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Category Archives: Bathing

Birth and Salt

As for your nativity, on the day you were born your navel cord was not cut, nor were you washed in water to cleanse you, you were not rubbed with salt nor wrapped in swaddling cloths. No eye pitied you, to do any of these things for you, to have compassion on you; but you were thrown out into the open field, when you yourself were loathed on the day you were born” (Ezekiel 16:4-5).

 God began His declaration of love for Jerusalem with her birth, a child of Canaanites, struggling, unsanitary, bereft of rudimentary natal care. No tender parent cut the cord and washed away the blood; no gentle hand rubbed with salt or swaddled with linen. Apart from God’s intervention, Jerusalem would have died in its bloody iniquity, as surely as an infant abandoned in a field would die.

God said that out of compassion He gave Jerusalem a chance to live. “Live!” Yes, I said to you in your blood, “Live!” (Ezekiel 16:6) He washed her with water, anointed her with oil, and blessed her with luxuries, clothing of linen and silk, leather sandals, earrings, bracelets, fine pastries, honey and oil. Because of God’s love, Jerusalem was splendid and beautiful, briefly.

Newborn child, seconds after birth. The umbili...

Newborn child, seconds after birth. The umbilical cord has not yet been cut. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


I was acquainted with three of the procedures mentioned in Ezekiel 16:4, cutting the cord, washing with water, and swaddling, but rubbing a baby with salt was unfamiliar to me. This scripture is the only bible reference to the practice of salting a newborn, and it raises the question of what does it mean? Was it a pagan custom or a standard procedure in the ancient world? If it was a common procedure, then why was it done?

Commentators looking into the use of salt on newborns agree that it was “an ancient practice,” common among Jews, Christians, Arabs and others, either for ritual purposes, medical purposes or both. It is thought that babies may have been sprinkled with a few grains of salt as a ritual to signify integrity, purity, and dedication, patterned after salted offerings made to God (Leviticus 2:13). It may have been that parents salted their children to ward off evil spirits. However, the Bible doesn’t say that salt protects an infant from spiritual harm or that God requires babies to be dedicated to Him through salt ceremonies.

Historians cite some traditionally accepted beliefs for washing babies in salted water, or rubbing them with salt powder, or massaging them with salted oil. The earliest documentation they mention is a treatise written in 100 AD by Soranus of Ephesus, a Greek obstetrician, pediatrician and gynecologist who practiced medicine in first century Alexandria and Rome. Soranus’ work set the standards for medical treatment of women and children for 1500 years.[1] In his document, “On Midwifery and the Diseases of Women,” Soranus recommends sprinkling babies with powdery salt to cut through any placental remains and birth residue on the infant’s skin. He believed salt mixed with honey, olive oil, barley juice, fenugreek or mallow should be massaged into a baby’s skin then washed away with warm water.[2] The only other old reference I found was a comment attributed to Rabbi Isaac ben Judah Arabanel that salting the infant strengthened its skin.[3]

The few commentators (Clarke, Gill) who expound the salt element of Ezekiel 16:4 state that it was believed by some to be healthful, as it purportedly:

  • promoted greater firmness to the skin by constricting the pores,
  • cleansed from blood,
  • prevented putrefaction,
  • hardened the flesh,
  • dried up moisture,
  • purged the skin,
  • softened the skin,
  • disinfected,
  • strengthened immunity,
  • improved wound healing,
  • prevented rashes, and
  • created an environment inhospitable to bacteria.

If it is true that salting babies is so beneficial, then why isn’t it a general practice everywhere today?

Danger of Salt

Grains of salt

Grains of salt (Photo credit: kevin dooley)

Current findings indicate there is good reason such a procedure is not advised and practiced, and caution that parents, grandparents, and caregivers need to be wary of salting an infant. “Even small amounts of salt can be dangerous” for babies’ kidneys and organs not equipped to handle “more than what is found in their mother’s milk.”[4] However well intentioned, salt applied to an infant’s skin and in its mouth can be harmful, even fatal.

