Chapter 3

The Sacrificial Lamb

There were probably numerous reasons why ancient communities performed rituals and sacrifices. Perhaps it was to address a fear or uncertainty. Maybe it could also have been in response to a  need, to show respect or as a form of gratitude. Whatever the reasons, rituals are still a part of modern life and sacrifices can still form important components to some religious ceremonies. Although now, they are more likely to be symbolic and just a distant reminder of our pagan ancestry. In the era of the Old Testament, sacrifices were a major preoccupation of Hebrew life. They seem to have been carried out to avoid uncertainties, to remove guilt and as a form of Thanksgiving. They were often accompanied by rituals that were performed according to specific instructions:

When anyone offers an animal sacrifice, it may be one of his cattle or one of his sheep or goats. If he is offering one of his cattle as a burnt-offering, he must bring a bull without defects. He must present it at the entrance of the Tent of the Lord’s presence so that the Lord will accept him. The man shall put his hand on its head, and it will be accepted as a sacrifice to take away his sins.
[Lev. 1.2-4]

The Old Testament is derived from at least four literary sources that span over several decades from 950 to 587 BC. Unavoidably, some information may have been lost or contorted through subsequent translations, but the most authoritative form was thought to be the Pentateuch, a word that derives from the Greek language and meaning five scrolls. The Pentateuch was adopted around 400 BC and consisted of five books: GenesisExodus, LeviticusNumbers and Deuteronomy. The Hebrew word for these five books is the Torah, meaning law or teachings.

The Sacrificial Lamb.
Ghent altarpiece by Jan van Eyck,1432.

The Pentateuch mainly describes the story of Moses. From his birth on to the teachings through a covenant with God and ending with his death. It begins with the book of Genesis, which provides an in depth history of Moses’ pedigree starting with an account of primeval beginnings to how his ancestors came to live in Egypt. The next book, Exodus, recounts the most important event in Israel’s history, the escape from servitude by its people. The Hebrews were led from Egypt by Moses, who formed a covenant with God while exiled from Egypt for killing a slave master. Using Moses as a mediator, God provided laws and commandments that Hebrews had to follow to avoid returning to servitude. Leviticus, the third book, contained the rules and regulations for performing religious ceremonies in order to honour God. It includes comprehensive details of how sacrifices were to be performed:

The following are the regulations for repayment-offerings, which are very holy. The animal for this offering is to be killed on the north side of the altar, where the animals for the burnt-offerings are killed, and its blood is to be thrown against all four sides of the altar. All its fat shall be removed and offered on the altar: the fat tail, the fat covering the internal organs, the kidneys and the fat on them, and the best part of the liver. The priest shall burn all the fat on the altar as a food-offering to the Lord. It is a repayment-offering. Any male of the priestly families may eat it, but it must be eaten in a holy place, because it is very holy.
[Lev. 7.1-6]

The book of Numbers deals with the story of the Hebrews after they left Mount Sinai. It includes details of two censuses taken by Moses, one taken of those surviving the exodus on departing Mount Sinai and another taken a generation later. The final book, Deuteronomy, is a summary of Moses achievements as the people prepare to occupy Canaan. The main objective of Deuteronomy seems to be in encouraging the people to give thanks to God. This takes the form of a liturgy delivered by Moses to celebrate future harvests:

After you have occupied the land that the Lord your God is giving you and have settled there, each of you must place in a basket the first part of each crop that you harvest and you must take it with you to the one place of worship.
[Deut. 26. 1-3]

This type of thanksgiving has been conserved through religious tradition and is still used as a sign of appreciation for a bountiful harvest.

Communities in the Biblical era knew nothing about the causative agents of disease. Despite this, the Old Testament contains valuable guidance on how to cope with the challenges presented by contamination and disease. At the time many extremely unpleasant diseases, such as smallpox and bubonic plague, would have been endemic and had the potential to wipe out entire communities. Understandably, epidemics were thought to be plagues summoned by supernatural beings, especially as some sectors of a population would appear to have greater vulnerability than others. When Ethiopian soldiers occupied the city of Mecca in 568 AD they were so afflicted by a severe disease that the conflict was forced to end. The migrating population, being the soldiers, had no acquired immunity to the local disease, which was believed to be smallpox.

