Salt in the Bible

Source: https://www.abarim-publications.com/Dictionary/m/m-l-ht.html

Salt in the Bible

— Salt kills impurities, like fire —

Abarim Publications' online Biblical Hebrew Dictionary


Scholars identify two separate roots of the form מלח (mlh) in the Bible, but this division may be entirely artificial and non-existing to the Hebrew authors who used them. Here at Abarim Publications we postulate that the one root מלח (mlh) means to absorb, make dry or extract moist, for reason that will be made clear below:

מלח I

The verb מלח (malah I) is used only once, in Isaiah 51:6, where it says that the earth will wear out (בלה, balah) like a garment and the heavens will מלח (malah) like smoke.

This verb's sole derivative, the feminine noun מלח (melah) occurs only in one scene, namely the one in which Jeremiah gets lifted up from the cistern by Ebed-melech and his men (Jeremiah 38:11-12). These items were to protect Jeremiah's arm pits while he was hoisted up and both were deemed בלה (baleh), meaning worn out (same word Isaiah uses).

Scholars generally express trouble when having to translate this word but here at Abarim Publications we sense that it probably denotes some kind of pad made from absorptive material; old-world mops. It's used along סחבה (sehaba), which is also a mystery word, also only used here, and comes from the verb סחב (sahab), meaning to drag. They were old mops.

מלח II

Root מלח (malah II) isn't used as verb in the Bible; that is if we insist that it's not the same as the previous one. Its very important derivative is the masculine noun מלח (melah), which is spelled identical to and according to the Masoretes even pronounced the same as the previous noun. This time our noun means salt, and salt was extracted from the sea by letting the water dissipate (and yes, the Hebrews knew about evaporation: Job 36:27-28, Ecclesiastes 1:7, Isaiah 55:10). We'll discuss salt at length below. Other derivatives of this root are:

  • The denominative verb מלח (malah). This verb is commonly translated with to salt or season, but this is incorrect. It's used three times: once for something done to the grain offering (Leviticus 2:13), once for the incense (Exodus 30:35), and once for a newborn baby! (Ezekiel 16:4). Commentators appear to assume that the salt had to be burned along with the grain and incense but salt starts to burn at temperatures far higher than that of a household fire, and that's why it's the primary ingredient of fire extinguishers. This verb does not mean to add or rub salt but to make dry. Or rather: salt was known as the "stuff that makes dry," and was therefore known by the same word as a mop was. It's really quite scary that people believe that the Hebrews rubbed their newborn babies with salt. This is patent nonsense. Ezekiel's neophyte wasn't diapered properly, which has been normal practice in all societies of the world. Excrement was rightly considered unclean and wrapping a child in cloth was not just cute; it prevented the child from wallowing in its own refuse, until it acquired the skill to willfully excrete at a designated place (Deuteronomy 23:12-13).
  • The feminine noun מלחה (meleha), said to mean saltiness but probably simply dryness. It's used three times: It describes the (dry or salty?) habitat of the wild ass (Job 39:5), the fruitful land turned a (dry or salty?) wasteland (Psalm 107:34), a (dry or salt?) land without inhabitants (Jeremiah 17:6),
  • The masculine noun מלחה (malluah), denoting some kind of plant (Job 30:4). Vegetation contains far less salt than mammalian bodies, so it's unlikely that this plant was known for its saltiness. Probably a cactus.
  • The masculine noun מלח (mallah), which is possibly a loan word from Assyrian, but still fitted nicely in. It means mariner or seaman (Jonah 1:5 and Ezekiel 27:27-29 only). Those who have actually met a mariner will attest that they are not more or less salty than the rest of us, but any sailor can tell you that the second most likely cause of death at sea is of thirst. The sea is not a big lake, it's a desert masquerading as a big lake.

Salt in the Bible

In the old world, raw salt was highly sought after (our words salary and sale come from the Latin word for salt). Its bottom line is that it stops decay and disintegration; it keeps together what is supposed to be together by arresting the forces that want to tear things apart. Salt's applications fall into five categories:

  • Salt draws water — and blood, see our article on דם (dam), meaning blood — out of butchered meat and secondarily out of hitch-hiking fungi and bacteria, which subsequently either die or become virtually inactive. Salt also slows down the oxidation of fats, which is what causes meat to go rancid. In other words: salt stops the decay of something that's dead and should start to fall apart.
  • Salt disinfects a wound of a living individual. This practice is not explicitly mentioned in the Bible, but it was known and described by various cultures from the third millennium BC on (Cirillo, Capasso, Di Leo, De Santo A History of Salt).
  • Salt was used to "disinfect" the lebensraum of peoples who were deemed so infectious to culture at large that they had to be cut away like putrid flesh from a wounded body. The area was to be turned into a "burning waste, unsown and unproductive," so much even that "no grass grows in it" (Deuteronomy 29:22). In the Bible, two clear instances of this deep cleaning are recorded (but also see Psalm 107:34, Jeremiah 17:6, Isaiah 34:9, Zephaniah 2:9):
    • God's destruction of Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah and Zeboiim (Genesis 19); cities that screwed up so much that the Salt Sea still witnesses to their destruction.
    • Abimelech's destruction of Shechem (Judges 9:45). Note that this verse uses the verb זרע (zara'), meaning to sow or scatter, which we postulate is the base of the word Nazarene.
    In Deuteronomy and the Deuteronomic School, Moshe Weinfeld submits that "razing and burning of a city and its sowing with salt and brimstone seems to have been the conventional punishment for breach of treaty" and goes on to cite the records of several known Assyrian kings who resorted to that practice after exactly that transgression. But note that salt is not just a symbol of death; it's the symbol of death of that which is rotten and a symbol of healing and perpetuation of that which is contaminated (2 Kings 2:20-21).
  • Salt is an essential nutrient. It is required for the proper functioning of muscles and nerves and crucial in maintaining the body's fluid balance. A person can die as much from salt deprivation as from thirst or hunger.
  • Salt is one of the four (or five if you want to be hip) base tastes. Modern humans have learned to associate salt with a pleasant taste (or taste enhancer) but long before taste was promoted to a pleasure sense, it was used to assess quality of food. A food's salty taste initially suggested that it was clean from infections, and the consumption of it would probably not lead to sickness (Job 6:6-7). But salt is so essential to the proper working of the body that the mammalian brain craves for it as a junkie does for a fix (Derek A. Denton, The Hunger For Salt). A salty taste indicates purity and the opposite, תפל (tapal, see the name Ahithophel), indicates not blandness but impurity (2 Samuel 22:27, Lamentations 2:14).

