What is a Salt Covenant?

In ancient Near East cultures, like that of ancient Israel, salt’s value made it useful in symbolic

      Today, we take salt for granted. It’s easily purchased at the store, little packets of it are available at restaurants, and we use it to the point that doctors must urge us to monitor our salt consumption. In the ancient world, this was not the case.  Salt’s rare value made it serve as a form of payment for soldiers during the Roman Empire which gave us the modern word, “salary.” [1] Before Rome, salt had more symbolic usages.

           In ancient Near East cultures, like that of ancient Israel, salt’s value made it useful in symbolic covenants. Covenants are religious agreements on par with political treaties. Imagine swearing on something deeply valuable to you or putting up an item as collateral for a loan. While the origin of salt covenants is not fully known, they predate Israel, and knowledge of the salt covenant is assumed in the biblical text. The first reference to salt as a part of the Old Testament Mosaic covenant is in Leviticus 2:13, which records, “Every grain offering of yours, moreover, you shall season with salt, so that the salt of the covenant of your God shall not be lacking from your grain offering; with all your offerings you shall offer salt.” (NASB 95) This adds a depth to the sacrifices that Israel made, making each one a renewal of their salt covenant, and adding expectations about their behavior to it, both to God and to one another.

           Author K.C. Pillai focuses on providing cultural context for Bible passages to those of us who live in cultures that are geographically and chronologically far removed from the people who originally wrote and read the books of the Bible. He states, “In the East, the taking of salt is a pledge, a promise of fidelity. If I come to your house and eat with you food which has been seasoned with salt, I can never betray you or do you harm.”[2]  Forms of the covenant remain in the east, for example, the word in Arabic for covenant and salt, are the same word.[3] Meanwhile the western world has moved to paper contracts and can easily miss the importance of the use of salt as an element of a covenant in scripture.

           While scripture records salt as part of continual offerings, each instance of salt in a covenant is intended to communicate an eternal, perpetual aspect of the covenant. Numbers 18:19 records “All the offerings of the holy gifts, which the sons of Israel offer to the Lord, I have given to you and your sons and your daughters with you, as a perpetual allotment. It is an everlasting covenant of salt before the Lord to you and your descendants with you.” (NASB 95) While Israel would temporarily loose its land during the time of the Babylonian Exile, as well as after the fall of Rome in 70 A.D., God restored Israel based on His own role in the Old Testament covenants. While there are conditions some of covenants, God includes himself as one of the party members in many Old Testament covenants. This should be greatly comforting to us. While we may break our part of the covenant, He will not break his part.

           Salt covenants, once identified, can be found in numerous places in the Bible. 2 Chronicles 13:5 speaks of a salt covenant between God and King David. Ezra 6:9 included salt in the dedication of the priests. Ezekiel 16:4 references a type of salt covenant that occurs at many births. Pillai suggests that a salt covenant of safety is implied between Jael and Sisera in chapter 4 of the book of Judges, showing how deep her deception of the evil commander was. This may have been meant to show how far she was willing to go in breaking cultural norms to protect her people. It does show that Sisera assumed he was safe, because of actions we would consider hospitality, but he saw as covenantal promises.

           In the New Testament, we as Christians are called to be “Salt and Light.” (Matthew 15:13) While many are made aware that salt is a preservative, and this verse calls us to act as a preservative for the societies in which we find ourselves, what may be missed is how this connects to living in the New Covenant. By our nature, we are a part of the New Covenant, or as we call it often, the New Testament. We are demonstrating to the world what God is doing through Jesus, as we invite those around us to join in our new covenantal agreement with God. This covenant is with our King Jesus, who initiated it, but also with each other as members of one body (1 Corinthians 12) — His body on earth.

