Courtesy of Passover Week, Ben and I have been spending quite a while discussing what is leaven and what exactly God had in mind by telling his people in strict no-nonsense terms not to have leaven in their homes during this week. It has been Ben's belief for several years that leaven - and leavened bread - is something God uses to indicate sin in peoples' lives, a sort of visual aid for people to understand what sin in our lives is actually like. Ben has included any kind of food that's puffed up in his definition of "leavened", which has led us to a spirited discussion over whether or not yeast, baking soda, and baking powder are all the same things and what God was trying to get his people to do in the first place.
Ultimately, this has lead to some very interesting discoveries - about God's thought process and the history of yeast, among other things.
Yeast is actually a bacteria, something that floats around in the air and - oddly enough - is naturally found lodged in the Human digestive tract. It's a living organism and the only way to capture and coerce it into making your lump of dough rise is feed it properly so it will stay alive, eat and grow. Anyone who bakes bread will tell you a small amount of yeast is all it takes to make even five or six loaves of bread rise if the yeast is strong and well-treated.
So it's everywhere, it's easy to attract and grow, and a little of it can leaven a lot of dough. A little sin mixed into a life can make the whole life imperfect, and sin might as well be floating in the air because it's pretty easy to come by. A little nourishing is all it takes to grow a nice big batch. And when it's done it's work, the person is all puffed up with themselves just like bread dough full of well-fed yeast.
God wanted his people to focus on getting every little bit of yeast out of their homes and diets for a whole week, and the only real way to do this is give everything a good scouring and then eat flat pancakes. It's a perfect physical prop for teaching us about getting the sin out of our lives and how impossible it is to actually do completely. Though to God, calling it just a "physical prop" might be undercutting the seriousness of it because he said, "Any of you eating yeast during the Feast of Unleavened Bread is going to be cut off from my people."
Yikes. He was not fooling around. While the consequences of eating yeast were slightly less severe than someone making the Sabbath a common day (the penalty for that was death), it was still pretty rough. God did NOT want his people missing the opportunity to learn something about him and about themselves.
Which brings us to the history of yeast and how it's used. In the process of the discussion about God's thought process, we discovered a fascinating piece of history. While the ancient Egyptians didn't invent the idea of leavening bread, they were the first to actually isolate yeast and introduce it into their dough as a separate agent (rather than relying on the old method of saving a bit of dough from the last batch to add to the newest one). The Greeks learned about yeast from the Egyptians and from Greece the process of isolating and using yeast in bread spread throughout Europe, where it was used as the only leavening agent available until the 1700s when sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) was discovered - a 3,000-year uncontested monopoly! The Egyptians more or less came up with a process that is still used today to make one of the world's most common foods: a loaf of bread.
The use of yeast and making of yeast bread pretty much as we know it today was probably something the Egyptians of Moses' time were rather proud of. It was a great societal invention probably symbolic in those days of scientific advancement, luxury, and the Egyptian way of life. When God told his people to clean the leaven from their homes, he said, "Get rid of the Egyptian pride and joy."
So why didn't God just tell his people to quit eating yeast altogether? Because he didn't. In fact, on the Feast of Pentacost - the day that commemorates the giving of the Covenant at Sinai and for Christians, the giving of the New Covenant after Jesus' Resurrection - he specifically commanded his people to bake leavened bread in their homes and bring it to offer to the Lord with a sacrifice (Lev 23:17). Ultimately, the bread was eaten by the priests...after it had been lifted up as an offering before the Lord. So on the day the Holy Spirit came down on the believers in Jerusalem, a whole lot of leavened bread was being lifted up before God in celebration of the enacting of the old Covenant at Sinai.
This actually has a perfectly logical reasoning to it. God commanded that all thanksgiving peace offerings be accompanied by unleavened bread. A peace offering that was being made to restore a friendly relationship between God and the sacrificer, however was made with leavened bread (Lev 7:13). So if you were making an offering to God saying, "I want to be in friendship with you again", you lifted up leavened bread before God. As if you were lifting up your sins to him and giving them up. So God was consistent in maintaining the pattern of his old Covenant while establishing the New Covenant.
The point still is that God did not command his people to stop eating yeast altogether. He deliberately made it a point to have them reintroduce yeast into their homes at least by fifty days after the Feast of Unleavened Bread.
I think this is because God is always concerned with setting things apart, making them holy - which simply means making them uncommon. I just realized that I wrote a few paragraphs earlier that yeast bread has become one of the world's most common food products. That doesn't make it bad; but it's certainly common.
If the Israelite people had simply stopped using yeast, unleavened bread would never be set apart or different for them and they wouldn't have given it much thought or considered what it meant to have leaven and then remove it.
I also think God doesn't consider yeast an abomination the same way he does other things, so while he found it a useful visual aid to teach a much deeper truth (how sin infects our hearts), he didn't say, "Don't touch that abominable stuff!" like he did with other foods. Jesus even compared the Kingdom of Heaven to yeast that a woman works into flour so that it all rises (Matt 13:21).
Leavened bread is common. Unleavened bread is uncommon. Having yeast everywhere around your home is common - it's almost impossible to get rid of, considering it exists even on the skin of grapes. Cleaning it out is uncommon. Isolating yeast might be the biggest Egyptian contribution to modern society; considering God has used the idea of "coming out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery" as a reminder for what it means to come out of the world and into his Kingdom, having him command his people to clean the yeast out of their houses makes perfect sense. He didn't want his people to be without yeast completely, but he certainly wanted them to pay attention to what it means to be common and have sin inside you; and then to become uncommon and have the sin removed.
And that's why it's still worthwhile to celebrate the enacting of the New Covenant by remembering God's use of leavened and unleavened bread to show us how he thinks.
4/11/2012 08:35:57 am
I like this! I often think about what it would be like if we performed the ceremonies and feasts and how those would remind us about God way's as they taught the Israelites. (Of course you could go through the rituals without thinking/learning anything too but that's not what I mean.) Actually having to bring a lamb to be slaughtered when you found yourself guilty of sin? Actually packing your clothes on your back and eating bitter herbs, with your traveling gear in hand? What an impression it would make, especially on kids, if done meaningfully.
4/16/2012 01:43:37 am
That's really interesting! I didn't know that about the yeast, I guess I imagined that God told people about it in the beginning. :D Maybe He did, and the isolating it was the only difference. :D So many things the writers of the Bible probably didn't explain because everyone knew them. At the time, anyway! :D
4/18/2012 11:41:45 am
Very very interesting Lauren.
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Wife of Benjamin and mother to two wonderful little girls who are getting bigger every day. Enjoys writing down thoughts and discussions we are having within the family and sharing them with whoever is interested in reading.
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