"The Salt of the Covenant
of Thy God"
Consider the following words of our Lord, God, and Savior, Jesus Christ:
It is better to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye, than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire: Where the worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched. For every one shall be salted with fire, and every sacrifice shall be salted with salt. Salt is good: but if the salt have lost his saltiness, wherewith will ye season it? Have salt in yourselves, and have peace one with another (Mark 9:45–50; explanation by Blessed Theophylact appears at the end of the article).
Imagine this situation if you will. You have been employed to perform a service, are finished, and are ready to receive your pay, your salary. Your supervisor, who has been more than well satisfied with your work, and finds you worthy of your salt, hands you, literally, a bag of salt.
Would you be satisfied with this kind of salary, or would you be offended and even outraged? If you were a Roman soldier, you would most likely be very satisfied. You have just received your agreed-upon salary, the normal income of a Roman soldier.
You see, the English word "salary" comes from the Latin word sal (salt), derived by way of the image suggested above. In later imperial Rome, the bag of salt itself was replaced by a monetary allowance, the purpose of which was the same: to enable the soldier to get his salt.
While it may be surprising to us, the ancients found a close connection between salt and health or well being, and between salt and peace. (Note the citation above from the Gospel according to St. Mark.) Health in Latin is salus, cognate with sal. From this we derive our words "salubrious," "salutary," "salute," and "salutation."
Salt was one of the few preservatives available to ancient man. It made fish, meat, olives, cheese, and pickled vegetables available throughout the year everywhere in the world. It is not surprising that these food items figured large in the diets of the rich who could afford them. Poor people, on the other hand, had to rely mostly on grasses, cereals, and vegetables which usually contain little salt naturally.
Salt, which is widely available throughout the world, and even in ancient times could be clean and pure, was not always so in the ancient world. Sometimes it got mixed with dirt or other fillers, or was allowed to lie around until it simply lost its saltiness. Such unsalty salt was not discarded, however, because it was still useful. The Jews stored it in their Temple, for example, and spread it over walkways and marble courtyards in winter to make them less slippery. In an allusion to this practice, the Lord said that salt, having lost its savor, was good for nothing, but to be cast out and trodden under foot of men (Matthew 5:13).
There are many kinds of chemical compounds that are called "salts," sodium chloride (common table salt) being just one of them. (Chemical compounds are classified as acids, bases, or salts. Acids and bases react with one another to form salts.) Even though some of us risk high blood pressure and heart trouble by using an excessive amount of salt, and some ought to avoid supplementary salt altogether, salt is essential to health. It is usually found naturally in one's diet. Otherwise salt is used mainly as a seasoning which greatly improved flavor, and is also important in the preparation of foods such as pickles, olives, and dried fish.
Strict vegetarians and plant-eating animals, however, must find a source beyond their normal diet, which lacks a necessary amount of salt. Meat-eating people and animals, on the other hand, deriving their salt requirement from the flesh of animals, have no need of a salt supplement unless they habitually eat their meat boiled.
In many parts of the world people knew nothing about seasoning food with salt before Europeans arrived among them. In African societies which produce much milk and raw or roasted meat for food, for example, sufficient salt for health is consumed by the population. Otherwise salt has been a luxury available only to the rich.
As societies moved from nomadic to agricultural status, the habitual use of salt increased and influenced the religious rites of most ancient peoples. Salt was included in sacrifices and covenants as a fitting symbol of preservation and fidelity. The Book of Numbers (18:19) refers to a covenant of salt forever before the Lord, signifying that such covenants are not to be altered or corrupted. The Savior Himself confirmed this symbol when He said, Everyone shall be salted with fire, and every sacrifice shall be salted with salt (Mark 9:49). In this we also hear an echo of Leviticus: Neither shalt thou suffer the salt of the covenant of thy God to be lacking from thy meat offerings: with all thine offerings thou shalt offer salt (Lev. 2:13).
"Salt," with these overtones, enters into the idioms of people everywhere. Arabs, for example, speak of "salt between us," and the Hebrews, of "eating the salt of the palace." Modern Persians declare that a disloyal or ungrateful person is "untrue to salt." And the English give high praise to a person who is declared to be "the salt of the earth."
There is great concern today about the loss of large tracts of useful land due to salinization brought about by unwise practices of man. Such land becomes unfit for the growing of field crops and pastures, impoverishing agriculture and the raising of farm animals. This is the end result of thousands of years of clearing the world's forests which under natural conditions "soak up" great quantities of water keeping the often saline water table low. When land is cleared of trees, the water table below the land rises, bring salt to the surface, eventually killing most forms of vegetation. Like man and animals, trees require a certain amount of salt to survive. Noel observes that five hundred tons per hectare of forest growth lock up to five tons per hectare of salt. Five tons of salt spread over a hectare of field crop or pasture would kill it (Noel, Nutteriat, p. 177).
