As part of my devotional routine I try to balance my Bible reading by reading daily from both the Old and New Testaments. (This is an unfortunate way of speaking of the common divisions of the Scriptures. “Old Testament” conjures ideas of an antiquated, if not obsolete, portion of holy writ, while “New Testament” evokes ideas of freshness and novelty. This is certainly not the portrait I wish to paint. I use these terms simply because they are well known and I have no alternate designations that would be readily understood.) Lately, my readings have mostly been in Leviticus and Galatians.
While perusing Leviticus I was struck by the ubiquitous presence of salt in the divinely ordained rituals, beginning most notably at chapter two.
You shall season all your grain offerings with salt. You shall not let the salt of the covenant with your God be missing from your grain offering; with all your offerings you shall offer salt (Lev. 2:13).
Salt, while not that prominent in our thinking, was a regular part of Jewish ceremonial rites, covenant rituals, and contractual relationships (Ex. 30:35; Ezk. 43:24; Ez. 6:9; 2 Chr. 13:5 to list just a few examples). At first glance this doesn’t seem to be all that stimulating so I heartily recommend further glances.
The old adage, “familiarity breeds contempt,” is too often true considering how quickly we jump to the conclusion that we have the well known passages all figured out. The truth is that we rarely grasp the fuller significance of the well known parts if we consider them in isolation from those little known bits which came long before them. Those of us who believe that the best commentary on the Bible is the Bible should see the obvious need to pay attention to themes and tropes that occur again and again in the Scriptures. They may shed considerable light on some of the passages in the New Testament with which we have grown a little too comfortable.
This seems to be the case with a famous section from the Sermon on the Mount.
You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet (Mt. 5:13).
This statement has often been read with little to no regard for its context; immediate or canonical. The normal exposition goes something like this: “Jesus has likened his hearers to salt. We all know that salt functioned as a preservative in the ancient world. Thus, Jesus is telling his disciples that their role in that present evil age was to act as a preservative; stemming the rising tide of purification and decay. Salt that has lost it’s “saltiness” has no preserving ability. This means that we have to stay salty in order to hold back the ever encroaching decay.” This is probably the most common line taken when considering the passage. It is certainly the most common interpretation given in popular evangelical commentaries. While credit should be given for attempting to actually explain the text in some fashion, I see no reason for taking this explanation as viable. It simply isn’t a biblical interpretation. It may be true that salt has the qualities of preservation but this is not the way in which the Scriptures speak of salt.
Another interpretation suggests that the point is driving towards personal evangelism though inducing thirst; salvation through salivation. This argument runs thusly: “Salt make people thirsty. Jesus is teaching his disciples that their job is to live and behave in such a way as to create a spiritual thirst in unbelievers. Once they are thirsty Jesus can bring relief to their parched souls” While points may be given for novelty but none should be awarded for biblical fidelity. There is no warrant for such an explanation.
Still another interpretation offered is that Jesus is speaking of the worth of the disciples in the economy of grace. This exposition may be stated this way: “Salt was a precious commodity in the Roman empire. Soldiers were often paid in salt. The word “salary” comes from the word salarium which refers to the salt-wage. Jesus is saying that his disciples are precious to him and that their worth is great indeed. If they fail to obey him then they become worthless, as unsalty salt is worthless. Don’t be worthless.” Again, we may applaud the attempt but it seems that interpretation this too woefully misses the mark. I can appreciate that some attention has been given to Roman custom but I am baffled that no attention has been given to the biblical usage of salt.
So what did Jesus mean when he said, “You are the salt of the earth?” I can’t offer a full explanation but I can attempt to offer some insight into his meaning if I am allowed to consider both the structure of Matthew’s gospel and the significance of salt under the Old Covenant.
Israel: Old, New, and You
Several features distinguish Matthew’s account as primarily Jewish in nature. These are well-stated elsewhere so I will not take the time to prove this point here. We can stipulate it for the sake of argument. The Jewish audience of this narrative should readily recognize its Jewish characteristics.
This gospel is for Israel, about Israel, and against Israel. These prepositions have the force of polemical propositions. Matthew was written to the house of Israel as both a jeremiad and an evangel. The bad news is that their house is falling down. It is in a state of disrepair due to unbelief and willful neglect. The House of Israel is in the process of trying to build a house for God and Israel, but this vain attempt to “raise the tabernacle of David” will ultimately lead to their downfall. They have placed all of their hopes in a house built upon sand. The election of Israel was an election for a particular vocation. They were called to be the embodiment of God’s promises to Abraham to bless the world. They were chosen to be a “light unto the nations.” In all of this they failed. Their calling became their curse.
Matthew presents his story as a recapitulation of the history of Israel, but he does so with Jesus as the center as both True Israel and Israel’s True God. He begins with a quotation from Genesis: He is writing the “book of the generations” of Jesus. His statement, Βίβλος γενέσεως Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ, hearkens back to the first book of the Bible; the “book of generations” is literally the “book of Genesis.” Matthew is writing a new Genesis by writing the story of a new creation. This is a book of new beginnings.
