Salt as a Blessing and a CUrse in ANcient Times

In Biblical times, there was hardly a food which was not seasoned with salt. "Can that which is unsavory by eaten without salt?" asks the prophet Job.[1] The most common method of obtaining salt was mining. It was also produced, however, by evaporating sea water and removing the salts from the sediment, then rinsing, purifying and crushing the raw salt. We find that in the ancient Near East, salt also performed a variety of symbolic functions, its meaning frequently shifting between opposites of blessing and a curse, destruction and restoration, protection and harm.

As the food preservative par excellence, salt was used to symbolize permanence. In biblical, as well as other Near Eastern cultures, salt was eaten by the parties to agreements and treaties. "The Lord your God gave the kingdom over Israel to David forever, to him and to his sons by a covenant of salt…"[2] In the Bible, the expression "covenant of salt" expresses the eternal nature of a covenant.

Dry, cracked groundAt the same time, salt in the bible and in other Near Eastern texts symbolized the destruction of a city; specifically, the ritual of sowing salt into the earth symbolized evil for the land, as the ancients clearly understood that salinity in soil caused aridity. In Moses' farewell speech he warns that a breach of the Covenant with God (which includes the promise of the land of Canaan) would bring ruin to the land; he describes the state of affairs that would arise as follows: "All its soil devastated by sulfur and salt, beyond sowing and producing, no grass growing in it, just like the upheaval of Sodom and Gemorrah…"[3] In other Near Eastern texts from the period, we find similar penal associations between treaty violation and destruction of the land by salt. For example, an 8th century BCE. Aramaic text (inscribed on three steles) establishing a treaty between King Barga'ayah of KTK and Mati'el of Arpad in Syria contains the following warning: "Just as this wax is burned in the fire, so may Arpad be burned along with (her . . . dependencies). And may Hadad sow them with salt and tares and may they never more be (so much as) named."[4]

A further example of salt's harmful powers is in the story of Shechem's destruction in the Book of Judges. Salt is sowed into the earth as a curse upon both the land and those who had lived there: "And Avimelekh fought against the city, all that day, and he took the city, and slew the people that were in it, and pulled down the city, and sowed it with salt."[5] Salt, in this context, was associated with barrenness and infertility, surely among the worst curses for land or people in the ancient Near East.

Contamination being attributed in ancient and primitive thought to the machinations of demons, and salt being regarded as an incorruptible and cleansing substance, it was natural that the latter become a universally regarded potent against the evil forces. It was for this reason that mothers salted their babies, a ritual which included but was not limited to Hebrew women. [6]

OasisAlong similar lines, in the Book of Kings, the men of Jericho complain to the prophet Elisha that, despite the pleasing location of the city, its waters are contaminated and the ground barren. Elisha taps the cleansing powers of salt in order to purify and heal the contaminated springs of Jericho:

"The men of the city said to Elisha: Behold I pray, the situation of this city is pleasant, as my lord may see; but the water is bad, and the ground causes untimely births. And he said, Bring me a new cruse, and put salt in it. And they brought it to him. And he went out to the spring of the waters, and cast salt in there, and said, "Thus says the Lord, I have healed this water, there shall not be from there any more death or miscarriage. So the water was healed to this day, according to the saying of Elisha which he spoke."[7]

In the context of the story of Elisha, Bible and comparative religion scholar Theodor Gaster recalls "the well of Zeus Asbamaois" [whose saline waters were] held to afford special protection against evil influences, while Clement of Alexandria records a superstition that water drawn from three wells and mixed with salt provides immunity against the "princes of darkness."[8]



[1] Job 6:6 [back]
[2] II Chronicles 13:5 [back]
[3] Deut. 29:22 [back]
[4] James Latham, The Religious Symbolism of Salt (Paris: Editions Beauchesne, 1982), pp. 81-82. [back]
[5] Judges 9:45 [back]
[6] Ezekiel 16:4; Charles Fensham. "Salt as a Curse in the Old Testament and the Ancient Near East." The Biblical Archaeologist, 25:1 (February 1962), p. 48 [back]
[7] II Kings 2:20-22 [back]
[8] Theodor Gaster, Myth Legend and Custom in the Old Testament (Harper & Row, 1969; republished by Peter Smith, 1990), p. 516.[back]


Salting the bread and the baby: The magical powers of salts



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