God in His providence has allowed huge mountains and pits of salt to be deposited many hundreds of feet thick throughout the world to give men and animals access to the salt which is so necessary for their well-being. The Gulf of Mexico region alone contains a circle of salt structures 1,000 miles in diameter over land and under water. More than 300 salt structures lie beneath the North Sea and land areas of Germany, Denmark, and the Netherlands. Similar huge deposits exist in the Middle East.
The existence of such immense deposits of salt raises a question: How did this abundance happen to be, given that today a very large quantity of sea water releases only a very small amount of salt through evaporation? The uniformitarian explanation given is that salt was deposited in partially enclosed arms of the sea where evaporation was caused to be greater than the flow of salt water into the arm. At the same time, an underwater barrier at the entrance to the arm prevented the highly concentrated saline water from flowing out.
However, we cannot accept this account on the basis of present processes and conditions, but must picture in our mind a very different earth when these mammoth deposits of salt were laid down.
A theory more interesting than uniformitarianism proposes that until about 400 million years ago, seawater was almost fresh and was certainly much less salty than it is today. One bit of evidence for this is adduced from the fact that the ancestors of ferns and cycads (for example, palm trees) were the most ancient groups of higher-order land plants. Today's descendants of these groups are almost never found near ocean coasts because they have never developed tolerance for salt. Plants which actually thrive under saline conditions, such as Australian beach grasses, are members of more recent genera which have adapted to accommodate the salt dominating their environment. One variety of tomatoes will actually grow in the salty ocean off the Galapagos Islands. Further evidence of adaptation to salt is found in sea-going land animals such as certain birds, lizards, and crocodiles which have developed the ability to rid their bodies of excess salt through tears or droppings of excrement (Noel, p. 103).
Noel offers the surprising theory that the massive salt deposits found today were formed in thick layers of plant material floating on shallow sea swamps. Such shallow swamps sealed off significant areas of seas, preventing normal evaporation. The decaying strata of these layers, having dropped to the bottom of the sea, eventually became salt-bearing rock. This scenario fits into the so-called "expanding earth" theory, which proposes there were originally no deep oceans, only small "interdomain" gulfs on a much smaller earth than we know today. These conditions favored the development not only of huge salt deposits, but also of huge coal and petroleum deposits which are widely found today.
As already pointed out, all living beings required salt, but only a strictly limited amount. When they suffer salt deficiency, those wild animals which today are exclusively herbivores (grass and leaf eaters) are adept at locating salt at or near the surface of the earth. Domesticated herbivores, such as cattle, lick blocks of salt provided by those who look out for their welfare.
One of the most intriguing examples of wild animals searching for and "mining" salt occurs in Kittum Cave in Kenya's Mount Elgon National Park. The cave lies below the forested slopes of Mount Elgon, a 14,178-foot volcano in Africa, one of many which stretch from Mozambique to Syria along the 3,000-mile Afro-Arabian rift system. Kittum Cave extends horizontally about 175 yards into the mountain at an elevation of 7,900 feet. A herd of elephants has the practice of entering the cave at dusk and spending about six hours in the rear chamber, luxuriating, splashing in the pools of water, and mining the rock with their tusks. Since elephants are unable to lick or bite the salty rock because their tusks and trunks are in the way, they must bring pieces of it to their mouth with their trunk.
The truly amazing thing is that this elephantine activity, which is carried on in the dark, has been going on for countless generations. The elephants are enlarging the cave all the time, and are contributing to the collapse of many parts of it in their clamor for salt.
Like the ancients, we may think of salt as an element in the early covenant between God and man, and perhaps in a certain sense, also between God and animals. Certainly the Lord's words cited above are significant for us and should be pondered.
The Blessed Theophylact interprets the Lord's words in the ninth chapter of St. Mark's Gospel as follows:
Having warned those who cause offense that it will be worse for them than if they were cast into the sea (Mark 9:21–22), now the Lord exhorts those to whom offense is given to guard themselves against those who are always ready to offend and to tempt. Whether it be your foot, hand, or eye which causes you to fall, which means even if it is one of your closest friends or relatives, in close relationship with you by kinship or by necessity, who causes you to fall, cut him off, that is, reject that friendship or kinship. The worm and the fire which punish the sinners are each person's conscience and the memory of the shameful things done in this life, for they consume like the worm and burn like fire. "Everyone shall be salted with fire," that is, shall be tested. St. Paul also says that all things shall be tried by fire (1 Cor. 3:13). And every sacrifice, the Lord says, "shall be salted with salt" (Lev. 2:13). It is good for you to season your sacrifices with the salt of God, which means, do not make offerings that you have not carefully prepared to please God.
