Our Judeo-Greek New Testament (Matthew 5:13) preserves the words of Jesus to his disciples – “You are ‘the salt of the land'” – τo ἅλας τῆς γῆς (pronounced as to halas teis geis). He did not say, “You are the salt of the earth,” as the phrase is popularly translated. What did he mean by that? To fully appreciate the meaning of Yeshua’s words we must consider them in their native cultural context. That means we must examine His words in Hebrew as well as Greek.

The Hebrew word for “land” is אֶרֶץ (eretz). After all, the ancients did not have a concept of “the planet Earth” as we do today. When Jesus said, “you are the salt of the land,” He was referring specifically to the “Land of Israel”. In Biblical Hebrew, “salt” is מֶלַח (melach) and it is an “indestructible mineral”. That is why the idea of salt not being salty any more and yet still being called salt makes no sense.  His listeners would have recognized this.

Salt was valuable. It was used as a fertilizer, as a food preservative, and as a seasoning. Salt occurs in a variety of contexts in the Hebrew Bible. For example, God makes an irrevocable “Covenant of Salt” with the House of David (2 Chron 13:5). Salt was added to sacrifices as a symbol of God’s covenant faithfulness (Lev 2:13; Ezek 43:24). Salt symbolizes purity (Ex 30:34-36) and is used in reference to Israel’s geographical boundaries (Num. 34:12; Josh 15:2). Salt can even symbolize God’s judgment and curses (Gen 19:24-26; Deut. 29:22-30). While these categories are diverse, the pervasive theme of “God’s Covenant” binds them all together in harmony.

God’s “covenant of salt” with His people is tangible, permanent, and serves a specific purpose.  Yeshua’s disciples share these same qualities. They are visible symbols of God’s irrevocable covenant with Israel. Their actions are compared with salt, which stops decay and corruption. They preserve Israel’s covenant by faithfully obeying God’s laws in faith. Just as the salt can purify, Yeshua’s disciples purify the world around them and make it a better place. And like salt which was added to sacrifices for symbolic emphasis, Yeshua’s disciples themselves become sacrifices. They “offer up” their own lives for the sake of the Kingdom (Matt 5:11-12). There is so much depth in the Bible, but sometimes it is hidden behind culture, customs, and unfamiliar language. Knowing this contexts is often the key to unlocking the meaning.

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13 COMMENTS

  1. Salt as metaphor meant to the ancients something extremely valuable because it sustained life. Jesus was saying to his disciples: "As long as you follow my teachings, doctrines and commandments, you are valuable and worthy of Eternal Life in My Father's Heavenly Kingdom. As above, so below on Earth."
  2. In addition, the converse applied in Jesus' doctrines. He said "If the salt no longer had saltiness it became useless and worthless." He was saying if they didn't follow his teachings, doctrines and commandments, their souls would lose their value and not be able to be admitted to Eternal Life in His Father's Kingdom in Heaven. He was quite clear about what was valuable and what was not. Treasure in Heaven was valuable while treasure on earth was not. Doing good for the least of us on earth created a valuable soul. Doing good for rulers or self did not.
  3. I suggest you consult the Oxford English Dictionary entry for 'Earth'. The range of meanings is far more extensive than simply the Planet Earth, including: " III. Senses relating to a defined portion of land. 12. A country, land, or territory. " The same can also be said for the Greek γῆ, γῆς The Hebrews were/are not the only people whose language is flexible.
  4. Thank you all for your insights; disciples, like salt, add spiritual flavour only when in conjunction with the community around them. It is in contacting and witnessing to our brothers and sisters that we act as true salt; without the creation around us, we have no material on which to act, whether as preservative, as seasoning, or as sacrificial symbolism. This is a commissioning thought!
  5. I have been wondering what the purpose of a visible symbol (like disciples) would have been to the lost since Jesus is not revealed by flesh. A few articles back I was surprised to see that the people who see and hear were people who had not yet turned/repented Matt 13:15)? What they saw must not have been Jesus yet. Could one purpose of salt (God’s goodness) be to lead others to repentance (Romans 2:4).
  6. I read once that salt was used as an ingredient in the paving of Roman roads. So when Jesus/Yeshua said flavorless salt was good for nothing but to be trampled underfoot, the words implied that there was value even in the most seemingly useless of us.
    • Thanks, Tom. Interesting observation. As I mentioned before, "salt" is an especially rich metaphor with multitude of applications.

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