Smallpox was a viral infection and a major scourge at the time the Bible was written. The first detailed observations of it were recorded, with astounding quality, in 910 AD by al-Razi, an Arabic physician. Al-Razi was in charge of a hospital in Baghdad where he wrote a treatise on smallpox. His research gave some accurate epidemiological descriptions of the disease. For instance he noted that it was seasonal, occurring predominantly in the spring, and he also distinguished the symptoms of smallpox from those of measles. The treatise was translated into Greek and Latin, enabling Europeans to prepare for the disease as it spread towards their continent and other parts of the world. It is not clear if smallpox was as virulent a disease in ancient civilisation as it is today, but there were clearly references to dreaded skin diseases and plagues of boils in the Old Testament. Additionally, facial lesions that could have been caused by smallpox were found on the mummified body of Ramses V, who died as a young adult. As pustules were still clearly visible, the disease may have been the cause of his death. Smallpox eventually spread globally as a consequence of migration and trading. The Spanish introduced smallpox to South America in 1507, when members of an enslaved African community spread it to the local population. The disease spread around the Caribbean and in 1520 it was transferred to Mexico. It was believed that a member of a Spanish crew was suffering from the disease when  their ships landed in Mexico. As it was an entirely new disease, the indigenous people had no natural immunity or experience in dealing with it. It arrived from Europe,  practically obliterating the indigenous people of Mexico, the Yucatan and Guatemala.

Biblical plagues. Matthias Gerung c1530-1532

As with smallpox, bubonic plague also spread globally through migration and trading. The causative agent of bubonic plague is the bacterium Yersinia pestis. It is a characterised by dark buboes, fevers and vomiting. Whereas smallpox is restricted to humans, bubonic plague could afflict both humans and animals, resulting in a higher number of transmissible routes. Recent research believed that the disease originated from Nile rats and was then transferred to Black or Ship rats via its vector, a tropical rat flea. It is thought that the disease may have become more virulent in the Black rat as it seemed to have caused more fatalities in Europe than in countries it originated from. Or perhaps, this was quite simply, because the Europeans had no innate immunity towards the disease, a similar scenario to the one that allowed smallpox to devastate the indigenous population of the Americas. In 439 BC, an epidemic of bubonic plague that originated from Ethiopia arrived in Europe. The Greek, Thucydides, who survived the disease, managed to record its progress. It caused the death of one in three people in Athens, including the statesman Pericles, and is thought to have contributed to the fall of classical Greece.

There can be no doubt that plagues and skin diseases preoccupied ancient societies. Hebrews believed that illness and disease were the wrath of a powerful deity, so religion playing a prominent role in disease management. The High Priest had the unenviable responsibility of devising and implementing a programme of disease prevention by applying  rules and regulations. It was he who had to examine individuals for disease and illness:

The Lord gave Moses and Aaron these regulations. If anyone has a sore on his skin or a boil or an inflamation which could develop into a dreaded skin-disease, he shall be brought to the Aaronite priest. The priest shall examine the sore, and if the hairs in it have turned white and the sore appears to be deeper than the surrounding skin, it is a dreaded skin disease, and the priest shall pronounce the person unclean.
[Lev. 13. 1-4].

These regulations were a type of quarantine to prevent the spread of disease ensuring that infected individuals were segregated from the community until they were proven to be clean:

A person who had a dreaded skin-disease had to wear torn clothes, leave their hair uncombed, cover the lower part of their face, and call out, ‘Unclean, unclean!’ They remained unclean as long as they had the disease, and they had to live outside the camp, away from others, as did any other person that came in contact with an unclean person.
[Lev. 13.45-46]

