[The Bible is an “Eastern” book. It was written many years ago in the “East” which today we refer to as “The Middle East.” As such, there are many customs and idioms that are not familiar to the “Western” mind.]
A covenant is an agreement or a contract. Today it is very common for people to enter into agreements by signing what we refer to as a contract. Not so long ago, they did it with a simple hand shake. One of the oldest known covenants in the world is the covenant of salt.
Salt is a necessity of life. Since ancient times it has been used in many cultures as a seasoning, a preservative, a disinfectant, a symbolic part of ceremonial offerings, and as a unit of exchange. The Bible contains numerous references to salt. In various contexts, it is used metaphorically to signify permanence, loyalty, durability, fidelity, usefulness, value, and purification.
The covenant of salt symbolizes loyalty, honesty, and it represents that which is a lasting or preserved covenant. Some of the Eastern people still use the phrase: “There is salt between us.” In Bible times, they understood that the covenant of salt meant that they would keep their word at all costs.
How Did One Enter Into A Salt Covenant?
The custom of pledging friendship or confirming an agreement or covenant by eating food containing salt is still retained today among some Middle Easterners. The Arabic word for salt and for, an agreement or treaty, is the same word. And so, the most common way of entering into a salt covenant was done by eating food containing salt.
Entering into a covenant of salt was never done lightly or haphazardly. In Bible times, guests would eat their meal while their host stood. If the host ate with his guests, then they would have entered into a salt covenant because the food contained salt.
Newborn babies were rubbed with salt symbolizing that they would grow up and say what they mean, and mean what they say. In other words, they would keep their word. There will be more about that in an upcoming Eastern Eye article concerning the birth of Jesus.
In the late 1970’s when Prime Minister Begin of Israel met with President Sadat of Egypt, Begin was greeted as he set foot on Egyptian soil. It was reported that the two men stopped to take bread and salt together.
To the Western mind, this may seem like an old fashioned custom, and one might think that it was a nice gesture, but it was much more than just a gesture. In their Eastern minds, they entered into a salt covenant. Sadat was communicating through his action that Begin would be safe while visiting Egypt and that he was willing to guarantee that safety with his own life.
Since ancient times in the Middle East, if you were traveling and needed shelter for the night, you could ask one of the Bedouin for his protection and help by asking if you could partake of salt together. He would ask for all your money and valuables and put them in his pockets. Next, he would feed you and give you a place to sleep. Finally, he would stand guard all night to make sure that no harm came your way.
In the morning, he would feed you once again, give your valuables back to you, and make sure you were safely on your way. He would never even consider taking any payment for his hospitality, because in the East, it is looked upon as an act of service to God.
The Salt Covenant In Wedding Ceremonies
Perhaps you have attended weddings where salt was involved in the service. In many of the weddings I have officiated, the couple, understanding the significance of the salt covenant, requested to partake in a salt covenant on their special day.
Symbolically this puts the marriage into the category of a lifelong, enduring covenant. It is a good custom. It is interesting that at the Last Supper, during a meal that would have included salt, Jesus said the words from the wedding ceremony; “I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.”
In the lands and times of the Bible, the penalty for breaking the salt covenant was death. One would die before he ever broke the trust of entering into a salt covenant. Perhaps that is why Jesus, speaking of Judas, said it would have been better if he would have never been born. Judas shared salt with Jesus on many occasions, including the Last Supper.
In some translations, the words that Jesus spoke before he ascended into heaven as recorded in the book of Acts indicate that he spoke them after eating with the Apostles. That would then make those words about the coming of the gift of holy spirit bound by the salt covenant.
Having insight into this ancient covenant brings greater understanding when one reads the Scriptures. Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth.” And Paul exhorts, “Let your speech be always with grace, seasoned with salt.”
I have put a number of verses below that make reference to the significance of salt and the salt covenant.
II Chronicles 13:5
Ought ye not to know that the LORD God of Israel gave the kingdom over Israel to David for ever, even to him and to his sons by a covenant of salt?
Leviticus 2;13: [offerings]
And every oblation of your meat offering shall you season with salt; neither shall you suffer the salt of the covenant of your God to be lacking from your meat offering: with all your offerings you shall offer salt.
Ezekiel 43:24 [burnt offerings]
And you shall offer them 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 30:35 [part of the incense]
And you shall make it a perfume, a confection after the art of the apothecary, tempered together, pure [and] holy:
Ezra 6:9 [Temple offering]
And that which they have need of, both young bullocks, and rams, and lambs, for the burnt offerings of the God of heaven, wheat, salt, wine, and oil, according to the appointment of the priests which are at Jerusalem, let it be given them day by day without fail:
Numbers 18:19 [to ratify a covenant]
All the heave offerings of the holy things, which the children of Israel offer unto the LORD, have I given you, and your sons and your daughters with you, by a statute for ever: it is a covenant of salt for ever before the LORD unto you and to your seed with you.
You are the salt of the earth: but if the salt has lost his savor, wherewith shall it be salted? It is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot of men.
Have salt in yourselves, and have peace one with another.
Acts 1:4 NIV
On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about.
Let your speech be always with grace, seasoned with salt, that you may know how you ought to answer every man.
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Jesus Gave Judas The Sop
Please Pass The Salt
There are a number of books that you can read to get insight on customs, manners, idioms and meanings from the Eastern culture in which the Bible was written. The best I know of were written by by Bishop K. C. Pillai. I have had the pleasure of listening to recorded teaching by him.
He wrote three books, and they are hard to find, and are usually over priced. But, if you want to you can check this link to see what Amazon has to offer. Light Through an Eastern Window
Another great resource that I have used for years is a book called, “Manners and Customs of the Bible,” by James Freeman. Mine was printed in 1972 and I know they have newer additions. For the newest edition, just click the link and it will take you to Amazon. The New Manners and Customs of the Bible (Pure Gold Classics)