After a number of babies had been admitted into Jordan Hospital with symptoms of hypernatremia (too much salt), four doctors in the Neonatal ICU published a report, “Salting Newborns: Pickling Them or Killing Them? A Practice That Should Be Stopped.” The doctors interviewed mothers in the maternity ward and gave them a pamphlet “explaining the possible dangers of salting and the complications of hypernatremia and its signs and symptoms.”[5]

In the course of interviewing the 112 mothers, the doctors learned the following facts: 48 mothers had been salted themselves as newborns, 37 mothers had salted their other babies at least once, 56 mothers thought it was advantageous to salt babies, 18 mothers knew there were dangers to salting babies, 5 mothers knew there were some harmful consequences but salted their babies anyway, 6 mothers salted their babies just because it was traditional to do so. A significant number of mothers continued the practice because it was passed on from their mothers and grandmothers.

Many of the 112 mothers didn’t understand the dangers of salting babies.  There was no agreement on how to do it, how much salt to apply, how long to leave the salt on, should it be washed off, should the baby be swaddled with salt on the skin, if so for how many days, what to do if the baby looks sick? Doctors referenced four sad examples of infants who had suffered from different kinds of salt treatments, with harmful effects ranging from skin scars to brain damage and death.

The staff at Jordan Hospital continues to educate mothers about the dangers of applying salt to their newborns. As young mothers learn safe methods of infant care, the unsound traditions will be put to rest.

My take-away

What do I take away from this study? To be careful with God’s word and search out its application with the help of experienced counsel.—Mary Hendren

[1] Encyclopedia Britannica, online, “Soranus of Ephesus”

[2] Mi Yodea, online, “Ezekiel 16:4—what practice does this describe?”

[3] Same source

[4], “What does salt symbolize in the Bible?”

[5] “Salting Newborns: Pickling Them or Killing Them? A Practice That Should Be Stopped,” PowerPoint presentation, Y.K. Abu-Osba MD, R.A. Jarad MD, K.H. Zainedeen MD, A.Y. Khmour MD; Jordan Hospital

Personal grooming and hygiene: glimpses of the past

In skimming the pages of any cultural history, one is bound to find some similarities among various peoples—for instance, the desire to be clean and sweet-smelling, coupled with the yen to be handsome or beautiful.

Come along as we catch some glimpses of beauty treatments and personal hygiene—ancient Near East style.

Start with the basics

Picture yourself in a home in some ancient village, looking into a lovely hand-woven basket. It contains an odd assortment to your eye. What do you suppose its contents are used for?

  • Ashes of soda-yielding plants
  • Fat
  • Rosemary
  • Marjoram
  • Pumice stone
  • Sponges
  • Oils
  • Fragrances

If you answer that people from the ancient Near East use these in the act of personal bathing, you are correct. Cleanliness is a basic priority for many cultures, and particularly, among both Old and New Testament Israelites. It is especially imperative for them to be clean in preparation for the Sabbath.[1]

Ashes of soda-yielding plants mixed with some kind of fat are used for washing one’s body. If a laborer (like a tanner) is especially dirty, he can use a pumice-stone as an abrasive, or natron (from the same root word which means “to froth”), the sodium carbonate imported from Egypt or Syria, to remove the grime. He might finish off by rubbing himself with the strongly scented herbs of rosemary and marjoram.

(However, if you happen to be, say a second-century Roman, bathing at a public bath house, you clean yourself by first covering your body with oil. Then you, or perhaps a servant, scrape off the oil with a special scraper called a strigil. It’s made from bone or metal—ouch!)

After women (and perhaps some men) bathe themselves, they apply creams to protect their skin against the harsh sun, and to counteract body odors. These emollients consist of oils from olives, almonds, gourds, various trees and plants, and animals or fish. Adding fragrances produced by expert craftsmen from “seeds, plant leaves, fruits, and flowers, especially roses, jasmines, mints, balsams, and cinnamon”[2] makes this beauty treatment especially luxurious.

The nose test

Peering at the contents more closely, you spy a small jar of what appears to be a finely ground spice. Is it pepper?  With a quick sniff you recognize it immediately—it’s licorice or anise. Do you wonder why this is included?

Toothbrushes or toothpaste have yet to be invented. The ancient Egyptians’ formula for dental hygiene consisted of powdered ashes of ox hooves, myrrh, powdered and burnt eggshells, and pumice. Over time, the peppery anise powder comes to be used as a breath freshener.

