A Covenant of Salt:  Unbreakable like Salt or a Duty for All Times

Numbers 18:18-20
But their meat shall be yours: it shall be yours like the breast of elevation offering and like the right thigh. All the sacred gifts that the Israelites set aside for the Lord I give to you, to your sons, and to the daughters that are with you, as a due for all time. It shall be an everlasting covenant of salt before the Lord for you and for your offspring as well. (Numbers 18:18-19)

Surely you know that the Lord God of Israel gave David kingship over Israel forever — to him and his sons — by a covenant of salt. (II Chronicles 13:5)

Salt was the food preservative par excellence in biblical times. According to priestly law, all sacrifices were to be salted as well: "You shall season your every offering of meal with salt; you shall not omit from your meal offering the salt of your covenant with God; with all your offerings you must offer salt."[1] It is easy to understand this law in the context of meat sacrifices, as salt functioned to remove whatever blood remained after slaughter. What is surprising and unexpected is the requirement to use salt in grain offerings as well:

Scholar Jacob Milgrom[2] notes that salt stands in contrast to leaven and other fermentatives, whose use is forbidden on the altar. He thus perceives salt as a symbol of permanence, as opposed to leaven which produces change. Therefore, a "salt covenant" suggests an unbreakable covenant. Noting that it was very likely that salt played a central role at the solemn meal which sealed a covenant, Milgrom recalls the two biblical covenants in Genesis and Exodus.[3]

"And they said: We now see plainly that the Lord has been with you, and we thought: Let there be a sworn treaty between our two parties, between you and us. Let us make a pact with you...Then he made for them a feast, and they ate and drank. " (Genesis 26:28, 30)

Then he took the record of the covenant and read it aloud to the people. And they said, “All that the Lord has spoken we will faithfully do!” ... Then Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and seventy elders of Israel ascended... and they ate and drank. (Exodus 24:7, 9, 10).

Scholars have noted references to salt in ancient Near Eastern treaty curses; according to these, if a treaty were violated one's land would be sowed or plowed with salt so as to impair its productivity. Similarly, the symbolic role of salt in rituals of hospitality has been mentioned in support of the notion that the use of salt in the sacrificial cult may have had a covenantal function. Notes Milgrom: "A Neo-Babylonian letter speaks of 'all who have tasted the salt of the Jakin tribe,' referring to the tribe's covenanted allies. Loyalty to the Persian monarch is claimed by having tasted the 'salt of the palace' in Ezra 4:14. And Arabic milhat, a derivative of malaha, to salt, means " treaty."

eternal covenant of saltScholar Baruch Levine takes a different view. Rather than associating the use of salt in grain sacrifices with a covenantal role, he suggests that its use was more likely a reflection of the overall tendency toward uniformity in ritual. "The phrase melah berit eloheikha," ("salt of your covenant with God," Lev. 2:13) he writes, "refers to the binding, God-ordained obligation, or commitment to use salt. In Lev. 24:8-9, berit olam similarly means a commitment for all time…

"In Numbers 18:19, the requirement of salting sacrifices is repeated, although in somewhat altered form, as berit melah olam (everlasting salt covenant), but the sense is the same: 'an everlasting covenant of salt.' [While an] extensive literature has arisen on the subject of the presumed role of salt in the enactment of treaties and covenants on the assumption that berit melah means "a covenant made binding by salt," it is doubtful, whether any of this explicitly concerns the Levitical law requiring the salting of sacrifices. Berit in the [Leviticus] text and in Numbers 18:19 should be understood to mean "binding obligation, commitment," making the use of salt a duty, rather than attributing any covenantal function to salt per se."[4]


[1] Lev. 2:11-13; also Ezekiel 43:24 — "Offer them to the Lord; let the priests throw salt on them and offer them up as a burnt offering to the Lord." [back]

[2] Jacob Milgrom, The JPS Torah Commentary: Numbers (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1990), p. 154. [back]

[3] The same general requirement is referred to in Numbers 18:19. In Ezra 6:9 and 7:22 we read that large quantities of salt were delivered to the post-exilic Temple of Jerusalem for use in the sacrificial cult. [back]

[4] Baruch Levine, The JPS Torah Commentary: Leviticus (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1989), p. 13. [back]

SALT Table of Contents




Subscribe to the JHOM mailing list for updates.

Contact us

Tell a friend