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God’s Word for You

Numbers 18:17-19 The salt of the covenant

by Pastor Timothy Smith on Wednesday, October 6, 2021

17 However, you may not redeem the firstborn of the cattle, sheep, or goats. They are set aside as holy. You will splash their blood on the altar and turn their fat into smoke as an offering made by fire, with a pleasing aroma to the LORD. 18 Their meat will be yours. It will be yours just like the breast of the wave offering and the right thigh. 19 All the elevated offerings of holy things, which the Israelites lift up to the LORD, I have given to you and to your sons and daughters with you as a permanent allotment. It is a permanent covenant of salt before the LORD for you and your descendants with you.

God reminded Aaron that the firstborn of clean animals (cattle, sheep and goats) were set aside and sacrificed. Their blood was sprinkled (splashed) on the altar, and portions were burned, but the rest of the meat belonged to the priests; it was their banquet-share.

We notice here the term “covenant of salt.” In all of the Law of Moses, including Genesis and the historical parts of the other four books, there are only two verses that mention salt in connection with the covenant or the offerings. In Leviticus 2:13, God commands: “Season all your grain offerings with salt. Do not leave the salt of the covenant of your God out of your grain offerings; add salt to all your offerings.” There, in Leviticus, salt is required with grain offerings, and in Ezekiel 43:24, salt is required with burnt offerings. But more than that, in Leviticus, the salt was never to be forgotten. It was actually required with every single offering.

Salt was precious, a necessary part of the diet in an arid desert climate. We have no information apart from speculation about why it was called “a covenant of salt,” nor why it should be required in the sacrifices. But as Job said, “Is tasteless food eaten without salt?” (Job 6:6), and we must be careful not to impose contemporary ideas or concerns about salt into their ancient culture. In the New Testament, salt is called upon as an analogy for the way Christians should have a saltlike quality in our character which counteracts certain wasting sins like pride, self-indulgence, moral corruption, and impenitence. In New Testament passages such as Matthew 5:13; Mark 9:49-50, Luke 14:34-35 and Colossians 4:6, salt means more than just adding taste to make the Christian life more palatable. “Salt” there is a preservative to counteract corruption. It seems likely that the same can be said for these two passages about salt in the covenant sacrifices. Salt, we can say with confidence, did as many as three or four things for the sacrifices at the tabernacle:

1, Salt was used to improve taste in gifts of food brought to the priests. Here we acknowledge that the text has a literal meaning, and that these sacrifices were meant to actually take place, and that the priests and those who brought them ate them together in fellowship.

2, Salt was precious and valuable, and therefore included with offerings as part of the people’s care for their Levites and priests.

3, Salt as a preservative was also used to remind the people that these sacrifices preserved them from the corruption of sin, false teaching, idolatry, and unbelief.

4, Salt was always to be brought in the hand with an offering, therefore it was a reminder that God’s covenant was a lasting, indissoluble covenant, until the coming of the Messiah, “until he comes and showers righteousness on you” (Hosea 10:12).

This is the meaning of the text in its context.

When we endeavor to apply these verses today, we remember first of all that we cannot redeem anything anymore. The sacrifices that involved redemption of animals and firstborn babies are no longer possible, nor are they required. Christ was our substitute and Christ is our redemption. “Your redemption is drawing near” (Luke 21:28). “God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood” (Romans 3:25).

This redemption by Christ purchased and won us back from the power of hell, as Hosea writes: “I shall ransom them from the power of hell and redeem them from death” (Hosea 13:14). To be redeemed from sin and death means that the effects of sin in our lives are done away with. This is true as a promise in this lifetime, and as an assurance in the resurrection. In fact, it is also the proclamation of the resurrection itself, since the forgiveness of sins means that the effects and results of sin, including death, are done away with, and so we will rise from the dead just as Jesus rose, and we will ascend into heaven just as Jesus ascended, and we will live in heaven with our Triune God forever.

For the ancient Jew, the law of Moses was everything. One Rabbi said, “Study the Torah (the law of Moses) again and again, for everything is in it; yes, contemplate it, grow old and gray over it, but do not swerve from it, for there is no greater virtue than this.” However, there is indeed a greater virtue, and that is to know Christ. The curse of sin, death, the devil, and hell, are destroyed by Christ, and whoever denies this denies all of Christ and calls all of his sins back down on himself. This victory of Christ is the chief doctrine of the whole Scripture, and even Moses bows happily to Christ. He said: “The LORD your God will raise up a prophet like me from among your own brothers. You must listen to him” (Deuteronomy 18:15), and in this way Moses set the words and works of Jesus Christ over everything he himself had written and done. Moses spoke the word of God, and “the words of the Lord are flawless” (Psalm 12:6), but the whole law simply exposes and illustrates our sin. Christ came and did away with it. Praise Jesus forever for his victory!

In Christ,
Pastor Timothy Smith

Pastor Tim Smith

About Pastor Timothy Smith
Pastor Smith serves St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in New Ulm, Minnesota. To receive God’s Word for You via e-mail, please contact Pastor Smith.


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