[The Leaven – exploring the relationship between science and religion (cont)]
Leaven cannot be regarded as an entirely synonymous term for yeast as, in reality, it was a lump of dough contaminated with actively multiplying microbes from a diversity of species; that would have mainly included yeasts but other microbes would have also been present. Leaven would most certainly also have contained pathogenic contaminants spread by animals and insect vectors. Nevertheless the fermenting characteristics of leaven and yeast are most likely to be very similar and, from an uninformed perspective, the biological process behind the ability to ferment would have been shrouded in mystery. Leaven is still used to make bread in the 21st century, both commercially and domestically, but now it is normally referred to as sour-dough.
Investigating how leaven was perceived in the Bible gives a surprising insight into the socio-politics of the period. It allows the investigator to come face to face with the uncertainties and fears that the people of that period experienced. One particular pattern to be identified is the lack of control certain groups in society had over their lives and destiny, some comfort may have been derived from following certain rituals and rites. Through participating in ceremony there was a degree of control and organisation. Therefore, some satisfaction may have been gleaned in believing that these actions could bring about change, whereas ordinarily uncertainty and fear of suffering would have been the predominate factors. During the times preceding the Old Testament, the most populated areas were in the valley of the Nile and Fertile Crescent, which is the region between Palestine and the flood plains of the Tigris and the Euphrates. Heat, stagnating water and human waste would have provided exceptional breeding grounds for a host of pathogens. The most common health conditions would probably arise from parasitical or insect borne infections, such as bilharzia, malaria and trachoma, and viral or bacterial diseases, perhaps including bubonic plague, smallpox, measles, tuberculosis, anthrax and cholera.
The story of the Hebrews exodus from Egypt is where the symbolic importance of leaven in the Bible is first introduced. At first, it seems that the Hebrews were welcome in Egypt, enjoying a reasonable life-style. Amenenhat III is thought to have been the pharaoh that had made Joseph an advisor and allowed him to settle in the Delta. This was during, what archaeologists described as, the Middle Kingdom, which occurred from 2050 to 1786 BC. Joseph was a Semite, the favoured son of Jacob and descendent of Abraham the prophet. His popularity, believed to be a blessing from God, enabled him to become an important Egyptian governor. Joseph is noted for having dreamlike premonitions, through which he saves Egypt from famine and brings prosperity to the land. Around this period the Hyksos, renown for instigating the use of horse-drawn chariots, may have invaded vulnerable parts of Egypt. The Hyksos are thought to have built a town called Avaris in the Delta area and would have perhaps looked favourably upon the Hebrews, through empathizing with their predicament.
The Bible implies that as time passes the fate of the Hebrews became uncertain when a new Egyptian king, who did not remember Joseph, became ruler. This possibly occurred during the second intermediate period in Egyptian history, between 1786 and 1567 BC. A political change may have took place about this time when Ahmose I is thought to have expelled the occupying population of Hyksos from the Delta region, destroying Avaris and similar towns constructed by them. The Egyptians needed labour to carry out ambitious projects so enslaved vulnerable Hebrews and other tribal nomads.
Despite being condemned to slavery the Hebrew population flourished. The Bible states that the new king, fearing the growing population of Hebrews, tried to crush their spirit with hard labour by forcing them to build the store cities of Pithom and Rameses. In theory this could have been the rebuilding of towns on the sites of destroyed Hyksos cities. The city known in the Bible as Rameses is thought to have been Pi-Rameses an ancient town that would have covered most of Avaris but is now the site of a modern village called Qantir. As time passed, despite cruel and harsh treatment the Hebrew population still began to flourish. Fearing this growing population, the King of Egypt ordered all Hebrew male newborns to be killed and demanded that they be drowned in the River Nile. The validity of these events is supported by recent excavations that have uncovered a large number of graves found at the ancient site of Avaris. Strikingly, over 65 percent of the burials were of children below the age of two. It is thought that the Exodus took place sometime during the rule of Rameses II, around about 1290 BC. Although there is mounting evidence that points to an earlier date, perhaps in the rule of Dudimose, around 1447 BC. Discrepancies could have arisen because the Bible may be referring to Avaris as the city built by the Hebrews, but used the later name of Rameses. Nevertheless the Exodus is thought to have occurred during the New Kingdom, between 1567 and 1085 BC. Although other theories suggest that the Hyksos may have invaded after the Exodus, when the Israelite population had deserted and there was little resistance.