This is not mere coincidence. The allusions to Genesis abound as he continues his narrative account. He gives a the genealogy of Jesus which serve to remind us of the numerous genealogical accounts in Genesis. He then tells us of a miraculous birth, like those of Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph. Then we are introduced to a dreamer named Joseph.
Matthew then moves from Genesis to Exodus. In his view, Israel has become another Egypt (this is a theme picked up by John in his apocalypse). We meet a new “Pharaoh” named Herod who oppresses Israel and launches a holocaust against the infant sons of Israel. Matthew tells us that Jesus has to escape “by night” (an allusion to Ex. 12:30). Matthew chooses a quote from Hosea 11:1, which spoke of the exodus of Israel from Egypt, to speak of Christ’s (the True Israel) exodus to Egypt from the present Israel-become-Egypt.
Matthew then brings us to the banks of the Jordan where Jesus is baptized like Israel was baptized in the Red Sea. Immediately following his baptism, Jesus is led into the wilderness to be tempted for forty days just as Israel was tempted for forty years in the wilderness. While there, Jesus quotes passages from Israel’s wilderness sojourn and proves himself to be the True and Faithful Israel of God.
Then, as a new Moses, he ascends the mountain and instructs his disciples in a righteousness that surpasses that of the scribes and the pharisees. He is both the Prophet like unto Moses and the embodiment of Torah. Like Moses, he lays before the Jews the choice between life and death, prosperity and curse. At the end of his sermon he prophesies, by way of parable, about the destruction of the house of Israel founded upon the shifting sands.
Matthew begins with creation, moves through the exodus, continues with the giving of the law, Christ as a greater David and wiser Solomon, and ends where the OT ends (2 Chr.) with a new commission. All of this is just to illustrate that for Matthew, Israel isn’t who his hearers imagined Israel is. What’s more, Israel’s God wasn’t like they thought he was either.
So when we come to the Sermon on the Mount we should see it situated in this particular context. Jesus, as True Israel and Israel’s True God, is reconstituting his people and grounding all of the former promises to Abraham in this new reality. God is rejecting unfaithful Israel and their house (both the physical descendants and the temple currently under construction), and is raising up a House for his name as he always intended to do.
The Sermon on the Mount deals with the themes that one would expect to find in a Jewish context: civil, moral, and ritual. They are not being abrogated, they are being fulfilled through Christ and his people. The old promises aren’t flattened, they are broadened. They will now encompass the entire world.
So when Jesus begins speaking about “salt and light,” he isn’t introducing new themes. He isn’t drawing primarily from Roman customs or the current pay-package of the centurions. He is using the language of tabernacle and temple. He is dealing in terms of Abrahamic promises and Mosaic procedures.
After the opening benediction in Matthew 5, Jesus takes us on a virtual tour of the the Tabernacle; he begins in the outer court with the salted sacrifice, moves into the Holy place where the menorah is burning, and ends up in the Most Holy Place to lay hold upon Torah in order to write it upon the hearts of his hearers.
Movement inward in the tabernacle and temple was always viewed as an ascension to the “holy mount” or the “mountain of the Lord.” Jesus uses this same progression when he speaks of the “salt of the land” and the “light of the world.” It is a movement upward, but then there is a discontinuity. This new tabernacle which Jesus is contracting is turned upside down and inside out. Instead of moving inward toward the inner sanctum, the movement is outward toward the world.
This is where salt and Abraham enter stage left again. As has been noted, all of the sacrifices under the Old Covenant were consecrated with salt. Salt was never used for preservation but it was often a symbol of purification. Even more, it was a symbol of permanence. Salt, as crystal fire, could not be burned and was not subject to temporal decay. Thus, it signified the fiery judgment which consumed and transformed the sacrifice, as well as the eternal covenant between God and his people. So salt speaks of purification and ratification.
When God made his covenant with Abraham, he promised that his inheritance would be like the burning sands and stars; a promise of land illuminated by innumerable offspring. Jesus preached that same promise again with new force and vigor in his mountaintop sermon. Abraham’s promised land, is salted by the presence of God’s covenant people. The earth is purified through the redemptive righteousness embodied by the saints in the land. Their presence as salt serves as a constant reminder that God is keeping his promise to fill the land with righteousness by filling it with Abraham’s righteous seed.
This fulfills the purpose for which Israel was called in the first place; to be the embodiment of God’s promises to Abraham to bless the world, to be a “light for all nations.” This happens when the New Israel in Christ lives out the redemptive righteousness exemplified most fully in Jesus.
But what of that salt which loses its flavor and is said to be useless? Our “saltiness” is tied to our obedience. The progression from sacrifice, to light of the world, to Torah is an explicit reminder of this. Interestingly, the phrase rendered “lost its savor” literally means “to become foolish.” This would be bizarre if we did not consider the larger scope of Jesus’ sermon. Wisdom demands that the covenant people obey the Lord of the covenant so that they may fully realize the great blessings of the covenant.
God has given Christ the world. He has given it to us so that we may, in an act of worship, render it up to him again full of righteousness and glory. You are the salt of the earth; you are the light of the world. Let your light so shine before men that they may see that righteousness which exceeds that of the scribes and pharisees, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.
This seems to me to be a much more biblical was of dealing with the text without having to pass the salt.