The importance of salt

Throughout the history of humankind, salt has been a necessity of life. Basket of salt, photo by Pinpin, available through Creative CommonsThe Bible contains numerous references to salt, which was used as a seasoning (Job 6:6), a preservative, a disinfectant, and a component of ceremonial offerings (Leviticus 2:13). It was used metaphorically to symbolize faithfulness, and also good flavour and purification, as when Joshua threw salt into bad water, to make it wholesome for the people of Jericho (2 Kings 2:19-22).

Lot's wife

Salt occurs naturally in the area known as the Dead Sea, which is generally accepted as the location of the ancient lost cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. The Book of Genesis describes God deciding to punish these ‘cities of the plain' for their great wickedness. Abraham's nephew Lot and his wife and daughters were rescued before the conflagration, but as they fled, Lot's wife disobeyed the command ‘not to look back' – she did look back and became a ‘pillar of salt' (Genesis 19:26).

Grotesque salt formations are still to be seen near the southern end of the Dead Sea, which is also an area of violent earthquakes and eruptions of asphalt and sulphur. The fate of Lot's wife became proverbial in Bible times: in Luke 17:32, Jesus said ‘Remember Lot's wife', as he warned his hearers to be ready for his Second Coming. See Big ideas: Patriarchs.

Christians as the ‘salt of the earth'

Some of the salt found in the Dead Sea area is contaminated with gypsum and other minerals. It has a flat taste and is ineffective as a preservative, though it can be spread on footpaths to keep down the weeds. This may be what Jesus had in mind when he told his disciples,

‘You are the salt of the earth. But if salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled by men' (Matthew 5:13).

Being the ‘salt of the earth' would seem to mean acting in society as salt does in food, to act as a catalyst for change. This teaching, found in several places in the gospels, has motivated Christians through the ages to take action against social injustice and to get involved in meeting the needs of their communities. See Big ideas: Slavery.

The image of salt makes it clear that Christians are not called to an attitude of bland acquiescence or being uncritical, even though they are to be peacemakers. In Mark 9:50, Jesus says ‘Have salt in yourselves and be at peace with each other.' Paul in his letter to the Colossians exhorts, ‘Let your speech be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone' (Colossians 4:6).

Related topics

Big ideas: Patriarchs; Slavery

Other cultural references

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