Tuberculosis was another affliction that was very widespread and seemed to occur frequently. Evidence of it has been found in human skeletal remains. The bacteria that caused this disease are similar to the Bacilli that give rise to leprosy. So if a person  had managed to survive tuberculosis they were more likely to have immunity to leprosy, which was thought to be fairly rare at the time despite it being mentioned frequently in the Bible. When it is mentioned in the Bible it probably also refers to other more common infectious conditions such as ringworm. This is a fungal infection that gives rise to white hairs within infected areas, as described in the text of the Old Testament:

If anyone has a boil that has healed and if afterwards a white swelling or a reddish white spot appears where the boil was, he should go to the priest. The priest shall examine him, and if the spot seems to be deeper than the surrounding skin and the hairs in it have turned white, he shall pronounce him unclean. It is a dreaded skin disease that started in the boil.
[Lev. 13. 18-20]

Another Bacillus that caused skin lesions and may well have been the disease referred to as boils in the Old Testament, was Bacillus anthracis, the causative agent of anthrax.  B. anthracisis is nearly always fatal when inhaled, it leads to respiratory failure and septic shock within two to three days. Prognosis is also not good when the B. anthracis is digested after eating infected meat. Cutaneous anthrax is the most common form of the disease, accounting for 95 percent of all cases. If untreated the fatality rate is only 5-20 percent, relatively low when compared to the other forms. Anthrax legions only occur in exposed areas, such as the hands and face, and are accompanied by local swelling. Ancient remedies for treating the disease included laying figs directly upon the sore. There may have been some benefit in this as figs have been found to contain a good source of natural antibiotics and vitamin A. Other natural materials with antibacterial properties, such as sesame oil and wine, were frequently used to dress wounds. The Hebrews discovered that these materials had beneficial properties through trial and error, in much the same way that they knew that leaven could sometimes be impure.

Leaven cannot be regarded as an entirely synonymous term for yeast as it was often  contaminated with actively multiplying microbes from a diversity of species. These would have mainly included yeasts but other microbes would also have been present. Leaven would most certainly also have contained pathogenic contaminants spread by animals and insect vectors. The fermenting characteristics of leaven and yeast are most likely to be very similar, with the biological process behind the ability to ferment 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.

Researching 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. It identifies the lack of control certain groups in society had over their lives and destinies. Some comfort may have been derived from following certain rituals and rites. Through participating in ceremony, a degree of control and organisation could be extracted from the unpredictable consequences of life. 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 predominate factors. During the time 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 bilharziamalaria and trachoma, and viral or bacterial diseases, perhaps including bubonic plaguesmallpoxmeaslestuberculosisanthrax 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.

Joseph welcomed by Pharaoh. Tissot c1903

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 there is also the possibility that the Hyksos may have invaded after the Exodus, when the Israelite population had deserted, when there was less resistance.

In the Old Testament the role of mediator between deities, the pharaohs and Hebrews was entrusted upon Moses. Moses was born to a Hebrew mother who, out of compassion disobeyed the Egyptian Kings order to drown him at birth. When he was a few months old she placed him in a basket made of bulrushes and left him on the banks of the River Nile in the hope that he would be saved from drowning. He was rescued from the Nile by the daughter of the Egyptian King and named Moses. The name, Moses, could be derived from the Egyptian noun Moseh, to beget a child. The Bible however gives an alternative interpretation: The Princess who found the child is thought to have named him Mosheh after the Hebrew word for pulled out,  mashah:

She said to herself, “I pulled him out of the water, and so I named him Moses.”
[Ex 2. 10]

According to the Bible good fortune continued to shine on Moses but even though he enjoyed the privileges of a life  in the Pharaoh’s court, he still sympathised with the oppressed Hebrews on account of his heritage. His devotion combined with a sense of morality led him to fatally attack a slave driver in a fit of anger. Fearing retribution, he fled from Egypt to the Sinai Peninsula.

God appears to Moses through a burning bush. Pluchart, 1848.

During his exile he encountered a religious sign or illusion, the burning bush, and heard instructions from the Lord.

