…give us this day our Showbread

[The Leaven – exploring the relationship between science and religion (cont)]

It becomes apparent while reading the Bible, that bread is an important part of Hebrew life and was frequently allied to rituals and ceremonies. Moses is instructed through God to always leave an offering of bread in the presence of the Lord. Precise instructions were given to Moses on how a table for serving the bread offering should be made:

Make a table out of Acacia-wood, 2 units long, 1 unit wide, and 1.5 units high. Cover it with pure gold and put a gold border around it. Make a rim round it and a gold border around the rim. Make four carrying-rings of gold for it and put them at the four corners, were the legs are. The rings to hold the poles for carrying the table article are to be placed near the rim. Make the poles of Acacia-wood and cover them with gold. Make plates, cups, jar and bowls to be used for wine-offerings. All of these are to be made of pure gold. The table is to be placed in front of the Covenant Box, and on the table there is always to be the sacred bread offered to me.
[Ex. 37. 10-16]

Perhaps this precision offered some kind of order to the Hebrews in what was an otherwise unpredictable life. The bread that was displayed on this table was called Showbread or Bread of the Presence. There were very specific and precise instructions on how this bread should be placed on the table:

Take twelve units of flour and bake twelve loaves of bread. Put the loaves in two rows, six in each row, on the table covered with pure gold, which is in the Lord’s presence. Put some frankincense on each row, as a token food-offering to the Lord to take the place of the bread. Every Sabbath, for all time to come, the bread must be placed in the presence of the Lord. This is Israel’s duty forever. The bread belongs to Aaron and his descendants, and they shall eat it in a holy place, because this is a very holy part of the food offered to the Lord for the priests.
[Lev. 24. 4-9]

The twelve loaves of Showbread are thought to represent the twelve tribes of  Israel. The loaves were changed every Sabbath, then eaten by the priests who replaced it. The bread used would have been unleaven as  leaven was regarded as an impurity and it may indeed have contained pathogenic microbes. It would not be implausible to suppose that ritualistic ceremonies that excluded leaven, like this and the Passover, inadvertently offered protection from disease thereby giving the impression that a supernatural power had spared the worshippers.

Twelve loaves of Showbread and two cups of frankincense displayed on a golden table until the Sabbath. Image by Ori229

No grain offerings presented to the Lord were permitted to contain leaven, but must contain salt, perhaps because its preservation qualities may have prevented contamination  from taking place, by inhibiting the growth of microbes:

None of the oblations that you offer to the Lord is to be prepared with leaven, for you must never burn leaven or honey as an offering to the Lord. You may offer them up to the Lord as an offering of first-fruits, but they must not go as an appeasing fragrance at the altar. You must salt every oblation that you offer, and you must never fail to put on your oblation the salt of the Covenant with you God.
[Lev 2.13]

This regulation also applied to grain when it was given as part of a sin offering [Lev 6.17] and when Aaron ordained his sons as priests, the consecration offering was bread made without leaven [Ex 29.2]. In the book of Numbers the ceremony to become a Nazarite involved a complicated ritual of animal sacrifice and head shaving in addition to an offering of unleavened bread:

When a Nazirite completes his vows, he shall perform a ritual. He shall go to the entrance of the Tent and present to the Lord three animals without any defects: one-year-old male lamb for a burnt offering, a one-year-old ewe lamb for a sin offering and a ram for a fellowship offering. He shall also offer a basket of bread made without leaven.
[Num 6.13-15]

Although leaven was not permitted in sacrifices to the Lord it was allowed in thanksgiving celebrations in appreciation of the Lord’s many blessings. In this ritual the food was shared amongst the offerers and leaven was often added perhaps to symbolise the expanse of the harvest. The Harvest festival was performed to celebrate the first harvests of corn as a kind of thanksgiving ceremony:

You must bring from your houses to present with the gesture of offering- two loaves, made of two-tenths of wheaten flour baked with leaven, theses are first-fruits for the Lord.
[Lev. 23.17-18]

The authoritative and God-fearing message presented by the Old Testament is in sharp contrast with the philosophies of the New Testament. The Old Testament clearly states that if the Torah is disobeyed serious repercussions will occur. Following the Torah may have had beneficial affects in an era before antibiotics and vaccinations revolutionised disease control. These doctrines would also protect a community from diseases that have no known treatment or vaccine. Currently controlling microbial contamination and disease still preoccupies society but is no longer shrouded in mystery as in the past. Immunisation is now so commonplace, that disease in the 21st century is generally less feared than in the Biblical era, when life expectancy was rarely above thirty-five years.

In addition to transmitted diseases there were also many environmental and incidental health concerns like silicosis from breathing sand, the development of tetanus from infected wounds, conditions caused by malnutrition such as osteopetrosiscongenital diseases and malignant tumours. Some of these conditions such as malignant tumours and congenital diseases occur to this day and are still the subject of scientific research. The difference being that these diseases are not contagious  obviously would not have had the same social impact as those caused by transmissible pathogenic microbes. The symbolic portrayal of leaven as a sign of permeating corruption in the Old Testament seems an accurate interpretation of what the Hebrew society most feared at the time, the threat of disease through contamination by microbes.

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