New Testament Gospel Doctrine Lesson #8


So here’s the plan: each week that the gospels are covered in Sunday School, I will post one question from my book along with a brief discussion of the issues that it raises.

Salt (Matthew 5:13) had many uses in the ancient world:

(1) an addition to sacrifices (see Leviticus 2:13)

(2) a symbol of the covenant (see Numbers 18:19)

(3) a purifier (see 2 Kings 2:19–23)

(4) a condiment (see Job 6:6)

(5) a preservative

(6) a necessity

(7) a sign of loyalty

(8) a sign of friendship (see Mark 9:50)

(9) in Jewish tradition, it was associated with wisdom

(10) in Greek tradition, it was thought to be loved by the gods

 For how many of the above uses can you find symbolic meaning in verse 13? (See also D & C 101:38–39.)

(adapted from Search, Ponder, and Pray: A Guide to the Gospels)

This may seem an obscure detail upon which to focus an entire post, but I do it to make two larger points: first, their world is not our world. I suspect if you polled most westerners and asked them what they associated salt with, they’d probably tell you poor eating habits or tasty french fries. This is the distance which must be bridged when we read the scriptures. We must always be aware of this difference. It makes me a little nervous when teachers ask something like “And what do you associate salt with?” because that may not map very well onto what Jesus and his audience (and Matthew and his audience) associated salt with. So, please, no free association in Sunday School. Fortunately, it is actually easier for us to be aware of the contextual meaning of symbols than it was for past generations: for a quick-and-dirty intro to symbolism, you could do a search on “salt” in the Hebrew Bible, read the verses that pop up, see what salt was associated with in its biblical usage, and go from there. (This isn’t perfect because it runs the risk that the word you search is not translating the same Hebrew term each time, but it’s a start.)

Second, I think one of the worst habits that we have as scripture readers is to be content with one answer. We should always push ourselves to keep thinking about possible additional layers of meaning. Perhaps the best question you can ask as a teacher is not “What could this mean?” but “And what else could this mean?”

14 comments for “New Testament Gospel Doctrine Lesson #8

  1. Can I just say, this is so profound: “I think one of the worst habits that we have as scripture readers is to be content with one answer.”

  2. Perhaps the best question you can ask as a teacher is not “What could this mean?” but “And what else could this mean?”

    This was one of my favorite strategies as a Gospel Doctrine teacher. Acknowledging and sometimes praising each response and following up with a “what else could this mean?”

    Before doing this I also usually modeled it by coming up with two or three of my own possible meanings.

  3. Julie, McDonalds. That is the only answer. They have the best fries. And thank goodness for the bonus fries :)

  4. Terry H, seriously? I just lost a ton of respect for you.

    Wendy’s has the best fries. That really isn’t debatable.

  5. Ha. If I could just stay away from the fries I’d lose a ton of something. Wendy’s doesn’t give the “bonus fries” that somehow always manage to find their way to the bottom of the bag. (Credit to the comedian my kids showed me on line whose name I can’t remember).

  6. You can have your McDonald’s “bonus fries”. I’ll stick with my Five Guys “entire paper bag full of fries with a paper cup of fries thrown in as well for some reason.”

  7. Now that RickH has entered the fray, Julie, you have my sincerest apologies for turning this serious topic into something less than serious (although a favorite french fry is pretty serious, but not from an eternal perspective.)

    PS I also love the waffles from that “eat more chiken” place.

  8. I’m starting to work through this – how is salt a sign of loyalty? Also, thank you thank you for this series. I want to give it to my teachers to help improve our conversations.

  9. Ellie, it may relate to the usage in 2 Chronicles 13:5, where the granting of the right to rule to the house of David is called a “covenant of salt” to emphasize its permanence (and, hence, God’s loyalty).

  10. Related to the above comment is Ezra 4:14, where (covenant?) loyalty to the king is expressed with the idiomatic phrase “we salt the salt of the palace.”

    From the New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis, 947-8-

    Twice [melach or “salt”] is used with “covenant” in priestly texts, first in Lev 2:13 (“Do not leave the salt of the covenant of your God out of your grain offerings”), and then in Num 18:19 (“It is an everlasting covenant of salt before the LORD for both you and your offspring”)….

    As a symbol of permanence, a salt covenant may be a way of expressing an unbreakable covenant. In Ezra 4:14 loyalty to the king of Persia is expressed by “we have tasted the salt of the palace”…, which is rendered by NIV, “Now since we are under obligation to the palace.” In Arab. milhat [“salt’] means “a treaty.” And a neo-Babylonian letter refers to a certain tribe’s covenanted allies by using the phrase “all who have tasted the salt of the Jakin tribe.”

  11. After a quick scan, Kylie, I would say to avoid that source because s/he is making some unsustainable interpretive moves–like assuming that Moses wrote everything which is traditionally attributed to him and assuming that strictly literal fulfillment of prophecies should be assumed and collapsing all scriptures as if they were univocal.

  12. Julie
    Mark wrote to an audience inside the Roman Empire, and himself is associated with Rome anyway. So I might suggest to add a Roman connotation with salt: value, currency. We still have it in our vocabulary: your salary is still quite salty, as I would like my bank saldo to be. Salt was probably currency towards the South of Egypt; as africanist I have followed the salt trail – stone salt from the Sahara – through Mali. So behind the symbolic values you mention there is a solid exchange value.

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