Moses saw that the bush was on fire but that it was not burning up. 
“This is strange,” he thought. “Why isn’t the bush burning up? I will go closer and see.”
When the Lord saw that Moses was coming closer, he called to him from the middle of the Bush and said, “Moses! Moses!” he answered, “yes, here I am.” 
God said. “Do not come any closer. Take off your sandals, because you are standing on holy ground. I am the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.”
So Moses covered his face, because he was afraid to look at God. Then the Lord said, “I have seen how cruelly my people are being treated in Egypt; I’ve heard them cry out to be rescued from their slave drivers. I know all about their sufferings, and so I have come down to rescue them from the Egyptians to bring them out of Egypt to a spacious land, one which is rich and fertile…”
[Ex. 3. 2-8]

It was a common occurrence within many ancient religions to enter into personal relationships or covenants with deities through fire or bright lights. In Genesis, Abraham witnesses the presence of a deity through a burning light within animal carcasses and also makes a covenant:

When the sun had set it was dark, smoking fire pot and a flaming torch suddenly appeared and pass between the pieces of the animals. Then and there the Lord made a covenant with Abraham. He said, I promise to give your descendants all this land from the border of Egypt to the River Euphrates.”
[Gen. 15. 12]

When Moses returned to Egypt, speaking through his brother Aaron, he told the Hebrews that the Lord had instructed him to lead them out of Egypt :

The God of your fathers has appeared to me- the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob; and he has said to me: I have visited you and seen all that the Egyptians are doing to you. And so I have resolved to bring you out of Egypt where you are oppressed, to a land where milk and honey flow.
[Ex. 3. 16-18]

Moses first of all tries to reason with the King of Egypt to free the Hebrews.  His attempts fail and cause the Egyptian King to retaliate by increasing the workload of the slaves.  Moses then tries warning the King through a display of awesome magic powers, bestowed on him by the Lord, and through summoning a number of devastating plagues   in order to secure the freedom of the Hebrews. The Biblical account of the exodus from Egypt is the centre of much scientific speculation, especially in respect to the plagues  [Lev. 7-10]:

  • In the first plague Moses accompanied by Aaron turned the waters of all the rivers in Egypt to blood. The fish died and the water was so foul that it could not be drunk.
  • Seven days later Aaron and Moses summoned frogs to swarm the land and the Pharaohs palaces.In desperation the Pharaoh agreed to Moses request to let his people go into the desert to make animal sacrifices to the Lord. The frogs died, were piled into heaps and began to reek.
  • When the plague subsided the Pharaoh broke his promise so Moses through Aaron summoned a plague of mosquitoes. The Pharaoh still refused to relent so Moses and Aaron, at the will of God, summoned further plagues.
  • Swarms of gadflies infested the Pharaohs palace and the houses of his courtiers and into the land of Egypt but not to the land of Goshen were the Hebrews lived.
  • Then a deadly plague killed Egyptian livestock.
  • This was followed by a sixth plague in which Moses took soot from a kiln and threw it in the air, when it landed on the Egyptians it brought out boils that turned into sores. Still the Pharaoh was resolute.
  • Moses then summoned plagues of hail, locusts and darkness. Even when subjected to fear and threats the Pharaoh was determined not to lose his work force, so finally Moses and Aaron threatened to kill the Egyptians first born.

There seems to be a structured and logical process of ecology behind the sequential appearance of each of the plagues. What is also interesting, and the foundation of further speculation, are that the plagues  made a clear distinguish between Egyptians and Hebrews:

The houses of the Egyptians will be full of flies, and the ground will be covered with them. But I will spare the region of Goshen, where my people live, so that there will be no flies there.
[Ex. 8.23]

It is quite evident from the chapters of Exodus dealing with the plagues that there is a great void between the customs and social behaviour of the two populations. For instance, when Moses is pleading with the King to let his people go, he asks if they can travel into the desert to make sacrifices of animals, so that they will not offend the Egyptians:

If we use these animals and offend the Egyptians by sacrificing them where they can see us, we will be stoned  to death. We must travel three days into the desert to offer sacrifices to the Lord our God, just as he commanded us.
[Ex. 8.26-27]

They also lived in different communities the majority of the 2.5 million Egyptians lived in the Nile Delta whereas the Hebrews occupied quarters in the land of Goshen. This type of segregation could have possibly led to a different epidemiology as far as communicable diseases are concerned. The signs from God summoned by Moses, rivers of blood followed by plagues of frogs, gnats, flies, boils and the animal disease, may have happened as a consequence of a natural course of events. It is not unreasonable to suppose that polluting a river could cause frogs to evacuate then subsequently die from dehydration or disease, the decaying bodies could then lead to an out break of flies which would then transfer disease causing organisms from the rotting carcases to animals and humans.