The Romans will soon step in with more refinements, adding abrasives such as crushed bones and oyster shells, to aid in cleaning debris from teeth. They also add powdered charcoal, powdered bark and more flavoring agents to improve the breath.

The “toothbrush” remains the same—one’s finger. (It is believed that the Chinese invented the toothbrush in 1498, using bristles from pig’s necks).

Guess again

An ornate box sits near the basket. You lift its lid to find some combs, a mirror, and the following:

  • Soap
  • Perfumes
  • Essential oils
  • Gold dust
  • Henna

Puzzling? This is a do-it-yourself, or perhaps a commercial hair care kit (my term). The first three items are used in combination as precursors to our modern shampoo. The results, should you try the mixture, will rate a quick “thumbs down.” You will find it irritating to the eyes, difficult to wash out, leaving your hair dull and a little gummy. (In fact it has been only recently that science has developed sophisticated products to deal effectively with hair soil.[3])

To apply it on the hair; Henna powder is mixed...

To apply it on the hair; Henna powder is mixed with water and then applied on the hair (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Outside the box: historians on “hair”

Henri Daniel-Rops shares Josephus’ eye-witness commentary concerning some hair treatments of the day: “Depraved young men would sprinkle it [their hair] with gold dust to make it more brilliant,” and, “old bucks like Herod dyed it.” [4] In Jezebel’s time it was usual for women to cover their grey using Antioch-red or Alexandrian henna (p. 304). That custom found its way to the first century as well. “Both men and women dyed their hair. Men sometimes dyed it black, sometimes blonde. Women dyed their hair black, but especially auburn, and were at pains to cover grey hair.”[5] Wigs were also worn by both sexes, although this style existed in the main within the ranks of the wealthy non-Jewish upper-class.

Taming their locks

Hair styles have been of significant importance to women (and men) throughout history. They not only enhance beauty but they say much about a woman’s social standing within her community.

Cultural historians note that first century hair styles included plaiting: “The women of Israel were very cleaver at plaiting their hair, adorning it and even curling it” (Daniel-Rops, page 304). Young women sometimes tied their hair back in a plain knot, and then ran a plait over the top of the head in the front. Roman women of the upper class often piled their hair high in elaborate styles. Bouquet writes, “Towards the end of the first century most wonderful structures came to be erected on the top of women’s heads” (p. 68).

Bust of a Roman woman, ca. 80 CE. Raised hairs...

Bust of a Roman woman, ca. 80 CE. Raised hairstyles, made by mixing stranger and own hair, were very common during the Flavian dynasty (Vespasian, Titus, Domitian: 69–96 CE) at the court and outside. The pointed nose and double chin indicate a realistic design of the portrait, which points out the republican time and comes in contradiction with the idealization of the early empire art. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

These extravagant adornments were likely the genesis of calls for moderation and modesty found in 1 Timothy 2:9-10: “…. in like manner also, that the women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with propriety and moderation, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or costly clothing, but, which is proper for women professing godliness, with good works;” and 1 Peter 3:3-4: “Do not let your adornment be merely outward — arranging the hair, wearing gold, or putting on fine apparel —rather let it be the hidden person of the heart, with the incorruptible beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is very precious in the sight of God.”

An interesting bit of trivia concerns the first hairbrush: “Around 2500 B.C, ancient Egyptians used paintbrushes for grooming hair. Later, ancient Greeks and Romans used hairbrushes for removing lice and dirt. The first U.S. hairbrush patent was granted to Hugh Rock in 1854.”

Now is good!

While some things never seem change—i.e., the desire for beauty and cleanliness—regarding certain others, there is no comparison between then and now. I, for one, am quite happy with bars of soap manufactured to meet my skin’s particular needs, minty toothpaste applied on soft-bristled brushes, shampoos that clean, rinse out easily, and leave hair with a healthy shine, and, private baths.

I don’t mind glimpsing the past, but I surely wouldn’t want to stay there.

[1] Daily Life in the Time of Jesus, Henri Daniel-Rops (1961), p. 302.

[2] Holman Bible Dictionary “Cosmetics,”

[4] Daniel-Rops, p. 303.

[5] Everyday Life in New Testament Times, A.C. Bouquet (1953), p. 67.

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