‘Ye are the salt of the earth: but if the salt have lost his savour?’ Matt. 5. 13
One of the strangest sights in the Middle East is the salt lake that is located between Jordan and Israel. This lake was first named the ‘Dead Sea’ by the Romans because the area around it was generally arid and denuded of vegetation, and no fish or plant life existed within the lake. The Romans placed great value on salt and paid their soldiers wages in salt rather than hard currency – interestingly, the English word for ‘salary’ is derived partly from the Latin word sal for salt. In the Bible, this lake is also referred to as the Sea of Arabah, Deut. 4. 49, and the Eastern Sea, Ezek. 47. 18. It is probably more accurate to use the term ‘Sea of Salt’, as in Genesis chapter 14 verse 3, where it is identified with the Valley of Siddim, although the writer here may simply be referencing the valley to this area. Israel’s claimed territory began at the southern tip of the Salt Sea so it was an important location in the original setting of the nation’s land boundaries, Num. 34. 6, see also 2 Chronicles chapter 20 where this stretch of water acted as a buffer between opposing forces. The actual surface of the water has been estimated at over 400 metres below sea level, and it is eight times saltier than the ocean. Technically the Sea is a combination of various elements including salt, potash, magnesium, bromide and calcium chlorides. These all combine to give the Sea its unique environment, and as the water is so dense it provides considerable buoyancy to any would-be swimmer. The area around the Dead Sea has become famous in modern times as a result of the discovery in 1947 of various biblical, as well as non-biblical manuscripts. These are collectively known as the ‘Dead Sea Scrolls’, and have not only helped scholars to confirm the validity of the later Masoretic text of the Old Testament, but provide us with an illuminating insight into the literature of Second Temple Judaism, i.e., that period of time in Jewish history between 597 BC and AD 70, when the Second Temple existed in Jerusalem.
Our Lord spoke on a number of occasions about salt as a metaphor for the life of the believer. Set in the context of Matthew chapter 5 where our Lord indicates the essential characteristics required of His disciples, the salt metaphor indicates their influence for good in the world. Notice the emphasis of our Lord’s words, ‘You are the salt of the earth’, or, better, ‘You are salt to the earth’. By this statement He sets down the area of their influence and how far reaching it would be. Our Lord highlights two distinct communities in verse 13. There are those who belong to Christ - ‘ye are the salt of the earth’, and; ‘the earth itself’; i.e., the world. These two communities are related to each other, but their relationship depends on their distinctiveness. And it is important to maintain this distinctiveness, because the disciples of Christ are set in the world as salt to arrest or at least hinder the process of social decay. But there is a rider, a condition attached on which the affirmation that ‘Ye are the salt of the earth’ depends, and that is that the salt must retain it saltiness or effectiveness. So, salt is good for nothing if its saltiness is lost, and this challenge comes to us on a daily basis as we recognize that our influence in the world lies in our difference from it.