Naturally, there are a number of interesting scientific hypotheses that try to rationalize these events. Ancient Egyptian papyri (London Medical Papyrus) give details of an occasion when the water of the Nile turned red and acidic. Fish died, the waters were undrinkable and burnt the skin. The papyri also mention that pests infected the open wounds and that these pests had a larvae and adult stage, corresponding to the gnats and flies in the Biblical version of the plagues. Volcanic eruptions occurring around the same time are thought to have deposited sulphates in the Nile. The clouds of darkness and hail are perhaps associated with a violent volcanic eruption. Another theory suggests that the blood coloured Nile could be due to a bloom of toxic phytoplankton that produced a red tide forcing frogs onto the riverbank. The frogs eventually died from desiccation leaving a plentiful supply of carrion to attract insects like Rove beetles and gadflies. Outbreaks of insect would have occurred leading to plagues of disease that would infect animals and humans.

There is also the possibility, of course, that Hebrews polluted the Nile with the blood of sacrificed animals and this led to the subsequent chain of events. The final warning that Moses gives the King is that a plague would lead to the death of every firstborn in the land of Egypt. Firstborn children seemed to have some kind of symbolic significance and perhaps participated in a unique ritual or practice that made them more vulnerable to disease then the rest of the population. Alternatively some animal diseases that spread to humans can cause miscarriages, the most notable of these being Brucellosis, which attacks animal tissues with a high erythritol content, a sugar found in mammary glands and the uterus. Brucellosis could have been a secondary infection in cattle that were already in ill health following other diseases such as anthrax. If the Egyptians had contracted this disease from cattle it would have resulted in stillbirths in humans and animals.

In Eastern folklore there is a strong tradition that plagues could be summoned by magical powers. These type of accounts would undoubtedly be exaggerated through narration as the events summoned by Moses gradually increase in number through subsequent versions of the Pentateuch from seven in an early account to ten in the complete account [Ex. 7-12]. The seven events in the original account included turning the water of the Nile to blood then summoning scourges of frogs, flies, cattle plague, hail, locusts and the death of the firstborn. In the version revised by the Holy Priests in Jerusalem plagues of gnats, boils and darkness are added to the list.

During the Passover, Moses claimed that the Lord would ensure that every first born in Egypt would die at midnight.  The Passover was an ancient ceremony practised uniquely by the Hebrews, and not  the Egyptians. It was a ritual  practiced by shepherds, at the first full moon of spring, to ward off evil spirits in order to protect lambs and goats during birth. This explains the logic behind the species chosen as the sacrificial beast, either a young sheep or a goat. They believed the evil spirits would kill newly born animals. If the blood of a sacrificed animal was smeared on to door posts it would keep away the Destroyer. The Destroyer was most likely to be the bringer of disease or plagues. The ovine meat was later eaten during a nocturnal family festival and may have included herbs to enhance the smell and make it pleasing to the deity concerned. This is another way by which the community dealt with uncertainty. They did not understand the epidemiology of disease or the causative agents and therefore attributed stillbirths to the retaliation of an angry supernatural being.

