Historical Cultural Context
Salt and Fire
Modern visitors to Israel who travel the road north from Jerusalem toward Shechem notice clay-ovens next to some houses along the roadside. Many prefer to cook in these outdoor ovens rather than on their electric or propane gas stoves.
Ovens like these have been around since ancient times. In the biblical period each village had a common oven. Since villagers were often members of a very large, extended family, these common ovens were family ovens.
The common fuel for the oven was something that was more plentiful than wood: camel or donkey dung. One of the duties each young girl had to learn was to collect the dung, mix salt in it, and mould it into patties to be left in the sun to dry. In the Middle East and many Third World countries, such dung patties are still used as fuel today.
A slab of salt was placed at the base of the oven and upon it the salted dung patty. Salt has catalytic properties which cause the dung to burn. Eventually the salt slab loses its catalytic ability and becomes useless. Or as Jesus says, “It is good for nothing but to be thrown outside where it can still provide a sure footing in a muddy road.”
This is the Mediterranean cultural imagery Jesus has in mind when he says: “You, my disciples; are the salt, that is, catalyst for the earth-oven.” (In the Aramaic and Hebrew languages which Jesus spoke, one and the same word means “earth” and “clay-oven.”)
To be salt for the earth-oven is to start fires and make things burn. If Jesus’ disciples do this, they will also be “light of the earth.” The two images so masterfully joined show Jesus to be a clever and imaginative teacher.
The salty Jesus started fires and created light. Some saw and understood. Others got burnt and put him to death. How can American believers imitate the salty Jesus? How would this work in American culture?
John J. Pilch
John J. Pilch is a biblical scholar and facilitator of parish renewals.
Liturgical Press has published fourteen books by Pilch exploring the cultural world of the Bible.
**From St. Louis University