In ancient times, salt was a highly prized commodity. Every culture depended on a constant supply of it, and used it in many different ways. Uses included: seasoning and preserving foods, commercial trade, money or wages (hence the word salary), religious ritual, cleansing, healing, punishment, warfare, agriculture, mummification, and in burial rites.
The Bible gives good examples of many of these uses.
1. Medicinal: Rubbing new born babies with salt to clean and strengthen the skin. Ezekiel 16:4.
2. Purification: Salt added to poison water to heal it (miracle). 2 King 2:21.
3. Seasoning: Salt sprinkled on vegetables to improve the taste. Job 6:6.
4. Cattle Fodder: Salt added to grain to help animals better withstand heat. (RV translation.) Isaiah 30:24.
5. Fertilizer: Salt added to dung to turn it into usable manure. Luke 14:35.
6. Warfare: Abimelech sowed the city of Shechem and the land surrounding it with salt. Judges 9:45.
7. Punishment: God turned Lot's wife to a pillar of salt for her sin. Genesis 19:26.
8. Religious ceremony: Salting meat and other offerings before sacrifice. Leviticus 2:13.
9. Idiom for Receiving a Salary or Sustenance from the King: Eat the salt of the palace. Ezra 4:14.
10. Idiom for Preservers of Truth or Renewers of the Covenant: Jesus calls the disciples the "salt of the earth". Matthew 5:13,
However, among the ancients, salt had another important and unique use. It was called the Salt Covenant --the earliest form a universally understood, generally accepted, and binding Peace Treaty.
The Hebrews, Babylonians, Egyptians, Hittites, Assyrians, Chinese, Greeks and Romans (as well as many other ancient cultures) all practiced the Salt Covenant. And while the ceremony involved in enacting the covenant might be performed with variations, the covenant's symbolic meaning never changed, nor did the outcome expected by the parties involved. The rules were simple. Keep the covenant and Life and Well-being were assured. Break the covenant and the penalty could be as harsh as Abandonment and Death.
The Salt Covenant was practiced in two different ways.
1.) In Religious Life as a part of ritual sacrifice to one's god;
2.) In Secular Life as a mutually beneficial pledge of hospitality, friendship or loyalty to other people.
From the Bible: "And thou shalt offer them (sacrifices) before the LORD, and the priests shall cast salt upon them, and they shall offer them up for a burnt offering unto the LORD." Exodus 43:24. (KJV).
From John Potter: "In the affairs of life, they (Greeks) seem to have desired the protection and favor of the gods by oblations of incense or drink offerings...The case seems to have been this: The oblations of the gods...were furnished after the same manner with the entertainments of men. Hence, as men delight in different sorts of diet, so the gods were thought to be pleased with several sorts of sacrifices. Some with human victims, others with beasts of various kinds, others with herbs only, and the fruits of the earth. All required salt and drink; whence there was scarce any sacrifice without salt and an oblation of drink." ("Antiquities of Greece ", Vol. 1, p. 211. Published in London, 1722.)
So, which came about first? The use of salt in religious observances or the use of salt in secular agreements? It's hard to know since instances of both appear about the same time in history. However, one fact can be concluded. Both the religious and sacred use of the salt had the same purpose; that of establishing a peaceful long-lasting relationship with one's god or one's neighbor.
From Eustathius of Thessalonica – 1115AD-1195AD: "The Salt of the Sacrifice is called the Salt of the Covenant, because in common life salt was the symbol of covenant --treaties being concluded and rendered firm and inviolable." ("Commentary on Homer's Iliad and the Odyssey," i. 449. First published in Rome, 1542-1550.)
From Dr. John Kitto: "The perpetuity of covenants of alliance thus contracted is expressed by calling them 'covenants of salt ' -- salt being the symbol of incorruption." ("The Cyclopedia of Bible Literature", Vol. 1, p.117. Published, New York, 1880.)
From Samuel Burder: "Salt amongst the ancients was the emblem of friendship and fidelity…A covenant of salt seems to refer to the making of an agreement wherein salt was used as a token of confirmation." ("Oriental Customs", Vol. 1, #50, p.38. Published in London 1807.)
From John Kitto: "To eat salt with any one was to partake of his fare, to share his hospitality and hence, by implication, to enjoy his favor, or to be in his confidence. Hence, also, salt became an emblem of fidelity and of intimate friendship. At the present hour, the Arabs regard as their friend him who has eaten salt with them --that is, has partaken of their hospitality in the same way as in Greece, those (who shared salt) regarded each other as friends even to distant generations." (Bible Cyclopedia of Scriptures", Vol. 3, p.738. Published in Edinburgh, 1876.)