A lamb prepared for sacrifice. Josefa de Ayala, c1670s

The following paragraphs explain how the Passover had been modified by Moses to prepare for the Exodus. It describes how the sacrificial blood spread on the doors would be used by the Lord to distinguish Hebrew houses from those of the Egyptians:

 The Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt: “This month is to be the first month of all the others for you, the first month of your year. Speak to the whole community of Israel and say: On the tenth day of this month each man must choose either a lamb or a young goat for his household. If his family is too small to eat a whole animal, he and his next-door neighbour may share an animal, in proportion to the number of people and the amount that each person can eat. You may choose either a sheep or a goat but it must be a one-year-old male without any defects. Then, on the evening of the fourteenth day of the month, the whole community of Israel will kill the animals. The people are to take a sprig of hyssop, dip it into the bowl containing the animals blood and strike the doorposts and above the doors of the houses in which the animals are to be eaten. That night the meat is to be roasted, and eaten with bitter herbs and unleavened bread. Do not eat any of it raw or boiled, but eat it roasted whole, including the head, the legs, and the internal organs. You must not leave any of it until the morning; if any is left over it must be burnt. You are to eat it quickly, for you are to be dressed for travel, with your sandals on your feet and your stick in your hand. It is the Passover Festival to honour me, the Lord.”

“On that night I will go through the land of Egypt, killing every first-born male, both human and animal, and punishing all the gods of Egypt. I am the Lord. The blood on the doorposts will be a sign to mark the houses in which you live. And when I see the blood, I will pass over you; and you shall escape the destroying plague when I strike the land of Egypt. You must celebrate this day as a religious festival to remind you of what I, the Lord, have done. Celebrate it for all time to come.”
[Ex. 12. 1-20]

It is evident that the Hebrews continued eating unleavened bread when they left Rameses heading for Sukkoth, as they had no time to put leaven back into their dough:

The Israelites set out on foot from Rameses for Sukkoth. There were about 600,000 men, not counting women and children. A large number of other people and many sheep, goats and cattle also went with them. They baked unleavened bread from the dough that they had brought out of Egypt, for they had been driven out of Egypt so suddenly that they did not have time to get their food ready to prepared leavened dough.
[Ex. 12.37-39]

In an address to the Hebrews, after the exodus, Moses stated that the day they left Egypt was to be commemorated by the festival of unleavened bread to remind them of the haste with which they departed, having no time to put leaven in their dough.  The festival of unleavened bread traditionally occurred the day after the Passover:

The Lord said, “For seven days you must not eat any bread made with leaven- eat only unleavened bread. On the first day you are to get rid of all the leaven in your houses, for if anyone during those seven days eats bread made with leaven, he should no longer be considered one of my people. On the first day and again on the seventh day you are to meet for worship. No work is to be done on these days but you may prepare food. Keep this festival, because it was on this day that I brought your tribes out of Egypt. For all time to come you must celebrate this day as a festival. From the evening of the fourteenth day of the first month to the evening of the twenty-first day, you must not eat any bread made with leaven. For seven days no leaven must be found in your houses, for if anyone, native born or foreign, eats bread made with leaven, he shall no longer be considered one of my people. You must eat no leavened bread; wherever you live you must eat unleavened bread.”
[Ex. 12.15-20]

It is interesting that at the time diseases and plagues were spreading through the Nile Delta area the Hebrews abstained from eating leaven. It was a normal practice of the Egyptians to allow the dough from bread to rise in the sun, this would make it a vulnerable target for disease carrying insects that would inevitably lead to the spread of communicable disease. By not eating leavened bread for several days the Hebrews were unwittingly protecting themselves from a potential reservoir of pathogenic organisms. Eating only freshly killed meet in the cooler climate of the evening, then completely burning any leftovers would offer further protection from any contaminating microbes. Perhaps as a consequence of this, and segregation in other social practices, the spread of disease that occurred within the Egyptian population permitted the Hebrews too escape at a time when resistance was weakened.

Leavened food is traditionally burnt before the Jewish Passover.
Image: Valley2City.

When the Hebrews left Egypt they continued to treat leaven as a substance that could displease God. The removal and burning of leaven is still carried out before Passover in some religions. During the Jewish celebration, it is traditional to hunt for any leaven (also known as Chametz) remaining in the house, the evening before Passover, by candlelight with a wooden spoon and  feather to dust away and scoop up crumbs to be burned the following day. Blood is no longer smeared on door posts though.

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 measures 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 undesirable 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: 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. Closely following instructions found within 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 commonplace so 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 silicosi 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 parts of the Bible 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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