In Matthew 5:13 Jesus proclaims, “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.” Most people are familiar with this idea, “salt of the earth”, which persists to our own day; but what did Jesus mean by it? If you ask the average person, he might say something about how Christians should behave. Jesus’ audience, however, was comprised of Hebrews living under the Mosaic law, and it is hard to imagine that Jesus was praising them for their righteousness. Indeed, He then also tells them, “unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees [the religious leaders of the people to whom He spoke], you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.” If their righteousness needed to improve, how could they be the salt of the earth? Might it be that Jesus is saying to His Hebrew audience that they were meant to be salt to the world? God had chosen them above all other peoples and given them His law. They were to be set apart, Exodus 19:5; Deuteronomy 26:18-19. By this setting apart and their following of God’s law, they would have served as an example that would show forth the glory of God to the nations around. They would be that salt. Obviously, they had not lived up to that expectation, but the Messiah had come to tell them that there was hope in the kingdom.
It is interesting that Jesus uses such a common thing as salt as the metaphor. You are salt. Why salt? What is so important about salt? Aside from a reference to the Salt Sea, the first time we are exposed to salt is in the account of Sodom and Gomorrah when Lot’s wife looks back and turns to a pillar of salt. It is interesting to ponder why she turned into a pillar of salt. Why not a pillar of stone? Jews believe that Lot asked his wife for salt for the guests and she was angered because the city law prohibited guests. When she went around the town asking for some salt, everyone came to know Lot had guests. Typical of the addition of the Rabbis. It is believed that Sodom is in the area of the current Numeria just southeast of the Dead/Salt Sea. At first, I thought that rainfall would melt the pillar of salt; however, the annual rainfall in the area is less than 50mm. Mark Kurlansky in his book, A World History of Salt (I actually read this book, and it is interesting) says, “The first century Roman, Pliny the Elder, writing of rock salt mining in Egypt, mentioned houses built of salt.” These facts would mean that the pillar would dissolve very slowly and stand as a monument for a long time. Indeed, the new testament tells us to “Remember Lot’s wife.” Luke 17:32.
Mark Kurlansky explains, “salt is so common, so easy to obtain, and so inexpensive that we have forgotten that from the beginning of civilization until about 100 years ago, salt was one of the most sought-after commodities in human history.” How true. We are so divorced from history that we don’t even realize that nations grew up around salt production, the survival of countries and industries depended upon salt, that battles were waged around salt. Salt is absolutely necessary for human health. We now understand that it aids in water retention, digestion, cellular metabolism, and muscle contraction.
From early times, societies have evaporated sea water and mined underground to obtain salt. Because of its properties of preservation, it became integral to the fishing industry among others. The Phoenicians (see Nehemiah 13:16) caught bluefin tuna off their coast and established saltworks to support fishing (Kurlansky p45). Later fishing boats carried their own salt to preserve fish for transportation. Meats have been immersed in salt to preserve them. Think salted hams. Because of its integral nature to so many aspects of life, governments have hoarded it, taxed it, and established power with it. The Hanseatic league formed in part to ensure the needs, including salt, of the herring trade (Kurlansky p140). Today, our thought of salt is that it seasons our food. Long ago Job asked in Job 6:6 “Can flavorless food be eaten without salt?”
The importance of salt is even reflected in our language. “It was precisely during the Roman Empire that soldiers were paid with sacks of salt, whence our term ‘salary’,” saltworks.us. “A soldier’s salary was cut if he ‘was not worth his salt,’ a phrase that came into being because the Greeks and Romans often bought slaves with salt,” Time. Romans salted their greens which led to the word “salad”. From this root word in various countries, we have the English words, “salsa”, “sauce”, “sausage”, and even “salvation” among many other words. One interesting side fact is that in DaVinci’s painting of the Last Supper, Judas can be identified as the one who has spilled the salt cellar in front of him. Even for the superstitious today, it is bad luck to spill the salt.
Salt is shown as important in the Bible. Ezekiel, in speaking of God’s finding of the infant Israel in slavery says, “As for your nativity, on the day you were born your navel cord was not cut (still acting in idolatry as your Hittite and Amorite parents), nor were you washed in water to cleanse you; you were not rubbed with salt nor wrapped in swaddling cloths.” It was a necessary ingredient in sacrifices, 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.” Second Chronicles 13:5 tells us, “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?” This incident is recorded in 2 Samuel 7, albeit without the salt.
What was a covenant of salt? Certainly, the idea expressed had to do with the properties of salt; and there may be more than one property in view. Yet, Jesus asked what would happen if the salt lost its flavor. Can salt lose its flavor? Apparently, there are three main ways this statement by Jesus can be understood. None of these ways actually involve the salt itself losing its flavor. First, He might be speaking hypothetically, “If the salt were to lose its flavor.” Second, if a person’s taste buds were to malfunction, he would not be able to taste the flavor of the salt. Third, and most relevant to Jesus’ listeners is that throughout history and including the salt that came from the Dead Sea, salt has always been produced with varying degrees of purity. Depending on the process, the salt could be mixed with various impure elements that might overpower the salt. Additionally, if the salt were to dissolve, the only thing left would be the impure elements. The point is not that the covenant would be nullified under such a circumstance but that salt is incorruptible. How else could salt be obtained from underground mining? After possibly thousands of years, a vein of usable salt is discovered that somehow, in the time one person possesses it, loses its flavor?
So we come to the application of the idea of salt to a person. It is no wonder that Jesus used it as a metaphor to describe the character of those Hebrews, and by extension, to us now. Salt is integral to human survival, useful for preservation, maintains its flavor, and offers seasoning. What could be more necessary to the life of a human than the gospel? What preserves, what endures, what gives meaning to life? The gospel. The Christian, then, is to be a solid citizen of the kingdom of heaven in every aspect of his life as he carries the truth to those who need it in a way that is akin to the necessity of salt in our world. The next time you reach for your salt, think about its importance and its likeness to the gospel and to those who possess it in earthen vessels. Think, too, that Jesus expects you to be as sound as salt. Now you may understand why Paul said in Colossians 4:6, “Let your speech always be with grace, seasoned with salt, that you may know how you ought to answer each one.”