           In modern day, Christians have reabsorbed various types of salt covenants into their life. Ancient eastern marriages involved a salt covenant, and some Christians have included this in modern marriage ceremonies. It would certainly be in line with the mutual sacrificial submission as outlined in Ephesians 5. Other churches have seen salt covenants, and their connection to hospitality and protecting one another, as an additional and optional covenant to undergo as church members. While the early church did not have formal membership in the way most western churches do today, they did intentionally gather together and shared meals (Acts 2:46.) In their culture, this was more than just enjoying each other’s company, but a pledge to protect and serve one another that they renewed frequently. In their culture, it would have been understood; but in ours, the importance of such actions as oath, might be lost.

           Some see salt covenants as a thing of the Old Covenant, or Old Testament, only, and not appropriate to New Testament Christians.  Jesus seems to condemn oath taking (Matthew 5:33-37) and his half-brother James seems to repeat him (James 5:12). The question should be asked, what did Jesus and James mean, considering that they wrote from and within their own culture? What kind of oath taking and behavior is in view? If we affirm that all oaths are to be avoided, we run into practical problems: a marriage vow is an oath, for example. We are called to swear an oath when we testify in court. Any legally binding document could be seen as an oath.

           Scripture gives us additional context for the words recorded in Matthew and James. Jesus submitted to a legal oath in Matthew 26:63. God took an oath in Hebrews 6:13. An overly literal view of Matthew 5 and James 5 would force us to conclude that Jesus disobeyed his own teaching. Given the numerous other positive examples of oaths taken in the Bible, including the salt covenants mentioned earlier that influenced the culture of Jesus, we should conclude what theologians Norman Geisler and Thomas Howe conclude, “Obviously there is a good sense of oath-taking and a bad sense.”[4]

           We shouldn’t lightly pledge anything, nor should we pledge to do something by our power alone. If up to our own abilities, we would fail to be faithful at many, if not most, of the agreements we make. We should let our “yes be yes and our no be no” (Matthew 5:37 NASB 95), meaning that when we say we are going to do something, we do it. It doesn’t have to involve pledging, and dramatic appeals of what the cost might be if we break our agreement; rather, it should involve prayer and humility.

           By nature, when we come together as believers and agree to work together, we would be participating in a covenant, at least according to the cultures in which the Bible was written. We may or may not understand the seriousness of that agreement. It may take time to understand having faithful depth in our lives together. We frequently translate the Greek word Koinonia as fellowship. However, what the 20 verses that use the word in the New Testament have in mind is closer to the bond soldiers experience in battle and families pursue despite disagreements and difficulties, rather than what our society sees as spending time together for fun. If we intentionally join a body of believers, we are to be salt together and, in a sense, salted together. If we break bread with one another and share salt, we must lean on God Himself to fulfill our obligations through the covenant (Philippians 2:13) and consider the other people in the covenant, their needs, their health, their well-being, as more important than own (Philippians 2:3).

           Do we see our times of fellowship and meals as mere fun, or a reaffirmation of our commitment to life as Christ’s body together? To help understand the gravity of such commitment, many churches have incorporated salt covenants into a meal among leadership, staff, or even whole congregations, giving individuals the option to enter into the agreement together, or not. If an agreement is made, it is used as a landmark moment in their spiritual walk together. What issues existed before the covenant must be put aside. When there is division after the covenant is taken, one member can be reminded that they shared salt with the whole group. When one is under attack, they can cry out for their brothers and sisters, who shared salt with them, to aid them, and they must come. This practice should help each Christian reflect on his or her own relationships. How seriously do we love our local church? How committed are we to protect and serve God’s people? How committed are we to those we serve alongside?

[1] Harvey, Ian. During Roman times…, The Vintage News. August 22, 2016 https://www.thevintagenews.com/2016/08/22/priority-roman-times-salt-worth-weight-gold-soldiers-sometimes-paid-salt-hence-word-salary/?chrome=1

[2] Pillai, K.C. Light through an Eastern Window. Martino Publishing. Mansfield Centre, CT. 2013

[3] Verdicchio, Mike. The Covenant of Salt, Confidence and Joy. December 4, 2009. https://confidenceandjoy.com/the-covenant-of-salt/

[4] Giesler, Norman and Howe, Thomas. The Big Book of Bible Difficulties. Baker Books. Grand Rapids, Mhichgan.1992