From Alexander Russell: "The relation of host and guest (Syria)is held sacred and always mentioned with reverence. A league of mutual amity…is expressed by 'having eat bread and salt together." ("The Natural History of Aleppo", p.232. Published, London. 1794 Edition.)
From Karl Rosenmuller: "The Bedouins usually treat the stranger as a hostile...but they restrain their wildness, (which is) wholly alien to their character (by) put(ting)...a few grains of saline with small pieces of bread in their mouths, and at the same time say the words: 'With this salt and bread, I will not betray you'." ("The Old and New Land... or Explanations of the Holy Scriptures...and Customs of the East", Vol. 2, p.151. Published in Leipzig, 1818.) [Title and Text Translated from original German.)
From Carl Ritter: "When the Arabs make a covenant, they put salt on the blade of a sword. Their oath is sacred and incomprehensible. Brother Henniker was a partaker in such a solemn oath for his protection and he said: "The oldest had a sword. He put salt on the blade, then stuck that something (the blade) into his mouth, telling me to do the same. (To put salt on the same blade and put the blade in my mouth.) From that oath, he joined my life with his with these words: 'Son of my own home, they head is upon mine shoulder'. By the salt and the naked sword, we became blood relatives (servants to each other) and were to remain so even to the threat of death." ." ("Geography in Relation to Nature and the History of Mankind", Book 8, p. 960. Published in Berlin, 1848.) [Title and Text translated from original German].
From Diogenes Laertius (180 AD-240 AD)"Of salt his opinion was, that it ought to be set before people as a reminder of justice; for salt preserves everything which it touches, and it is composed of the purest particles of water and sea." ("The Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers - Life of Pythagoras", Section 19. Literally translated by C.D. Yonge. Published in London, 1853.)
In the introductory text, God is instructing Israel to continually observe the Salt Covenant; a pledge they had sworn together. A pledge that guaranteed that if that Israel would be God's people, then He would be their God and favor them. By the continual renewal of the covenant, the agreement became generational and all people of Israel were included in the covenant, benefitting from constant reminders of the promises and punishments involved. The salt and its ability to purify of and preserve symbolized the character of Israel and God. Israel was to become pure, God's holy people. And God would preserve His benevolence in perpetuity.
From Baron Du Tott: "He (the Moldovanji Pacha) was desirous of an acquaintance with me, and seeming to regret that his business would not permit him to stay long, he departed, promising in a short time to return. I had already attened him way down the staircase, when stopping and turning briskly to one of my domestics who followed me, 'Bring me directly,' said he, 'some bread and salt.' I was not less surprised at this fancy, than at the haste which was made to obey him. What he requested was brought. Then taking a little salt between his fingers and putting it mysteriously on a bit of bread, he ate it with a devout gravity, assuring me that I might now rely on him.
I soon procured an explanaation of this significant ceremony (but 'tis the same man, when he became vizier, was tempted to violate this oath) thus taken in my favour. Yet, if this solemn contract be not always religiously observed, it serves at least to moderate the spirit of vengenance so natural to the Turks...The Turks think it the blackest ingratitute to forget the man from whom we have received food; which is signified by the bread and salt in this ceremony. ("Memoirs of Baron De Tott", Vol. 1, p.214.Purblished in London, 1786.)
From John MacGregor: "I cut thin slices of the preserved beef (for) soup, and, while they were boiling (it), I opened my salt-cellar. This is a snuff-box, and from it I offered a pinch to the sheikh. He had never before seen salt so white (the Arab salt is like our black pepper), and, therefore, thinking it was sugar, he willingly took some from my hand and put it to his tongue. Instantly I ate up the rest of the salt, and with a loud, laughing shout, I administered to the astonished, outwitted sheikh a manifest thump on the back.
"What is it?" all asked from him. "Is it sukkcr?" (Is it sugar?)
He answered demurely, "La ! meleh!" (No, it's salt! )
Even his (the sheikh's) Home Secretary laughed at his chief. We had now eaten salt together, and in his own tent, and so he was bound by the strongest tie, and he knew it." ("The Rob Roy on the Jordan", p.230. 8th Edition. Published in London, 1904. [1st publication of this book – 1869].
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