the Millennium, a river of life-giving water will flow from the Temple into the Dead (Salt) Sea, making it fresh so that its trees will produce fruit for food and leaves for healing (Ezek. 47:11-12; Rev. 22:1-3).
Seasoning: Salt in the New Testament refers first of all to taste: Jesus called believers the “salt of the earth” and admonished us not to lose our tangy witness, our distinctiveness from the world (Matt. 5:13; Mark 9:50; Luke 14:34). Jesus might have been alluding to a popular belief of the time that salt could lose its virtue, probably arising from the use of Dead Sea mixed-mineral deposits from which sodium chloride would dissolve away to leave just a tasteless or bitter reside. Pure salt is good and has value as a condiment and preservative as long as it retains its essential properties, Paul wrote, and so our speech is always to be “seasoned with salt”—pure and full of truth (Col. 4:6). In a reverse application of this metaphor, James warned that one’s heart shows its true source by the quality of one’s works:
Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water? Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water (James 3:11-12 ESV).
The nature of salt is expressed in both negative and positive imagery throughout Scripture: salt is polluting as well as preserving, purifying, and seasoning.
As a sort of postscript, I note that sweat—the salt of the body—is mentioned only three times in the Bible, a triad making a piquant point of its own regarding the concept of “work”:
- In the Garden after the Fall, the Creator cursed the ground with thorns and thistles, condemning humans to struggle and sweat for daily bread until we return to the salty dust from which we were made (Gen. 3:19).
- Then, in His rules of sanctification for Levitical priests as they served in the sanctuary, God showed His holiness by prescribing linen undergarments that were not to bind in such a way as to cause the defilement of human perspiration (Ezek. 44:15; Ezek. 44:18-19).
- Finally, in the cleansing and sanctifying action of Christ’s suffering, His sweat fell to the ground like great drops of blood (Luke 22:44).
God’s Word uses even this homely image of sweat to show how sin and the insufficiency of our own efforts are overcome through the creative, saving work of Jesus Christ, our great High Priest.
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These short literary articles tied to the Bible explore what God might have been saying in His pattern of usage for each symbol. English rendition of the original Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek varies with translations (e.g., “scroll” is sometimes interchangeable with “book”); however, the quality and underlying meaning of the selected emblem remain consistent across versions. Sketches are by Lorenda Harder. I recommend the website of Dr. Grant C. Richison for thorough expository Bible study: www.versebyversecommentary.com.