"Salt" is also what the Lord calls the Apostles, and in general, all those with the duty to preserve others from corruption. Just as salt preserves meat, and prevents worms from breeding within it, so do words.of teaching, if they are astringent, shrink the fleshliness of carnal men, and prevent the worm that never sleeps from breeding within them. But if the teacher is without salt, that is, if he has no astringent to preserve us from rot, with what shall we be salted, that is, seasoned? Have salt, therefore, in yourselves, that is, have the pleasing and preserving grace of the Holy Spirit, so that you may have peace with one another. For he who is bound to his neighbor by love has shrunk his carnal self, and it is he who "has salt," and he is at peace with his brother (The Explanation of the Holy Gospel According to St. Mark, pp. 80–81).
Father John Bockman (+ 2000)
The Holy Fathers Speak
[During the Fast, we should] devote our attention to abstinence. We ought to consider what kind of fasting this is so as to be aware of how useful it is. For sometimes there exists a useless and empty fast which, although it empties the stomach and all the inner organs of their fullness, is nonetheless unacceptable to God because it does not empty the mind and the inmost senses of the fetters of wickedness.
For what use is it to fast in the stomach while acting wantonly at the hunt, to abstain from food while wandering in sin, to subdue the body by not eating while exercising the mind in wickedness, to refrain from strong wine while getting drunk with thoughts of evil, except that it is easier to excuse someone who is full or drunk than someone who is both wicked and fasting? The former occasionally ceases from sinning since, being drunk, he sometimes falls asleep, but the latter does not cease from his error since, practiced in evil deeds and hungry, he is ever watchful. Hence such a fast is empty and useless: this abstention from food weakens the body and does not free the soul from perdition. About this the holy prophet, speaking in the person of the Lord, says: Why do you fast for me? I have not chosen such a fast, says the Lord (Isa. 58:5–6).
Do you think that a person fasts who is not keeping [vigil in the church], who does not seek out the holy places of the blessed martyrs, but upon arising [sets about engaging in leisure activities such as fishing, hunting, sports, etc.]? . . . And he acts with zeal, as if these were the publicly appointed fast. Among these excesses, tell me what worship there is of God, what devotion of spirit there can be in one who fasts, not so as to have leisure for God and prayer, but so as to spend the whole day, idle and unoccupied, in the exercise of his own pleasures. . .
You have not fasted for the Lord, nor may it be thought that, while exercising your own will, you have done the will of the Lord. For this is the Lord's will, that we fast.both from food and from sins, that we impose abstinence on the body in order that we may be able to make the soul abstain more from its vices, for a worn-out body is a kind of brake on the wanton soul. For whosoever fasts and sins may seem to have made a profit with respect to food but he has not with respect to salvation. By acting sparingly he may seem to have stuffed his pantry with supplies but he has not filled his mind with virtues. . . .
We ought to know, then, brethren, that this is the fast acceptable to God, not only that we chastise our bodies with abstinence but also that we clothe our souls with humility. Let us be merciful to the poor. Rising at the first light of dawn, let us hasten to church, offer thanks to God, and beg pardon for our sins, asking for indulgence concerning past crimes and for vigilance concerning future ones. Let us spend the whole day in constant prayer and reading. . . Let no worldly deeds hinder sacred deeds, let no gaming tables distract the mind, no pleasure in hounds lead the senses astray, no success in business pervert the soul with avarice. For whatever you do other than God's commandment, although you may abstain you do not fast. This is the saving fast, that just as the body abstains from feasting, so the soul should refrain from wickedness.
This also, brethren, should not go unsaid with respect to the perfection of fasting: we who abstain and do not eat during this time should give our meals to the poor. For this is true justice, that while you go hungry someone else is satisfied with your food, and that you who are fasting should beseech the Lord because of your sins and the one that has been filled should pray on your behalf. Both profit you — your hunger and the beggars' fullness. But the person who fasts in such a way as to give nothing of his food to the poor seems to have turned his fast to his own advantage and, by scrimping, to have acted in a businesslike way. . . .
— St. Maximus of Turin, Sermon 36