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The curious compliment of calling someone ‘the salt of the earth’

Posted in Bible, Interesting Words, Language, Minerals, Trade on Monday, 19 August 2013

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This edited article about the language of the Bible originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 376 published on 29 March 1969.

Salt traders, pictuire, image, illustration

Prehistoric salt trading colony, Hallstadt, Upper Austria

If there is too much salt in our food, it will make us thirsty. And many sailors believe that if they were shipwrecked they should not drink sea-water for fear of it driving them mad with thirst.

So to refer to someone whom we greatly admire as “the salt of the earth” may not seem much of a compliment. Yet the words are often heard. Supposing you were watching a lifeboat putting out to sea in rough weather to help a ship in distress; you might hear someone in the admiring but anxious crowd of onlookers say: “Wonderful men, those! They are the salt of the earth!”

Salt is, in fact, much more valuable than most of us realise. Without sufficient salt in our diet we become ill, so vital is it to the health of human beings. Salt is also an essential part of most animals’ diets, and many country cow-sheds have a “salt lick” by each stall.

We learn about common salt in chemistry lessons. This substance is indeed so cheap and so widely available as to deserve the description “common”.

But in some countries even today, and formerly in many others, salt is anything but common. On the contrary, it is rare and expensive. I remember seeing large blocks of salt being carefully weighed at a market in a remote part of Africa. They were being used in payment for other goods instead of money.

If that seems strange, think of our saying that a person who works really hard is “worth his salt”. This is a saying that goes back a very long way, to the days of the Romans, who received part of their wages in salt (“salary” means “salt-money”); and to the days of sailing ships, when, especially on long voyages, a ration of salt was an essential part of a sailor’s wages! Many old sea stories also remind us of the days when food could not be sealed in cans or kept in refrigerators and had to be preserved in salt, either dry, or in a solution of “brine”. Today, in many parts of the country, people still pack beans and other vegetables between layers of salt, as a way of storing them for winter use. So perhaps we should think of salt more gratefully than we sometimes do, especially when we realise how essential it is yet how scarce it can sometimes be.

In the time of Jesus Christ, salt was highly prized because it was the only known means of preserving food. Jesus spoke of his chosen followers, the disciples, as “the salt of the earth” (Matthew, chapter 5, verse 13), meaning that they could do among their fellows many of the useful and necessary things that salt did in their homes. But he added a warning that salt which had lost its flavour and strength was only fit to be thrown away. This was a warning to all who follow him to maintain the true worth and flavour of their faith.

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