“sons.” In this context the word “sons” means descendants.
“covenant of salt.” Like the blood covenant, the covenant of salt was an ancient custom that was recognized all over the Middle East. The offerings of the Lord were to be offered with salt as a symbol of the covenant and a reminder of the commitment people made to keep the covenant (Lev. 2:13), and Numbers 18:19 specifically mentions the salt covenant. The importance and solemnity of the salt covenant in the biblical culture is shown here in 2 Chronicles in that God promised the kingdom of Israel to David by a covenant of salt. In Ezra 4:14, the enemies of the Jews wrote to the Persian king that they felt obligated to report to him what the Jews were doing because they “eat the salt of the king’s palace.”
The salt covenant was considered inviolate, and was often taken instead of a blood covenant to seal an agreement or to confirm friendship (some of the older books on biblical manners and customs refer to it as the “friendship covenant”). However, the terms of the covenant must be understood by clear communication or by custom. Sometimes the salt covenant was forever, as here in 2 Chronicles, and sometimes it was for a very defined period of time.
The most common way to take salt together was to eat food that had been salted. The Eastern sayings, “There is salt between us,” or “There is bread and salt between us,” or “He has eaten of my salt,” all refer to having taken a salt covenant by sharing food together. Edwin Rice writes: “The most common way of confirming a covenant and agreement between two parties, man and man, is to offer a sacrifice, or have a sacrificial feast. Any occasion of unusual joy or gladness is commonly counted poorly or imperfectly celebrated, if not observed by a similar sacrifice of a lamb or some clean animal. It is a universal custom to have such a sacrifice in the Orient at betrothals and at wedding feasts. The custom is widespread throughout all Oriental lands now, and is as old as the history of the Oriental races.” (Orientalisms section 441).
Rice goes on to say, “Dr. W. M. Thomson tells of a Bedouin Sheikh, who dipped a bit of bread in grape molasses (dibs) and gave it to him to eat, saying, ‘Now we are brothers; there is bread and salt between us.’ The Arab also gave a bit of the bread to all Dr. Thomson’s companions, and to the muleteers, and to all about the tent, who tasted of it. This was the ceremony that sealed a covenant of friendship. It gave the missionary and his company permission to travel wherever they pleased in the Sheikh’s territory, he being pledged to aid and befriend them, ‘even to the loss of his own life.’ …The Rev. F. Moghabghab, a Syrian, tells of three forms of covenants among Oriental shepherds: 1. Of drinking water, coffee, or wine together. 2. Of salt or eating together. 3. Of blood, the most sacred of all, sealed by “cutting” and killing sheep” (Orientalisms, section 233).
E. J. Hardy writes of the custom of eating a meal with salt and how it procured friendship and protection even if the people partaking were not aware they were eating salt: “A traveler being visited in his tent by truculent and apparently dangerous Arabs put salt into food, and induced them to eat it. When the visitors found they had taken the man’s salt, their whole manner changed towards him. They felt bound not only not to injure him, but to protect him” (The Unvarying East. New York, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1912, p. 151).
James Freeman writes: “So deeply rooted is this sentiment, that intended robbery has been abandoned when the robber has accidentally eaten salt while getting his plunder. Travelers have sometimes secured their safety in the midst of wild Bedawin by using stratagem in getting the Arabs to eat salt with them. Macgregor tells how he outwitted a sheikh who had made him a prisoner, and whose disposition seemed unfriendly. ‘We had now eaten salt together, and in his own tent, and so he was bound by the strongest tie, and he knew it’” (Hand-book of Bible Manners and Customs, Phillips & Hunt, NY, 1874, section 150).
In 1853 Sir Richard Burton made a journey to Mecca and Medina, and wrote of the friendship that salt procured, but warned: “there are, however, some tribes who require to renew the bond every 24 hours, as otherwise, to use their own phrase, ‘the salt is not in their stomachs.’” He also warned about entering salt covenants with people who are involved in blood feuds, because by taking the salt of such a person you are automatically an ally of his and an enemy of his enemies (Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Al-Madinah & Meccah, Dover Publications, NY, 1964, unabridged republication of the 1893 edition, Vol. 2, p. 112).
One apparent form of the salt covenant in the biblical culture was that parents salted their children at birth, and if a baby was not salted it was considered neglected (Ezek. 16:4). This was to assure God and others that the parents would raise the child to be faithful to God. However, the way the baby was “salted” varied. Sometimes only a little salt was symbolically rubbed on the child as a sign of the salt covenant, while sometimes the baby was washed in water that had a small amount of salt in it (Bishop K. C. Pillai, Light Through An Eastern Window (Robert Speller & Sons, New York, 1963, p.42).
Because the salt covenant and sharing food that had some salt in it was regularly used as a “friendship covenant,” to procure a state of peace and wellbeing between people, it seems that is why Jesus said to his disciples, “Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another” (Mark 9:50). If we have salt in ourselves, we can be at peace with each other even if we do not share a salted meal together.
The fact that the salt covenant was used in the Middle East until modern times shows how tightly the Eastern people maintain their customs, even when the reasons for those customs have long been forgotten. That is one reason why the study of the customs in the Middle East up until modern times was such a fruitful way of learning and understanding what seemed to be some of the more obscure passages of Scripture.
The salt covenant is so old that no one really knows its origin, although a number of possible reasons have been set forward. One is that because salt is used as a preservative, it symbolized that the agreement was to be kept. Salt is also a cleansing or purifying agent, and so some people say it may have symbolized the purity of the covenant agreement and that it was to be kept. However, the salt of covenant was added to grain offerings and sacrifices that were burned up, so no preserving or cleansing was needed, so those explanations seem to fall short. The most likely reason for the origin of the salt covenant is that it came about as a substitute for the blood covenant because of the salt in the blood. In fact, it is impossible to take a blood covenant without also involving—and sometimes consuming—salt.