Salt was harvested on an industrial scale; either via controlled evaporation (which must have made Manna, the white-flaky "bread from heaven" which distilled from dew, uncannily seem like salt; Exodus 16:14) or mined from quarries.

Needless to say, throughout the ages entire wars were fought over salt, and note the similarity between our noun מלח (melah), meaning salt, and the word מלחמה (milhama), meaning battle or war. The latter comes from the root לחם (laham), which either means to wage war or to eat. It's part of the name of Jesus' birthplace: Bethlehem. When Jesus says: "You are the salt of the earth," he doesn't just mean to say what a fine condiment we are (Matthew 5:13, see 1 Corinthians 6:2). Job asks, "Can anything bland (תפל, tapal) be eaten without salt?" and Jesus adds that if salt itself loses the qualities of salt, it becomes as worthless as the impurity it was designed to eradicate.

Salt, in that sense, is a basic element. In life, salt can't be constructed from smaller parts. In chemical terms, however, salt (NaCl) consists of sodium and chloride atoms, which crystallize in cubes, and the cube is revisited in the shape of the Holy of Holies (1 Kings 6:20), and the final city (Revelation 21:16).

Salt as a symbol in the Bible

Salt kills impurities and as such is like fire: "For everyone will be salted with fire" (Mark 9:49). Salt, therefore, is also an instrument of trial and judgment; it means death to sin and sinners, and life to the saved. A lake of fire (Revelation 19:20) is by implication similar to a lake of salt (and note that while sin's ultimate destiny is the "depth of the sea," the surface of the Dead Sea is the lowest point on earth; Micah 7:19)

Commentators will suggest that salt was sign of friendship because of Arabic sayings ("there is salt between us"), but no, those sayings expresses the purity of the relationship; it has been tried by salt as if by fire, it will not go bad over time. Folks had to dry their offerings before they submitted them to the priests, but adding salt to their offering also reminded them of the "everlasting covenant of salt" (Numbers 18:19, 2 Chronicles 13:5, Ezekiel 43:24). Paul explains that even though we are to review the challenges posed by a debate partner with grace, we are also to wield salt (Colossians 4:6).

Probably the most noted salt-image of the Bible is the wife of Lot, or what became of her, and what became of her is somewhat misrepresented by folklore.

Lot and his family were ordered out of Sodom because YHWH was about to cure it (with salt, fire and brimstone; Genesis 18:16 to 19:29, and because Sodom didn't help the poor and the needy; Ezekiel 16:49). Lot's family consisted of a wife, an untold number of sons, at least two daughters and their future husbands (Genesis 19:12) but the angels dragged only Lot, his wife and two daughters out of the city (Genesis 19:16).

The angels famously told them to not look back, but the wording makes it clear that this was not a command but rather an encouraging incitement; the Hebrew here is not in an imperative form but in an imperfect form, and uses not the particle of prohibition (לא, lo') but rather the particle of negation (אל, 'al). Lot's wife did not just look back; she "looked from behind him," and became a salt נציב (neshib). This noun comes from the verb נצב (nasab), meaning to take one's stand. It's related to the sibling derivatives מצבה (masseba) and מצבת (massebet), meaning pillar, but also to מצב (massab), meaning station, מצב (mussab), meaning post, מצבה (massaba), meaning garrison and מצבה (missaba), meaning army. In fact, our noun נציב (neshib) is used twelve more times in the Bible, and it always denotes a standing military presence or officer.

Jesus said: "Remember Lot's wife; whoever seeks to keep his life shall lose it, and whoever loses his life shall preserve it" (Luke 17:32-33), and although this has always been explained to mean that Lot's wife was one of those who "turned back" and thus lost her life (Luke 17:31), she didn't turn back, she looked back in a sense that's more befitting those who "lost their lives" in service of others and thus preserved it. It would take a few megabytes to fully expound the portent of these proceedings, but it seems Lot's wife became a kind of sentinel standing between the destruction of the past and the potential of the future, and this image is clearly a reflection of the guardian cherub who was posted at the east of Eden (Genesis 3:24).

Her two daughters survived with Lot and together they fathered the Moabites and the Ammonites (Genesis 19:37-38). Moab and Ammon occupied the lands just east of Israel, and note that the word for east also means past. Moab and Ammon were not to be harassed (Deuteronomy 2:9, 2:19), and although the relationship between Israel and Moab and Ammon was marred by friction, Moab provided a welcoming refuge for Jews in times in famine (Ruth 1:1) and war (Jeremiah 40:11-12). Since king David's paternal great-grandmother was Ruth the Moabitess, David was one-eighth Moabite.

Famous places named after salt are: Ir-hamelah (City of Salt), Ge-melah (Valley of Salt), and Yam-hamelah (Salt Sea, presently known as the Dead Sea).

Associated Biblical names